By Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam
Translated by Ruth Diver
The difference between a cult and the society from which its members seek refuge can be viewed as a question of scale. Successful cults make exclusive and very particular a recognizable scheme involving rules, systems, norms and, perhaps above all, a wildly confident leader. Though they advertise ultimate freedom, cults mostly offer sweet constraint. They tend to have especially rigid ideas about sex and gender — ideas that inevitably reflect the sect leader’s pathologies. No matter whether a cult demands celibacy (Peoples Temple), desexing (Heaven’s Gate) or the rampant sexual exploitation of women (Nxivm), the stories from those involved generally turn on the revelation of the guru as apex predator: He’ll take your money, sure, but he’s really here for your body, if not your life.
If we are to believe young Farah, the freewheeling narrator of Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam’s “Arcadia,” none of the above applies to life at Liberty House, the fictional commune at the center of the novel, where 30 or so genteel burnouts live in the hills of eastern France, ruled by a benevolent hedonist and funded by rich old ladies.
“Arcadia” is Bayamack-Tam’s 12th novel, but it is her first to be published in English, translated here by Ruth Diver. The book, which won France’s Prix du Livre Inter in 2019, appears engineered for extreme relevance: In addition to its celebration of off-grid communal living, the novel presides over hot topics that include gender, queer and intersex identity; consent and statutory rape; and Europe’s African migrant crisis.
When we meet Farah, she is a 6-year-old arriving at Liberty House. Her parents have joined the commune hoping to offset the “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” that is a part of her fragile mother’s “intolerance to everything.” Farah is enchanted by her new surroundings, an Edenic quiet zone where inhabitants abandon their birth names, walk about nude and “live in nostalgia for Paradise before the Fall.”
At the head of this phalanstery is Arcady, a 50-something Syrian-born voluptuary who gives sermons on animal rights, talks endlessly of the apocalypse and encourages everyone on the premises to have sex with everyone else, especially him. Farah’s natural “tendency towards veneration” finds its first and ultimate object in Arcady, “worthy a thousand times over of the worship I immediately and irrevocably rendered him.” By early adolescence, Farah’s doubts extend mainly to her own identity: At 14, she feels too big, bony and hairy — not just ugly but distinctly unfeminine. Listening to Farah agonize over her desirability, Arcady raises the possibility of becoming her lover, perhaps once she turns 15. Farah is ecstatic.
The first 90 pages of this wayward novel work at several tasks: introducing the world of Liberty House; establishing our child narrator’s cutting, garrulous voice; and raising questions of grift, reliability, how seriously we are meant to take any of this. That Farah is a riddle is supposed to be the point — much of “Arcadia” follows the character’s quest for self-definition. We learn Farah’s likes (“fine phrases,” beauty, loving Arcady) and dislikes (geese, old bodies), but despite the broad strokes of a hero’s eclectic journey to selfhood, Farah fails to emerge as more than an irreverent set of attitudes and aesthetic tics. The reader waits in vain for the novel to engage its putative themes — including power differentials and the confounded nature of desire — with the same ruthless eye it turns on aging flesh.
This roughshod quality is especially ill suited to the novel’s depiction of what the narrator calls her “gender trouble.” At 15, Farah is found to have Rokitansky syndrome, resulting in a missing uterus and vaginal canal; as time goes by, Farah’s body takes on a more masculine appearance and two small testicles begin to sprout. Initially a source of despair, Farah’s lack of a clearly gendered presentation opens onto possibility: Perhaps rather than “the girl with fresh cheeks,” our narrator will be “the girl on an anatomical journey with no destination.” Still, for much of “Arcadia” Farah is tormented by a basic question: “Who am I?”
Liberty House offers no reply; Farah’s halfhearted survey of its female members on what being a woman means to them yields stock results: work, giving, sacrifice. Arcady presents Farah with vaginal dilators, and for one “eternal summer” they have what Farah insists are a series of not just consensual but transcendent sexual encounters.
Though the book’s subversions occasionally amuse and its odd insights ring true (including one on the relationship between images and memory), “Arcadia” is never as much fun for the reader as it clearly was for Bayamack-Tam. A critical subplot about the arrival of an Eritrean migrant named Angosom is one of the story’s low points. Though he triggers Farah’s disillusionment with the sect’s exclusivity, we learn nothing about Angosom but his name and what a besotted Farah prefers to call him: “Black Venus,” “our noble savage,” “my dusky object of desire.” It’s the most egregious example of characters rendered as cartoons. Bayamack-Tam plays at a range of comic effects and ideas, without landing the former or managing to peel open the latter.
Because Farah’s relationship to power and influence remains murky, the character’s eventual identity as “neither male nor female” but a borderless, transitional entity has the slippery feel of much else described in “Arcadia.” Which is to say it lacks the rough parts, friction, the rocky interplay of human and worldly rhythms that, cult or no wacky cult, will always be the stuff of real life.