“In all genres, I wait in ambush for the exact, perfect, telling detail, the thing that makes the scene or line come alive.” That is what Lauren Groff told The New York Times in response to the question, “What moves you most in a work of literature?” There is such a moment early on in Groff’s story “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” The protagonist, Jude, is a boy living with his mother in Florida. His father, a herpetologist, has gone off to fly cargo planes in France during the war and his mother has moved them from the home in which he was born, “a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp,” to a beachfront property. There, Jude marvels at the dolphins that swim up the coastline, the pelicans and periwinkles that dot the horizon and the shore.
One day, Jude finds himself on the beach in the early morning. He notices “a vast metallic breaching a hundred yards offshore.” What he sees is a submarine that emerges from the water momentarily, before disappearing under the surface once again. Here is the moment that a reader waits in ambush for: “Jude told nobody. He kept this dangerous knowledge inside him, where it tightened and squeezed, but where it couldn’t menace the greater world.”
There’s a lot going on here. Jude is a precocious child: at two years old, when his father goes overseas to fly cargo planes in the war, the boy imagines “scaly creatures flapping great wings midair, his father angrily riding.” The conflation of living things and mechanical objects is reiterated in the juxtaposition of dolphins offshore and the submarine Jude witnesses in the morning half-light. The scene is vaguely surreal, but the “dangerous knowledge” that the instrument of war proffers to Jude is commensurate with an earlier inkling the boy has felt: “He began to sense that the world worked in ways beyond him, that he was only grasping at threads of a greater fabric.”
The submerged submarine is a manufactured reflection of the threat posed by the alligators that live in the swamp water around Jude’s childhood home, from which his mother has spirited him away. She first leaves the Cracker-style house while she is pregnant with Jude’s sister; she goes to step into a full bathtub without noticing “the three-foot albino alligator her husband has stored” there. A week later she returns and a short time after that gives birth to a stillborn child, “a perfect petal of a baby.”
Groff’s story follows Jude from childhood through middle age, ending with his grown daughter heading off to university. The main dichotomy in the narrative is between Jude’s father and his mother, the former characterized by hyper-masculine activities such as snaking in the swamp behind their house; the latter connected to more humanistic pursuits such as a reading of the classics – Shakespeare, Neruda, Rilke, and the Modern Library series.
Jude’s father is aligned with peril and danger in the form of both dangerous animal life – rapacious reptiles and amphibians – and war machines that take on aspects of the natural world. The close association between Jude’s father and snakes is, of course, redolent of Satan in the Garden of Eden, an association that the story encourages: “[Jude] was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tail around his wrist. His father was watching form across the room, laughing.” Jude’s mother, a Presbyterian Yankee, is constantly battling “the devilish reek” of the snakes in the house.
Both parents leave Jude for one reason or another. His father goes off to war; his mother abandons them after her husband returns, kicks the Black maid she has hired out of the beachfront house (he is a virulent racist), and moves the family back into the property by the swamp. After Jude’s mother runs off, we are told, “language wilted between” father and son. (The character of the mother is intimately identified with books and flowers, in the way the father is identified with reptiles.) Jude’s relationship with his mother is close and tactile: they are repeatedly pictured in physical contact with one another. The signal moment of physical contact between father and son, by contrast, involves the former viciously smacking his boy after returning from overseas.
Though Jude as an adult would rather disclaim any connection between the man he has become and his father, he ultimately finds this impossible. Jude’s father dies as a result of a snake bite contracted while he was away hunting animals for his collection. “Jude understood then how even the things you loved most could kill you.” Jude’s childhood passion for numbers and mathematics is transformed into an adult talent for investing, but money does not carry the same purity as the devotion to algebra and calculus for its own sake. And his selling off plots of land to the encroaching university has a similar taint of mammon that Jude finds inescapable: “Such a delicate ecosystem, so precisely calibrated, in the end destroyed by Jude’s careful parceling of love, of land. Greed, the university’s gobble.”
The “dark knowledge” of the submarine is also the recognition of the manufactured world intruding on the natural environment, something that eventually takes its toll on Jude’s psyche and his own sense of identity and self-worth.
That this is all cast in language with heavily Biblical import is not accidental. The story takes its title from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise, / From death.” The speaker in the poem calls forth all the souls of the departed to return as promised on Judgment Day, but at the sonnet’s volta reconsiders this notion. “But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space, / For if above all these my sins abound, / ’Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace / When we are there; here on this lowly ground / Teach me how to repent.”
Jude’s final epiphany involves a kind of repentance and a partial making of peace with the memory of his father. The closing scene of the story finds Jude alone “on this lowly ground” where he grew up, with his wife returning from having delivered their daughter to university. The last sentence contains yet another of those ambush moments the author so prizes in fiction: “He stepped closer to her and put his head in the crook of her neck and breathed his inadequacy out there, breathed in her love and the grease of her travels and knew he had been lucky, and that he had escaped the hungry dark once more.”