The first chapter of Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, is a Web page—not an actual Web page but a meticulous transcript of one, taken from a fictional site called Women and Film. It comes complete with a navigation bar (“Home/Explore film and TV/Reviews and Recommendations/Articles”) and a list of “Related links” below, with the linked text in bold (“Meadow Mori interview, Sound on Sound, June 1999”) despite the fact that, of course, it can’t be clicked on. This has an improbably witty effect, trapping a type of writing we think of as fluid and ephemeral in the venerable and permanent medium of the printed page, like a wasp in amber. In HTML, a navigation bar is a string of magic words with the power to transport the reader somewhere else; in print it’s absurd and meaningless. Except, that is, for its ability to get across one of Spiotta’s favorite themes—how a specific medium determines the messages delivered by it.
That’s a fairly brainy and abstract point, and plenty of Innocents and Others is similarly rarefied, as is the case with all of Spiotta’s work. She’s a protégé of Don DeLillo, the novelist commonly cited as an inspiration by the young authors of those fat, “ambitious” American novels of the ’90s and early ’00s, although he’s fallen by the wayside a bit in the years since. Spiotta’s previous novel, 2011’s Stone Arabia, was about a woman sorting through the belongings of her late brother, a musician who, she learns, has created not just a series of CDs with handmade covers but the vast carapace of an imaginary Dylan-esque career: fabricated interviews, reviews, band histories, and journals, all of it, Mingering Mike–style, unknown to anyone but himself. The characters in Spiotta’s 2006 National Book Award–shortlisted novel Eat the Document are activists and artists who make subtle arguments about the nature and purpose of political protests: Does it matter if your actions accomplish anything material, or is it enough to simply scrawl your dissent across the face of the world?
Without a doubt, Spiotta is a novelist of ideas, but she’s extraordinary in her ability to shrug off the refrigerated grandiosity that typically infects such writers, including DeLillo himself. You can see this in that first chapter of Innocents and Others, which is both an exercise in the significance of form and an amusing and astute comedy of contemporary online manners. The main text belongs to that quintessential genre of today’s Internet: the vaguely titillating personal essay by a woman who describes an unusual and heretofore private sexual or romantic experience. Meadow Mori, a 50ish experimental filmmaker, recounts the affair she had when just out of high school with a much older man, who, although unnamed, is clearly meant to be Orson Welles. The chapter closes with a string of comments attached to the story, the usual salvos of peanut-gallery indignation, finger-wagging, drive-by sniping, self-promotion, spam, cluelessness, rumor-mongering, and resentment: “Is it just me, or is this a straight-up star fucking/sleep your way up story? Yay feminism. Not,” writes “Limpidpools.” “She is a tasteless, self-righteous defender of monsters,” posts an even harsher critic, “And it turns out she is the biggest woman-in-Hollywood cliché of all… expand comment to read more.” Of course you can’t. But do you really need to?
Three women form the center of Innocents and Others: Meadow; her best friend from high school and fellow filmmaker Carrie Wexler; and Jelly, a call center worker in Syracuse, New York. For years, Jelly conducted a secret life consisting of long, intimate (though never sexual) telephone conversations with powerful Hollywood men. As with many of the more outlandish elements of Spiotta’s novels, Jelly’s story is based on a true one, reported by Bryan Burrough for Vanity Fair, about a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, social worker who entranced the likes of Billy Joel, Bono, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones, and many others with her spellbinding conversation.
Of the two filmmaking friends, Carrie has more mainstream success: She makes a well-received “raunchy school comedy about women” that sounds like exactly the sort of thing cultural journalists celebrate as a bold feminist innovation. Meadow, however, finds Carrie’s work well-executed but boring. She’s the type to lie down next to some train tracks and film the wheels thundering along the rails from as close as she can, an escapade far more exciting for the filmmaker than for the audience eventually asked to watch the results. After some playful early experiments (“re-creating” famous lost films from the medium’s early years in a warehouse in upstate New York), Meadow becomes an Errol Morris–style documentarian. She’s good enough that her film about the Kent State shootings gets nominated for an Academy Award in the early 1990s but edgy enough that her use of fictional footage and animations bothers enough voters to keep her from winning.
Meadow’s forte is eliciting confessions, and she zeroes in on moral ambiguities. Her Kent State film puts the National Guard and a man accused of being an FBI-funded agent provocateur (also based on a historical figure) at the center. Later, she begins a documentary about children orphaned by Argentina’s Dirty War who were then adopted by the very officials responsible for having their parents killed. (Spiotta’s novels sometimes read like a mashup of the most interesting long-form journalism you’ve read over the past few years.) Meadow quickly realizes “what she was really interested in. Not the poor children, the victims. She wanted the parents. The perpetrators.” Skillfully insinuating herself into the daily lives of these people, she earns enough trust to film one man saying that “he was proud that the junta had cleared the country of insurgents, and the children of those people got a second chance, a chance to be raised by patriots.” She has a horror of “easy ironies” and wants “the contradiction, the tension to be clear: they participated in a horrible regime and they loved their stolen children.”
The characters in Spiotta’s novels tend to be connoisseurs. They buy and tinker with vintage and precisely identified technology, like the “wind-up Bell & Howell 16 mm Filmo camera” with which Miranda shoots her early films. They admire and collect cultural obscurities—bootleg recordings and never-released or largely unwatched films—which obliges them, at times, to speak in an improbably expository fashion. “Night Mail devotedly follows the mail train as it speeds across the land and through the night,” Meadow explains to Carrie, who saw the 1936 documentary with her in a film class. Spiotta seems to realize how artificial this sounds and she has Carrie consciously decide to tolerate Meadow’s outbursts of pedantry as the “slightly condescending habit” of friend with a “great brain” who “liked to think through talking.”
I’m still skeptical that anyone ever speaks this way, but that save is an example of how Spiotta retools an awkward moment—the need to explain to her readers the curiosities that preoccupy her characters—as a device for dramatizing the relationship between these two old friends. Carrie, despite her own accomplishments, thinks of herself as average and conventional compared to the glamorously avant-garde and self-absorbed Meadow. She is doggedly loyal, and Meadow repays her with only intermittent consideration. Still, with Meadow, Cassie believes she experiences the proximity of greatness.
Spiotta’s idea-driven fiction feels extraordinarily alive because she’s just as interested in the tensions between two artist friends as she is in the friction between morality and creativity or truth and art or identity and time. Of course Meadow will eventually find Jelly and hypnotize her with the same kind of attention Jelly has used to seduce dozens of producers, actors, and musicians; the dividing line between artist and con artist, in Innocents and Others, is a thin and wavering one indeed. But there is no line at all between mind and heart; the pain and hope each of Spiotta’s characters feels matters as much as Meadow’s relentless hunt for authenticity in a mediated world or her theories on how Tarkovsky used “images to make us feel the infinite.” They can’t, in fact, be separated; every thought ever thought has risen out of a human being capable of loneliness, desire, suffering and laughter. Why settle for a novel of ideas that offers anything less?
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta. Scribner.
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