Afterlives and Misdirections

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others

Scribner, 288pp, $25.00, ISBN 9781501122729

reviewed by Mark West

Innocents and Others is Dana Spiotta's fourth novel. Her books are characterised by the way they proceed through a number of separate narrative strands that are connected less by plot and more by associative patterns of thought. She follows ideas and characters as they wind distinct ways through the novel, and she often highlights the impossibility – or perhaps obsolescence – of more traditional methods of narrative cohesion. Her novels feature concentrated images arranged in a fragmented, fractured prose that has a beautiful lurch to it. In this, and in her incorporation of the textual idiosyncrasies of internet message boards, film transcripts and the like, her writing seems to approximate the linguistic texture of 21st-century life, which overruns with incomplete shards of text.

Yet while these narrative strands are explored on their own terms, their independence is often a bit of a MacGuffin, to use one of the cinematic terms which litter Innocents and Others (it was Hitchcock's word for a red herring). Because they do usually come together. This happens very late in 2006's Eat the Document, when teenager Jason discovers his mother Mary's secret life as a Weatherman-like revolutionary. It is late, too, in Innocents and Others, when a character variously known as Jelly, Amy and Nicole, who has gained an underground fame from her telephonic, voice-only affairs with Hollywood's film industry, pops up in a conversation between filmmaker Meadow and her family. Meadow then searches Jelly out and makes a film about her.

Spiotta's books demand – and reward – re-reading, because it is these moments of coalescence that most acutely reveal those strands as various iterations of a central cluster of thought. Spiotta often creates remarkable passages where the book's guiding ideas crystallise briefly before running off again on their own riffs. Here, in Eat the Document, Mary looks to the future:

She imagined in future years there would be time to go over the series of events that led to the one event that inevitably led to the motel room. It felt like that, a whoosh of history, the somersault of dialectic rather than the firm step of will. The weight of centuries of history counterlevered against what, one person's action? Just in the planning they knew where it would lead. Contingencies are never really contingencies but blueprints. Probabilities become certainties. She knew she would comb over how she came to be involved with cells and plans and people who believed in the inevitable and absolute. Someday she would explain her intentions to someone, at least to herself. And the event, which she could not think about, not yet, the event that she could not even name, she referred to in her thoughts as then, or the thing, or it. But surely in years to come she would think about it, over and over again, especially the part where Mary became Freya became Caroline.

This passage gathers together some of the preoccupations that surface in all of Spiotta's novels. Mary cannot establish the relationship between her individual experience and public, narrated history, and this fissure is also present in Stone Arabia, where an un-famous musician called Nik Worth invents a counterfactual career for himself as a superstar. It is present in Innocents and Others too, in the ‘awe’ of those who recognise a woman on the street as the girl in the famous photograph of the 1970 Kent State shootings: ‘a piece of history right in their lives with them.’

Spiotta seems interested in the traces and artefacts which acknowledge and deny time's passage. She recognises the mendacity of retrospection, when, as Mary puts it, ‘probabilities become certainties.’ She views individuals as the Cubists did, from many different angles at once, and she is fascinated by the way time influences the relationship between resemblance and difference; Jelly/Amy/Nicole may be another version of Mary/Freya/Caroline.

In Innocents and Others, which is set between the 1980s and the present, Meadow muses on the notion of ‘retro’ style:

That's me all right: out-of-date modernity with its edge of future promise unfulfilled, even failed. Which I admit contains a smug kind of nostalgia, but you can't help what you find beautiful. I so loved the clothing style of the 1930s that my prom “dress” was a slim, high- waisted vintage men's suit (in those days I liked to dress like a man, albeit a kind of louche, fem-stylized “man”) that I had rented from Western Costume, something a minor player wore once in a long-forgotten silvery black-and-white film. But my mother was different from me. She liked things hypernew or very antique. None of this freighted recent past for her. “Vintage?” she would say when we went into the expensive, retro-stocked stores that now dotted Melrose Avenue. “That's what they call this garage-sale attic junk?” Or she would make a sound of hard-pushed air in her throat, which I came to understand meant that she had a similar item once and had happily discarded it years ago. She had no tolerance for the sentimental revisiting of the 1950s that became so popular during my grade-school years. She never understood our desire to dress up in sock hop outfits for “'50s days” and felt that watching Grease was ridiculous (not to mention inaccurate, i.e.: “The fifties weren't fun, by the way”).

Meadow's ‘out-of-date modernity’ builds on the ‘whoosh of history’ from Eat the Document; both capture everyday experiences and theorise the complex temporality 20th and 21st-century life thrusts us into. These passages seem the result of thought sieved or distilled, and their exactness has its own poetry. Spiotta does not (only) make aesthetically pleasing sentences; a lot of her work resists prettiness. Her language is jagged and at times seems slack, but it is entirely un-lazy; its effect is cumulative. She is a novelist of ideas.

One of the ideas that preoccupies Innocents and Others is the creation of art. The novel's anchors are Meadow and Carrie, childhood friends who both become filmmakers, Meadow remaining committed to an avant-garde exploration of cinematic history, Carrie making smart comedies that challenge gender norms. Meadow and Carrie both write essays purportedly explaining how they became artists. Art in Innocents and Others is always in process. At one point, Meadow echoes Jacques Rivette's comment that every film is a record of its own making, wondering if ‘she just liked the idea of film as a record of a filmmaker's feat . . . an artifact of that artistic act.’

Indeed, many of the discussions about filmmaking in the book – ‘a film is an idea about the world’ – could also be applied to Innocents and Others itself. In Spiotta's fragments and juxtapositions, in the way she connects the parts of her novel with its sum, she, like Meadow in her films, is ‘building an idea about something.’ Is Meadow, then, also Dana? Like Mary is also Freya is also Caroline, and like Jelly is also Amy is also Nicole? Is Innocents and Others partly a self-portrait? When Meadow and Carrie play out the dilemma between artistic integrity and mainstream success, it is hard not to read this as also a driving force behind Spiotta's novel, as well as a potential explanation for its collagistic vignettes: Spiotta is trying to figure out what her novel, what the 21st-century novel, can and/or should be.

What might Spiotta be ‘building an idea about’? At times she seems to be excavating a pre-history of the internet. Jelly and her lover Oz are members of the phone phreaking subculture, people who hack into phone lines and communicate with strangers by mimicking dial tones and operators. At one point Oz infiltrates the government's phone system. Meadow shoots footage of trains, self-consciously returning to cinema's early days, when trains filmed heading towards the camera made audiences run away from fear of being mown down. Might we see these two activities combined – millions of everyday images shared on a phone-based network with strangers – as fundamental components of our online lives?

What I think Spiotta is most interested in, though, is what Meadow describes as ‘afterlives, codas, postscripts, discursive asides, and especially misdirection,’ things Meadow herself has ‘always been attracted to.’ Spiotta's fascination with the afterlives of the counterculture was what animated Eat the Document, and it features in Innocents and Others, too, in a chapter that details Meadow's film about the Kent State shootings. These afterlives occur ‘at the edges’ of life. They are always mediated – ‘the photographs had long overwritten the feeling of 1970 in people's minds’ – and Spiotta sees formal analogs for these residues of history in the ‘staticky . . . grainy’ texture of tape and film. Her prose style attempts to approximate this texture in language.

Innocents and Others‘ concern with afterlives is not simply thematic. One of the strangest parts of the novel features Meadow's ‘Aborted Desoto Film Project.’ Bobby Desoto ‘made some amazing short films in 1970 and 1971, but he was mostly famous for vanishing after a protest bombing he was involved with in 1972. Meadow attempted to locate him … she couldn't get anyone to talk to her.’ Some readers will recognise the name Bobby Desoto. Going underground after the bombing, he became Nash Davis and in the 1990s ran a radical bookstore in Seattle. Bobby/Nash was Mary's lover in the 1960s; he is one of the protagonists of Eat the Document. Innocents and Others itself, then, becomes another artefact, bearing the traces of the past. But ‘at the edges’ – Meadow's Desoto film is present in the novel as an absence; it remains un-made.

Mark West researches the 1960s in contemporary American fiction and teaches at the University of Glasgow. He is a founding editor of the Glasgow Review of Books, and has written for 3:AM Magazine, Gutter: The Magazine of New Scottish Writing, The List, and TheState.