Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
ISBN 978-0-330-448229-1

One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.

In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.

Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00’s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.

The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.

These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.

Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:

A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.

And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.

Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.

In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:

“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.

2 thoughts on “Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

  1. Pingback: Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document - World Literature Forum

  2. Pingback: Sarah Hall: Daughters of the North / The Carhullan Army « shigekuni.

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