Innocents and Others, Dana Spiotta, Scribner, 2016, 275 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Dana Spiotta’s new novel is about two women, best friends, who grow up in LA in the 80s and become filmmakers. Meadow and Carrie have everything in common—except their views on sex, power, movie-making, and morality. Their lives collide with Jelly, a loner whose most intimate experience is on the phone. Jelly is older, erotic, and mysterious. She cold calls powerful men and seduces them not through sex but through listening. She invites them to reveal themselves, and they do.
Michiko Kakutani and I have one thing in common. We both think Dana Spiotta is all that as an author. The illustrious critic has called her “wonderfully gifted” in her review of Lightning Field; declared her second novel, Eat the Document “stunning”; and described her as “immensely talented” for Stone Arabia. I am in complete agreement with all those accolades. Since I don’t review for the New York Times, I can be even more personal and say that every one of her novels resonates with the life I have led as an aging free-love hippy with feminist leanings and an artistic bent. Like Dana Spiotta’s characters, I have never achieved any assured success and have suffered from successive identity crises.
Ms Spiotta’s fourth novel, Innocents and Others, reprises her themes: living in but feeling uncomfortable with American culture, engaging in somewhat fringe activities at large costs, and treading the shaky ground of female friendship. Meadow Mori was the privileged only child of indulgent parents in 1980s Los Angeles. She and her best friend Carrie dive into filmmaking as teens and both go on to creative careers, Mori making edgy documentaries and Carrie becoming commercially successful with feminist slanted women’s pictures. They are both committed to honesty and excellence but competition and professional jealousy threaten the deep bond that grew in their experimental days.
Woven between Meadow’s and Carrie’s chapters is one of Spiotta’s most inventive characters. Jelly (not her real name) began her professional life in a call center selling resort condos but discovered she had a gifted voice on the phone. She could get even the coldest called potential customer to talk and reveal himself, leading to a phenomenal sales record. After developing her own techniques of timing and persuasion but leaving the job out of dissatisfaction and low level guilt, as well as losing her boyfriend, she went on to assuage her loneliness by calling men of midlevel Hollywood fame, making them fall in love with her over the phone, and then bailing out at the moment they ask to meet her in person.
Jelly is in reality a consummate actress with her voice alone, but it is not clear what she is doing in this novel until by chance Meadow learns about her, tracks her down, and makes a documentary including her and a man who fell more deeply than most. In fact, Meadow has the uncanny ability to get her subjects to reveal themselves in ways that are psychologically almost pornographic. Though she wins awards and notoriety, she becomes disturbed by doubts about the morality of what she has produced. Her ultimate reinvention, another of Spiotta’s themes, is the third act in the cinematic plot that is Innocents and Others.
The novel demands quite a bit of the reader, something this reader craves, because of the entwining of lives that are each plots in themselves. Nothing is pat or expected, which leaves you wondering where the story is going. Everything lays outside the apparent veneer of American life so one’s reference points about how life should go are simply missing. When a fourth female character is introduced near the end, she is so not what she appears to be that even Meadow is shaken to the core right along with the reader.
The gifted, stunning, and talented Dana Spiotta did for me what each of her earlier novels have done. Left me aghast with admiration and desperately longing for the next novel right away. Though she had given me enough to ponder meanwhile.
(Innocents and Others is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)