Books

Dana Spiotta
Innocents and Others

Two friends, Meadow and Carrie, grow up to be filmmakers, grow apart, and come together many years later. Innocents and Others is a novel about their friendship. It is also about what it means to make films and what films are made to mean. It is about how the two women teach themselves to look, at the world, themselves and one another, and what they see and don’t see. It is a story of connections and almost connections, of bonds both strong and fragile, and of betrayal. It takes the form of a montage, with a mix of long tracking shots, black-screen dialogue, shifting and conflicting perspectives, and other narrative conceits that tip their hat to the art of cinema. A second story, centred on a woman, Jelly, who can no longer see well, but discovers the power of acute listening, weaves through the main story, connecting up towards the end in an unexpected manner. 

Meadow and Carrie meet at school in Los Angeles when they are 13. Meadow, who comes from wealth, is impossibly tall and improbably cool. She dresses in “stovepipe tight black jeans, black motorcycle boots, and a ribbed black turtleneck”. Her hair is cut in an “asymmetrical bob” and she wears dark red lipstick. She fascinates the less sophisticated Carrie, who sports feathered blonde hair and “badly applied blue eyeliner”. The first time Carrie speaks to Meadow, she awkwardly compliments her outfit as “retro-slut”. Meadow looked her over and asks coolly: “What look are you going for?” Carrie’s reply – “fat and poor” – makes Meadow guffaw and sparks their friendship.

Meadow, ever precocious, bordering on precious, is given to statements such as, “I have always been attracted to afterlives, codas, postscripts, discursive asides, and especially misdirection. Note this.” She is severe in her taste and her discipline. Even the lovers she later takes are of a certain type: beautiful young male acolytes. She is constantly experimenting with ways of refining her gaze, but seems to understand much better how to look, for example, through a lens at railway cars than she does bare-eyed at Carrie. Carrie, no less professional, though with a naturally more commercial bent, has softer edges, broader enthusiasms and tastes, and a more open heart. We know who will get hurt first.  

If Innocents and Others were a film, it would be made by Meadow. It would be the type that appears on film studies syllabuses, inspiring cultish worship, but never hitting the megaplexes. If it were a film, it would definitely pass the Bechdel test – the women talk of almost nothing but film and filmmaking, to the extent that I found myself wishing that once, just once, Dana Spiotta would allow Carrie and Meadow to have a conversation that was silly, girlish and just about boys, or gossip, or something just not so relentlessly intellectual. But perhaps what keeps us invested in their story is the understanding that this desire for a fuller emotional connection is shared, if not always expressed, by Carrie. 

 Jelly, meanwhile, travels her own idiosyncratic path. At a support group for the visually impaired she hooks up with a charismatic phone phreaker, the completely blind Oz, who can disconnect strangers’ phone calls on a lark by letting out a pitch-perfect whistle – this part of the story belongs to the landline era. Unable to see much herself, uncomfortable in her big, squishy body (hence “Jelly”), she hides in plain sight behind an unusually young and lovely voice. After the relationship with Oz ends, she uses her seductive voice and even more seductive ability to listen as both a bridge and a barrier, cold-calling men and making them love her, and sometimes loving them back in return, but never to consummation. 

This is a novel in which even the minor characters come with designer quirks: Carrie’s indie band boyfriend (later husband), Will, “collected vintage ephemera, and he would write her long notes in black ink on old ads or toy packaging that ironically played off whatever he wrote in his note”. Rocker, convict, rebel kid or film fanatic – almost everyone in Innocents and Others is able to verbalise their thoughts and experiences of the world with uncanny precision, attention to nuance and sensual detail. This is as true of a convict recalling a traumatic, pill-addled evening as it is of Meadow or Carrie. There is a conscious, ex academe cleverness about all of this that will thrill some readers – Spiotta has a devoted following in American literary circles – and possibly alienate others. 

For all the drama of the characters’ lives, Spiotta’s prose is as cool, obsessive and conceptual as Meadow’s films. You feel this is a writer who knows exactly where she is going at all times, and how she will get there, and there is pleasure in being led down her garden paths. But the pedantic precision that keeps the complex narrative faultlessly on-piste also means that when one of the less-educated characters has a semi-miraculous vision, Spiotta doesn’t just make sure that we understand there is a scientific explanation but privileges us (her readers) with it: “The false images are called phosphenes…” In that instant of explication, I sensed a shift from empathy to condescension. Perhaps that is too harsh. But in this novel about how we look “at what is to be seen”, Spiotta leaves few dark corners where mystery can linger.

Innocents and Others tackles big themes, including personal and historical memory, the nature of art and the difficulty of loving (oneself as well as others). It opens with a fable about Orson Welles that hints that this may also be on some level a tale about the death of the American dream itself: “He is old and fat, but his voice is rich and strong. He sounds like the voice of America, of a confident, glistening, win-soaked America, full of possibility and ambition and verve. He sounds that way still, when he wants to, and everyone loves to hear that voice. It makes them think, Oh yes, weren’t we.”  CG

Picador, 288pp, $19.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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