It seems to me that if you’re a critic wanting to make a name for yourself in a particular field, there’s one surefire way to accomplish that goal. Film critics, quit pouring your heart and soul into that piece that will forever alter the way we look at Citizen Kane. Music-mag columnists, forget about the zillionth reason that Revolver was more revolutionary than Sgt. Pepper. If notoriety is what you’re after, you need to turn your attention away from these clichés – hell, turn away from criticism altogether – and start honing your skills at obituary-writing.
Nothing will reach lovers of an art form more quickly, and nothing will hit them harder, than a missive from a member of the chattering classes declaring its death. Not that this isn’t a cliché in itself; go to Google right now and enter “Death of [your favourite medium here]”, and you’ll get enough reading material to occupy you until your own last breath. But unlike most clichés, this one never loses its punch. If you make the case online, that piece’s Comments section will become a boxing ring in which readers will line up to pummel you and your work, sparing a few swings for anyone who might break in to come to your defence. Try to marginalise their medium of choice, and these thin-skinned masses will hate you – but mark my words, they’ll remember your name.
No form is immune, no matter how current (the tweet, barely ten years old, has heard its own death knell numerous times already), and likewise no lover of the form is immune to the sting (I will admit to having more than once felt that trollish urge to vent against one or another of these obits provocateurs). But if there’s one medium that critics pick on more than any other, if there’s one over which we all keep bickering, it’s The Novel. Plenty of people have trumpeted the demise of film, or radio, or rock ‘n’ roll, but only The Novel has had the treatment often enough to warrant a Wikipedia page on the subject.
To try and close the book on The Novel makes sense: novels are as old as paper and ink – or at least as the printing press. Since the dawn of the twentieth century, technologies have come up every few decades to supplant the printed word. And undeniably, the more dazzling, more accessible media of movies and television have managed to reach a far wider audience than novels ever could (to prove my point, just take a poll of your friends to see how many have read War and Peace, and how many just saw it on TV).
I don’t think Dana Spiotta is ready to don the long black veil for her medium of choice, though. “I love the elasticity of the novel form,” she tells me when I ask her about it. “Comprised of only words on the page, and yet it can do whatever you can get away with.” Spiotta’s new novel Innocents and Others is just her latest demonstration of what an author can get away with, and I believe it’s in the games she plays with form that she shows us how.
The real delight of the novel is the way it stacks itself up against competing forms. Spiotta has always recognised that a novel needn’t fear film, or the internet, or any of its other would-be murderers.”
First, the story: Meadow Mori is a genius documentary filmmaker with a penchant for the ‘fabule’ (Spiotta’s term for “a lie to tell the truth”, and a word so delicious I’m already searching for ways to insert it into my vocabulary), obsessed with manipulating reality on celluloid with the powers of lighting, sound, editing and sequencing. Her high-school best friend Carrie starts off as a sort of partner in crime for Meadow, before striking out as a director of more conventional – and more commercially successful – edgy-but-mainstream comedies. On the surface, the novel wants to explore the way that Meadow and Carrie’s artistic trajectories lead them away from each other, and the threads of shared experience which (barely) hold their friendship together. It also does a fine job of price-checking Meadow’s relentless drive for artistic integrity (so uncompromising that it often eclipses her documentarian’s reverence for the truth), comparing it to Carrie’s more pragmatic sensibility.
But if you’re after something bigger, Innocents and Others has a lot more to offer underneath its surface story. For me, the real delight of the novel is the way it stacks itself up against competing forms. This has always been part of Spiotta’s M.O.; clearly in love with pop culture, she peppers her novels with references to everything from Red Desert to A Hard Day’s Night, from John Coltrane to Talking Heads. But she doesn’t stop there. Spiotta has always recognised that a novel needn’t fear film, or the internet, or any of its other would-be murderers. Each of these forms carries a unique toolkit for telling a story, and for her all of these toolkits are ripe for plundering if she needs a fresh approach to her narrative. Her previous novel Stone Arabia made good use of the script format to shift the tone and pick up the pace in certain passages concerning a documentary. Innocents and Others plunges us right into her fictional realm by opening with an essay by Meadow, at that point a retired semi-recluse. This being the present day, Spiotta recognises that an internet blog would be the natural setting for such an essay. And just like that, a whole new structure builds itself up to house this introduction.
“I knew that it was an essay, but in 2015, it would have an online life,” says Spiotta. “I had been teaching Pale Fire [Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel which took the form of a poem written by one character presented along with commentary by another]. I was reminded that when Nabokov created a conceit, he went all the way: imaginary foreword, index, etc. If you are going to suggest something, have the courage to go all the way and make the most of it.” And so, once Meadow Mori has told us the story of her affair with a nameless Hollywood director, sprinkling in enough details about the man’s distinct voice and overweight physique to plant in our heads the image of Orson Welles, we get what we’d expect when we reach the bottom of a blog entry: a lengthy Comments section. Spiotta acknowledges to me, “It is playful — links that obviously don’t ‘link’ and an indication that you can expand a comment when you can’t.” What excites me is the way the comments, entered by over a dozen opinionated film buffs, tell more about Meadow than her own words divulge. Meadow’s seeming confessional comes off as a self-contained short story, and in an intriguing development that could only have occurred in the online world Spiotta uses, it’s the sneers of her online detractors (“People, I am calling BS on this whole essay”) that point up the flaws in the tale Meadow is trying to pass off on us.
Meadow’s essay and its Comments section take up only the first thirty pages or so of the novel. For most of the chapters that follow, Spiotta falls back on more conventional storytelling. She lays out in detail the backstory that Meadow has fudged in her opening. She introduces an intriguing subplot about a ‘phone phreak’ (a sort of 1970s precursor to a computer hacker), a woman who gains access to the phone numbers of various Hollywood heavies and uses her phone manner to seduce them with the character of ‘Nicole’, a younger, slimmer, imaginary version of herself. But where she sets down tools which might seem gimmicky if used for too long, she still never shies from lining her prose up against rival forms. Tracing the lives of her cinematic-minded protagonists, her expository writing falls naturally into a conversation with the medium of film.
Meadow obsesses over the minutiae of her craft, testing different equipment, endlessly rearranging rushes to shoehorn reality into her artistic vision with the help of editing-room sleight-of-hand. And I can’t help but think that Meadow’s creative drive somehow reflects Spiotta’s own impulses. At one point, Meadow experiments with reenactments of iconic classic films, then looks back on the results in the editing room:
The idea never went anywhere unexpected. Meadow had hoped that you would move to a different place once you got the initial joke. But it didn’t happen. She couldn’t make it interesting in editing… Meadow grew frustrated with all of it. She quit doing anything movie-related for three weeks. She slept late and then lay on the couch and read the paper.
Spiotta answers one of my questions: “It is part of the job to make it new or destabilise the received way of looking at something, so I tend to be inclined to take risks in that direction (and hope that it isn’t too distracting to the reader).” I wonder how much time she spends on the couch when her risks don’t pay off.
None of this would be of much interest to me if I didn’t have a story to follow. What impresses me about Innocents and Others is that it’s able to interweave the drama of Meadow and Carrie with Nicole’s phone-phreak plot, able to poke at my feelings with keen precision, unencumbered by the heavy conceptual weights Spiotta hangs from it. I’m on Meadow’s side even when she bends filmmaking ethics to achieve her vision. I sympathise with Carrie’s unspoken inferiority complex. I feel a squeeze on my heart when I watch Nicole grapple with the consequences of her deception, and I feel a genuine sense of betrayal to see it unfold with Meadow at the helm. It’s a wonderful bonus to find myself carried off at the same time in the many different currents of Spiotta’s stream of consciousness – as well as my own. Reading Carrie’s online response to Meadow’s opening essay, I wonder out of the blue if Spiotta has seen Ondi Timoner’s music documentary Dig!, and if she might see the thread, so clear to me, that her story shares with that film. Reading a passage concerning the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, I think to ask her whether she prefers that doc to Stanley Booth’s biographical literary masterpiece on the same subject The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. The written form is constantly butting up against the cinema in my head as I read. Each form of expression becomes more exciting to me as I look at them side by side. I bounce along from one fabule to the next, learning, thinking, comparing, feeling a dozen things at once. Far from the decaying form grieved over by a century’s worth of critics, in Spiotta’s hands The Novel tears around in my head, more alive than ever.
Dana Spiotta is the author of Lightning Field (2001); Eat the Document (2006), a finalist for the National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Stone Arabia (2011), a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in fiction. She was a Guggenheim Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow, and won the 2008-9 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. She lives in Syracuse with her daughter Agnes and teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program. Innocents and Others is published by Scribner. Read more.
Author portrait © Jessica Marx
Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories such as ‘Sex Education’, ‘Housewarming’, ‘The Squeegee Man’ and ‘Black Dress’ and other works have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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Read an extract from Innocents and Others in The New Yorker.