The American novelist Dana Spiotta is among the great chroniclers of the nature of modern friendship.
Her debut work of fiction, Lightning Field (2001), examined the fraught amity of the relationship between an ambitious restaurateur and her friend and employee. Her second, Eat the Document (2006), considered how the bonds of comradeship are experienced by a pair of fugitive radicals in the age of the Vietnam War. And her third, Stone Arabia (2011), addressed the complex forms of attachment and resentment that can develop in the friendship of siblings, where one – the brother – is an aspirant and dishonest (and unsuccessful) musician and artist, and the other a single mother whose purpose is to serve as an audience for her brother's creative endeavours.
Innocents and Others, Spiotta's latest novel, returns to these themes. It tells the story of two filmmakers, Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler, who grew up together in Los Angeles, and whose divergent professional preoccupations constitute one of the many forces that will come to test their relationship. Meadow makes documentaries that could be seen as exploiting and endangering her subjects: her first film, which attracts a great deal of attention, shows her inebriated 17-year-old boyfriend talking to the camera and alluding to a crime that might well threaten his liberty.
Carrie makes commercially-successful feature films that carry a feminist message. She earns Golden Globe nominations and wins a Writers’ Guild award. And Meadow resents her for it.
This atmosphere of strained loyalty and compromised admiration is lent additional turbulence by way of the figure of Jelly (who sometimes refers to herself as Nicole, and whose real name is Amy).
Jelly is a lonely and vulnerable woman who is addicted to phoning figures – screenwriters, set designers – on the periphery of Hollywood filmmaking. As she does so, she seduces them with her immense capacity for listening and for empathy, becomes their disembodied friend and unveils a form of connection more powerful than anything offered by the sensory distractions of face-to-face encounters: “The phone was built for this. It had no visual component, no tactile component ... Just vibrations ... and to clutch at them with your own thoughts was just wrong. A distinct resistance to potential. A lack of love, really. Because what is love, if not listening, as uninflected – as uncontained – as possible.”
In the course of making these calls, Jelly happens upon Jack, a divorced father and film composer who eventually tells Jelly he loves her and buys her a ticket to visit him in Los Angeles. Only Jelly, having lied about her age and appearance (she is not the young and attractive woman she has pretended to be, but overweight, unhappy and middle-aged), cannot bring herself to make the trip. So she stands him up and hangs up her phone for good, and subsequently becomes the subject of one of Meadow’s documentaries.
When the film debuts, it leads to further misery, humiliation and moral uncertainty. Jelly feels distressed, exposed, used. Meadow comes to question the ethics of her art, worries about the probity of documenting the misery of strangers and frets about the nature of her creation.
She worries that it is “too contrived, too forced, too cheesily consequential”, and similar anxieties surface in the minds of each of Spiotta’s characters as they reflect on how best to live in an age that is fragmented, mediated and transfigured by a world of technological innovation, disfigured by the demands of late capitalism.
Spiotta handles these stories with subtlety, precision and inventiveness. The book shifts between third- and first-person narratives; features sudden shifts in time and perspective; and is composed of an array of narrative forms – essays, blog posts, film reviews, transcripts – that are as various and disorienting as the many technological and artistic phenomena that populate her book.
That Spiotta is able to do this while sacrificing none of the pleasures of conventional storytelling is testament to the attentiveness of her prose, which modulates elegantly from one register to another without ever losing a unifying spirit; which is at once sharp, restrained, resonant, warm. It is also full of arresting intelligence, tender and memorable insights, and a determination to notice the wonder of the apparently negligible detail.
In order to capture the “magic” of art, it is said in this remarkable book, you must “look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards”.
Spiotta has looked more closely than most. And written a book that makes the world feel new.
Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.