Jenny Turner

  • Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
    Picador, 290 pp, £12.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 44828 4

So what would you do if you’d just killed a rich man’s housekeeper, when the bomb you set for her employer went off while she was still in the house? You might run, as Mary does, to a motel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, ‘practically the dead centre of the country’, because you’d expect them to expect you to head for one or another of the coasts. You’d probably rip up your address book, dumping it page by page in separate bins. You’d certainly dye your hair, discovering, as people generally do, that instead of the ‘liberated’ shade advertised on the L’Oréal packet, your hair turns ‘a daffodil yellow blonde’. And you’d think up a new name for yourself, working through lists of friends, childhood toys, pop stars, to hit, possibly, on Caroline, from the Beach Boys song. ‘OK,’ Mary thinks, ‘there was no point in being witty about any of this, encoding it or making it coherent in any way . . . if it is legible to you, then it gives you away.’ It’s a powerful fantasy, the shedding of the old life, with or without the add-on of relentless FBI pursuit: ‘She existed in nunlike simplicity. Her constant fear ordered her life and gave her purpose. Everything pertained to her maintaining her liberty, nothing else applied.’

Dana Spiotta’s novel is loosely based on the story of Katherine Ann Power, a Brandeis sociology major who in 1970 helped organise a bank robbery during which a police officer was killed. To begin with, Power ran with another girl, her college room-mate and co-robber, hiding out in women’s communes; after the friend’s arrest, she settled in western Oregon, where she ran a restaurant, taught cookery classes, got married, raised her son. In 1993, she turned herself in, finishing her degree in jail; she came out, and went home, in 1999. Power’s story has a curious quality to it, the extraordinary only intensifying the ordinary, just as the tale of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground – former fugitives and bombers, now married, to each other, with grown-up children and academic jobs in Chicago – reads persuasively as a fable of how the militantly anti-bourgeois frequently turn out to have been solidly middle-class all along.

Spiotta herself was born in 1966. She published her first novel, Lightning Field (LA, hyperconsumerism, anomic drift) in 2001, and together with her husband now owns and works in a restaurant in upstate New York. She has said that it was hearing news clips about Power that sparked the idea for her second novel, and perhaps it was through cookery that she started finding ways in. She doesn’t allow herself many foodie moments in Eat the Document, but those she does are animated by a special relish. There’s a scene in which a teacher demonstrates the correct prepping of a chicken (‘I like to put slivers of garlic and truffles under the skin of the breast. Also pats of butter. It makes the breast moist and the skin crisp and flavourful’), another in which a thin young woman buys a giant scone from a wholefood bakery (‘one scone, a single thing . . . a loaf of a scone . . . a dry, crumbly endeavour’).

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