Whoosh

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’).

Such moments, however, are characteristic only in the dry, almost campy, precision of the rendered perceptions. Otherwise, this being a novel about fugitive revolutionaries, the narrative can’t afford to rest long in the cosy lamplight of familiar bourgeois locations. Yes, it has individuals in it, and families, and businesses and homes. But such institutions are not privileged, not especially real or safe or stable; there are always other ways of doing things: squats and ‘quasi-squats’, the black bloc, possible comrades, ‘the unnerving, surprisingly creepy and unpleasantly psychedelic’ experience of extinguishing one’s identity, living on the run. Characters exist in frenetic dialogue with each other and their times, constantly butting against the ‘whoosh of history, the somersault of dialectic’. One strand of the story charts the growth of a corporation called Allegecom, with interests in armaments, pharmaceuticals and real estate, stretching back to the Vietnam War and forward to a massive gated development, planned on the site of a former utopian community. This will sound – and to tell the truth is – a bit obviously daughter-of-DeLillo, but how can a proper likeness be made of the past half-century without something like it?

The novel’s spine follows Mary alone, through the early 1970s – ‘She didn’t follow the Watergate scandal. But it was in the air she breathed. Breaking the law had become endemic. She saw the sweat on the president’s upper lip’ – to the late 1990s, as her chickens start coming home to roost. She cooks sweet potato casserole for an early feminist consciousness-raising group; a member tumbles her and she is banished. ‘You have no right hanging out with us – it is dangerous. Dangerous for you and for us – do you understand?’ So on she goes, to a commune in the middle of nowhere: acid lesbians, white-chick dreadlocks, recycled-car-door geodesic domes. She hitches lifts; she is sexually assaulted; Dennis Wilson, the alcoholic Beach Boy, buys her a drink in a Californian biker bar. She settles in the Seattle suburbs, she raises her son, she teaches cooking, she deadens her regrets and ambivalence with ‘corny’ (her son says) white wine spritzers. ‘How different it would have been if she had tried to save just herself instead of the whole world. But that was what she was now – a movement of one. The most radical separatist of all. You are moved to save the world, and then you are reduced to organising everything just to save yourself.’

The book’s most brilliant move comes not in Mary’s story, but in those of the men she loves: Nash, a lonely middle-aged left-libertarian; and Jason, her geeky teenage son, devoted to all things 1960s and psychedelic, especially rare artefacts and lost causes, most of all the Beach Boys and his ‘three-disc Smile bootleg – you know, the kind of bootleg where there are like ten versions of the same song in a row?’ To Spiotta, neither Jason’s passion for his records nor Nash’s for the largely imaginary groups he runs from a Seattle bookshop – the ‘neo-yippie, post-situationist’ Church of the Latter Day Drop Society, the Kill the Street Puppets Project (which draws a ‘big crowd, as many people seemed to have a secret aversion to papier-mâché and chicken wire’) – is marginal or pathetic. Pop culture and counterculture are central and necessary instruments of sanity, hope, potential liberation; commodification certainly can mean alienation, but commodities can also be things of boundless, scary life and joy.

What happens is you jump to a new level in your obsession where even the most arcane details become fascinating. You follow a course of minutiae and repetition, and you find yourself utterly enthralled . . . I’m on listen number three of the full ten versions, at about version seven, and I am peaking – my desire to listen is being satisfied but hasn’t been entirely fulfilled, fatigue hasn’t crept in yet, I still yearn for more.

As a young man, Nash made impish Super 8 movies: a ‘lost’ documentary about Love, Arthur Lee’s legendary LA band; a door-stepping confrontation with Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, which finds him ‘haunted, pathetic, old’; Barbie and GI Joe dolls in stop-action (‘a rather silly send-up of corporate militarism,’ in Jason’s opinion, ‘but well made, and hey – the first, perhaps, of its kind?’). Now, he toils in a shop haunted by kids in baggy skate gear, ideal for shoplifting, which is what they do: ‘What upset him,’ Nash riffs, ‘was his sense that Davey D was certainly one of those rich-raggedy kids. They looked poor, they acted poor, they smelled poor – but somewhere behind them or out ahead of them, somewhere in the surround of them, lurked big, ungainly scads of unearned money.’ Looking at a girl activist’s ferociously bitten nails, he riffs again: ‘It was always these self-devouring types who ended up here, hating Nike . . . It used to be you had to make munitions to piss people off. Now it was enough to be large, global and successful. That made it a more radical, systematic critique . . . And more futile, naturally.’ Nash is under no illusions. ‘Like the word suck, loser had, despite its long overuse, retained its capital among adolescents . . . Nash imagined he was often described by these kids as a loser and also someone who sucks. As in that loser sucks.’ But really, he is a character of nobility and subtlety who has learned the hard way the problem with even the most justified revenge: ‘There is the possibility that destroying something changes you in unexpected ways. It’s channelling your worst dark self. It can inspire a wanton side, it can thrill and titillate. How can I put this? I think it’s cruddy for the soul.’

Jason, on the other hand, is an ordinary – if unusually bright – teen who sounds like a man gone crazy:

I am the centre of the culture. I am genesis, herald, harbinger. The absolute germinal zero point – that’s me. I am the sun around which all the American else orbits. In fact, I am America, I exist more than other Americans. America is the centre of the world, and I am the centre of America. I am 15, white, middle class and male . . . Everything is geared to me. When you see those herky-jerky close-ups in action movies, where the camera jumps and chops its way in rather hyperly to the close-up of the hero, that is not for anyone but me . . . I should feel proud. By the mere fact of my youth, I am entitled to so much power.

Oddly, but plausibly, it is the Beach Boys who make the necessary bridge between haunted mother and meta-narcissistic son: the ‘loneliness’, as Mary herself says, early on, of ‘Good Vibrations’. The ‘longing. The sadness that leaks through all that enforced sunny cheer . . . It’s in the sound, not the words. It’s the way you feel, or rather the feeling you get. Like slightly off, rancid America.’

Spiotta’s prose is lucid, declarative, apparently straightforward, but hyperlinked: to presidents and corporations, terrorists and brands of plastic, musicians, track listings, the properties of Agent Orange and napalm. Files of newsprint, newsreel, ‘the gorgeous opening riff from “Alone Again Or”’ seem neatly to unfold then shut themselves as you read. Though not self-conscious about it, this is a novel written to the rhythms of broadband internet, opening and connecting with speed and fluency. Formally, it’s unruly: at just under 300 pages, it’s one of those short books that reads as though it wants to be much longer, with oddly matched long and short bits, bald patches, messy ends. In particular, Mary’s arguments, excuses, circumventions concerning the unfortunate housekeeper’s death are vague and repetitious, as though both she and the author are circling something they cannot quite face; if you take a look at the post-Weatherman literature, you’ll find this sort of avoidance common. Also, the narrative stops at around the millennium, short of Bush, Iraq, 9/11, the war on terror. This gives it a peculiar time-lapse quality, as noticeable in its pop references as in its thoughts on bombs and bombing: who, since the massive record release and tour of 2004, could now think of Smile as ‘lost’?

An even weirder absence results from the way the novel seems to want to deracinate the political struggles most central to its concerns. Weatherman’s call to ‘bring the war home’ was not just about taking Vietnam to the doors of industrialists and politicians. It was also about pressure rising from those parts of the American population that had never really known peace. The real-life Katherine Ann Power committed her bank robbery in order to arm the Black Panthers. And on page 4 of Spiotta’s fictionalised version, a fearful Mary remembers ‘Fred Hampton’s mattress . . . captured in the lurid black-and-white Weegee style that seemed to underline the blood-soak and the bedclothes in grabbed-at disarray’. Hampton was a promising young black leader, drugged then shot by the police in his bed, not that the novel tells us anything about him; its gaze lingers, instead, on the mattress, its ‘dinge stripe and seam’. Spiotta wants the Panthers well out of it, out of reticence, perhaps, towards a story she feels is not hers to tell.

And yet, something very odd happens when Mary arrives at the women-only acid-lesbian colony in 1972 or 1973. Browsing a stack of records, a friend finds Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (1971), which she holds up ‘using two fingers, as if the record smelled bad’. Its cover shows ‘a black woman buried up to her neck in dirt, her mouth open in a scream, her huge Afro framing her head’; musically, it’s all ‘distorted guitar . . . funky rhythms . . . badass dissonance’, ‘a voice intoned cryptic nonsense about the earth mother’, ‘an underlying loneliness that at first made’ Mary ‘sad and then started creeping her out’. That shocking cover is found in a women’s commune to make a point, perhaps, about misogyny in the dark time before Women’s Lib, but it seems to make another point more forcefully, about that petulant childishness, that refusal to look straight at painful realities, for which Joan Didion attacked ‘the women’s movement’ in her famous breaking-eggs essay of 1972. George Clinton’s ‘cryptic nonsense’ on that album is neither difficult to hear nor to understand: ‘Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe – I was not offended, for I knew I had to rise above it all, or drown in my own shit’. It’s vintage P-funk apocalyptic, a black, psychedelic version of what Philip Roth, in American Pastoral, called ‘the indigenous American berserk’.

Then Maggot Brain comes up a second time, when Jason listens to it in the late 1990s. Now, it’s ‘admittedly awesome’, ‘drop-dead sad and lovely’; ‘It sounds like his mother just died,’ says a friend. ‘It was all too dark for me, so I begged off and went back to my place to listen to Pet Sounds (the original mono version on vinyl) . . . I do not want to go forward, I always want to be carelessly lost in this music . . . Sometimes I think I am in love with my own youth.’ But surely no one can listen to Funkadelic then go back to being satisfied by the Beach Boys. And sure enough, the novel’s conclusion sees Jason at last beginning to drop them, only to replace them with . . . the Kinks.

A couple of months ago, Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman, appeared in a discussion at the ICA in London – further proof, incidentally, of the middle-class-fable point. ‘The world we thought we would be leaving to our children and grandchildren is just light years away from the world as it is,’ he said. ‘We suffered defeat after defeat. And one of the dispiriting things is that the 1960s have been created as this thing, 1960s Incorporated, and sold back to us as this great moment of hope and wonder, disempowering young people today, a blanket on any aspirations.’ Ayers shared the platform with the English writer and discharged convict John Barker, formerly of the Angry Brigade: ‘I see my particular past either slagged off or romanticised, both of which I find distasteful.’ Spiotta’s novel does, in some ways, present the suffering of the 1960s as a package; it also romanticises its revolutionaries, even as we follow them on their weary way to the inevitable jail. But it’s a much subtler packaging than the usual. Even the romanticisation is biting and nuanced. Spiotta’s book is, finally, just a novel, an aesthetic object, a spectacle, to use the tired old word. But it pulls its ideas together with such energy, warmth and intelligence that even the saddest old revolutionary can learn something surprising from it.