I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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Dana Spiotta and Michael Helm write fiercely intelligent portrayals of cultures in flux, so it’s no surprise they’ve been literary compatriots ever since they discovered each other’s work. Aside from a whirlwind real-life meeting at AWP, Spiotta and Helm’s dialogue has grown entirely over email — fitting for authors whose work explores modern technology in all its connective power and complexity. The following conversation took place over email in fall of 2016, in anticipation of Helm’s fourth novel, After James (September 6, 2016).
Dana Spiotta: What was the initial impulse or inspiration behind After James? The opening section features a whistleblower and big pharma. We also have a storyline that comes out of the West’s relationship to the Middle East’s refugee crisis. Do you read or listen to the news and get inspiration for characters and stories? What draws you in?
Michael Helm: My novels usually begin with a sentence or image, or at least that’s when I become conscious of them. At some point a character or two comes clear, and the feeling of the book. The gains and problems become formal and stay that way to the end, but form touches the world, and it shows up in ways I can’t predict.
In After James I followed a dog into a story. I don’t know where most of the characters hail from but the story and setting come from the world. It’s the usual input-output with some transmutation of materials inside the mechanism. The storylines in After James came out of conversations I’d had, places I’d been, including the Turkey-Syria border region. The research builds the engine. The bass note in the engine is disquiet.
DS: Raymond Carver once described fiction as bringing the news from other worlds. I love that, and I have always thought that “other worlds” specifically meant imagining the lives of other people and escaping the tyranny of the self. Empathy is an ongoing subject for you, both crucial and challenging. How do you think about writing beyond your own experience? To use Faulkner’s formulation, what relationship do “experience, observation, and imagination” have in your work and this work in particular? What boundaries do you have if any about what can or should be imagined?
MH: A lot was made a couple of years back when a study at the New School found empirical evidence that reading literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction or non-fiction, made a person more empathetic. I think a lot of readers, hearing that, said, “No shit.” Language came about and evolved because we’re trapped in our skulls. Story came about because we’re trapped in our lives, with our pains and joys and sense of duration. Literary fiction allows us to escape not into fantasy, but out of ourselves, and to the degree that we believe in the fiction, we feel known, thought of, and naturally we then have feelings of community and others.
Cities of Refuge went at this question pretty directly. I learned which experiences I could and couldn’t responsibly inhabit, and brought the question to the surface as a kind of stated theme. After James is a bit more sly. Because it turns up the what-happens-nextness and seems to indulge in popular storytelling tropes, readers might think the only empathy required of them is to be found in things like simple fear, paranoia, impending doom. These aren’t normally complicated emotions, but my sense is that they’re ascendant, that we’re in a time with its own character of uncertainty. These aren’t your grandmother’s fear, paranoia, and doom.
Literary fiction allows us to admit the size of other lives. It stands in the place of the full admission that if we really empathized fully with the feelings of others, all others, we’d be fetal on the floor. I love a novel that just admits that. In your Stone Arabia, Denise has bouts of “debilitating sympathy,” with her memory ordered around “hyperpervious moments” so that even time seems colonized by observed pain. All that fear of sentimentality that shifted fictional art into the cool zones in earlier decades has been eclipsed by a fiction that’s just as smart and formally daring, but feeling, too.
DS: You have said in an interview that you don’t think of your books as idea-driven. That your characters have ideas, but that does not mean that your book is a novel of ideas. I wonder about that — is it such a terrible thing to have ideas in a novel? I understand pushing back on the notion of ideas imposed rather than organically formed — a novel is not a polemic. It should be embodied, and have doubt and beauty and mystery. Yet it seems to me that After James — and this is part of what I love about it — has a deep strain of philosophical inquiry in it. Can’t a novel be driven by character, story, and philosophical questions? Aesthetic questions? Language questions? I write to discover and I read to discover. Not just recognize.
MH: The U.S. publisher described After James as a novel of ideas disguised as a page turner. I have no objection to that. I don’t know where I said that other thing but I was probably trying to stop myself from saying that the books are driven by language, and that in fact I’m very interested in ideas, which can sound a bit precious. Maybe it’s just that the thing I’m first aware of is language, the way of saying, before the thing being said. With enough pressure on the sentences, story and character and ideas can be made into one substance.
In After James a couple of ideas in particular seemed to allow me find that substance. Genetic transference, the process of recombination, shuffled codes. And I wanted to mark the distinction between fear in popular story and the real thing. Certain kinds of novels and films find ways to gather our feelings meaningfully, to acknowledge our anxieties. Other, meretricious kinds of stories only reproduce the experience of consuming them. Because commercial fiction and film are so much a part of the surround, genre stories claim a lot of central ground in our lived experience. We constantly absorb stories that hold to the same precepts and conventions. I think we always need to expand the possibilities. I like squared-off stories, but I rarely find one that knows me or stays with me. And I worry that our many excellent entertainments are setting us up for an ending we don’t want.
These days real and false terror are both just clicks away. It’s worth thinking about what it means that the borders between them are getting harder to find.
DS: And, of course, language-as-a-system drives your novel. On the sentence level, we get the dynamic of language that obscures and reveals (the “pharmakon” of language as both “remedy and poison”). We also get a version of that problem in the second section, where you use crowd-sourced literary critique of a mysterious poet’s work to create slippages in meaning. You include a number of poems in the book and glosses on the poems. It must be challenging to write poems as a character. It takes a kind of confidence or authority. And you really have to trust in your own commitment to your construct. They can’t be your poems. Tell me about how you went about writing them. Was it challenging? Fun? Torture? Did you think about Pale Fire?
MH: I read a lot of poetry but have too much respect for the form to write it. The brains of most poets worth reading aren’t like novelists’ brains, but I found I could write the poems and fragments in the novel because they weren’t mine. The lines are fiction by other means. One or another character makes the point that they’re not good poems, so I hope that earns me some grace. And they’re anonymous, and enigmatic, so they come with a mystery they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I did think about Pale Fire. In Nabokov, there’s the poem, the balanced ambiguities, and the possible lunacy behind the gloss that accompanies it. But it’s one man’s reading of one poem. In my novel I was interested in the ways the Internet generates its own forces of ambiguity, lunacy, and control.
DS: You don’t use a conventional narrative structure in After James. The book is divided into three parts that are both discreet from one another and connected. Can you tell me how the structure evolved? Why is the middle section in first person and the other sections in close third? Time is also complex and fluid — can you also talk about how you use time or a timeline in this novel?
MH: I’d begun three novels that I thought of as related, and I knew I wanted two things. One was a movement in each and throughout from high artifice to meaning, to bring the overstoried, over entertained surround of our lives into the text, and then use it, if possible, to discover something new. I don’t know if I did this but I seem to recall wanting to do it.
And I wanted a connection between the parts that resisted neat fittings. I didn’t want to make a novel as puzzle, to be solved and put away. In revision, a small change in one part could ruin its resonance with another. The parts had to be offset just so. The idea was that as one part passes into another, there’s a ghosting effect.
The shift to first person in the second part just felt right. It made a hard cut and seemed to open comic possibilities. And it’s a young man’s story, and one of the things the first person can capture well is a young person’s interior wanderings and involutions.
The second part has a more certain setting. It happens around now, as historical events in the news seem also to be in the novel, though they aren’t topical so much as the latest instances of a standing condition. The other two parts seem to float between now and what’s coming. Maybe it’s the day after tomorrow. I didn’t want to get out ahead of our present transforming moment, to think it through, so much as simply to register it in its strangeness.
DS: After James contains a number of mysteries. We get clues and it almost seems as though we can piece it together. But you don’t give it all away — it has a resistance embedded in it, which feels dynamic and exciting to me as a reader, as if the book keeps buzzing after you finish it. The connections don’t feel too neat, and you give us just enough. Is that a matter of intuition, just withholding enough to create suspense and mystery but not so much as to create frustration?
MH: It’s intuition and trusting the reader. Readers especially are predisposed to pattern recognition and to apophenia, seeing patterns even when they aren’t there. Finding a seeming connection can be pleasurable, but so, too, can be sensing a mystery forming just beyond perception. By now we might have encountered this sense of mysteries both relenting and not in certain kinds of novels and movies. What becomes of the central question in 2666? How do the stories relate in Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy? As interesting as the mysteries in each story are the ways in which one story seems to reconstellate another.
DS: After James has technology as an explicit subject: how it shapes our thoughts and our interactions. Better than anyone else I have read, you capture the shocking loneliness at the heart of the Internet — to be both hyper-connected and totally isolated from one another is the paradox of contemporary technology. Can you tell me about using a very old-fashioned piece of technology — a long book — to address the implications and experiences of complex technological forces?
MH: Well thanks, but it seems to me that Innocents and Others explores, among many other things, the same paradox but through different old technologies, films as they once were made, and the telephone. Your novel gets at the same feelings and reminds us that connection and distance have existed together since we first found the means for remote contact.
DS: I am very glad to hear you see a connection between our books. I can’t separate people from the tools they use. Because we spend so much time interacting through machines, writing about that interaction feels urgent to me. But you bravely write into the specific moment we inhabit and then push beyond it. I love how mystical the technological becomes in After James.
MH: After James takes on specific technologies of science and art: drugs, language, genetic science, cyberspace, artistic reproduction. These both extend and erode the self in ways peculiar to the new century. Among the books behind this one is The Turn of the Screw (not that I’m comparing), but part one of After James isn’t so much a psychological novel as a psychopharmaceutical one, where reader and character together are left to try to distinguish the real from the projected.
Part two, a sort of cybermystery unfolding in an all too real world of political manipulation and violence, has antecedents in the literature of paranoia. The time for paranoia has come around again.
Part three is in some ways stranger for being both apocalyptic and not just plausible but actual. Most novels try to strike distinct characters, but we live now with the feeling that our own characters aren’t always distinct even to ourselves. Sometimes against our intent or wishes, our self gets diffused or repurposed against our will. I’m interested in these forces of incoherence. We don’t have to move the border very far for the self to fall apart. I like to quote T.E. Hulme’s line that “Man is the chaos highly organized, and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” It’s a good description of humans, and of the kinds of novels I love most, taking order out to the edge of chaos.
DS: Pushing something until it becomes its seeming opposite, until it reveals a paradox. That’s what I mean by mystical — you play out the implications of various technologies until they seem almost spiritual. A little like DeLillo in Zero K, I think.
After James dwells in the natural world as well as the technological world. In fact, the vivid, sense-rich descriptions of the natural world give the reader respite from the hermetic worlds of human consciousness as well as technology. I love the precise-yet-lyrical writing you do to describe nature and how it manages not to get sentimental or soothing. It is beautiful and frightening, really. The people are isolated, but the world feels profoundly alive all around them. It creates its own tension in the book, the relationship of the humans to their surroundings. Can you talk a little about that? Particularly in the first book and the last.
MH: We don’t just live in nature (as they say); we are nature (as they say), but where does the nature go when we extend ourselves into the artificial? Maybe art aspires to the condition of the material, phenomenal world. I grew up in Saskatchewan, in dry hyper-real light, on the flattest plate of land in the world. The climate there is extreme, swinging about 148 degrees Fahrenheit every six months. It’s a hard, beautiful landscape of the kind that drives some people nuts. You can’t pretend that the sublime is a mere concept in such a place.
I like the language we’ve laid over flora and fauna, and I tend to like people who know that language well. But the names of natural things point out better than anything, I think, the paradox of language itself. I stand before a tree, touch it, and try to see it fully. Then someone says its name — American beech — and it’s suddenly more sharply before me. But day by day, as the name is said over and over in my thoughts, the name begins to obscure the thing, and the tree seems to recede a little.
The natural world and its rhythms, which are especially pronounced in places with four distinct seasons like the part of the continent where you and I live, seem to make a great claim on my imaginative life. Every fall, as the weather turns, my dreams get wild. They seem to want to kill me. I know I don’t live outside of the natural world, but the ways it lives in me unexpectedly are profound.
There’s a bit of hard weather in the novel. Soon here in the anthropocene we’ll just call it weather. There was a time in poetry and fiction when we read imagined weather symbolically. We’ve screwed things up so badly now that we can read real weather politically.
DS: I get a lot of inspiration reading about other kinds of artists — architects, painters, and composers — and then relating it back to the novel. Sometimes I have a sense of being in dialogue with the history of the novel, and that excites me. Other times I think of novel-writing as deeply subversive and counter-culture, sort of spy work for team weird. What is the state of the novel in your view? What interests you about the form? Where do you think the energy is these days?
MH: Maybe now, in this often senseless cultural decor, the novel is subversive precisely because of its long history. Wherever it is as an art form, I hope it’s ever more influenced by global literatures, especially stuff that’s outside of high realism presented conventionally. Lately we’ve had waves of things from far off. One year everyone’s reading Clarice Lispector, the next Knausgård, then Ferrante. Not all of this stuff is great but I like that people are talking and can have new orientation points. Maybe it’s not really yet a post-literate world.
The novel still does what it used to. Better than other narrative forms, through interiority and long time it can establish deep character. It can produce its own layering effects, inside a moment or within the whole structure. It allows for finely calibrated emotions and ironies. It can manage a greater tonal range, from humour to despair, than other story forms. It can handle ideas with enough time to do right by them. It can move around in time or memory to any degree it wants. And better even than visual art forms, I think, it seems in the work of some writers able to capture specificity and blur, the vibration at the edges of living things.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, pays homage to an early form of hacking known as “phone phreaking.” Phone phreaks would break into long-distance networks by learning the language of the telephone. With their mouths, or sometimes with whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, phreaks mimicked the tonal frequencies and sequences that would trigger network switches. They made pitch-perfect 2600 Hz shrieks into headsets, resetting the trunk lines that would allow toll-free access to virtually anywhere. Their whistles and clicks forced phone companies to develop separate channels for carrying routing info. Their hacks began the encrypting process that has led to the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI.
But Spiotta doesn’t go there. Innocents and Others is not a parable of “disruption,” nor are Spiotta’s phone phreaks the antecedents of brogrammers. Her characters phreak for love. They don’t want to exploit the system or bypass the operator. They want to find the operator. Specifically, the character known as “Jelly” wants to reach something called an “inward operator:” “People who can connect you to wherever you want to go; they are deep in the machine…they were voices, humans, somewhere in the big wide world.”
Both of the main storylines of Innocents and Others feature women influencing Hollywood from somewhere in said big wide world, specifically from Upstate New York. There’s the story of Meadow and Carrie, longtime friends who become filmmakers and slowly drift apart, and the story of Jelly, former girlfriend of a pioneer phone phreak and a proto-catfisher with a heart of gold. From a darkened room in Solvay, an economically-depressed suburb of Syracuse, Jelly cold-calls Hollywood producers and seduces them over the phone. She becomes legendary and eventually attracts the attention of Meadow, who has moved from Los Angeles to Gloversville to make artsy documentaries that feed the late-20th-century desire for confession.
A novel about this kind of urge to find the human deep in the machine is to be expected, considering our current fascination with analog technologies, with the kind of reaching out and touching others that involves the vibration of tone sequences through wires and hands along switchboards. Spiotta’s treatment of this desire is the next chapter in her career-long flirtation with nostalgia, but the nostalgia of Innocents and Others is less escapist, more radical, than other recent homages to the pre-encrypted world.
For example, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) turns to the art world that sprung up in the abandoned factories of SoHo in the 1970s. The novel’s masterful representation of this world participates in a recent obsession with all things New York in the 1970s, an obsession Edmund White describes in his New York Times Style Magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” Innocents and Others, on the other hand, does not promote longing for a super-cool era that has passed. Instead, it expresses a ruminative living with loss and longing that nurtures the kind of fellow feeling from which solidarity and renewal can grow.
The inward operators of The Flamethrowers are “China Girls,” office workers whose faces are filmed (usually alongside a color chart) and spliced onto the initial frames of film reels. Though the origin of the name “China Girl” is a bit of a mystery, their purpose is pretty straightforward: film processors used their images to calibrate color densities. In the Paris Review, Kushner says this about fascination with China Girls:
If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.
The China Girl does for film processing what the inward operator does for the analog telephone network. She is the requisite drop of humanity that calibrates machines that carry approximations of humanity. The China Girl highlights the role of anonymous workingwomen in the evolution of American culture. She gives us a new way of looking at what is already at the center of culture (movies). She is a reminder that if we look closely enough at, say, a length of film, we will find women trapped into standards.
Where Kushner’s China Girls represent the objectified women at the center of culture, Spiotta’s inward operators represent the radical possibilities that sound along the periphery. The voices of inward operators decentralize Jelly’s world. They signify its incredible depth and breadth. Most importantly, they carry the promise of intimate connection in a world where the means of connection are about to be encrypted. Unlike Kushner’s framed and fetishized women, Spiotta’s live beyond the reach of the subjugating dream factory. They continue to operate freely, triggering switches at the center of power — Meadow with her movies and Jelly with her phone calls.
And this interest in the radical potential of the periphery comes, I think, from the fact that Dana Spiotta has been living in Upstate New York for quite a while. Unlike such Silent-Generation writers as William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, or Richard Russo, whose novels preserve Upstate village life in the amber of literary realism, Spiotta understands Upstate as the living ground of revolution. It’s home to the Erie Canal, which Spiotta has called “the Internet of the nineteenth century.” It’s ground zero of the Women’s Movement, radical fundamentalist Christianity, and the back-to-the-land movement. It’s where people go change the world, not where they go to escape from it.
Meadow, who fled L.A. for Upstate, is a master dissimulator who avoids being exploited, ignored, or fetishized. She makes jury-prize-winning documentaries that eventually earn her an Errol-Morris-but-in-a-bad-way rep, which spoils her chances at a long career (only one Oscar nod). She winds up living austerely Upstate — think Nicholas Ray circa We Can’t Go Home Again (1973) minus the posse. Her friend Carrie writes empowered-woman rom-coms and pretty much lives happily ever after.
Where Meadow is the alluring, complicated trickster that we hope to find in literary fiction, Jelly is unprecedented, a woman once seduced by a giant, bald, blind-from-birth, alpha phone phreak (Oz) who names her Jelly Doughnut because “she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside.” Where Meadow maintains the magnetism of an edgy art student who only dates sultry, eyelinered boys, Jelly is never not assertively middle-aged, unattractive, and drawn to ugliness. Granted, Spiotta gives Jelly the more fulfilling sex life. But she has to earn it. Her sensuality is in part a result of a meningitis infection that caused her to lose her sight, which increased her interest in smell and sound. (It’s also the illness that brought her and Oz together.) For Jelly, there are no “good” or “bad” smells, only “real” or “cover” ones. “And she wanted everything to smell as it was. Actually. An armpit should smell of sweat and hair and skin.” Her sight eventually recovers, but her interest in feeling around for what is actual never subsides.
Her relationship with Oz is intense, very haptic, very sexual. He teaches her how to whistle the phone into submission. Oz’s favorite thing about phreaking is reaching an electronic switching station, where he can click and whistle at crossbar and Strowger switches. Jelly’s favorite thing, other than reaching an inward operator, is reaching an “open-sleeve circuit,” a kind of proto-chat room:
Their voices hanging in space, listening and laughing and recognizing each other. She was the only — the only — woman who phone phreaked. These were shy, awkward men. They gave her lots of attention, which she enjoyed, but they were never ever nasty.
But her real passion, her art, is listening. After a friend who cleans houses steals some rolodex numbers from a mansion on Mulholland Drive, Jelly starts calling Hollywood players, “not the really famous ones…the names you don’t know.” Developing a language that does for human connection what 2600 Hz whistles do for trunk lines, Jelly triggers the switches of anonymous, powerful men.
With strategically-deployed pauses and vocalizations, circumlocutionary skills that would impress even J.L. Austin, Jelly extracts intimacy from men who are otherwise dead inside. They have money and power, but it’s Hollywood power, which is to say that it’s the kind of empty compensation that leaves a man vulnerable to an anonymous, willing female ear. Jelly is an intimacy hacker, her pauses and “wordlets” keep men confessing not their crimes or dubious morals so much as their genuine impressions of what life feels like — impressions that can be delivered over the telephone.
Spiotta’s characters want to feel the weight of self and find that the best way to do so is to submit to the precarious tissue of intimate connection, connection that is not routed along encrypted networks or filtered through predictive analytics. Desire for such connection is what draws Denise Kranis, protagonist of Stone Arabia (2011), into the kitchen of the stranger whose sad story Denise had followed instead of attending to her own life. Stone Arabia is a novel about how we compensate for failures to connect, about how we craft the covers of our not-real lives.
Innocents and Others is a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance. As is made painfully clear when Meadow coaxes Jelly into the light, direct encounter tends to dissolve what remains of the means of connection. Jelly is all but ruined, China-Girled by Meadow’s movie. This coming together of the novel’s two plots is the least compelling aspect of Innocents and Others. Its nod to narrative unity is forced, but the best part about the nod is how convincingly it suggests that we were all better off talking to each other in the dark.
Reading a novel by Dana Spiotta is a dynamic experience because you’re never quite sure what tiny storytelling miracles it will offer next. The tone might shift, or the story might reveal something wholly unexpected. You might be pushed forward in time, or given sudden intimacy to a character that was held at a distance for so long. Every time I immerse myself in her work, I am reminded what a novel can do. There are no rules for storytelling, only instincts, emotion, and the brainy brain. Spiotta’s latest book, Innocents and Others, is about two female filmmakers, friends since attending high school in L.A., and a third woman who forges her most meaningful relationships over the phone with men she’s never met. How the three women’s lives intersect is one of the book’s little miracles. But there is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary: technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal. The week I was reading Innocents and Others, I kept saying to my husband, “I love Dana Spiotta!” To my new baby I’d sing, “Spiotta! Spiotta!” in a weird squeaky voice. To my four-year-old, I’d say, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.” It’s telling that I, a person who has never loved movies, loved this movie-loving novel.
The Millions: Lately I’ve been interested in books that are readable but also create suspense in non-traditional ways. Innocents and Others fulfills this requirement: the shifts in narration, and the way the pieces fit together, create drama while bypassing the typical cause-and-effect-to-climax formula. In your books there are often a lot of structural surprises, such as a switch in perspective or time frame, or, even, a shift to a different narrative mode, be it a description of a movie scene, or an essay on a website, and so on. I love this! It keeps me from being able to categorize or truly know the narrative until I am finished and can step back and see it as a whole. Do you set out to write a book with these kinds of shifts and disruptions, or are they a byproduct of your process? I also wondered if you bring this point of view to your classes as a writing teacher. What are your thoughts on plot, for instance?
Dana Spiotta: You just gave a very perceptive description of some of my narrative strategies. And I like what you say about not knowing the book until you are finished and can see it as a whole. I do think a lot about structure: structural analogies and the engineering of the book as an integrated object. I think much of the deeper meaning in a novel is created by these kinds of formal decisions. It is one of the things I love about writing novels, truly. In the novels that have stayed with me, when I get to the end I want to go back and read the book all over again. You can only understand a novel’s shape when you reach the ending and see all the connections, the repetitions with variations. The rhythm and juxtapositions. All of that ideally will accumulate and resonate as much as the narrative itself. I don’t know how successful I am at creating meaningful novel shapes, and I am sure my idiosyncratic structures annoy plenty of readers. But I try to be organic about it and let the structure emerge as I work. Then as I revise, I become more deliberate about shaping it for meaning, but I always try to resist too much neatness and symmetry, or easy correlations. It has a lot to do with intuition, and what you find interesting as you are writing, I think. I use this Samuel Beckett quote for my own purposes when I talk to students (and myself) about structure: “The danger lies in the neatness of identifications.”
I don’t focus on plot in particular, but I do focus on character and conflict, though, and that leads to plot complications. And like some other novelists (and filmmakers), I sometimes skip important events and show the aftermath before I show the event. I did it in this novel because it felt right in the moment. And then I kept it in because it created something interesting to me. Dischronology works in a similar way to how cutting between various threads in a novel creates side-to-side momentum, not simply forward momentum. But it should never seem arbitrary, and I am always aware of the risks. One doesn’t want to feel that something is withheld simply to create narrative suspense. You better have some other, deeper reason for doing that. In Innocents and Others, maybe I was more interested in the consequences of actions than in actions themselves. I wanted the action refracted by the fallout from the action.
TM: For a novel that’s largely about film, there aren’t that many straight scenes (as there are in movies). Here, there are first-person essays, descriptions of movies made by the characters, retrospective musings on past relationships, and so on — time is nimble and elastic, and the narrative controls and contorts in a way that feels distinctly (and wonderfully) novelistic. As in: this could only work in a book. And yet, Innocents and Others feels really cinematic: there are distinct details, bright and memorable moments, and they are artful. People say that about your work, right, that it’s cinematic? What does that word mean to you, and to your writing? And what is the difference for you, between the art of film and the art of novels? The similarities?
DS: I do describe some imaginary films in the novel, and within those films dramatic things happen. So I get more conventional scenes and action within the film story as well as in the “real” world of the novel. But they are filtered/framed through something: the consciousness of the viewer or a technological device or some other distortion.
I am not sure what cinematic means when applied to novels. I wanted to play with the grammar of film and visual culture, and I think applying ideas from one medium to another one is a way to discover new ways of making meaning. But I agree with the cliché that the best novels make the worst films. I think that fiction is concerned with language and consciousness in a way that film can’t be. Voice, consciousness — cinema can do a voice over, but it usually feels very performative, too talky, a bit artificial. Private thought, consciousness, is evoked visually: usually an actor’s face, a POV shot, images remembered in a montage. Language play and repetition — the way a word or a sentence or a even just similar syntax separated by 50 pages can make subtle and mysterious connections — that only works in a novel.
I do like to write about the experience of watching. In this book, and in my others, I wanted to explore what it feels like, in the body and mind, when we watch a film (or listen to music, or surf the Internet, etc). How our own subjectivity distorts what we see or how we understand what we see. I am interested in the primacy of visual information. And the deceptiveness of various technological mediations: movies, phones, the Internet, etc. And I am deeply interested in the thingyness of technology — how it shapes us both in body and mind.
TM: Stone Arabia ends with a first-person memory from 1972, and Innocent and Others also ends in an unexpected way, with a scene of someone the reader has only met once: a minor character whom we suddenly get this intense and beautiful access to — and even now, I’m not sure if it’s a filtered representation of her or as “real” as one can get in fiction. My husband said it was like how Don DeLillo’s Americana ends — with a scene that is quite different than what comes before, and is not commented upon or totally explained. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember the last scene in DeLillo’s novel, but my husband’s description was pretty entertaining.) Can you talk about your novel endings (without spoilers, I suppose…?), and how you come to them? How do you want your reader to feel when they finish one of your books?
DS: Your interpretation of and reaction to the end of Innocents and Others is spot on, wonderfully keen about what I was attempting. The ending of a novel is the most important aspect to me. As a reader, I have studied the ends of my favorite novels. The ending has to be of the case but also not predictable. It has to have a satisfying closure for the reader, but it doesn’t have to answer anything or shut it down. Instead it can open up or circle back. For example, my favorite ending is the famous ending of Ulysses. It works on a formal level, a narrative level, and a character level. We get an interior monologue, which is of a piece with but also an escalation of the stream of consciousness we get in the first third of the book. It fits the odyssey organizing principle, so in an important way it is inevitable. At long last we get to be intimate with Molly, someone we have heard about for the entire book, but this is the first time we hear from her mind directly. So on a narrative level we are primed and excited to hear from her. We really want it! She gives us another perspective on her son’s death, on her marriage, on her daughter, on her infidelity, on her body. It builds on the book’s way of seeing things from multiple perspectives. And finally, it ends on a moment of joy and love (that famous “Yes”) but it is a memory of a past moment, so it is poignant and resonates in multiple ways. It has a satisfying closure, a sure beauty, but it also changes how you look at the whole book (and this very particular relationship). So that, I think, is the gold standard of landing a book. Everything put in motion has to pertain. But it still has to swerve and avoid being too neat or schematic.
As for my own work, I try to surprise myself (and my reader) but still be true to the built-up meaning. I try to remember everything that has come before, both in form and content. Often I work by reading over everything that I have written so far before adding to it. When I get to writing the end of the novel, I have read it over and over and over. So it is all in my mind as I write, which I hope gives it the density of accumulated meaning that I strive for. I feel it is necessary to take a risk at the end, to reach beyond the previous borders you have set for yourself, to wild it up a little.
TM: There’s a lot about imagination in Innocents and Others. For instance, the imagined films of young Meadow Mori that don’t exist — and, yet, are there, sparkling in the land of potential. And Jelly, who loves to call men just to talk, muses how meeting one of her phone friends would only lead to disappointment: “the failures of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary.” Of course I want to connect these two. Is art-making like that: is our future, unmade work perfect because it doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t have to face the harshness of the real? What parallels to writing are there here for you, either with Meadow’s filmmaking or Jelly’s phone calls?
DS: I wanted those things (making films or making phone calls) to be very specifically what they are and not a stand in for writing novels. But I think it would be disingenuous to say I don’t share some of the agonies of imagination vs. reality that these characters experience. Perhaps I am interested, broadly, in how people respond to the enormities of the wider world, or even the harsh realities of a local, quiet life. In Eat the Document, the question of how to respond (or answer back, or resist) was political and focused outward, with all the complications and consequences of those actions. In Stone Arabia, Denise tries to overcome her paralysis so she can connect in some way while her brother Nik retreats to his own private world, much like Jelly or Sarah in Innocents and Others. Meadow and Carrie make art. Most responses feel inadequate, failed in some way. And many of the things we attempt we later see as failures and mistakes. But there is something poignant and beautiful in those fractures in your ordinary life, the moments when you realize that you were mistaken or insufficient or what you did had an unintended consequence. The clarifying and humbling experience of shedding your delusions. (At one point, Meadow says she doesn’t mind that she might be a bad person, but she would hate not to know it.) But then what? I’m not so interested in truly “bad” characters. I’m interested in bruised idealists. And the ruptures that make you question yourself, that make you implicate yourself in your own life. These are when people are at their most human, I think. It is about questions, not judgments, and letting people be as complex and contradictory as they genuinely are. And I am curious about what people do after these moments. Especially over time as the days and years go by.
TM: I love the female friendship here between Meadow and Carrie, two very different people and filmmakers. Carrie remarks, “Unlike marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, a friendship could not be discarded.” Man oh man I love this line and I’m not even sure I agree with it! Can you talk about characterizing these two women and their relationship? Also, what do you think about the rise in stories lately about female friendships, be it by Elena Ferrante, or on TV shows like Broad City. Any thoughts on why these stories are capturing us right now? What interests you about this kind of relationship?
DS: You have zeroed in on the quote that captures who Carrie is, and I am not sure I agree with her either. I like writing about non-romantic connections, writing about other kinds of relationships. The ones that endure and hum through our whole lives: siblings, parent-child, and long-held friendships. Maybe because there is no real mechanism for ending them? And because of that, you end up with someone in your life who is very different from you, who made very different choices. I like unconditional love as an idea. There are some friends that if I met them today, we might not become friends because we no longer have a lot in common. If we were married, we would get divorced because we “grew apart.” But I love those kinds of friends — they keep you honest and humble. They remind you of what you used to be and what you used to want. They are a form of memory.
TM: Because The Millions is a book site, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read? And because you are Dana Spiotta, I must ask, What’s the last great movie you saw?
DS: Several come to mind. The Joy Williams collection of essays, Ill Nature, is a radicalizing, provocative book. She argues with true passion and urgency. I found it tremendously persuasive — and, as always with Joy Williams, the sentences are flawless. I also loved The Visiting Privilege, the collected stories of Joy Williams. Her novels have taught me so much about writing, and to go back and read her stories makes you realize how extraordinary her work is, how accomplished and how mysterious. She is in a category of her own creation. Don DeLillo’s Zero K is a compassionate and radiant novel. The questions it asks about death (“Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”) hit me very hard because I have been slowly losing my own father. I love DeLillo’s celebration of the “shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstances,” his wonder at the details of the quotidian every day, and his joy in language and the mystery of words. The intensity of his noticing is epic. Did I mention that it is also funny — the dialogue in the first half is classic funny DeLillo. What else? It has the word “scatterlife” in it. It also has this one-sentence paragraph in it: “The world hum.”
The last great movie I saw was Force of Evil, which was directed by Abraham Polonsky in 1949 and stars John Garfield. Polonsky and Garfield were both blacklisted by HUAC shortly after this film came out. I have seen it many times and recently watched it with a friend who had not seen it. In Polonsky’s view, the system makes it impossible for any man to be good. Everyone in this movie is trapped and money makes it impossible to not be somewhat corrupt. But Polonsky shows us that even within the compromised morality of capitalism, there are moral choices. One can be less corrupt, less craven, or one can be more. The sort-of hero in this story, John Garfield, is a man who honestly admits his greed. He has that, a lack of self-delusion. But the insidious thing, the trap, is that all men must sink to the lowest possible point. The system rewards only the worst behavior. He tries to do one good thing for his brother out of guilt or loyalty. The two of them try to remain human, and they suffer for it. The system will crush everyone, however some will keep their dignity. Plus it has an iconic final scene on the pylons of the George Washington Bridge. But maybe the real greatness lies in the sad and beautiful face of John Garfield.
I’m ending up the year reading two terrific books, Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta and Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. The Spiotta is amazingly well written, rich, funny, learned, linguistically sturdy, and tonally fresh. The book’s intriguing structure is too complicated to go into here, but Spiotta did a wonderful interview on “Fresh Air” that will explain everything, if you’re interested. And you should be. I’ve always loved Sharon Olds’s poetry but her new book has kept me up reading at night. The poems circle around a central trauma, a mid-life divorce, and take the narrator through all the stages of this profound grief. “Poem for the Breasts” was revelatory to me, speaking as it does from a feminine point of view about objects I have given much thought to myself. Like the book as a whole, like Olds’s entire work, the poem is generous, honest, brave, witty, and beautiful, a paean to the delights of heterosexual love.
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