Dana Spiotta’s “Innocents and Others’’ is a wonderfully obsessive novel about friends, filmmakers, and frauds — not, as far as Spiotta’s concerned, that there’s much of difference.
This description makes the book sound like Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust’’ or Bruce Wagner’s “I’m Losing You,’’ two terrifically cynical novels about Hollywood heartlessness. But it doesn’t really resemble those novels, nor does it resemble the kind of movies made by one its three protagonists, Carrie Wexler, who “liked the idea of taking a genre — say the high school film — and doing a really interesting version of it. Not breaking the form, but pushing it in subtle ways.”
It more closely resembles the edgy documentaries made by another of its protagonists (and Carrie’s best friend), Meadow Mori, who ends her film about the shootings at Kent State University by “show[ing] a repetition of the crying Guardsman . . . Meadow knew this was a fake ending, but it was a fake ending that admitted its fakeness instead of hiding it.” But it would be wrong to call Spiotta’s novel (her fourth) a fake, in any sense; better to say that it shows how a good amount of fraudulence is often required to make something genuine.
Take, for instance, the novel’s opening, which is in the form of Meadow’s on-line essay about her affair with the almost-dead filmmaker Orson Welles. It is a bravura opening in which Meadow watches Chaplin’s “City Lights’’ 20 times in a row (because she believes Welles had done the same thing when first learning to make movies — he hadn’t) and then hilariously documents her experience of each viewing. (“Viewing 20: Done.”) Meadow also describes Welles and in doing so gives us a clear sense of why people are always comparing Spiotta to our bard of hubris and dread, Don DeLillo: (“[Welles] sounds like the voice of America, of a confident, glistening, win-soaked America, full of possibility and ambition and verve . . . everyone loves to hear that voice. It makes them think, Oh yes, weren’t we.” Eventually we come to learn that none of this ever happened. Meadow has made the whole thing up. This — to begin a novel with such a convincing fake document — is a considerable risk.
But then, this novel of (the sometimes strained) ties that bind, ambition, and loss is full of risks. It is risky to tell a story through a nonlinear patchwork of narrative, with its video transcripts, film journal articles, and other odd bits interspersed. It is risky to spend so much time describing movies (it’s always a risk to write about things that are made to be seen). It is risky to have one of your three main characters (Jelly, a resident of upstate New York, who spends most of her time on the phone fooling media executive types) seem, for much of the novel, to have no connection with the other two main characters. And it’s risky to make Meadow appear, at times, ruthless as she moves to a dying upstate New York town to make documentaries. Meadow is brilliant, but her brilliance usually depends on the on-camera self-destruction of her subjects and often comes at the expense of her friendship with Carrie, whose movies, and life, are more conventional and ostensibly successful than Meadow’s.
Spiotta’s risks do pay off, though, and this is how and why: because her characters are so self-conscious about the perils and joys of friendship and filmmaking and about understanding how the stories one sees on the screen come to influence — and at times, infect — the story one tells to, and about, oneself. Life imitates art — we’ve been told this so many times that it must be true. But it is noted much less often that before life can imitate art, art has to imitate art. I know of no other novel so obsessed with dramatizing this truth, no other novel whose tensest moments (and “Innocents and Others’’ is full of tense moments) occur when an artist is desperately trying to figure out how to steal from someone else’s film to make her own.
There might be a reason for this: As Meadow points out, the art made out of this might be “more interesting to make than to watch.” But for me, “Innocents and Others’’ is riveting, mostly because it is so committed to honoring its own degraded materials. Carrie herself suggests something about this book’s power in a piece about her friend: “I will close with what Meadow once told me about being an artist. It is partly a confidence game. And partly magic. But to make something you also need to be a gleaner. What is a gleaner? Well, it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants. Not just unusual ideas or things. You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards.”
INNOCENTS AND OTHERS
By Dana Spiotta
Scribner, 279 pp., $25
Brock Clarke’s sixth book, the novel “The Happiest People in the World,’’ is now out in paperback.