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Eat the Document

Preposterously, I can't begin to write about Dana Spiotta's powerful novel without knowing how old she is. She'd have to be my age, or at least well over fifty, to have been around in the early Seventies, when the novel's principal characters engage in radical violence that forces them to go underground. But she doesn't look that old, and one would have to ask where she has been all this time. Her first novel, Lightning Field, appeared in 2001 (I look forward to reading it soon). According to her site, she runs a restaurant with her husband in the ground floor of their home, somewhere upstate. She's almost as mysterious as her ecoterrorists.

Perhaps I ought to begin by saying that I read Eat the Document in one day. I was pulled along by the brilliantly-crafted story lines even as I was fascinated by the brilliant craft. I was impressed by the author's ability to cue readers to significant connections before she spells them out; it's very flattering to the reader. The writing, for the most part, is hushed, tuned to remote disturbances. This is the flatness of the slab of cliff. The suspense is moral: Eat the Document is harrowing, haunted by an act of violence that is not described until the end of the novel is within view. On top of everything else, there is the ammonia-stab of a very confused time.

The novel opens in a motel room in 1972. Mary is on the run; the run, for her, has just started. As if it were too bright to look back upon, the event from which she is running is hidden, but we can make out the corona of violence in Mary's terrified aftershock. She expects (not unreasonably) policemen to barge into her room at any moment. She passes several days thinking up a new identity and altering her appearance. She thinks a lot about her lover and co-conspirator, Bobby.

She sat on the edge of the bed, atop a beige chenille bedspread with frays and loose threads, in her terry-cloth bathrobe, which she'd somehow thought to buy when she got her other supplies earlier in the afternoon. She had imagined a bath as bringing some relief, and the sink into the robe afterward seemed important. She did just that, soaked in the tub after wiping it clean. Eyes trained on the open door of the bathroom, and careful not to splash, she strained to determine the origins of every sound she heard. She shaved her legs and scrubbed her hands with a small nailbrush, also purchased that day. She flossed her teeth and brushed her tongue with her new toothbrush. She tended to the usual grooming details with unusual attention: she knew instinctively that these details were very closely tied to keeping her sanity, or her wits, anyway. Otherwise she could just freeze up, on the floor, in her dirty jeans, drooling and sobbing until they came and got her. Dirt was linked to inertia. Cleanliness, particularly personal cleanliness, was an assertion against madness. It was a declaration of control. You might be in the midst of chaos, terrified, but the ritual of your self-tending radiated from you and protected you. That was where Mary figured a lot of people got it wrong. Slovenliness might be rebellious, but it was never liberating. In fact, she felt certain that slovenly and sloppy attention to personal hygiene surrendered you to everything outside you, all the things not of you trying to get it.

The problem is that there are things inside Mary that she will have to get rid of. Her name, for one thing. Her family. Her past. It is never hard for her to establish herself in a new place, because she's a skilled short-order cook, but inevitably she forms a friendship, and being Caroline instead of Mary becomes unbearable. The novel tracks Mary's pilgrimage to an established, alternative identity. In Los Angeles, she takes the name of a dead infant, Louise Barrot, and even finds a man who loves her. Against this trajectory of success, however, Mary is drying up inside. Turning herself in begins to appeal to her.

In between chapters about Mary/Caroline/Louise, Ms Spiotta unwinds several narrative threads from the recent past. The first of these is "Jason's Diary." Jason is a precocious fifteen year-old who lives with his mom - whom we're prepared right away to recognize as Mary, even though we've just left her concocting a new identity in the motel room. Jason is a music freak, with a special interest in the Beach Boys. His crushes on rock bands of the Sixties will turn out to pivot the novel.

Then there is Nash, a grave but not humorless used-bookseller in Seattle. We're told a few things about his past, which is inexplicably wounded. Nash has a friend (and benefactor) in Henry, an ailing fifty-something who has very bad dreams. At the bookstore, Nash "guides" young people about resistance to the prevailing capitalist culture. Miranda Diaz is a sharp high-school graduate who has moved into town from the suburbs and taken a room at The Black House, a squat for anarchists and environmentalists.

The funky scene in downtown Seattle, circa 1998 reminded me of the funky scene in Montrose thirty years ago, with the exception of the idealism, entirely missing now. It's as though kids still yearn to be idealistic but have been very convincingly warned against it. Certainly large corporations have replaced the government as the target for youthful unrest, but the reach of mass culture, always co-opted by said corporations, muffles resistance. Miranda begins to notice something about Nash's activist groups. They never take action - ever. Nash seems to have contrived a manner of letting everyone blow off steam at planning meetings.

There is one unsuccessful thread of plot in Eat the Document; it concerns a very interesting character who fizzles out. Josh, who went to the same high school as Miranda, only a few years before, is a trim hacker with a "narc vibe." One expects him to wreak some profoundly disruptive havoc on Allegecom, a giant pharma with grandiose ambitions in gated-community development (and Ms Spiotta's only inventive miscalculation). Instead, he appears to be co-opted. His relationship with Miranda slows things down considerably and to no purpose that I could make out. It's clear from the start that she's much more taken with the saintly Nash.

Everything comes to an end both neatly and quickly. Closing the book, I thought back to the days of - what? a handful of violent acts (including a bank-truck robbery) in which high-minded young people achieved less than nothing through acts of terrorism. Perhaps they did achieve something: they contributed evidence in support of the theory that terrorism is effective only against foreign military occupation (and not always then). I remembered thinking in those long-gone days that in case the Revolution really did come, I'd be one of the first folks to be lined up against the wall. Curiously, I felt just like Mary when it came to hygiene. What bothered me most about the counterculturalists who kept me supplied with acid was their slovenliness. It rarely became them. At the same time, however, a critical, ongoing inquiry into the structure of society was launched. This what people who say they hate the Sixties hate about the Sixties. I didn't like the Sixties much myself, but I am doing my best to foster that inquiry now. Just don't expect me to blow anything up.

She shook her head.

"It's amazing," he said.

"It sounds amazing. Most of the time it was just everyday. Except no experience was ever one hundred percent what it was. There was always this extra thing, this underlying doom.

When he finished he sat down across from her. She took her pipe out and started to smoke. She held it out to him, and he ignored her offer.

"It was something, though, what you did. You had guts, really. I never would have guessed," he said.

"It was a huge miscalculation. A huge mistake."

(March 2006)

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