Review: Innocents and Others

Novel by Dana Spiotta
Review by Bradley Babendir
Issue No. 12 – June 2016

Innocents and Others, the new novel by Dana Spiotta, is a marvelous book. Beautiful prose and an experimental tilt pair well with her nuanced and affectionate portrayals of fascinating characters. Crafting a work as emotionally engaging as this is, within itself, a massive and difficult undertaking that few authors are capable of. And yet, that accomplishment can feel somewhat secondary to the more intellectual work that Spiotta does through the course of the novel, finding a way to wrap compelling and difficult questions in a delectable package.

The core of this book is the relationship between Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler, two filmmakers who have been friends since high school. Tension pours out of this relationship at every turn, as they lose track of what binds them and focus instead, on what divides. No force is more powerful in pulling them apart than their artistic differences. Meadow has dedicated her career to making difficult documentaries that expose the ugliest sides of people. Carrie has dedicated her career to making reliable popcorn fodder. Predictably, Meadow finds what Carrie does to be a waste of time. From the other side, Carrie thinks Meadow is being a bad friend and, to be blunt, a bit of a dick. For all the conflict, though, these women still care very deeply about one another, and some of the most beautiful moments in the book come when that friendship shines through.

Despite, or maybe because of, their lasting affection for one another, the ideological friction between them is what powers the book’s intellectual engine. In objective ways, society has deemed each of their filmographies to be of value. Meadow wins prestigious awards while Carrie does well at the box office. The charge is never that Carrie lacks the talent necessary to produce something on a more robust level, only that she chooses not to, which is arguably a much greater sin. So, the reader is forced to consider throughout the book what the virtue of each of these choices are, and if one is truly better than the other. To the literary fiction-consuming public, the choice probably feels, at least on a gut-level, obvious. The suffering artist is the moral artist, and the one who makes money might not be an artist at all. Spiotta, though, refuses to concede to either point, and instead lets both women prosecute their cases effectively.

Of the two positions, Meadow’s undergoes significantly more scrutiny— perhaps because it is the one readers of her work are more likely to take. The documentary which draws the most criticism is very similar to the real The Act of Killing. In the novel, Meadow makes a film about Argentina’s Dirty War, intending to focus on the victims before becoming fascinated by the perpetrators instead. Her humanization of people deemed monstrous by society draws heaps of negative attention. The opposition to her project is easily understandable, but it raises questions, too. Is it wrong for a story to give nuance to terrible acts? Or does forcing viewers to confront the perpetrators’ humanity only make them seem more monstrous in the end? If Spiotta has a theory, she won’t let on what it is. Readers are left to decide for themselves.

Perhaps the most pressing question Spiotta won’t answer comes in the novel’s enticing opening sequence, formatted as a personal essay written by Meadow for a website called Women and Film. She chronicles the beginning of her career, starting in high school. For a final project, she decides to watch City Lights twenty times in a row because, at some point, Meadow had read that Orson Welles claimed to have done the same thing in order to learn how to be a filmmaker. Predictably, she finds the exercise to mostly pointless. Later, she learns that the claim Welles actually made was that he watched Stagecoach twenty times in a row, but that watching Stagecoach wouldn’t have been a more useful project because when Welles said that, he was lying. The chapter closes with a series of internet comments that range from insightful to hateful. Before the reader learns much about the art Meadow makes, Spiotta makes them ask themselves: can Meadow be trusted? Can anyone?

Beyond the novel’s curiosity and heart lies an incredible kind of flexibility. The aforementioned blog post is the first in a series of different structural approaches. The changes in style are seamless and digestible, as well as a testament to Spiotta’s skill as a writer. Each divergence is carried out with precision and grace; deliberate, but not heavy-handed. Even if it were less than spectacular in other aspects, the power of her prose might be enough to carry the book to the end. Thankfully, though, this is not the case.

To conclude that the brilliance of Spiotta’s Innocents and Others lies in her characters or her ideas or her prose would be reductive. This novel is instead a complete achievement, impressive in its breadth and depth. It is an incredibly enjoyable read. It is a damn good book.

Innocents and Others
Dana Spiotta
288 pages, $17.14

Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Collapsar, the Los Angeles Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Bookslut and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Emerson College and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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