Thursday, February 7, 2013

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

It is easy for a life to become unblessed.
Opening to
Eat the Document
by Dana Spiotta
Midway through Dana Spiotta's excellent novel Eat the Document, I began to notice the science fiction like nature of alternative communities.  Ms. Spiotta's novel features an ensemble cast of characters who are all trying to create an alternative community to live their lives in.  Some create actual communities, a lesbian commune in the Alabama woods.  Others create communities within communities, an alternative bookstore in Seattle, a free spirited squat  for society's drop outs in the same city.  Two go too far in their attempt and end up killing an innocent bystander, the result of a bombing gone very wrong.

All of them try, to some extent, to create their own version of utopia. Some succeed quite well for a while, too, but along with their visionary lifestyle, almost hand-in-hand with it, is a paranoia, a sense that it could all come to an end if not protected with vigilance.

Ms. Spiotta's would-be-utopians are all leftists, to call them liberal would be too mild a term.  They are the flip-side of Margaret Atwood's dystopian vision in The Handmaid's Tale.  While Ms. Atwood shows one version of what might happen should the far right take over a nation, Ms. Spiotta shows us how those on the far left attempt to live out their version of utopia in our midst.

Eat the Document focuses on the lives of two activists responsible for the death of an innocent woman killed in their one failed attempt to stop the Vietnam war through violent action.  Afterwards the two go on the run, living underground and apart from each other for the next 20 years.  They take on new identities, push their past into oblivion, and face an uncertain future.  One becomes a housewife, living a quiet suburban life but unable to be truly honest with anyone ever again, not her new husband, nor her son, who both end up viewing her as an unknown, a stranger.  The other opens a radical bookstore, keeps his new identity but basically refuses to hide who he really is otherwise.  He lives his life on his own terms in the full knowledge that one day the authorities will catch up with him as he hides in plain sight.

This all sounds very much like science fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick to me.

While it may sound like one should read Eat the Document for the plot, and there certainly is a lot of plot in the novel, it's not the events of the characters lives that make for good reading in Ms. Spiotta's novel.  Ms. Spiotta doesn't really seam very concerned with what happened or with what will happen.  She gives us enough events to keep the reader in the loop, but she never really builds much in the way of narrative tension in Eat the Document.  She tells us only what we need to know, not what we need to keep turning the pages.

Instead , this is the sort of book you read to spend time with the characters.  While they are not a group of people I would spent much time with in real life, I found myself very interested in the their lives as I read Eat the Document.  I enjoyed spending time with them, came to care for them even if I disagreed with them.  It's my belief that the characters in  a very well written book are as real as people you have actually known but haven't spoken to in more than a decade.  That's the case with Eat the Document.  While I don't know the characters in the book, I really hope things work out for them all.   

1 comment:

Trisha said...

I'm quite the fan of character-driven books. Honestly though I may have to read this one just for the title. It really tickles my funny bone for some reason.