Top Shelf in March: INNOCENTS AND OTHERS by Dana Spiotta

While its cover hints at its sensuality, don’t let the flowered sheets mislead you—Innocents and Others is a bold novel of subversive characters and eccentric technologies. Beginning in 1980s L.A., it follows Meadow and Carrie, best friends who grow up to be successful filmmakers (of very different varieties), and one of their sad and seductive subjects. Through episodes that include phone-phreaking, proto-catfishing, and a possible affair with Orson Welles, Spiotta uses the language and history of cinema for an exploration of sight and sound, reality and illusion.

Meadow grows up in a lavish Bel Air home amid an enormous collection of books and records. Carrie, with divorced parents and a working mom, spends much of her time alone, a child of “TV and Tab”. She’s delighted that when she and Meadow develop a friendship it involves making home movies instead of watching television.

While they spend many years submersed in their art form together—screening challenging films at Meadow’s home, hitting arthouse theaters, moving from a Super 8 to 16mm—those early differences manifest in their artistic sensibilities. Having saturated herself in what she knew was awful TV (think Good Times and Three’s Company), Carrie approaches mainstream culture with a sense of irony, creating meaning by both embracing and subverting it through comedy. Meadow, on the other hand, wants to challenge everything, including the idea of what film is or should be. She finds her place in documentary film making where she exerts a manipulative power over her subjects, positioning them in ways they often aren’t aware of until it’s too late.

Intermittently, the narrative of Carrie and Meadow breaks and the surreal and intense world of Meadow’s subject Jelly emerges. Older and mysterious, Jelly has a profoundly intimate understanding of voice. She’s erotic without being explicitly sexual, and spends much of her time seducing powerful men via cold calling. Her unique relationship to the telephone developed during her time submerged in the subculture of phreaking, an early form of hacking that involved using tones to reroute phone systems, allowing listeners to connect around the world for free.

There is something both provocative and endearing about technology in Spiotta’s book. I was captivated by her vision of it as something with the power to evoke emotion, and she is intensely aware of what happens in our minds and bodies when we interact with it. Spiotta’s focus is often on sensation and immediate environments—what her characters are seeing and hearing. It’s appropriate, then, that she puts a cinematic lense on things. I loved how often her writing wandered into descriptions of films. (I kept a running list of must-see titles, like Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves and Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7.)

Reading Spiotta’s work is often an overwhelming experience, much like watching a movie. When discussing why her work isn’t as well known as it should be, the New York Times said it may have to do with “its deep and uncategorizable ambition: Her books are simultaneously vast and local, exploring great American themes (self-invention, historical amnesia) within idiosyncratic worlds (phone phreaks, ’80s Los Angeles adolescence).” With this in mind, in addition to my list of films, I’ll be moving on to Spiotta’s other critically-acclaimed works, Stone Arabia and Eat the Document.

~Kaitlyn, BookPeople Digital Media Coordinator

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