If you enter the theater of this novel, get set to weather some disorientation as soon as the lights dim. Dana Spiotta’s “Innocents and Others” seems, at first, full of weird tricks, jump-cuts and pretentious posings — and it is — but stay in your seat and pay attention. Soon enough, all her literary chicanery comes into focus, creating a brilliant split-screen view of women working within and without the world of Hollywood.
This is a story about filmmakers and the illusions they shape in the service of some version of truth. Appropriately enough, the novel opens with a convincing lie: Meadow Mori, now known to the world as an avant-garde documentarian, recalls her teenage affair with Orson Welles in the final months of his life. “He did not want anyone to know about us,” Meadow writes on the Women & Film website, “because he felt it would be misunderstood.”
It doesn’t hurt that Meadow shares the last name of Welles’s third and final wife. But online commenters — you know how they can be — append their snarky judgments, picking at inconsistencies in Meadow’s life story, calling out omissions and disclosing features of her actual biography. It’s an immensely clever illusion, dismantling one story while suggesting another, tossing off details that don’t seem relevant — yet. Welles would be proud.
Before we can understand that tragic, but apparently fictional bit of Hollywood lore, Spiotta draws us back to the moment when Meadow meets her best friend, Carrie Wexler (the nod to Haskell Wexler is just one of the novel’s innumerable allusions to cinematic history). As teenagers in Los Angeles, Meadow and Carrie start mimicking their favorite auteurs with Super 8 cameras, talking about everyone from Alice Guy-Blaché to Kubrick. Meadow films hours of train tracks; Carrie prefers slapstick. They bond over “reenactments of silent films lost or destroyed.” Their after-school project sounds like a migraine in celluloid: “They double-exposed the film and made slow-moving ghosts of themselves. They used a filter to render everything a pale lavender. There was a feeling that something good could be happening.” That feeling came to me, too — eventually — as these chapters provide an illuminating vision of creative geniuses developing their craft almost entirely on their own.
Without any explanation from Spiotta, the story of these precocious filmmakers is spliced between scenes of an ever slippier character. Jelly, as she’s sometimes known, works at a call center, and in her spare time she’s part of a cadre of phone hackers “united in the high of subverting Ma Bell.” Her boyfriend, who is blind, can whistle perfectly pitched tones that unlock the international telecommunications system. He pursues grand designs for radical political protest, but Jelly, who is slowly recovering her eyesight after a illness, would rather leave these wired felonies behind. “Jelly’s vivid and detailed daydreams were almost as good as real life,” Spiotta writes, “like an edited, highlighted version of real life in which she saw herself in a soft, flattering glow.” Years later, she begins calling filmmaking executives anonymously and drawing them into long-distance relationships — not for money or extortion, just for the sense of intimacy she can’t find in real life. This isn’t phone sex so much as phone love.
Fans of Spiotta’s previous novel, “Stone Arabia” (2011), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, will recognize the author’s confident disregard of continuity. “Innocents and Others” develops a plot, but only erratically. Among chapters of conventional narration, Spiotta presents the transcript of an eight-hour interview. There are lists, descriptions of editing sessions, a filmography, online essays. Whatever the novel needs, it confidently shifts to embrace. Any summary is bound to lay a heavy hand on this jumbled structure, the way peculiar characters and strange events are introduced only to be identified and tied together in surprising ways much later. I wouldn’t blame you for assuming the book contains more reels of weirdness than you’re willing to sit through. But, honestly, while the novel’s form is promiscuous, its moral dimensions feel vast. Once Spiotta has her disparate storylines in motion, they resonate with each other in ways you can’t stop thinking about.
For instance, long before there’s any connection between Jelly and Meadow, Spiotta implies that both of them are manipulating different elements of perception: Jelly uses her disembodied voice on the phone to reimagine her body and influence a man’s emotions; Meadow manages images flickering in the dark to shape moments of history. Each woman, so different in stature and prestige, is attempting to control her own world while remaining essentially invisible. And each will ultimately find that a limiting and disenchanting endeavor.
The story’s real heart, though, is the tenacious relationship between Meadow and Carrie, the serious documentarian and the Hollywood hitmaker. Working in the tight space of this relatively slim novel, Spiotta explores the remarkable species of sisterhood that survives jealousy and disappointment and even years of neglect. The tension between artistic purity and commercial popularity may tax their affection, but nothing can blot out their shared history, their abiding devotion, the great wonder that is a true friend.
Toward the end, Meadow considers how to create a “glimpse of the sublime.” Considering the limits of her medium, she asks herself, “Can an image convey something unnameable, impossible, invisible?” The quiet miracle of this novel is that it does just that.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
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By Dana Spiotta
Scribner. 278 pp. $25