Dana Spiotta

Eat the Document

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Eat the Document Summary

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Dana Spiotta’s second novel, Eat the Document, is a work of realistic fiction that tells the story of two Vietnam-era leftist radicals who go into hiding after a bombing they’ve orchestrated goes wrong. Mary Whittaker, now going by Louise Barrot, and her former partner, Bobby, are middle-aged and trying to find peace despite the web of lies they’ve created to remain hidden from the authorities. Featuring narratives from Bobby’s best friend, Henry, and Louise’s son, Jason, the characters deal with the timeless struggle of reinventing themselves and the loneliness that comes from trying to erase the past.

Mary Whittaker decides to go underground after a Vietnam war protest goes awry, proving fatal, not for the target, but for his innocent housekeeper. In leaving her old life, Mary is also leaving behind her family, her lover, Bobby DeSoto, and her own identity. Trained by other radicals to take on a new identity if the need arises, Mary and Bobby go their separate ways, taking on new names in order to remain free, only to find decades later that their reinvention comes with its own traumas and tribulations.

Spiotta’s novel moves between eras, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Mary, now going by Louise Barrot, tries to hide in a new life as a suburban single mother with a fifteen-year-old son, Jason, who is obsessed with the music of his mother’s generation. The novel not only frequently changes time periods but also narrators – parts of the story are told by Mary, others by Jason, and some by Bobby, who now goes by Nash and runs an independent alternative bookstore; daily, he is inundated with reminders of the stark differences between the activism of his day and the new activism of the 1990s. The novel is both psychological and historical, exploring the trajectory of activists who have grown into new lives and the psychological impact of living incognito for so long that a new identity becomes more real than the old one.

Many conflicts shape this novel – Mary is chronically lonely, feeling that her new life has left her isolated, unable to share her most significant memories and experiences with the people she feels closest to, including her son. As the novel progresses, she considers turning herself in to the authorities in an effort to find herself again, despite her initial belief that she could erase her history if she worked hard enough at embodying her new persona.

Meanwhile, Jason is trying to figure out his mother’s secrets. She has spent his entire life evading his questions about her childhood and her parents, telling him sugarcoated and vague stories that never seemed particularly real to him. Then Jason finds out that his mother was in an underground video and that she had met one of the Beach Boys, Jason’s favorite band. He is confused why she never told him about this part of her life and begins his own investigation into his mother’s past, where he begins to uncover pieces of her secret identity and the circumstances that lead her where she is today.

Other characters drop into the story, too – Bobby’s (now Nash’s) friend Henry, who owns the bookstore that Bobby manages, tells his own story of Vietnam, with flashbacks full of napalm and jungle rain. He struggles in his own way with his identity and the past, as well as the way the past recurs, physically and mentally for him, through strange dreams of the war despite his status as a 4F during the draft and his inability to join the fighting. Other characters, like Bobby’s new romantic fixation, Miranda, are struggling to shake off an old identity. Miranda wants to leave the suburbs but can’t manage to find her way out, in this way representing a piece of Bobby and Mary from the decades before they reinvented themselves.

Though critics caution that the book seems fragmented at moments because of the changes in narrator and time period, Spiotta is working with timeless themes in Eat the Document, offering an interesting and nuanced take on a historical period through the eyes of many characters who experienced it, and now are recalling it, in their own unique ways. At its core, the book is about the self, what it is made of, and how and if it can be shifted, altered, or shed altogether.

Eat the Document was a National Book Award finalist and won the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her previous novel, Lightning Field, was a New York Times Notable Book, and she has received a number of awards and grants for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize in Literature. Her most recent book is Innocents and Others, which follows two long-time friends and filmmakers in Los Angeles who have wildly different philosophical views on what should be included on film.