Mary sits in a dingy motel room in 1972 trying to figure out who she’s going to be. It is difficult to choose a name. She needs to be faceless, to blend. She needs to appear bland, harmless. No that she had meant to do any harm. In 1998 Jason plays his bootleg version of the Beach Boys Smile over and over again. His Mum sips wine spritzers all night. He is both annoyed and intrigued by her quiet existence. Nash’s bookstore ‘Prairie Fire’ sells subversive texts which unfortunately only encourage young shoplifters. Miranda is new to the city, attending meetings at the bookshop, living in the alternative ‘Black House’ with glam-goth Sissy.
The story swings between 70s America with Mary on the run; either blending in as a waitress or on the edges in hippie communes and safehouses; and America on the verge of the millennium. The difference between these eras is in the actions of the youth – between action at all. Dana Spiotta has the 90s youth certainly dissenting and disaffected, but so ingrained in material culture they hardly realise they are doing nothing. The strength of the novel lies in the horrid and sad questioning of whether that earlier generation, too, failed. While they may have acted, now; like the character Henry who quietly tears down billboards; they are reduced to vague half-hearted attempts at transgression that ultimately have no point or effect.
Nash continues to live a low-key existence without even a telephone. But he knows his transgression has slackened and that the kids that organise movements or actions at his store meetings are possibly just looking for an outlet to combat cultural vacuity and emptiness. They connect for their common (and often constructed) anarchic sensibilities.
Jason is a fascinating character. A 15 year old with anger, fire, intelligence. He captures postmodern alienation, complex in the way that youth also deliberately cut themselves physically off in a room with music and a computer.
‘I should feel proud. By the mere fact of my youth, I am entitled to so much power. I feel the world spinning around me, the NASDAQ, the Dow, every index and indicator, the focus group, the cool hunters, the yearn forecasters-everything… Worse than ever I feel singular, freakish, alone.’
He is obsessed with nostalgic music, getting deep into the details with the reader. His interests could be symbolic for a generational nostalgia for an era that seemed to be more packed with emotion, action and participation.
The chapters are paced perfectly and have brilliant titles like ‘Agit Pop’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Ergonomica’ and ‘Speck in the Cosmos’. There are pointers toward the inescapable contradictions and complexities of consumerism throughout the novel – a drug company that used to manufacture napalm (and now treats Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a shopping mall filled with ‘alternative’ shops, a corporation ‘Allegecom’, who create green-seeming communities. Much of this hints at the hegemonic aspects of consumerism, as following on from political hegemony in an earlier era. And attempts at heterogeneity are failures – the commodification of anarchy, the youth conforming to particular ideologies. Nash’s observations of the dissenting youth are often so incredibly apt:
‘They all seemed to be either sensitive-girl doughy or about to disappear. He couldn’t quite read that yet – what that whip-thin look meant to these kids. Was it cultural capitulation or rebellion against being a body in general? Against needing to consume at all?’
Eat the Document had me enthralled. It is engaging, dignified, brilliant. No moments feel contrived. There is no message forced upon the reader but a series of characters in a completely defined reality, echoing our own. It is edgy, involved and tightly written.
See also my interview with Dana Spiotta.