Going to America

Feels strange that I’m flying to the US tomorrow as I sit here glued to live feeds from Hurricane Sandy. I’m due to arrive in Dallas on Wednesday afternoon, then fly straight to Atlanta. But it probably depends how far inland/south the storm comes. I’m a bit worried as I’m due at a conference at the University of West Georgia, in Carrollton, by Thursday evening. I’m also going to in NYC on Saturday, but with the volume of flights they’ve had to cancel, I wouldn’t be surprised if that one gets delayed.

I’ve never been to New York, and I hope when I get there it’s still intact… I’m feeling for all the people on the east coast, particularly those who may be separated from loved ones. Must be pretty damn scary.

The conference I’m going to is called Systems of Control/Modes of Resistance, and I’m giving a paper called: ‘”All can be and will be commodified”: bottom-up resistance and corporate incorporation in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document‘. Eat the Document is set in two eras—the 1970s and the 1990s—and there is a comparison between the way the characters in each era protest or resist corporate power. I argue that while the actions of the ‘radical’ protesters in the 1970s may have failed, the small, peaceful movements of the 1990s characters often only confirm, or conform to, the systems of power in a market-based society. I think the novel is pretty pessimistic, overall, about our ability to resist a culture that readily incorporates, pre-empts and commodifies resistance, but there is one character who remains hopeful, so she provides a contrast. It’s a great read, by the way, I highly encourage you to pick it up (my 2008 review is not very well written, but gives you more an idea of the story). I’m finally going to read Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, too, on the plane over (see James Bradley’s review of that one here).

And that gives you a bit of an idea of what I’m writing about in my thesis, too, something I’ve rarely talked about on LiteraryMinded. I guess because until now (where I have a complete draft of my novel and a very rough draft of my exegesis) I was very much still in a process of ‘working out’. There is also the case that in the academic world, you have to present original ideas to the examiners, so you can’t go spilling them out willy-nilly. When I’m finished, though, I do hope to write some more accessible-style essays for non-academic publications, on the subjects I’ve been looking at. And I’ll write more about the whole process of doing a DCA, here on the blog, when I’m finished in March.

I’m looking forward to the conference, not just listening to the papers (which all sound fascinating), but the Southern accents! And I look forward to eating some grits and drinking sloe gin. I’m sure I’ll have internet here and there, so I’ll send you a missive. I’m back in Aus on the 13th of November.

Dana Spiotta – Interview

See my review of Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta, Picador, 2008, 9780330448291 (Aus, US)
What was the initial inspiration for Eat the Document?
I met Alger Hiss’ widow, Isabel Johnson. And I wondered about her marriage. If you were a spy, would you tell your wife? What would it be like to have a secret that lasts your whole life? How would the day to day feel, in very quotidian terms? Then I started reading about Lori Berenson, the woman who went to jail in Peru for helping the Tupac Amaru. I was interested in middle class American kids who were willing to lose everything for a cause. Those were the two early inspirations.

One thing I have come across is that many in my generation (Gen Y) write about, or are highly interested in the ’60s and ’70s (my own manuscript is set in 1970). I found this phenomenon echoed by Jason and his nostalgic musical interests. In my review I suggest ‘His interests could be symbolic for a generational nostalgia for an era that seemed to be more packed with emotion, action and participation.’ What do you think?

I think the cultural and political issues of late ’60s/early ’70s have not yet been resolved. We are still reeling, wondering what happened. In the US, you can see we keep fighting over all of it every election year. It was an unusually powerful cultural moment.

Even though many characters share the space, they all have great dimensionality. Besides Jason, I found Nash and Henry very engaging. Were any characters difficult to write? And did you feel any sense of loss once the novel was done?

It is always fascinating to hear which characters people liked or disliked. Readers seemed to have very strong (positive and negative) reactions to these characters. I did have a sense of loss when I finished, but I also had a sense of relief.

What would you hope a younger audience might get out of the novel (besides the fact that it’s a fantastic read)? What about those readers who were around in the protest era?

I hope younger people and older people think past the cliches of the ’60s/’70s. And I hope rebellion and protest are contemplated as part of a long and constant thread. I hope people see both the difficulty and the necessity of acts of resistance.

I mention in the review the ‘inescapable contradictions and complexities of consumerism’. There are things like the contradictory drug company, the ‘Allegecom’ community, and the ‘alternative’ shopping mall – all too familiar. Do you think it is difficult for youth in this environment (western consumer society) to be as ‘active’ as their parents’ generation was?

Absolutely. One of the things I was interested in was how the current cultural conditions make activism more difficult. Meaning in general is compromised. Yes, I think this has to do with corporate hegemony.

For those interested in reading more of your work, can you tell us a little about your first novel Lightning Field, and anything else you might be working on?

Lightning Field is about the language of consumerism. It is about Los Angeles and alienation. Adultery and loneliness. It is a very funny book.

Who are some writers you admire, and why?

Of living writers, the big ones are DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Joy Williams, Bret Easton Ellis, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan. So many others as well. I like funny, dark, unsentimental writers. I like writers with gorgeous, original sentences and I like writers with some real heart.
Of past writers, I love Joyce and Faulkner. Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger. And Nabokov.
Author image by Jessica Marx (New York Times). Thanks to Dana Spiotta. 

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

Picador, 2008, 9780330448291 (Aus, US)

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.