The idea of merging art and life tends to come dusted in the glitter of romance. An artist elevates the quotidian by importing fantastical elements into our mundane world or surrenders their ego to an outsize character of their own design.
Dana Spiotta’s fourth novel, Innocents and Others, begins with one such romantic tale: the documentary filmmaker Meadow Mori dreamily recounts her teenage affair with an unnamed famous director who seems easily identifiable as Orson Welles. More precisely, she writes the story, in a personal essay presented as though it has been reprinted, complete with comments, from a website called Women and Film. Meadow presents this brief cohabitation as the inevitable outcome of her obsession with his work, and it’s unclear throughout where her narrative falls on the continuum from fact to fantasy. “I have always been attracted to afterlives, codas, postscripts, discursive asides, and especially misdirection,” she writes in one parenthetical aside. “Note this.” Disoriented by a direction that has just been flagged as potential misdirection, the reader (playing audience to Meadow and her online audience) is hypnotized into obeying… and then gets so wrapped up in the story as to be caught off-guard anyway, by the final comment that follows the piece, which proclaims it’s “calling BS on this whole essay.”
What follows, though, is a more expansive view of the intersection between art and life than anything that can be found in the stories Meadow calls her “fabules.” In touring the limitless overlap between what we think of as our authentic selves and the supposedly external things those selves create, Spiotta remains stubbornly, necessarily unsatisfied by romantic notions. Instead, she constructs a scenario where every life is a work of art — which is not to say something beautiful or precious, but something constructed.
At the center of Innocents and Others are three characters: two filmmakers — Meadow and her childhood friend Carrie Wexler — and another woman who is known for most of the book by two names, both pseudonyms: Jelly and Nicole. Meadow, the novel’s biggest personality, is brilliant, rich, independent, and enchantingly androgynous. She makes artful documentaries, in styles that (variously) bring to mind Andy Warhol, Errol Morris, and Joshua Oppenheimer. Carrie, who falls under Meadow’s spell as a young teenager, is more conventional; her movies are mainstream comedies about women, she is not beautiful, she eventually becomes a wife and mother. And Jelly (a character partially inspired by the real story of Miranda Grosvenor) is a sort of amateur con artist of love, phoning powerful Hollywood men from her home in Syracuse and capturing their imaginations with her soothing voice and knack for listening.
It’s not clear at first what Jelly’s marginal and secluded life might have to do with Meadow and Carrie, growing up in ’80s California and then moving to New York (Carrie to the city and NYU, Meadow upstate to her own makeshift studio) to start making films. But by the time Spiotta brings their storylines together, the thematic connections have already solidified. And in fact, though the book’s interlaced stories progress largely in chronological order and each plot builds in its own way, its most captivating trajectory is a philosophical one.
When it comes to ideas, Spiotta has always operated on an astounding number of levels at once; as in her most recent novel, Stone Arabia, and her best before this one, Eat the Document, she can juggle metaphors and inquiries large and small without ever neglecting her characters or losing narrative momentum. Innocents and Others accomplishes a feat like depicting both female friendships and friendships between artists, in all their complexity, through nothing more than a series of quiet moments scattered across its 275 pages. A passage from Carrie and Meadow’s young-adult days: “Meadow was building an idea about something, and she liked to think through talking. Once Carrie understood that, she didn’t feel condescended to. She instead felt a pleasing intimacy with Meadow and her great brain. Carrie knew how to be friends with Meadow.” Later, when Meadow sees Carrie’s first feature and finds herself unable to enjoy it: “What was wrong with her? Why was she like this, so ungenerous?”
A level deeper, Spiotta is asking questions about arts literal and figurative, from film to conversation. She is cataloging the varieties of sound and vision that exist, and thinking about the power they can have over us, separately and when they’re combined, as well as what it means to watch and listen. Here, she produces some of the greatest arts criticism I’ve ever read, filtered through the characters’ consciousnesses. “A film is an idea about the world,” Spiotta writes. “Meadow thought of it like that, but she also knew that people can know something and visual images will override anything they know.” Meadow and Carrie’s readings of movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Věra Chytilová’s Daisies are sublime. But even Jelly (who we’re told briefly studied film during an abortive attempt to major in — what else? — Communications) has insight to offer, questioning the whole value of consuming art just to “formulate a response” to it.
The core obsession of Innocents and Others — though “core” is deceptive, because really, this is the idea that encompasses all the novel’s various characters and moments and documents — is this argument that a person is a work of artifice. In her films, Meadow tries to get at the complicated human truth of situations that look monstrous from the outside (the Kent State shooting, the Dirty War). She thinks of herself as a self-aware artist, and that clear-eyed stance is central to her identity, but there are parts of her own personality that she’s entirely blind to. Jelly, perhaps surprisingly, has the more sophisticated understanding of the delineations between her own self and the false identity she’s constructed. Carrie is the down-to-earth foil to both of these fabulists, giving life and work equal weight, and keeping them apart.
“These characters are just extreme versions of ordinary human self-switching,” Spiotta said in one recent interview, where she also explained that she identifies with every person in the novel, including the minor male characters. And the author does seem to be both the first and the last doll in this matryoshka — embodying Meadow’s restless intelligence and Jelly’s natural insight and Carrie’s facility at giving the audience precisely the story they need to swallow thoughts that might stretch their brains, building and then peeling away the layers of artifice from characters driven by the compulsion to build and peel away artifice. Innocents and Others is the partially deconstructed but entirely whole story of people who build and destroy beautiful stories.