Synopses & Reviews
Dana Spiotta, whom Michiko Kakutani called "wonderfully observant and wonderfully gifted...with an uncanny feel for the absurdities and sadness of contemporary life" (New York Times
), has written a bold and moving novel about a fugitive radical from the 1970s who has lived in hiding for twenty-five years. Eat the Document is a hugely compelling story of activism, sacrifice, and the cost of living a secret.
In the heyday of the 1970s underground, Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker passionate, idealistic, and in love design a series of radical protests against the Vietnam War. When one action goes wrong, the course of their lives is forever changed. The two must erase their past, forge new identities, and never see each other again.
Now it is the 1990s. Mary lives in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son, who spends hours immersed in the music of his mother's generation. She has no idea where Bobby is, whether he is alive or dead.
Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the consequences of those choices in the 1990s, Dana Spiotta deftly explores the connection between the two eras their language, technology, music, and activism. Character-driven and brilliant, Eat the Document is an important and revelatory novel about the culture of rebellion, with particular resonance now.
"Lives in the aftermath of 1970s radicalism form the basis of Spiotta's follow-up to her debut, Lightning Field. We meet Mary Whittaker as she goes underground and tests out a series of new names for herself in a motel room. Flash forward to the 21st century, where Mary, now 'Caroline,' is a single mother whose teenage son, Jason, seems to have inherited her restlessness. (Jason checks into the narrative via his journal entries.) Mary's partner in subversion and in bed was Bobby DeSoto, who, now closing in on 50 and going by the name of Nash, runs a leftist bookstore called Prairie Fire for his friend Henry, a troubled Vietnam vet. The unspoken affection between Henry and Nash and the many nuances of their deep friendship, beautifully rendered by Spiotta, give the book a compelling core. A young woman named Miranda becomes the improbable object of Nash's skittish affection. And when Jason begins to discover bits of his mother's past, Mary begins to resurface with possibly disastrous results. As plot lines entangle, Spiotta tightens the narrative and shortens the chapters, which doesn't really add tension or pace. The result is a very spare set of character studies not well-enough served by the resolution. A near miss." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"With only her second book Dana Spiotta has become, I think, a major American writer. The ironic connections she makes between the cultural divide of the early '70s and late '90s are chilling and delicious. This scary and often brilliant novel comes together beautifully in the end there's an intense satisfaction of seeing everything link up so movingly and with such warmth, and yet Spiotta is the only female writer I know whose prose reminds me of the cool ambient poetry and steely precision of Don DeLillo, and Eat the Document is as darkly exact and thrilling as the political novels of Joan Didion." Bret Easton Ellis
"[A] wealth of detail and scintillating secondary characters, elucidating the vast gulf between the alternative cultures of the '70s and '90s, as well as the elements that bind them. Fiction as documentary, a coruscating, heartrending fable ofstruggle and loss." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] forthright and fascinating look at American counterculture at the end of the 20th century....This work is particularly smart about the ironies and contradictions of the modern protest movement, in which even anarchy can be appropriated and sold by capitalist culture." Library Journal
"I like the way Dana Spiotta tinges reality with a dazzling now-you-see-it, now-you-don't quality. She uses her prose like a strobe light to give you enough of a freeze-frame on what's happening to make you stop and wonder whether you might be implicated in this curious, perhaps dangerous dance." Ann Beattie
"Stunning... A symphonic portrait of three decades of American life." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Using the younger generation's fascination with 1970s pop culture to profound effect, Spiotta succinctly and dramatically sizes up today's chillingly cynical corporate kingdom, where resistance is medicated, appropriated, and commodified." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"[M]editates on what happens when the revolutionary spirit gets funneled into suburbia's cul-de-sacs." Seattle Times
"Eat the Document is fragmentary, smart and beautiful, and it brilliantly contrasts nascent and mature postmodernity through the lens of culture/counterculture." Oregonian
"This terrific novel, which reads like a diary or a thriller, advances wavelike through snapshots, fast forwards and jump-cuts." Chicago Tribune
In this ambitious and powerful novel about a fugitive radical from the 1970s who has lived in hiding for 25 years, Spiotta delivers a hugely compelling story of idealism, passion, and sacrifice, then and now.
In the 1970s, Bobby Desoto and Mary Whittaker -- passionate, idealistic, and in love -- design a series of radical protests against the Vietnam War. When one action goes wrong, the course of their lives is forever changed. The two must erase their past, forge new identities, and never see each other again.
Now it is the 1990s. Mary lives in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son, who spends hours immersed in the music of his mother's generation -- and she has no idea whether Bobby is alive or dead.
An ambitious and powerful story about idealism, passion, and sacrifice, Eat the Document shifts between the underground movement of the 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the1990s. It is a riveting portrait of two eras and one of the most provocative and compelling novels of recent years.
An ambitious and powerful story about idealism, passion, and sacrifice, Eat the Document
shifts between the underground movement of the 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the 1990s.
A National Book Award finalist, Eat the Document is a riveting portrait of two eras and one of the most provocative and compelling novels of recent years.
About the Author
Spiotta grew up in California. She manages a restaurant in New York City.
Reading Group Guide
Group Reading Guide
Eat the Document
If you want to change your life, first change your name.
In the heyday of the 1970s underground, Mary Whittaker and Bobby DeSoto were the quintessential political activists -- in love with each other and their cause. But when a radical protest against the Vietnam War ended in tragedy, they vowed to never see each other again and start anew by changing their names and identities.
Now a fugitive on-the-run, Mary keeps the truth, and the authorities, at bay by altering her image, dying her hair, and never staying too long in one place. Mary reinvents herself as Caroline Sherman, and then takes the name (and social security number) of a dead infant named Louise Barrot. It's now the 1990s, and "Louise" lives with her teenage son Jason in the suburbs of Seattle -- a son she hardly knows but who revels in the music of her day. Jason becomes suspect of his mother's strange ways, and with the power of technology, he puts together the pieces of her secret past.
Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the consequences of those choices in the 1990s, Eat the Document is an unflinching examination of the polarities -- from rebellion and subculture to advertising and trends -- that can define a generation.
Questions for Discussion
- One of the prominent themes in Eat the Document is that of identity. For Mary Whittaker, "her identity was more habit and will than anything more intrinsic" (10). Who do you think the "real" Mary is and how did she manage to convince herself and others of her made-up existence?
- The relationship between Nash and Miranda, as well as the one between Louise and her son Jason, define cultural gaps. Explain the differences and why you think they are important to the story.
- Jason claims that he is, "the center of the culture . . . I am fifteen, white, middle class and male . . . People get paid a lot of money to think of how to get to me and mine" (123). Cite instances where advertising and merchandising try to imitate the youth culture, but instead miss the mark. How did advertising's hidden agenda cause the demise of Henry? Discuss why defacing or destroying billboards is portrayed as an act against corporate hegemony.
- Where in the story does Jason play a parental role to his mother Louise? Despite her overprotective nature when her son was born, do you think Louise is a "good" mother? Why do you think she hid her secret from him for so many years?
- Jason describes suburbia as a "freak's dreamworld" (73). What does the sterility of suburban life provide for those like Josh who thrive within this environment? Why is the notorious, disorderly Black House "pure post-suburban paradise for a girl like Miranda" (57) and her housemates? What is so appealing about city life for these otherwise sheltered kids?
- After being sexually assaulted and trying to erase the incident from her memory, Caroline claims that "time lessens everything -- the good things you desperately want to remember, and the awful things you need to forget" (195). Is this statement true for other characters? How does Caroline's penchant for moving and redefining her memories compare to Nash's preference to staying in one place and letting fate run its course?
- "A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. . . . Both allow groups of people to act in concert but without consequence" (238). Compare the women's commune in upstate New York to the corporate giant Allegecom's "First Self-sustaining Techtopia in America," Alphadelphia. Discuss the ways in which these two communities can be seen as social experiments.
- How do you think Nash views the young para-activist groups who call themselves the testers? How do these technologically savvy, often self-righteous teens of the nineties compare to the political activists of the seventies?
- Miranda soon discovers that everything from anarchist clothing accessories to franchised alternative communities is a commodity. What happens when the subculture becomes the mainstream? Do you think capitalism and mass consumption devalue the political ideals behind the products?
- One difference between Mary and Bobby is that she is an activist at heart, and he is more of an idealist. Do you think Mary influenced Bobby to orchestrate the war protest? Was she ultimately the driving force behind their plan?
- When Bobby and Mary meet again as Louise and Nash, do you think their love has survived? What is the fate of their relationship?
- Do you think Louise will actually turn herself in? If so, why do you think she would after twenty-five years of hiding?
Enhance Your Book Club
The title Eat the Document comes from a documentary about Bob Dylan's 1966 tour. Watch this documentary together and discuss why you think this is an appropriate title for Dana Spiotta's novel.
Take action! Go to www.speakout.com to get information about animal rights, race relations, and other topics. You can also take part in virtual debates, online polls and surveys, and write to elected officials. Or visit www.volunteermatch.org to find volunteer opportunities in your area.
Move your book club meeting place to an independent bookstore near you like Prairie Fire, and for fun coffee drinks you can make at home, visit www.epicurious.com.