MAY 22, 2016
A friend remarked on Facebook recently that he couldn’t understand “anyone whose voice doesn’t have at least a trace of shame when they’re having a cell phone conversation in public.” I gave the comment a heart emoticon: I agree; I know both that outward scorn for others and that personal shame at my own voice on the phone. In Dana Spiotta’s new novel Innocents and Others, that shame takes on different sounds and shapes as miscommunications reverberate through interlocking stories of friendship and love.
Spiotta’s previous novels, Lightning Field, Eat the Document, and Stone Arabia, each reward multiple rereadings; they seem to be totally different novels each time I read them, because they expose the ways that our sense of the past changes with new information and contexts — thus, the books themselves seem to change over time. Innocents and Others takes up this question of returning to a work of art to see its new elements. One of the main characters, Meadow Mori, is an experimental filmmaker who is devoted to film history. As a teenager in late 1970s Los Angeles, she tries to catch rare revivals and convinces her best friend Carrie to see Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves at the Nuart instead of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Carrie is glad to see the film (they get high and watch Monty Python afterward as a compromise) and joins Meadow in her early experiments in remaking and reimagining lost silent films by Alice Guy-Blaché, playing with old cameras and record players to recreate — but also reinvent — the past.
They both become filmmakers. Carrie makes popular women’s pictures and mentors young female filmmakers. Meadow continues to pay homage to and reorient experimental documentary filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, whose 12-hour interview Portrait of Jason (eventually cut down to 102 minutes) inspires her to try filming her boyfriend for eight hours straight as he drinks whiskey and confesses his vulnerabilities. His early confessions of womanizing are too easy, she tells him: “you need to stop all this pretty wound stuff.” His voice has too much boasting and not enough shame. Yet increasingly drunk and unnerved by her insistence that he’s being more charming than vulnerable, he begins to confess real moments of shame. The next day, he is less sure about his raw performance, but she is mesmerized by her ability to control his voice and affect through her subtle yet sharp direction. Buoyed by critical praise for her directness, Meadow begins making more films with nonactors, pressed into confronting vulnerable moments of confusion, regret, and shame on camera: “If this entailed a certain amount of distress, so be it.”
Each section of Innocents and Others iterates a version of this distress about making art. The novel begins with an essay Meadow has written about her teenage affair with Orson Welles at the end of his life, yet her narrative teems with gestures at implausibility and factual mistakes. According to the essay, the affair begins when teenage Meadow sends the actor a copy of her high school senior project: “A Response to My Favorite Filmmaker’s Response to Watching City Lights Multiple Times (From Emulation to Extravagance).” Yet when Welles invites her over for lunch, he first reminds her that his experiment was about watching Stagecoach. “I felt my face get hot,” she reports. “Had I misread that? It didn’t seem possible that I could have made such a mistake.” The unreliable narrator flags the clues to her own inventions — the essay begins to feel like a cross between True Confessions magazine and Welles’s own F for Fake. Minutes later, she relates how Welles butters a roll and tells her that he didn’t really watch the movie 20 times — it was “a little story.” With Welles’s storytelling in mind, Meadow lies to her parents about her plans to make movies, spinning an elaborate tale of specific plans, all appropriated from other filmmakers’ grandiose projects:
A lie of invention, a lie about yourself, should not be called a lie. It needs a different word. It is maybe a fabule, a kind of wish-story, something almost true, a mist of the possible where nothing was yet there. With elements both stolen and invented — which is to say, invented. And it has to feel more dream than lie as you speak it. I could see it ribbon from my head like an image in a zoetrope.
Meadow’s essay is refuted and discussed at different points in the novel; she spins out her curiosity about misrepresentations and unreliabilities into different reels of her career.
The markers of digital content appear in the “reprint” of the fictional essay, composed for a web site called Women and Film: qualines, related links, bolded invitations to click here, and comments. As Spiotta has rendered this digital document, Meadow’s fabule of her affair with Welles has 866 comments. They shame her when they believe the story: “This is so disgusting.” “Is it just me, or is this a straight-up star-fucking/sleep your way up story? Yay, feminism. Not.” They shame her for making it up — as always, even in fiction, internet comments are a cesspool. There’s even spam: “Even I didn’t believe it until I saw this with my own eyes! Work from home and make $1050 a week doing easy transcription and data entry. Go to www.workfromhome.com and stop struggling.”
Spiotta’s novel is a kind of theory of miscommunication and shame across these different communications media, from film to digital content. The spam comment is actually resonant, for the third character in the novel is a mysterious woman who works at a call center in the 1970s and then from her home later on — though she never stops struggling. She is Jelly/Nicole/Amy, a lonely woman who finds her best identity as a voice over the phone. Fascinated by phones, she gets her start as a phreaker and later finds her way into the Rolodexes of famous Hollywood men, calling and offering to listen to them in a way that others cannot. (In the acknowledgments, Spiotta notes that the story is inspired by the real-life story of Miranda Grosvenor.) Jelly’s private phone voice is her only voice, her only identity without shame; even as she discusses private, intimate details with these men about their insecurities, fears, and doubts, she cannot reveal her own shame at her life, preferring to be a kind of blank slate to them. “She rarely used ‘uh,’ but it was an important wordish sound that introduced a powerful unconscious transaction,” Spiotta writes in Jelly’s voice. “Used correctly, not as a habit or a rhythmic tic, it invited another to complete the sentence. An intricate conjoining, it was an opening without content, just the pull of syntax and the human need to complete.”
One of Jelly’s conversationalists, who writes sound cues and scores for films, falls in love with her over the phone as he plays her his compositions and discusses his anxieties about his job. Yet she cannot bear to reveal herself to him in person, wishing that they could maintain the telephonic fantasy in which he’s filled in the gap between her voice and her physical self with his desires. She worries that what lies in that gap is actually just shame at who she really is.
When Meadow hears the legend of Jelly’s phone calls to these Hollywood men, she tracks her down to make a film about her deceptions, thinking that she’s flattering the woman by comparing them. “We are alike,” she tells her. “You know how to read people. You are an inventor, a story conjurer.” Meadow sees her fabules as a zoetrope; Jelly hears her phone conversations as pure sound with ambiguous content. There’s even a striking moment when she’s disconcerted by a bird’s song, because it reminds her subconsciously of the phone phreakers’ whistles used to confuse the telephone system into routing calls for free: “The ring of another person’s phone sounded so hopeful, and then it grew lonelier. It lost possibility, and you could almost see the sound in an empty house.” Yet two fabulists cannot meet without some conflict — their tones, miscommunications, and fundamentally, their sources of shame, overlap in dissonant ways. Meadow’s film, called Inward Operator, changes them both.
It’s the middle character, Carrie, who makes sense of these conflicts, for she is most conventionally in touch with her shame. She feels it in her family growing up, so she looks up to Meadow, who always seems more in control and more sure of her tastes and interests. She feels it in her marriage and in her early filmmaking career as Meadow looks down on her popular romantic comedies. In Carrie’s own Women and Film retrospective essay about her own filmmaking career, she discusses her childhood love for TV sitcoms — while she’s at first self-deprecating in pointing out that she knew that Three’s Company or The Love Boat weren’t quality television shows, she uses that mild anxiety about middlebrow taste to access deeper feelings of shame:
I watched those shows and I would laugh, and the sound would surprise me and sound so different from the constant laughter on the TV speaker. It made me stop, self-conscious for a second, my own real laughter coming out of my mouth with the dusty haze of sun coming in streams through the drapes in the midst of my afternoon solitude. It is the only time I felt lonely, when I wished I had a little brother to catch the eye of and see if he was laughing too. There is some weird dynamic that happens when people laugh — like a usually suppressed secret about the silliness of the world is being blurted out, and you need someone to share it with you. You need someone to hear your laughter for it to work right.
It’s a little detail, but Spiotta renders the facsimile digital metadata on Carrie’s retrospective differently. The “comments are closed” on Carrie’s essay; she has fewer shields and feints on her own vulnerability, and she seems to seek connections outward to others. Meadow receives nasty comments about her sensational fabule, which she has overstuffed with film references and stylistic deflections. All three female characters are highly attuned to those spaces of communication that get filled in by others — pauses in conversations, space in front of the expectant camera, internet comments sections. Finally, there are spaces of unstable expectations of relationships that change over time, as patterns of shame, betrayal, and forgiveness iterate and take new sounds and shapes. They need someone to hear in new ways.
Overhearing one-sided cell phone conversations is more infuriating than eavesdropping on face-to-face conversations, because we try to fill in the blanks in our heads, even when we don’t want to listen. Spiotta’s novel made me think about the shame I both hear and project when I eavesdrop (unwillingly) on my neighbors or people sitting near me at the café. How else can I fill in the blanks?