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Don't Steal This Book, Read It

The author of a novel about Vietnam-era radicals says you have to understand the '60s to make sense of the mess we're in today.
 
 
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Dana Spiotta's new novel, " Eat the Document," is a gripping read from the get-go. In the early 1970s, a young woman, Mary Whitakker, sits on a motel bed in a strange town, trying to pick a new name. Nothing in her life has prepared her to be an outlaw, but that's what she's become. No name fits quite like her real one.

An anti-war action Mary planned with her lover, Bobby Desoto, went wrong, forcing them to separate and go underground. Both have to forge new identities and somehow put the past behind them. The question is, even if it's possible to move on and become someone new, was it worth it? Spiotta, to her credit, doesn't provide an easy answer.

By the mid-90s, Mary lives in suburbia with her teenage son, Jason, a loner obsessed with the Beach Boys. Ultimately, Jason's interest in the music of his mother's youth provides the key with which he unlocks her secret. Bobby, meanwhile, runs a left-wing bookstore in the Northwest, a local anarchist haunt. Among the regulars is Miranda, a young woman whose political awakening and romantic attraction to Bobby are perfectly wrought. The thing is, she's also attracted to Josh, a technologically gifted troublemaker whose ideals are put to the test when corporate America makes him an offer he can't refuse.

Spiotta does a fantastic job reflecting various subcultures and their respective milieus: Vietnam-era protesters, feminist communards, underground filmmakers, record geeks, computer hackers and Black Bloc types. She propels the reader through past and present, deftly switching eras and perspectives. Best of all, "Eat the Document" overflows with observations astute enough to be unsettling: "People with real freedom never do really 'free' things, like reinvent themselves, leave lives behind, change everything," Mary muses. "Only trapped, desperate people did that." Over the course of the book, identities are invented and shed, and ideologies are adopted and reconsidered.

"Eat the Document" ia a profoundly human book, full of contradiction, conflict and even hope, however tempered. And that seems to be just what the author intended.

Spiotta, whose first novel "Lightning Field" (Scribner, 2001) was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, lives in a small town called Cherry Valley in central New York with her husband and daughter. When she isn't writing, they run a small country restaurant, the Rose & Kettle, on the ground floor of their home.

ASTRA TAYLOR: A couple of years ago I read two novels inspired by '60s/'70s militants: "The Company You Keep" by Neil Gordon and "American Woman" by Susan Choi. Did you read these books? It's interesting that you are all post-Baby Boom authors.

DANA SPIOTTA: I didn't read these books. I started writing "Eat the Document" in 2000. I heard about the books you mention long after I began my book and purposefully didn't read them. I also didn't read Christopher Sorrentino's book, "Trance." I didn't read "The Darling," by Russell Banks. I didn't want their books to influence my book. I'm sure they are all interesting novels.

I am not sure the age of the novelists is important. I think the idea of a political fugitive is hard for a novelist to resist. I can't speak for the others, but I guess I think so many '60s and '70s fugitives surfacing in the last 10 years captured the attention of writers. I think for me understanding what happened in the U.S. in the early '70s has relevancy and importance. The issues of that era, the tail end of the Vietnam War, the social changes, have not been resolved or processed in the U.S. Not only is it interesting to me in terms of what dissent means in our culture, but also because the woman's movement, the environmental movement and various issues of technology all came into focus starting then.

TAYLOR: There seems to be a renewed interest in the era's militancy. In addition to the novels I mentioned, there are also two documentaries that have reached pretty big audiences: "Weather Underground" and "Guerilla," about the SLA. Any thoughts on why this period seems compelling and pertinent now?

SPIOTTA: I do think/hope the American scene has reached a breaking point. The environment has finally become a panic issue for mainstream Americans. There is widespread distrust of the administration, which everyone compares to Nixon. An intractable war. Of course this administration is much worse than Nixon on social issues. There are clearly important differences between that time and this one. It is interesting as a starting point, though. If you don't understand the dynamics of that era, the current situation isn't really legible, I think.

TAYLOR: When and how did you first get inspired to write "Eat the Document"? Have you been interested in the history of underground movements, or political radicalism, for a long time, or was it a recent obsession?

SPIOTTA: I read about Katherine Power getting out of jail. I kept thinking about her. I was interested in what the social context was for her actions. What would make a morally driven young woman do what she did (participate in an armed bank robbery)? And how did it work in the aftermath, in the everyday? When you can't do overtly political action underground for fear of getting caught? Do you despair? Do you become a different person? Do you cease to believe in your old life? Is that survival? And do we all do that to a certain extent anyway as we age and make concessions? I had a lot of questions, I still do. I write about things that I can't quite figure out. I write to discover things.

I have always been fascinated by American counterculture. From 19th-century Christian Socialists to Eugene Debs and Wobblies to '70s Whole-Earth-Catalog tech hippies. I think there is a great American tradition of resistance and rebellion. I refuse to relinquish that legacy to the nationalism and homogenization of the -- what are they calling it now? -- the "long war." It is important, I think, to be aware of all the alternative efforts in American history, to not reinvent the wheel every generation. We need to look at previous generations' attempts at rebellions without cliché or nostalgia.

TAYLOR: To what degree do reality and fiction overlap in your book? How much historical research did you do? And did you do any anthropological research? Did you observe anarchists or music nerds in their natural habitats?

SPIOTTA: I did go to meetings and interviewed some people. I subscribed to some listservs. I read a lot, saw a lot of documentaries. I looked at old magazines. I listened to music. Watched old TV at the Museum of TV and Radio. And I made stuff up.

TAYLOR: Do you have any direct personal history or relationship with the sort of social movements you write about in "Eat the Document"?

SPIOTTA: Sort of. I lived in Seattle in 1987 to 1993. I was active in various groups. I went to a lot of protests. I lived in a ratty and wonderful group house much like the one I describe in the book. I never had the stomach for any actions that broke the law or were too radical. I was doing electoral politics and signing petitions. I was not supercreative or brave in my activism. But I paid attention to the people who were and thought about it a lot. What to do with your dissatisfaction. How to avoid becoming one of those compromised adults. How to hold on to my outrage and idealism. Because the terms of the world seemed tremendously unfair, and I felt there were consequences to not doing something about that. But it is of course tricky to know what to do. And to not become boring or shrill about it. To not fall into cliché.

TAYLOR: So, do you relate to your character Miranda? She takes a sort of skeptical position, always questioning the activists around her and their methods, someone on the sidelines who can't participate because nothing quite lives up to their ideals.

SPIOTTA: I think she's an idealist. She's young and feels very passionate about what she sees as wrong with the world. Her tolerance for compromise is low. However, she has her own contradictions which she rationalizes. As we all do. She will learn to be less judgmental, I think, but still retain her clear vision of what her moral duty is. I do relate to her a little. I don't think of her as not an activist. I think of her as a beginner.

TAYLOR: And did you figure out how to avoid becoming one of those compromised adults? Can you hold on to your outrage and idealism and be a successful writer, run a business, raise a child?

SPIOTTA: I have to live with many compromises. I think part of growing up is realizing you can't do everything you want in exactly the way you want it. You have to compromise with the rest of the world. But that doesn't mean you don't try your best to stay engaged with your youthful ideals. Mostly you have to compromise with the limited time you have. That's unavoidable. I try to put my daughter first in most of my decisions. Certainly part of that means taking care of the world she will have to inhabit. And setting a good example for her about how to behave and how to treat other people.

As for holding on to my outrage, it only becomes easier. The current administration could turn the most milquetoast moderate into a radical.

TAYLOR: Is there a moral to the story in your mind? As I read it, the novel has a pretty ambiguous ending.

SPIOTTA: I think a novel has to express some ambiguity. It isn't a polemic. It is an authentic interrogation of the human heart, ideally, which is beautiful but full of sadness, contradiction and ambiguity. There are few places in the culture where things are allowed to be complex and contradictory. The novel is one of those places, I think. That is what makes it a truly subversive medium. It goes against the shallow, reductionist, simplistic tendency in the culture.

Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her first book, "Shadow Of the Sixties," is forthcoming from the New Press in 2007.