Radical Consequences: A Limbo Life, Underground

She was Mary once, then Freya, Caroline now, and soon she will be Louise. She has every reason to believe

She was Mary once, then Freya, Caroline now, and soon she will be Louise. She has every reason to believe that the anonymous security agencies of her nation are busy trying to find her and take her away. That would involve removal, a kind of oblivion—but, oddly enough, that’s been her aim in life already for over 20 years: She’s done her best to cancel out her own existence.

Discovery will come from the person who surely has the most right to know her: her teenage son Jason, a bright kid and, therefore, much at a loss as he comes of age. “My mother is a stranger,” he’s realized. “And she is strange. I am not sure at all what she thinks or feels about anything. And it’s funny because she should be wondering about me, not the other way around. I should be thinking about rock-and-roll and girls and drugs. Not why she gets so fuzzy and confused sometimes.”

This is the set-up for Dana Spiotta’s brilliant and haunting second novel, Eat the Document, the essential secret of which has to be admitted if one is to make any sense in a review. The story has been drastically shaped by Ms. Spiotta (and there may be arguments over whether she’s always followed the best strategies) in a riveting first chapter where Mary Whittaker is about to go underground. The time is 1972, and Mary and her radical colleague and lover, Bobby DeSoto, are going their separate ways into lives as vague and ungraspable as mist.

“[A]s Caroline she could put these two irrefutable facts together, plain and woman. It meant she could move somewhere new and go to the store or apply for a job and people wouldn’t feel threatened or aroused. She knew she could go unnoticed. She could not recall her own face if she wasn’t staring in a mirror. This smeary obscurity that had caused her pain her whole life became an asset now, her anonymity her saving attribute. Her looks had finally found their perfect context as a fugitive. Born to it by being chronically forgettable. (Which was also part of how she got in this position in the first place. Walking slowly, half smile on her face, clutching an innocuous purse, or a package, or a suitcase. Would anyone bother to stop such a person?)”

Mary and Bobby had designed a series of protests against the Vietnam War. We even see Mary begging entrance at the home of industrialists, and leaving a bomb in their bathroom. We’re left to gather that someone died because of it in those days when over 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam (to say nothing of the locals who proved the efficacy of all the research and development on napalm and Agent Orange). Bobby is a romantic figure, a kind of Godardian filmmaker and a true lover; Mary is glimpsed sometimes in still pictures from the age of Nixon, or heard laughing in a fragment of movie, a wondrous, lovely figure. And that silent opening—Mary in a motel room, dyeing her hair and committing her new identity to heart—is as compelling as the start of a great movie in which we watch a real person becoming an actress and a show of herself.

I can imagine Ms. Spiotta exulting at this opening, and then relishing the time, later on, when she can be Jason, the smart kid, putting two and two, as well as x and y, together to fathom his mother’s odd indecisiveness. I can even imagine her being tempted to make the book just Jason and his baffled failure to relate to his mother—is that just because he’s an adolescent, or because of his mother’s self-imposed caution, her inability to be her old self? That would need a tour de force, as well as some cunning plotting as Jason begins to piece together the jigsaw of the past with more recent discoveries.

Between 1972 and 1998 (which is when we meet Jason), but decisively before 2001, Eat the Document elects to take two other paths—surveying the low-level radical climate of the late 90’s in the Pacific Northwest, and giving a sketch of how Mary made her journey from one life to the next. Alas, these are less interesting than Mary and Jason warily together, and I’m not sure that the first, lengthy excursion into the lives of smaller characters named Henry, Nash and Miranda won’t put off some readers gripped by the book’s opening. Still, in this story there are several things that need to be revealed, and if you’re as smart as Jason, you’ll pick up on the clue I’ve already dropped in your lap. The revelation, when it comes, is not unpredictable, but it has a satisfying tingle of closure.

The other point to make about this book is that its quite sharp appreciation for the decline in young American radicalism since the days of 1972 is rather muffled by the decision not to come up to date. The question as to why young people are no longer as disturbed as their parents were 35 years ago is one of the subtler causes for sorrow in our present plight, and a sign maybe that our peril now—our risk of losing America—is far greater than it was in a time of mere dirty tricks.

I can see why a novelist might shy from these complications. Still, what’s most arresting about this novel—and I recommend it thoroughly—is the limbo condition of the mother and the troubled response of her son. Against that pressure, the lives of many of Ms. Spiotta’s supporting characters seem fairly inconsequential. In other words, this is one of those very accomplished novels that a ruthless and discerning screenplay might make better still—a challenging portrait of a mother and a son, and a withering comparison of two types of anger and the America that provoked them. (Remade as a novel, that work may need a Conrad, and Ms. Spiotta is not quite there yet.)

Never mind—this is a novel prepared to grapple with modern history and able to see how the great decline of our society has picked up pace and may be unstoppable. It’s a book that digs into our memories of recent history, knowing when Beach Boys harmonies shifted from sweet to sinister—and as you take a break from the pages, you could do worse than look at some Godard and listen to the great medley of music that runs through it, as liquid and unforgettable as napalm.

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. His next book, Nicole Kidman, will be published in the fall.

Radical Consequences:  A Limbo Life, Underground