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Review: Dana Spiotta's 'Innocents and Others' a dazzling tale of identity

Seeing might not be believing.

In Dana Spiotta's dazzling new novel, Innocents and Others, movies play a starring role. But they are just one form of storytelling examined in this smart and fascinating book, a hall of mirrors full of shifting identities so intriguing it's hard to look away.

Spiotta's 2011 novel, Stone Arabia, was a virtuoso tale of identity, creation and obsession, and she plays another skillful variation on those themes in Innocents and Others.

Its first chapter is an online essay by a young woman, told in first person and present tense: "This is a love story." As a movie-obsessed high school student in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Meadow Mori tells us, she becomes interested in a famous filmmaker and does a project that involves watching his best-known movie 20 times and recording her reactions. Then she writes him a letter, which leads to that romance. Indeed, she lies to her parents, ditches her first year of college and moves in with him, spending almost all her time with him — until, after about a year, he dies.

Although she never names him, her lover is clearly Orson Welles, the genius behind (and in the front and center of) Citizen Kane, that iconic movie about how identity is created and manipulated.

Or is he? Was Welles really Meadow's unlikely lover and mentor, or just the inspiration for her own self-invention? Or is it as simple as that binary question?

Two of the book's three main characters are filmmakers. Meadow and Carrie Wexler meet when they are students at the artsy Wake School. Meadow is a rich girl (by Beverly Hills standards), a punky beauty with far more self-confidence than the average teenager. Carrie is a scholarship student, a little schlubby and a lot less privileged.

Their shared obsession with film leads to an intense and productive friendship, but one fraught almost from its inception with questions about how to tell stories — and whose stories to believe. Carrie calls Meadow's relationship with Welles "a fabule, a kind of wish-story, something almost true, a mist of the possible where nothing was yet there."

But Carrie is a storyteller, too. Both friends go on to forge careers as filmmakers. Carrie's movies are successful yet thoughtful comedies with a feminist slant; Meadow's are well-received, increasingly harrowing documentaries whose focus comes to be confession.

One of Meadow's most successful films, Kent State: Recovered, uses interviews with participants to re-create the deaths of four student war protesters, shot by National Guard soldiers on an Ohio campus in May 1970. One after another, the interviews suggest the presence of a provocateur, an undercover FBI agent, who set the tragedy in motion. Meadow sets out to track him down — with unexpected results.

Although Meadow regards Carrie's commercial success with barely concealed scorn, Carrie remains loyal to her friend, even when the confessions Meadow chases so relentlessly begin to go awry. Confession is storytelling, after all, and the confessor shapes his story just as the filmmaker shapes hers, deciding what to emphasize and, often crucially, what to leave out. And, as Meadow learns, there are some confessions we simply can't bear to hear.

The third main character in Innocents and Others is a woman called Jelly. Her story begins even farther back, in the 1970s, when as a young woman she suddenly loses her eyesight due to a case of meningitis. In a therapy group she meets a man called Oz, who has been blind since birth. Their relationship will lead her into the underground of phone phreaking, a predecessor of computer hacking that involved using sound to manipulate the phone system for everything from free long distance and prank calls to espionage.

Amy, who "was called Jelly Doughnut because Oz said she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside," regains her eyesight and loses Oz, but the telephone remains her medium. From her home in upstate New York, she begins a series of phone-only relationships with men who work in show business in California — not the really famous ones, but men who work in music or movies.

Jelly's carefully created phone self — who has yet another name, Nicole — is seductive (although this isn't phone sex) and supportive, and inevitably the men want to meet her. "When I am on the telephone I am beautiful," she tells us, but she cuts off each relationship before vision can enter the picture.

For much of the book, Jelly's relationship to Meadow and Carrie remains mysterious, and her story is told in sections set off from their plot. But as the novel moves toward the present we learn how the women will affect one another, and how their encounters will reverberate into the future.

Spiotta keeps us always eager for the next twist, and her characters are both believable and freshly original. Their lives also give her a path to explore the art of narrative that is her own medium.

We see Carrie, for example, contrasting her own desire to create movies that are the best possible entertainment with Meadow's view of "film as a record of a filmmaker's feat. The making of the film as art, and the film itself as merely an artifact of that artistic act, not the art itself."

Then there is Meadow thinking about not only how we shape stories but how stories shape us, as she recalls a Stanley Kubrick movie she saw as a kid: "When she watched Barry Lyndon at seventeen it was terrible. But at nineteen it was beautiful. That is the thing about films. They don't change. You change. ... (The film) stays there waiting for you to come back to it, and it shows you who you are now, each time a little different."

Through successes and disasters, light and shadow, Spiotta tracks Meadow, Carrie and Jelly, illuminating their changes in this story about storytelling, beautifully told.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Innocents and Others

By Dana Spiotta

Scribner, 279 pages, $25

Review: Dana Spiotta's 'Innocents and Others' a dazzling tale of identity 03/24/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2016 10:19am]
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