In Dana Spiotta’s five novels—she publishes metronomically, once every five years—the principal characters bump restlessly against the liberal comforts they have either aspired to or been cocooned in since birth. Restaurateurs and documentary filmmakers fret about how to be good people, though not in such lofty terms. They toss money to the homeless, then hurry shamefully to their cars; they wonder about the ethical ways to consume news and raise children. They are doggedly self-conscious and only occasionally self-aware, usually wrestling adulthood to something like a draw.
Spiotta’s latest, Wayward, is very much in this vein. Imagine if A Doll’s House were written about people who took a freshman seminar on A Doll’s House. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Sam, a woman in her 50s, moves out of the suburban home she shares with her husband and teenaged daughter and into a slightly rundown house in the heart of nearby Syracuse. Sam’s mother ails; her daughter dates someone too old for her; her new political (and newly political) friends and enemies chafe in the predictable ways. At its sharpest, Wayward channels the feeling that modern life is too fragmented, too distorted to take in fully, much less bend to one’s will. Unfortunately, it often lapses into plotting and conversation so labored and deliberate as to reduce what could be tragedy to mere farce.
One of Spiotta’s major themes is the overwhelming power of observing or being observed. While Wayward considers how women drift toward invisibility as they age, it also argues that the distracted, online way we now live makes it virtually impossible for anyone, old or young, to access the eroticism or enlightenment that comes from sustained attention. (A flashback to the NARAL march where Sam meets her husband is, fittingly, romantic.) That inattention, that inability to see who and what is in front of us, is at the center of Wayward’s most compelling pieces. It’s there in the way the election and its fallout get refracted through a thousand Facebook groups whose ideological leanings are impossible to parse; it’s there in the months-long string of unanswered text messages, one per day, that Sam sends to her daughter, feeling alternately pathetic and dignified in her consistency and restraint. A sex scene between Sam and her husband, shortly after their separation, underlines how foreign we can become to one another. In her new home, legs trembling from the “sensation of indirection and direction,” Sam is enthralled by their sex that “comprised familiar gestures, but scrambled and reconstituted.”
Wayward excels when the lines of who or what is morally just are not so straight, or so familiar. In her extraordinary 2006 novel, Eat The Document, Spiotta’s characters shroud their identities completely, out of simple necessity. Here, Sam meets a minor Svengali of some online political groups who takes comical measures to anonymize herself; it turns out she’s wealthy and a little bored, leaving Sam to wonder what this says about the woman’s politics—and her own. And when she discovers that her daughter, still a minor, is dating a 29-year-old family friend, Sam’s ambivalence is so taboo as to be exhilarating.
But too frequently, Wayward strays from that feeling of alienation and into the numbingly obvious. The conversations Sam has with acquaintances about the political state of the world in 2017—be they at the diners she finds titillatingly non-suburban, the barns owned by wealthy college professors who are resisting and persisting, or the historical house of a suffragette where Sam works giving tours—are excruciatingly free of subtext or variation. Characters say things like “We had no idea this meeting would be so full of cis, straight, white, privileged women. You have a lot to answer for.”
For all her immense talent, Spiotta has never been a particularly adept writer of dialogue. Hers is often too stilted to be convincingly natural, yet not distinct enough to be truly stylized; in Wayward, that heavy hand compounds the clumsiness of the political discussions themselves. (See, for example, Sam’s conversation with the Svengali figure when the latter is alleged to have abused her power; it’s full of lines like “I’ve been asked—told—to denounce you” and “Are the accusations true?”) This is to say nothing of the minor plot contrivances: Sam taking up open-mic comedy, only to reveal a traumatic event from her daughter’s past when her daughter happens to be in the crowd; the Rashomon moment of the two of them seeing each other when the daughter is at a fair with the 29-year-old; the homeless woman on Sam’s new porch who provides a perfect little test of character.
These are minor complaints when compared to what happens just over halfway through: Sam, restless, is taking a walk through her new neighborhood at 3 a.m. when she witnesses the police murder of a Black child. You would expect this to cleave the book in half, for the rest of Wayward to become about the shooting and its aftermath. It does not. Instead Sam wrings her hands for a bit: Should she contact the mother? Should she speak to reporters? To the police? What is the right thing to do? (She settles on an anonymous GoFundMe donation.) After she speaks at a rally for the murdered child—after she speaks at a rally for the murdered child—the plot thread frays and disappears. It is, simply, the protagonist interacting with the headlines of the day. It’s an inexplicable choice, not because Spiotta is unqualified to write the event, but because it’s treated as such a de rigueur reflection of contemporary politics. It makes another dead child, the one suffocated in a burning house at the end of 2016’s Innocents And Others, seem subtle.
In her best passages—in the unexpectedly ravenous ending of 2011’s Stone Arabia, in Eat The Document’s motel room beginning or its interlude about waitressing—Spiotta’s prose is a little heightened, her pacing breathless. Of course these qualities are not meant to be sustained over 200-some pages, but Wayward frustrates when it defaults to the staid and pedestrian, its sentences less reflective of an emotional break than of another stage of life Sam might sleepwalk through. It comes alive toward its end, when Spiotta writes the preserved correspondence of the fictional suffragette whose life and politics are being picked over in the book’s present. These letters are not only electric on the sentence level, but get at the complex interplay between the material struggles of a period and the spiritual ones that underpin and complicate them. And after the scenes of people arguing over what this long-dead woman did or did not believe, to read her own writing is to understand, once again, the power of an unbroken gaze.
While the decision to put the correspondence near the end is shrewd, by that point Wayward has been compromised by its shoddy plotting and fitful pacing. Still, Spiotta is finely attuned to the rhythms of decay. The metaphor of a crumbling house for a failing body is perhaps too tidy. But where one of the rich, young protagonists of Innocents sees architecture and design as a pure reflection of aesthetic sensibility—the inner self imposed on the world—Wayward understands that our physical lives are largely beyond our control, subject to deterioration you can’t plan for or curb. Though the book fails when it attempts, as it so frequently does, to diagnose the current moment, it occasionally taps into something more eternal, and much more unnerving.
Author photo: Jessica Marx
Paul Thompson is a writer who lives in L.A.