Eat the Document: A Novel
In the heyday of the 1970s underground, Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker—passionate, idealistic, and in love—design a series of radical protests against the Vietnam War. When one action goes wrong, the course of their lives is forever changed. The two must erase their past, forge new identities, and never see each other again.
Now it is the 1990s. Mary lives in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son, who spends hours immersed in the music of his mother’s generation. She has no idea where Bobby is, whether he is alive or dead.
Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the consequences of those choices in the 1990s, Dana Spiotta deftly explores the connection between the two eras—their language, technology, music, and activism. Character-driven and brilliant, Eat the Document is an important and revelatory novel about the culture of rebellion, with particular resonance now.
Mary Whittaker and Bobby DeSoto have constructed lives for themselves like Popsicle-stick houses: brittle, unfurnished, painstakingly assembled but made to be snapped apart or abandoned in a moment. The main characters of Dana Spiotta’s magnificent second novel, Eat the Document, they were once in love, but spend all but a few pages of the book intentionally distant and out of communication—fugitives after executing a political bombing in the ‘70s that went awry. Moving often, changing their names more than once, they had to cut off any friendship as soon as it blossomed emotionally and seemed to demand authenticity. Now, in the 1990s, Mary’s 15-year-old son Jason (a ‘70s music buff) begins to uncover his mother’s dangerous secret. “Incidentally, if you have never stalked someone close to you, I highly recommend it,” he confides in his journal, “Check out how it transforms them. How other they become, and how infinitely necessary and justified the stalking becomes when you realize how little you know about them.”
More than a portrait of life underground, Eat the Document derives its power from an implicit comparison of ‘70s radicalism to the pale protests of present-day consumer culture, somehow upholding the idealism and commitment of the earlier period without advocating its violent methods. Spiotta never lets the novel feel like a history lesson or a diatribe. Its social critique is enacted chiefly through Nash (the former Bobby), whose resistance has mellowed to amused observance of the radical Seattle youth who frequent the independent lefty bookstore he runs. Nash redefines the term “activist” by facilitating a number of brilliantly conceived groups that rarely execute their plans. The Radical Juxtaposeurs, for example, “rent films from Blockbuster and dub fake commercials onto the beginnings of the tapes to imply dislocated, ominous, disturbing things,” while the Barcode Remixers “made fake bar code stickers that would replace ones. Everything rang up at five or ten cents. This was strictly for the chain, nonunion supermarkets.”
Eat the Document moves back and forth in time, like a fishnet pulling through water, tantalizing the reader with glimpses of Mary and Bobby’s past. There are plenty of surprises, not so much in the details of the bombing plot but in the shifting culpability of the actors. Above all, this is a grown-up novel about late adolescence, and about what we take with us‹and what we jettison—on the journey from passionate, reckless youth into seasoned (or soiled) middle age. —Regina Marler