Dana Spiotta is a decade writer. Lightning Field (2001) is a dreamy yet precise study of lifestyle consumerism in Los Angeles in the early Aughts (Spirit Gyms, yurts). Stone Arabia (2011) and Innocents and Others (2016) both touch down in the 1980s (pop culture, punk, landlines). Her best-known book, Eat the Document (2006), features one of the finest opening chapters of any novel this century and moves between the 1970s and 1990s with masterly command, creating a nuanced portrait of crumbling American idealism. With each novel, she tethers herself to a moment in time, devising original interviews and transcripts from the period with such verisimilitude that it can take a moment for the reader to realize these too are part of the author’s magic trick.
Spiotta’s previous novels have used multiple perspectives, and her fifth, Wayward, is in many ways her most ambitious because of its formal simplicity. The perspectives (written in close third person) have been distilled to two: a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore suburban mother and her rapidly blossoming teenage daughter. It is also Spiotta’s first novel that spends no pages in Pacific Standard Time; it’s set in Syracuse, New York, where she lives and teaches. (She grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Seattle during her twenties.) And the decade in question is our own. This presents a challenge for a writer with a penchant for recent history. Objects in the mirror can get blurry when your nose is pressed up against the glass.
Wayward tells the story of Sam, a fifty-three-year-old who has decided to blow up her comfortable open-plan, heated-floor existence. She abandons her husband and daughter when she spontaneously purchases a dilapidated “Arts and Crafts cottage in a neglected, once-vibrant neighborhood in the city of Syracuse.” In short order she informs her beloved mother, Lily, of her decision; tells her unassuming husband, Matt, that she’s leaving him (a blender drones on in the background during this conversation: “‘Smoothie,’ my god, how could anyone use that word, ever?”); and breaks the news to her sixteen-year-old daughter, Ally, who does not take it well:
Ally pressed her lips together, shook her head slightly—she was, it seemed clear now, livid—and then she spoke:
“Go to your stupid house. I don’t care what you do. This is better anyway. I don’t want to live with you.”
The rest of the novel is punctuated with Sam’s nightly attempts to make contact with Ally via text, finding some hope in the fact that her daughter hasn’t blocked her. (Helicopter parenting morphs into a full-scale spyware war of attrition.) Despite the emotional toll and hazards of her new locale, the house and its history appeal to Sam, who identifies with its hidden charms. She works (“volunteer[s], practically”) at “the jankiest historical house in New York State,” spending her days giving tours and creating displays, glossing over the story of that house’s one-time resident, a fictional suffragette named Clara Loomis, who had some pretty iffy views about eugenics.
Spiotta is unsurprisingly great on the brute facts of middle age, less because she’s about the same age as her character (though this can’t hurt) than because she has written five novels with women as the focal point. Sam washes her face and brushes her teeth without looking in the bathroom mirror. She finds the term “stay-at-home mom” degrading, “as if she were a prisoner under house arrest.” A movie she can’t recall lies “behind some muggy hormonal veil, not brain fog so much as a muslin sheet she could almost see through.”
Much of Wayward has the glow, if not the urgency or sex appeal, of Spiotta’s previous work; you can feel this energy when Sam frets about accepting money from her husband (lamenting her “phony poverty” and “fake independence”), embarrassing her daughter at an open-mic night, giving a homeless person her dinner in a fit of suburban guilt, or analyzing her righteousness in snapping at a man at the gym: “She knew how she looked: bitchy, old, bitter. Unfit for the pressures of the world. She seemed that way because she was that way.” None of this is a knock; I suspect this attention to daily indignities will win Spiotta some new readers, but I was glad every time the story shifted away from the dour details of aging into more traditional Spiotta territory (political alienation, fringe cultures, outward obsessions).
Spiotta’s long-standing interest in archives, film footage, screenplays, and zines is here channeled into (a) the city of Syracuse and (b) architecture. Spiotta loves Syracuse. Like, really loves it. Did you know the city was the inspiration for The Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City? You do now. This passion is fittingly expressed through Sam, who misses Ally but almost seems to live for Syracuse. (The area was ground zero for the women’s suffrage movement, and the carefully preserved “Loomis letters” are addressed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.) Sam pulls over in the car to admire a graveyard’s crumbling gates, feeling a deep appreciation for the city’s verdant summers and bright snowstorms, for the “farm-quilted” valleys of upstate.
On occasion I would’ve just as soon taken her word for it. We are dealing with a region with significantly less mystique than the West Coast. Even a writer with Spiotta’s prodigious gifts can’t quite engender rapturous admiration for the crossroads of New York State. (Half my family lives in Syracuse, so I probably come to these passages at a deficit, skewed by recollections of teenage keg parties in the woods with my cousin.)
But Syracuse winds up being an ideal receptacle for Sam’s ultimate passion, her love of landmark preservation. She gets high off a respectful gut renovation, and her new house is described with radiant precision. On the impracticality of its wide fireplace: “Beauty was its own value, as was the experience of living.” On the tiles around it: “The clay finish was a rustic, uneven glaze, the colors pink, green, and white. She touched her fingertips to the tiles and felt an undeniable connection.” Deep-cleaning only intensifies her feelings:
The dark oak floorboards, mantel, and moldings glowed after she rubbed them with oil. She used a fingertip swathed in cotton to dust the notches carved into the beveled corners. The details emerging pleased her so much that she thought she might cry.
Later, when the house is burglarized, she accepts this as a peril of her new urban life (she opts not to call the police) but is unmoored when she realizes that the thieves removed one of the tiles from the fireplace.
Indeed, our heroine came here for two things: architecture and anarchy. And she’s all stocked up on architecture. Sam, Spiotta writes early in the novel, enjoys “the tension and mystique of being ordinary on the surface but with a radical, original interior life.” Whether she really has such a life, such capacity for anarchy, is a matter of some contention (for her, for other characters, for the reader). Eat the Document also explores the costume of domesticity, in that book worn by a mother forced to change her identity on account of an act of terrorism she’d committed thirty years before. (She does not enjoy this dissimulation; we do.) But Sam only wishes she had secrets to hide, only wishes she were in such close proximity to subversive culture and chaos.
Like Don DeLillo, whom Spiotta counts as an influence and friend, and Rachel Kushner, her Californian contemporary, she has long been taken with revolution and reinvention in America. How does one stand in opposition to the culture while carving out a life within it? How does one accept the banalities of modern existence without participating in gross ideologies like capitalism, sexism, globalization, and recessed lighting? How does one deal? These are the central questions of Spiotta’s work, always answered with consideration instead of derision.
In Sam, Spiotta has created a character who is not inherently revolutionary but who craves revolution, who reports “from the edge of an unlived life.” Who, in other words, longs to be in a Dana Spiotta novel. Having busted free from the shackles of shopping in bulk for her family, Sam becomes enmeshed in online political groups, all of them outraged after the 2016 election, thus affording Spiotta a hugely entertaining tear on the subject of feminist activism. (“We will not take this lying down. We will resist. Wine and light refreshments will be served.”)
Grassroots political movements used to require a commitment of time and an aptitude for organization. All one needs now is a username and a willingness to shame others for not being true enough to a cause. The further Sam gets into niche progressive listservs, the more she is presented with prepper forums like “Surviving the Anthropocene,” promoting canning and fermentation, which then lead her to Quiverfull, Wiccan, and New Agey movements with their own hypocrisies. Some were “dedicated to living as if it were the past, with a specific cutoff date, such as 1912 or 1860…. Yet somehow living as a 1912 woman or as an 1860 woman involved being on Facebook a lot.”
Even here, Spiotta avoids easy opportunities for ridicule. This is a testament both to her skill and to her fluent knowledge of a character who would like to remove herself from all the histrionics but knows she’s not immune to their source. Sam’s not exactly thrilled with the way the country is going either.
Eventually, Sam agrees to meet one of these fellow aspiring anarchists, Laci (F2F, IRL), who introduces her to MH, a more experienced revolutionary. MH is confident, “declarative,” and “part of a subgroup within the Hardcore Hags, Harridans, and Harpies” Facebook group called “Half Hobos.” Sam’s relationship with MH becomes fraught. (She is wearing, Sam realizes, “the kind of jeans that cost three hundred dollars.”) MH also commits a mysterious and potentially phantom infraction that causes the entire community to turn on her (in petition form, natch). If only she were slightly less full of shit, MH would make a nice addition to the ranks of Spiotta protagonists (a little destructive, a little hyper-stylized, a little over it), but as it is, she serves as another example of being female in this country. Our culture unsubtly loses interest in older women but oh, the powers invisibility can bestow. This is to say nothing of “the gift of menopause.”
And then there’s the youth vote. About a hundred pages in, the novel transitions to Ally’s point of view, bringing a fresh angle on gender dynamics (more rigorous in theory, more nonjudgmental in practice). Ally is learning to wield her sex appeal over men and finds that most of the protective advice she’s been given in this department “didn’t really apply to her. She understood that now.” She has a “vocab” that makes her “the top-ranked YAD student in her grade.” YAD: Young American Disrupters. Like mother, like daughter. We are treated to a draft of Ally’s college admission essay, titled “Why I Am Not a Libertarian.” It reads:
A libertarian might see a homeless person with a sign asking for money and say something like ‘Don’t give him money—he’ll just spend it on beer.’ And you might be thinking, so what? Wouldn’t you want a beer if you had to sleep under a fucking highway overpass?
Her rejection of her overbearing mother feels painfully plausible, her justifications for the silent treatment solid. Ally believes herself to be in full control of a clandestine relationship with Joe, a twenty-nine-year-old real estate developer who funnels government grants into cookie-cutter apartment complexes. She sends Joe nudes. (His attention, she says, is “like a drug.”) In return, he gives her lingerie and tells her to read Ayn Rand. This is not Joe’s primary crime, but maybe the laws should be expanded.
All the men of Wayward are intentionally predictable, but they are not Spiotta’s focus. In Ally, she captures a young woman’s experimentation with who she is and what she believes in a way that reminded me of a passage from In Cold Blood, in which Nancy Clutter, also sixteen, uses different color inks in her diary:
But as in every manifestation, she continued to tinker with her handwriting, slanting it to the right or to the left, shaping it roundly or steeply, loosely or stingily—as though she were asking “Is this Nancy? Or that? Or that? Which is me?”
Ally’s story ends far less gruesomely: “Thus she discovered, and could not undiscover, that you could want someone—really want them—even though you no longer liked or respected them.”
But Ally, like her mother and her grandmother, exists in a friendless vacuum. Lily, the family matriarch (adoring Grandma is the one thing Ally and Sam can agree on), lives a solitary and rural life, resigned to her position as an old lady. Ally eschews social media and is completely absorbed in Joe. Sam has her new Internet friends, but aside from a few nods to Loomis House colleagues, her social life is negligible. I’m not suggesting that a lean novel ruin itself by doubling in length just to elaborate the background. Spiotta’s other novels held friendship at their core; this one does not. The beauty of Wayward is how well it captures the lifetime it takes for mothers to really see their daughters and vice versa; it’s not a comedy of manners. But without much social context or sense of their peers, both Sam and Ally walk through the world as if newly hatched. This is less noticeable in Ally, who is mid-hatch, after all, and probably would not have consulted her friends before texting photos of her nipples to her boyfriend, but it can be wearying in Sam.
Sam possesses a certain doofiness when it comes to the buffet of contemporary experience, a quality that’s out of step with how contemplative she is about her inner life: “She had inserted herself, she had willed herself into this world.” Unlike Spiotta’s other work, which feels so smooth in its satire, Wayward starts to read like a checklist of modern plagues. Twitter, for example, gets more than a few subtweets, including a bit of foreshadowing: in Clara Loomis’s journals (written in 1869, when she too was sixteen), she asks, “And how can one tell the deepest truth if she knows it will be examined by others?” Sing it, Clara. If Wayward had an index (and if any novel did, it would be one by Spiotta), it would contain every pernicious sideshow in America. See also: Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, climate change, 5G, AI, all of which get mentioned.
It’s not just the proper nouns that come flying at the reader, it’s the incidents. The coincidences. Sam stumbles upon a local activist group’s meeting in a church (great stained glass, by the way). She bristles at the class-biased American educational system that will give her daughter a leg up when applying to college. When MH talks of biohacks, this gives Spiotta a pretext for filleting the wellness movement (a target of hers since Lightning Fields). Sam wonders if what she thinks of as her “self” is “a matter of endocrinology…as mutable as the house you lived in or the clothes you wore.” Meanwhile, she happens to be the sole witness to a police shooting, a plot thread that feels thin and a bit hasty. (“Was part of the problem that law enforcement attracted sadists and racists? Or did being a cop turn people into sadists and racists?”)
Strung together, the many “contemporary issues” that Spiotta describes give the sensation that Wayward is a novel about aging that would prefer to be a novel about an age. They can seem a contortion, an attempt to counterbalance the less-than-cool premise of “suburban woman having a breakdown.” The lingering effect of Wayward is not really of waywardness, but of a woman going through the kind of rebellion not condoned in women of a certain age—that is, in women who have become mothers.
Justifying themselves was not a major concern for Spiotta’s female characters in the past, as they either felt no guilt over their actions or felt tons of guilt and their apologies were part of the story from the start. It was clear what they’d done, whom they’d done it to, and what they were running from or beholden to. But Sam is not described as having big external motivations, which means she is constantly looking for reasons within herself, talking it out. It’s credible enough for her to throw various motives at the wall and see what sticks, but this starts to feel as if Spiotta weren’t sure of the answers herself. Here is Sam, every forty pages or so, speculating on why she left Matt to begin with:
All Sam knew was what she knew. She no longer wanted to be in the suburbs…. Or, rather, she could no longer live in the suburbs.
Maybe that was why she’d left—so she wouldn’t have to participate in the distasteful work of slyly encouraging hard-grabbing in their daughter.
It was not the election. It wasn’t even the house, she realized…. It had to be Lily, her mother.
She was in the house. The house was in the city. The city was in the world. The world was history. This was why she bought this house in this place.
It’s a guessing game that threatens to undercut one of the most valuable tenets of this otherwise affecting novel, which is that being a woman in America is enough to make you run for the hills.