I first came across Dana Spiotta when I read her novel Eat The Document back in 2008 and it made (almost) my top 20 of the year. In it she painted a portrait of an undergriund life on the run, a ’60’s revolutionary. Spiotta also muses about the reality of the myth of starting over, remaking yourself into a new life. Her concerns here are quite different, yet no less astute.
47-year old Denise has a daughter named Ada who was conceived with her then boyfriend, Chris. Since married and divorced, she and Ada live their separate lives, but have a healthy relationship. When Ada advances the idea of making a documentary about her Uncle Nik (Denise’s brother) she’s skeptical that Nik will even cooperate in the project. Nik is an interesting character, a musician and songwriter who has had a long career, running the gamut from pop bands to underground cult status. When he withdrew from the music scene he kept on making music, releasing his own hand made limited edition CD’s. He began to keep chronicles of his career in music, writing elaborate reviews “taken” from fake publications, made-up reviewers, creating an alternate persona that led to a life richer than Nik’s own.
Eventually Ada does make her documentary, but when Nik disappears (a few days after his 50th birthday), the mystery is did he commit suicide or ran off somewhere to start over. The real pull for me in this novel though are Spiotta’s reflections on themes that are amongst those that I look for in my reading. Besides being obsessed with the idea of obsession, Denise is obsessed with memory. She meditates on how memory works (and this is all related to her mother sinking into the early stages of dementia). Denise contemplates on how photos have “destroyed our memories”. We no longer have to remember anymore. We have the pictures of our memories, and so the memories of the cake we may have eaten on our 13th birthday cannot be recalled but the photo of that cake substitutes for a memory. An image of a memory.
Denise has become “easily panicked about how quickly time passes.” We all know how time seems to pass quicker the older we get. She wonders about aging and sees the fact that the passage of time yields the mixed blessing that “the privilege of a long life is you live long enough to see your perfect child also submit to time and aging.” She realizes that the “breaking events” seen on television are more vivid than the events of her own life. We can all recall “where we were” when… (9/11, the first Moon Landing, the Kennedy Assassination), but the seminal events in our own lives are more difficult to truly recall as viscerally as those secondhand events. And most perceptively, Spiotta points out that memory is for ensuring the distance between things. Memory measures the distance between used to be and now. And more ominously between now and the end. Between now and death. Which brings one to eternity. Spiotta has a humorous side to be sure. Hesitating to post a comment on her daughter’s blog she observes of herself that she can never be “spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity”
These are opposite pulls – eternity and pithy.
Denise tells the memory of her brother, and how he used to wind himself up in a swing set and then twirl himself around until his head was spinning. The swing set, she says, was Nik’s “gateway drug.” Denise’s current boyfriend is Jay who constantly gives her gifts of Thomas Kincaid prints (he’s obsessed), and she’s drawn to obsessives. When she met him and they had their first date, Jay asked her what she did. She replied that she worked
“…as a secretary for Greer Properties. I mean office manager. I mean personal assistant”
Jay is also obsessed with James Mason, and their dates consist of the gift of Kincaide collectables and the films of James Mason. There is a discussion of one in particular, Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life”. Of course I’ve rented the DVD!
When one of Nik’s oldest friend dies, he writes a fake obituary for his chronicles. This allows Denise to get off a riff on obituaries that is right on.
…I was a regular reader of obituaries. Before I read anything else, I scanned the obituaries. I wasn’t always like this, it was a habit of my morbid middle years. I just found myself drawn to them every day…I first looked for the age of the dead person. If they were under sixty, I looked at the cause of death, usually discretely rendered in the second or third paragraph…Very young people mostly dies in accidents…
She goes on to list a series of ages and cause of death. Yes, I’ve done this. We wonder how people die and why. We compare our age to theirs and say to ourselves…”well, I outlived him (or her).
I’ve read several books that have dementia as a theme or sub-theme, but this one is the best and actually informative without being didactic. Denise includes several anecdotes about her mother. She talks about the differences between aphasia and nominal aphasia, between deja vu and deja vecu.
She talks about reading the fine print on credit card information and
…the first time you actually read the words printed on these things was to feel the last connection to your childhood die.
One more example of the type of writing and thinking that really appealed to me in reading Spiotta’s novel: Here she talks about her daughter and smoking:
I know this is an awful thing to say about your kid, but she looked good with a cigarette. I thought this, even knowing how my brother fell into long hawking fits every morning. And coughing fits throughout the day. Bronchitis every winter. But when a young person smokes, it is different. It just underlines their excess life [I love the use of excess here]. It looks appealing and reminds you they feel as if they have life to spare. They have such luxury of time that they can flirt with lethal addictions. They have plenty of time to heal and repair later. A young woman like Ada would eventually discard these things. When you are old, like Nik, when it is a very old habit, smoking looks mostly like a reckless delusion. But for Ada it was an abundance, a kind of fun, a kick off of a shoe, a sip of pink champagne.
I’ve put this one in my top ten for the year (so far). Highly recommended.