Blindness is at the heart of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, a multi-voiced novel that deals with film, truth, and acceptance. The novel’s prose is compelling—Spiotta captures the laconic atmosphere and intense earnestness of her characters and the California they inhabit. Using film as both a framing device for the interior lives of characters and as a shorthand for the passage of time, Innocents and Others considers female friendship and artistic obsession from a distance.
The work follows the ups and downs of film directors Carrie Wexler and Meadow Mori, whose friendship serves as a bedrock during turbulent times in their personal lives and budding film careers. Beginning with a fantasy scenario involving Meadow leaving her happy, unassuming upper-class family to live out her teenage years with an aging Orson Welles, Spiotta draws strong distinctions between Meadow and Carrie’s artistic conceits. Meadow exudes a strong flair for showmanship, taking to documentary filmmaking and performance art while suffering through her high school experience. Everything about Meadow, from her pseudo-pretentious film interests to her penchant for androgyny, seems to belie her ambitions to make capital-A art. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carrie, with her populist sensibilities and interest in goofy comedies. While Spiotta doesn’t spend as much time developing or probing the obsessions that underpin Carrie’s approach to her craft, she filters Meadow’s rise and fall through Carrie’s lens. It’s a lens that overflows with humanity and a desire to understand, even when the threads of friendship fray.
It quickly becomes apparent that Meadow is interested in making films that examine the intersection of isolation and the truth. Spiotta cleverly sets that up in those early chapters involving Orson Welles, which appear authentic until Carrie eventually reveals they were the work of a desperate and bored teenage girl. This interest in grey areas leads Meadow to Amy Thomas, a woman who seduces men over the phone, and Sarah Mills, an arsonist.
Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon makes an appearance on page 110, almost midway through the text. Unlike the other films mentioned in the novel, which crop up constantly as a way to both show Meadow’s artistic studiousness and sophisticated, pretentious palate, and to help the reader get inside her documentarian head, Barry Lyndon appears, strangely, as an echo of the book. The way Spiotta’s characters unraveling of these characters before the moment they click over and begin to change, how unaware they are, can be seen is reflected in the slow pace of Kubrick’s strange period masterpiece:
And it was almost a film of no movement from the actors or settings, a film about stillness. All the movement was from the camera, which languidly tracked in or out of the heavily sumptuous tableaux.
Film is the connective tissue for Carrie and Meadow’s friendship. As in Kubrick’s work, film reveals the pain and isolation of these cinephiles, who reference films to comment on their interior lives, aspiring for transcendence but failing to realize it can’t be achieved through creative aspiration. Spiotta takes this idea a step further on page 172, when she links the ways film and fiction use narratives.
She showed some of the strings, but not all of them, of course — it was still a highly constructed thing. An essay more than a neutral rendering. It had a point of view. A film is an idea about the world. Meadow thought of it like that, but she also knew that people can know something and visual images will override anything they know. Cinema truth is deceptive that way.
It’s meta in the sense that Meadow is aware of this observation, considering it, and yet she remains blinded by her own vision and accomplishments. If there’s an undeniable truth to Spiotta’s exploration of artistry and humanity, it’s that we can be presented with the facts, aware of their integrity, and yet fail to recognize how easily we manipulate those facts to suit our own needs.
This blindness, intentional and not, is embedded throughout. Even the characters’ self-aware lies are enmeshed in the fabric of their world. The first chapter, which focuses on Meadow’s leaving home in order to live with a dying Orson Welles, speaks to Meadow’s secret wishes for herself. In creating this story, in letting it take on a bit of reality, she is making a myth, willing Meadow Mori, the artist, into existence so that Meadow Mori, the regular girl, can be phased out to make room for the person she always believed herself to be. When Amy calls anonymous men, she claims it’s a way to engage in a fantasy world where she is beautiful and no one can get hurt. Like Meadow, she is creating a tale in order to mask her selfishness and feign being wounded. Carrie wants to be the one with a stable life, and when her stable life shows cracks—a cheating husband, an aloof, self-involved best friend—she creates a lie about the people around her and lives in it.
Like any of us, Meadow, Amy, and Carrie don’t so much evolve as develop new versions of their story. Spiotta wants us to recognize that our greatest creative accomplishments are the ways we arrange our myths in order to make room for truth.
Eric Farwell is a recent graduate of Monmouth University’s MA program for Poetry. He’s in the process of applying for MFA programs and has written for the Aquarian Weekly, Prefix, Currents, and the now-defunct Contagent Press.