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Eat the Document: A Novel

35 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743272988
ISBN-10: 0743272986
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Editorial Reviews Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

Lives in the aftermath of 1970s radicalism form the basis of Spiotta's follow-up to her debut, Lightning Field. We meet Mary Whittaker as she goes underground and tests out a series of new names for herself in a motel room. Flash forward to the 21st century, where Mary, now "Caroline," is a single mother whose teenage son, Jason, seems to have inherited her restlessness. (Jason checks into the narrative via his journal entries.) Mary's partner in subversion and in bed was Bobby DeSoto, who, now closing in on 50 and going by the name of Nash, runs a leftist bookstore called Prairie Fire for his friend Henry, a troubled Vietnam vet. The unspoken affection between Henry and Nash and the many nuances of their deep friendship, beautifully rendered by Spiotta, give the book a compelling core. A young woman named Miranda becomes the improbable object of Nash's skittish affection. And when Jason begins to discover bits of his mother's past, Mary begins to resurface—with possibly disastrous results. As plot lines entangle, Spiotta tightens the narrative and shortens the chapters, which doesn't really add tension or pace. The result is a very spare set of character studies not well-enough served by the resolution. A near miss. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (February 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743272986
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743272988
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,597,397 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dana Spiotta is the author of STONE ARABIA, which was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her second novel, EAT THE DOCUMENT, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Her first novel, LIGHTNING FIELD, was an LA Times Best Book of the West and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Spiotta received the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2007 and New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in 2008. The American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome awarded her the 2008 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize.

More information can be found at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Christine Healy on January 31, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Eat the Document is about hippie activists in hiding, yes, but it is also about longing and loss, identity and authenticity, and the inescapability of destiny. With astounding detail, Spiotta is equally rhapsodic on the fads and follies of two generations of countercultural rebels, but spares neither her sharp eye for hypocrisy, futility, and misplaced desires. All of this she accomplishes with searing wit, virtuosic joy in language, and ultimately, real sensitivity for lives lived on the run. A sweeping, stunning book, from a writer who is beyond smart and who is just hitting her stride. Masterful.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Zachary A. Hanson on May 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Dana Spiotta's novel is satisfying on so many levels. Like her predecessor Don DeLillo, Spiotta manages to create a story that is entertaining, deep, and bold all at once. Special kudos go to her for managing to pull off parallel narratives as seamlessly as she does. On a somewhat more subjective note, this is the ideal novel for anyone who is obsessed with the intersection of popular and underground culture, which is to say many of us.

Here's how it works: We see the stories of two generations of resistance culture, both the '60s and '70's hippies and the more punkish subculture of the late '90s. Spiotta, from my vantage, depicts both of these periods spot on, tho' Jason, the son of the fugitive Mary, might be a little more articulate than most any fifteen-year-old I've ever met. Regardless, his obsession with the music of his mother's generation rings true for a mid-adolescent intellectual. His paeans to the Beach Boys are especially compelling. Any fanatic will identify instantly with Jason's reverence for his heroes.

It is not only Jason who is too smart for his own good, it is the entire cast of teenagers who hang around Nash Davis's Prairie Fire bookstore, another delightfully-drawn aspect of _Eat the Document_. Miranda, a punker in her late teens who falls for the middle-aged radical Nash, is painted with true emotional depth, perhaps the best portrait of a countercultural woman of the '90s that I've read. She ends up being torn between Nash and the more conventional Josh, someone who is her own age, but who ends up co-opting his more radical impulses to work for "the man." Nash, on the other hand, never gives into the man.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Tamela Mccann TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Eat the Document is a story with a great premise: What happens twenty years down the road to those who are forced, through their own actions, to go underground and live lives very different than they might have? Spiotta takes two radical protestors from the early 1970s and follows them both immediately after a disastrous event and also into the 1990s, as they try to come to grips with who they are. How much does the past define us? Would we do the same things over again? Spiotta answers these questions well through the use of several intriguing characters, and she brings the tale full circle by the time the ride is over.

Mary Whitaker finds herself on the run and alone in the early 70s, separated forever from her love, Bobby Desoto, after the two plan a protest in what was supposed to be an empty house. Forced to change her name and her appearance, we follow Mary as she becomes someone else, a person who can never go home again, nor settle for long in one place. As the story unfolds, we meet her fifteen year old son, Jason, who is able to begin to piece together the mystery of his mother's life. Additionally, we follow the story of Nash, who runs a comic book store, and the neo-protestors of the 1990s; all of these plots come together until Mary is forced to make a decision about her life today.

Spiotta's tale is well thought out but sometimes a little too "out there" to feel realistic. While the events could happen as she suggests, the characters don't always make sense in some of their actions, and the dialogue is stilted at times. But overall this is a well-done novel, and thought-provoking to say the least. Overall I enjoyed this one, but I can't help but feel that something was missing; probably much the same feeling Mary experienced about her own life.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Kcorn TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As soon as I read this one, I realized how closely it paralleled the real life tale of a woman who'd hidden in plain sight for many years, leading a life very different from her formerly radical lifestyle. Truth is stranger than fiction in some ways because this woman (ALice Metzinger) managed to stay hidden for about 20 years, her true identity a secret...until she was findally rediscovered and put on trial.

The main characters in this novel are also former radicals (Mary Whittaker and Bobby Desoto)fictional but very true to life, trying to live in suburbia while wrestling with their old beliefs and trying to reconcile them with the present. It isn't an easy task, especially considering what events have happened in their lives (that I'll leave you to discover for yourself) . Let's just say they definitely have to stay ahead of the law because of their former actions.

Flash forward many years and to a a new generation of activitists. This was the most fascinating part of the book to me, the contrast between the former hippies and the "new" idealists, the new revolutionaries, including Mary's own son. There are major differences between the two groups of "radicals' and readers will wonder who is really "walking the walk" and who is just spouting off about ideals. Is the new generation truly less committed or are they being seen from the now cynical, somehwat rueful viewpoint of their elders?

But this book's greatest strength (in my opinion) is the unflinching look at peope who were once so openly committed to a certain set of values and now sees their own children and others living their ideals so differently.

Yes, there are still activists...but how varied so many of them are! This is reality.
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