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Eat the Document: A Novel Paperback – November 28, 2006

4.0 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (November 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743273001
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743273008
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #76,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
Maybe I was a year or two too young and a more peaceful peacenik, but how the characters in this compelling novel were caught up in the urge to fight back and the long term consequences of their actions seemed believable to me. Dana Spiotta brings us back to that time in the late 60's and early 70's that felt like real revolution was just around the corner. Time traveling backwards and forwards we get the story of Mary Whittaker and her radical filmmaker soulmate Bobby. Their protest actions went terribly wrong and they had to disappear into new (separate) identities back in the early seventies.

We meet Mary and her son Jason in late 90's Seattle. He's obsessed with the music of the Beach Boys and cyber-protest activities against the new new order (meet the new boss, same as the old boss?) while Mary drinks heavily and sleepwalks through an empty life. Of course her old radical lover Bobby will re-emerge and Jason's aching to fill in the gaps in his Mom's backstory will bear fruit, but it's the landscape of the characters' inner lives that propels "Eat the Document" forward.

Can music mean as much to today's adolescents as it did to us? When music, politics and altering one's consciousness were intertwined like vines atacking the flagpole of state. I think Ms. Spiotta understands that and Jason's Beach Boys obsession rather than the more obvious Seattle bands like Nirvana or Pearl Jam is well-placed irony as fewer bands seemed less interested in the tumult of their era than the Beach Boys.

The writing is lyrical and knowing and the obscure details of popular culture, such as the book's title reference to a little remembered unreleased Dylan film, resonate throughout. The whole thing drew me in from the start. It helped me to have been there, but read it no matter whether you lived through some of these times or not and you'll be glad you did.
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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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