"I was always happy to reach an inward operator." So says Jelly, a.k.a. Nicole, one of the principal characters in Dana Spiotta's enigmatic new novel. Jelly was once a member of the "Phone Phreaks" — proto-hackers who beeped and chirped their way through the massive Bell Telephone system just for the thrill of it -— but she has since become infamous in Hollywood circles for using her cold-calling sales skills to reach out to powerful men and seduce them into deeply intimate, explicitly non-explicit telephone relationships.
Jelly is a peculiar and fascinating character, so it only makes sense that she's the subject of a documentary film directed by Meadow, another peculiar and fascinating character and the central figure in Spiotta's novel. Meadow is also searching for an inward operator; the need to connect, the desire for intimacy and friendship, and the quest for meaning in our lives are at the heart of this complex and compelling book.
Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler are best friends growing up in Los Angeles who serendipitously become successful filmmakers. The novel begins when they're in high school and follows them as their lives intertwine and diverge — the connection occasionally broken — as Meadow becomes a documentarian of personal and challenging cinema (with a capital C) while Carrie gains fame as a director of successful Hollywood comedies. For these characters, happiness is elusive — it unspools at 24 frames a second and dims when the lights come up.
This is usually where a reviewer synopsizes the plot, but there is no plot to speak of in this novel, and, honestly, I didn't miss one. And yet if I reveal too much of what happens, it would spoil the genuine twists and surprises that are in the story. Spiotta has no need for any typical Hollywood-style contrived conflict; the interior lives of these three characters are more than enough. I can tell you that in the course of their growing up, parents are lied to, colleges are attended, films are shot, sex is enjoyed, relationships flicker and fade, mistakes are made. Life happens, damage is done.
An example of this is when Meadow, who has had success and stumbles in her career and is now plagued by misgivings, slips into a theater to catch a matinee of Carrie's new film, hailed as the "funniest film of the summer" by the New York Times. "Meadow couldn't wait until it finished and she slipped out before the end. She walked down the street and came to a stop. She turned back toward the theater. What was wrong with her? Why was she like this, so ungenerous? On a different day — or maybe a different time in her life — she would have laughed and gotten lost in the fun of Carrie's film. Carrie's perfect, playful comedy. Meadow stood there, unmoving, and lifted her glasses to wipe her eyes. Her stingy tears. What kind of person had she become, and why couldn't she be better?"
Spiotta has been here before. She examined the creative impulse, the crushing brutality of the marketplace, and the fragility of ego in her 2011 novel "Stone Arabia," in which a talented musician lives in a self-constructed fantasy world of what his career might've been.
Here she deals with the creative lives of filmmakers. Sitting in a dark theater, watching a fantasy unfold on the screen — this is where her characters come alive and where the novel has some of its most dramatic revelations. Early on, Meadow thinks, "What a mystery the way things act on us, like secret messages just to you, as you sit in the dark."
As befits a novel obsessed with film, there are movie references sprinkled throughout, including chapter titles nodding to film pioneers Solax Studios, Dziga Vertov and the Lumière brothers. These referents speak to Meadow's intentions: the Lumière film caused a panic in a theater when it was first screened in 1895, and Solax Studios is notable for making the first film with an entirely African American cast. Meadow wants to be just as revolutionary, and Russian documentarian Vertov's "Cine Eye" manifesto, a paean to the "mechanical eye" of filmmaking, resonates with her. In 1922, Vertov declared "the old films, based on romance, theatrical films and the like, to be leprous," and that pretty much sums up how Meadow feels about the current state of movies, even her best friend Carrie's films.
Meadow, like Vertov, is searching for "film truth," a way of getting to "glimpse the sublime" through the eyes of a machine. Meadow wonders near the end of the novel, "Can an image contain something unnamable, impossible, invisible? What is an image if not inflected by consciousness, a noticing?" Spiotta is asking big, interesting, questions here. Without consciousness, without an inward operator, what are we connecting to? To art? To nature? To something divine?
It is worth mentioning that in the structure of the novel, Spiotta is playing with time and narrative, jumping freely between story lines, to create a unique vibe that buzzes in your subconscious. The way the chapters unfold mimics a strip of film running through a projector: Jelly is partly blind and her phone-based life becomes the audio track running alongside the Technicolor exploits of Meadow and Carrie. These dual (or triple) parallel threads intersect only briefly but with consequences that deliver a surprising wallop of emotion.
It's difficult not to descend into hyperbole talking about Spiotta's work. She writes with a breezy precision and genuine wit that put her on a short list of brilliant North American novelists who deserve a much wider audience -— writers like Lisa Moore, Tom Drury and Paul Beatty. And it's rare to find a novel that is so much fun and, at the same time, seeks emotional truth with such intellectual rigor; it adds up to an original and strangely moving book. Spiotta, like Meadow, realizes that to make great art or live a full life, you have to "Take your time, let the weirdness come through."
Smith is the author, most recently, of the nonfiction book "Naked at Lunch" and the novel "Raw: A Love Story."
Innocents and Others
Scribner: 288 pp., $25