The late 60s and early 70s are hot in literary circles. I’ve read at least four novels this year that examine the events of the Age of Aquarius from the perspective of today and each of the following are reviewed on daeandwrite.wordpress.com: Manson (The Girls), Gen-X kids (The Nest), would’ve been rock stars who aged into generic suburbanites (Modern Lovers). In Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document the focus is on war protestors: revolutionaries whose violent activities forced them off the grid, underground, and into new identities.
The first thing about the novel that puzzled me was the title: Eat the Document, comes from a documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of the United Kingdom with the Hawks during which he transitions from folk singer to rock star. (The entire film is actually available to watch on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJWWEjyqI68.) So, there’s a documentary maker in Eat the Document (the novel) but he’s making anti-war films. And yes, Bob Dylan was anti-war, I just think the connection is tenuous. And I for one had never heard of the Bob Dylan Eat the Document documentary. I haven’t watched the documentary so I don’t know if there’s any explanation therein for the title.
There are other questions I have. Luckily, Dana Spiotta is coming to my hometown this weekend (September 16-18, 2016) to speak and teach at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference. So I’m hoping to be able to bend her ear about a few of those.
Ms. Spiotta: I want to know what about this unique time period in American history grabbed you. Why did you choose to write about war protestors who go on the run. Are you as big of a fan of the Beach Boys as her character Jason. Did ______ and ______ meet at the _______ on ________. Do you most identify with Henry, as I suspect, or another character and why.
To begin, Mary and Bobby have done something. They must go on the run and create new identities for themselves, somewhat easier to do in the earliest 70s. The reader travels with Mary as she assumes new names, appearances and personalities. But Bobby disappears while Spiotta introduces us to Seattle in the late 1990s and a radical-ish bookstore run by a low-key guy named Nash. Mary — now known as Louise — and her teenage son Jason wind up in the Seattle suburbs as well. Jason is fifteen and has many obsessions: music, finding his mother’s secrets, competing with his next door neighbor. But none are larger than his self-obsession.
I am the center of the culture. I am genesis, herald, harbinger. The absolute germinal zero point–that’s me. I am the sun around which all the American else orbits. In fact, I am America, I exist more than other Americans. America is the center of the world, and I am the center of America. I am fifteen, while, middle class and male. Middle-aged men and women scurry for my attention. What Internet sites I visit. What I buy. What my desires are. What movies I watch. What and who I want; when and how I want it. People get paid a lot of money to think of how to get to me and mine.
Reviewing for the New York Times in 2006, the year Eat the Document was released, Michiko Kakutani said: “By cutting back and forth between Mary’s story and the stories of her son, Jason; her former lover and fellow fugitive, Bobby; and Bobby’s best friend, Henry, Ms. Spiotta has constructed a glittering collage of a book — a book that possesses the staccato ferocity of a Joan Didion essay and the historical resonance and razzle-dazzle language of a Don DeLillo novel.” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/03/books/03kaku.html?_r=0
I listened to Eat the Document on audio driving back and forth to court in another city, but I actually pulled over and stopped the car to write down my favorite line from the book.
“We identify ourselves by what moves us.”
That seems not only true, but aspirational.
Would your book club enjoy Eat the Document? It was a National Book Award finalist and certainly worthy of that honor. It is meaty, slightly twisty, intriguing. An insightful look at the 70s and how the events of that decade linger on through our present. Publisher Simon and Schuster provides a reading group guide on its website if you want more information. http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Eat-the-Document/Dana-Spiotta/9780743273008/reading_group_guide#rgg
As easy as the music selections were to list for Eat the Document, the menu is tougher and I find this always to be more true when listening to a book on audio versus holding a tangible object and marking it as I read. I think I remember a reference to lasagna, there’s definitely a breakfast with pancakes and bacon.
Mary/Louise is actually a cook and works at several diners and so I’m sure I have missed lots of the food references. Nevertheless, at times like these, I go for the pun. So my menu will include:
Roasted root vegetables — “underground” food
As a main course, I might actually serve the pancakes and bacon. There’s nothing as good as breakfast for dinner. Or make a lasagna.
Ice Cream Bombe for dessert. This is an incredibly fabulous looking dessert but relies on store-bought ice cream and pound cake. Using coffee ice cream would give a nod to the Seattle locale of Eat the Document. Here’s a recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/coffee-coconut-ice-cream-bombe-recipe.html
Eat the Document’s musical references are multiple and varied:
Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum (Incidentally the best name for a rock group ever)
You could also feature Bob Dylan songs from the documentary Eat the Document, including:
Tell Me, Momma
I Don’t Believe You
Ballad of a Thin Man
One Too Many Mornings
But Jason’s truest love is bootlegged versions of The Beach Boys’ albums with particular focus on Pet Sounds and Smile.
UPDATED: Largeheartedboy.com has solicited a playlist from Dana Spiotta — http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2007/01/book_notes_dana.html — and in her own words, here’s her playlist:
Eat the Document has many music references. Much of the book takes place in the 70s, so much of the music is from that era. The contemporary part of the novel largely concerns a music-obsessed 15 year-old who is under the sway of PET SOUNDS and SMILE. The book is also about people living underground, about secret identities and so on, and the title comes from the unreleased documentary by and about Bob Dylan. Much is made in the book of “lost” albums and unpopular albums made by popular musicians.
I don’t listen to music when I write, but I listen to music when I am not writing. When I am walking, driving my car, doing housework, staring into space, and generally thinking about the book. The tracks I picked are either cited in the book specifically, or they give a feel for things in the book.
1) “Our Prayer”
The Beach Boys, SMILE
When I started writing the novel, the Beach Boys’ SMILE was still unreleased. Then Brian Wilson decided to put out a version. Although they are very close, I prefer the version of “Our Prayer” from my bootleg: short, heavenly, wordless. But I admit I am biased in favor of the more obscure thing.
Alexander Spence, from OAR
OAR is one of my favorite albums. Skip Spence was first in the Jefferson Airplane and then in Moby Grape. OAR is his only solo album—it was made between hospital visits. One of the characters in Eat the Document discusses OAR as an example of an essential “lost” album. It is a very sad record, but quite beautiful and naked sounding. “Diana” has so much longing in the singing and the slightly dissonant guitar. “Weighted Down” is about feeling the burden of your past—a theme that resonates in my novel. If you dig that slightly off feeling, if you like Nick Drake, well, this sounds to me like Pink Moon Nick Drake combined with the Velvet Underground.
Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain
This song keeps coming up in the novel. I really tried my best to describe what listening to this song feels like. It connects the mother to the son in this odd way. The mother hears it on a commune from a white woman who apparently thinks she is black and only listens to heavy funk and black music. It unnerves the mother. There is a spookiness to it that is beyond mere sadness. I also think listening to guitar-heavy music in the middle of the woods can freak you out a little. I wrote this novel in an old farm house in central New York. Some of the music I am listing sounds downright ghostly, particularly “Maggot Brain.” It also features a famous long and gorgeous guitar solo by Eddie Hazel. The story is that George Clinton told Hazel to play as though his mother just died. And so he did.
“Alone Again Or”
Love, from Forever Changes
The band Love figures prominently in the novel. In fact, Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean actually appear in a crucial “lost” film a couple of times. Anyway, this is an actual hit song, a classic, but it is obscure none the less. Arthur Lee is the proto 60s black rock-n-roller, and he doesn’t seem to get his do. In any case, “Alone Again Or” was written by Bryan MacLean. It has these grand horns and kind of gentle acoustic guitar. It creates something specific in you as you listen. And if you get your hands on the first album (or DaCapo) on vinyl, you should hold it in your hands and stare at it while you listen. They had a singular style and presence.
“Hello, My Friend”
Dennis Wilson, from Pacific Ocean Blue
Dennis Wilson, from Bamboo (Or as a Beach Boys B-side, on the Sounds of Free single)
Here are three songs by Dennis Wilson. I also took the liberty of having Dennis Wilson make a cameo appearance in my book. His two solo albums are hard to find. They are the very essence of the California come-down of the mid seventies. Dennis Wilson was one of the saddest guys around, and he had a lot of drama and irony built into his short life. It is hard to resist. In my novel he puts Procol Harum on the jukebox and dances barefoot with a girl who is willing to buy him a drink. “Hello, My Friend” is about taking the long, slow, low road.
6) “If You See Her, Say Hello”
Bob Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks
“If You See Her, Say Hello” is here because he wrote a lot of songs about leaving your love (and the things you love) behind, and I may as well pick this one for the sorry days of 1975.
7) “Cabin Essence”
The Beach Boys, from SMiLE
Another one from the SMiLE bootleg—it is has that child-like Wilson radiance.
8) “Hot as Sun/Glasses/ Junk”
Paul McCartney, from McCartney
This is from Paul’s home-recorded low-fi album. It creates a real after-the-fall ambiance, but it isn’t about devastation like SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS. It’s more about the melancholy of dislocation. I listened to this record all the time when I was working on EAT THE DCOUMENT. It is really low-key and very anti-pop. McCartney is a bit like Brian Wilson—people are familiar with their perfect pop songs and melodies, and they don’t get credit for some of the formal experiments that made them rebellious in their way. The segues and juxtapositions on this album are as interesting as the songs.
9) “The Bridge”
Neil Young, from Time Fades Away
Neil Young sort of belongs in my novel even though he isn’t there. I could pick any of a dozen Neil Young songs, but I thought I should pick an “unreleased” song. A ballad, because I’m not a rock anthem fan. I do love Young’s songs about lonely love—or being lonely inside your life—much more than the ones about the culture at large.
10) “I Shall Be Released”
Gram Parsons/ Flying Burrito Brothers, from Farther Along
Okay, we end with a snippet of a version of Dylan’s classic song sung by the wistful-voiced Gram when he was in the Flying Burrito Brothers. I picked this, although it isn’t in my book, because it is beautiful and incomplete (it breaks off half-way through), because we all can imagine what might have been—and we should try—and because we all shall be released, which is a consolation of a kind.
Mary/Louise: Mary describes herself as wispy, forgettable. It would be a trick to play someone 20 and the same actor play her as a 45 year old mom. Anne Hathaway did a pretty good job of it in Brokeback Mountain. I’m thinking Kiernan Shipka has the right vibe for a young Mary, but not sure about the older one.
Bobby: Lenny Kravitz.
Jason: Jack Kilmer maybe? Struggling with this one.
Henry: Steve Buscemi