TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Dana Spiotta's last two novels, "Stone Arabia" and "Eat The Document," cemented her reputation as a novelist of ideas and attitude. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Spiotta's new novel "Innocents And Others" will only crank up the acclaim.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Dana Spiotta's new novel "Innocents And Others" passes the famous Bechdel test with ease. That's the requirement, as defined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that a work of fiction or a film must feature at least two female characters who talk with each other about something other than a man. No problem here.
For a novel that opens on a teenage girl's affair with an over-the-hill Orson Welles and then goes on to chronicle its heroine's relations over the years with various boyfriends and a passing husband, "Innocents And Others" ultimately regards men with only a mild, even anthropological interest. Instead, the two women friends at the center of this story think and talk passionately for decades about ideas, films and their own work. Men are momentary but art is forever.
Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler meet at an alternative Los Angeles high school in the 1980s, and both go on to realize their shared dream of becoming filmmakers. Meadow, who's rich, bony and intense, specializes in edgy documentaries, while Carrie, who describes her young self as flabby in every way, makes big-budget feminist-inflected comedies, the kind that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler might star in. You get the idea, except you don't. The basic premise may sound like a schmaltzy girlfriend movie, like "Beaches." But Spiotta, who's always described as a smart writer, really wants to explore ideas about art rather than contrived predicaments.
In her previous novel, "Stone Arabia," she delved into the power of music and the construction of fame. Here, the focus is film. Meadow and Carrie go deep into the work of among others Charlie Chaplin, Jean-Luc Godard and John Ford. They meditate on lighting, voiceovers and perspective. Looking back on her career in an autobiographical essay at the beginning of this novel, Meadow recalls her awed first reaction to Terrence Malick's film "Badlands" and says, what a mystery, the way things act on us. That's the mystery - or at least one of them - that Spiotta is investigating in this novel. How do works of art, even the bad '70s sitcoms that both Meadow and Carrie grew up on, act on us, shaping and sometimes warping our identities? Because Spiotta never wants her readers to forget that her own novels are as composed as the films her characters watch, she shakes up the forms of her storytelling, splicing interviews, dramatic dialogues and numbered lists into her narrative, which jumps around in time. She also strategically cuts away from the intense, often competitive friendship between Meadow and Carrie to tell the story of a very different woman altogether.
Jelly, as she's called, is a woman whose great allure lies in the fact that she's mastered the art of listening. Her hobby is to cold call powerful men in Hollywood and get them to talk to her. Her calls aren't erotic, but they are seductive. Here's a description of how intently Jelly listens the first time she calls a new target - (reading) Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back. She called the body listening. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. You listened. The opposite were the people who started to speak the second someone finished talking or playing or singing. They couldn't wait to get their words into it way and make it theirs. They spent the whole experience formulating their response because their response is the only thing they valued.
After a while, many of the men Jelly contacts come to depend on her regular phone calls, which she always terminates after they ask to meet her in person. When Meadow hears Hollywood insider gossip about the elusive Jelly, she resolves to make a film about her. The resulting documentary takes on a destructive life of its own. "Innocents And Others" is one of those uncanny novels whose characters and ideas linger long after the story is over. In the end, Spiotta's portrayal of artistic idealism and ambition is unexpectedly moving. As Meadow would say, what a mystery the way things act on us.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Innocents And Others" by Dana Spiotta.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, former NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels talks about the lives of Russians far from Moscow. Though they face a struggling economy and widespread corruption, most support the country's president. Her new book is called "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia." I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.