In Dana Spiotta’s unsettling new novel, “Innocents and Others,” a telephone con artist becomes the subject of a documentary filmmaker who specializes in filming “the lost, the marginalized or the villainous.” Spiotta is to appear March 9 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
It takes unusual talent to create empathy for a woman who manipulates her targets the way telephone con artist Jelly does in Dana Spiotta’s new novel, “Innocents and Others” (Scribner, 288 pp., $25). But the honesty of Jelly’s feelings for the men she seduces and the depth of her need for human connection make this frumpy woman among the purest characters in Spiotta’s haunting world, where a disembodied voice can be more tangible than flesh and blood.
“Making things up was OK because it was all about feelings, real feelings and real longing,” Jelly, who knows better, attempts to convince herself. “How they came about, fantasy or not, didn’t matter.”
Somewhat less innocent is filmmaker Meadow Mori, the lead character in this story, who turns Jelly into the subject of her latest documentary. Meadow is an artist-provocateur who nudges the lost, marginalized or villainous to look into her camera and incriminate themselves.
The author of “Innocents and Others” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
It happens again and again — with Jelly, who lures men into telephone relationships based entirely on sharing confidences, then disappears from their lives; with Deke, an underage sexual conquistador; and with parents who have kidnapped children of the disappeared, during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” then raised them as their own. All appear in Meadow’s films. Most regret it. A “handmaiden to monsters,” Meadow is dubbed in the press.
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She mangles her own image as much as she does others’. Even the story of her teenage affair with an aging film legend, who may or may not be Orson Welles, is part of the lore, as described by Meadow herself on film sites across cyberspace.
But Meadow in real life is more difficult to pin down.
The plot that twines her life with Jelly’s starts in high school when Meadow — privileged, rebellious, vaguely troubled — befriends Carrie, the daughter of a single mom. Both ascend to careers in film. Meadow is the avant-garde auteur who aims to implicate her viewers with their voyeurism. Carrie just wants to make people laugh.
“She didn’t need to be obsessed or disillusioned,” writes Spiotta. “That exhausted her.”
The unspoken competition and nascent jealousy between these two ambitious women come through in several spare scenes, a female-friendship story that pales against Spiotta’s exploration of art and its peculiarly selfish realities.
Often compared to the early fiction of Joan Didion, Spiotta’s previous work has earned consistent acclaim, even if her name is less well known. “Eat the Document,” her 2006 novel about underground revolutionaries disappearing into suburbia, was a finalist for the National Book Award. “Innocents and Others” is similarly concerned with questions of identity, now focusing on the corrosive nature of fame and technology in the creation of a self.
Meadow, pilloried for the ethical questions raised by her work, becomes a recluse, then a legend. Carrie walks a more conventional — and traditionally successful — path, but it too proves unsatisfying.
“Believe me, the attention can hurt, so you must make sure you get something out of it,” Meadow’s older, Welles-like lover warns the budding artist.
Her story serves as the intellectual fulcrum of this intimate, unsettling novel, but Jelly provides its emotional heart. Overweight, partially blind and full of shame, Jelly is drawn only toward relationships where no one can see her.
“The ring of another person’s phone sounded so hopeful, and then it grew lonelier. It lost possibility, and you could almost see the sound in an empty house,” Spiotta writes.
At home in upstate New York, Jelly reaches across vast distances — into the Los Angeles bedrooms of Hollywood moguls where, in conversation, she is glittering, charming, alive. Listening becomes her world. Sounds take on shape. Over the phone, Jelly is irresistible.