Wayward by Dana Spiotta review: The novel wanders into clumsy commentary

Dana Spiotta's five novels, which she publishes metronomically once every five years, the main characters struggle against the liberties they have aspired or been surrounded in since birth. Documentary filmmakers and restaurateurs worry about being good people. They give money to the poor, and then rush to their cars in shame. They wonder about ethical ways to raise children and consume news. They are obstinately self-conscious, but only occasionally aware of their own limitations. They often wrestle adulthood to a draw.AdvertisementWayward, Spiotta's latest book, is very similar. Imagine A Dolls House was written by people who attended a freshman seminar at A Dolls House. Sam, a woman in her forties, moves from the suburban home she shared with her husband and teenage daughter to a more humble house in the middle of Syracuse. Sams mother is in pain; her daughter has a relationship with an older man; and her new political friends (and enemies) are irritable in predictable ways. Wayward's best expression is the sense that modern life has become too fragmented and too distorted for one to fully absorb it all, let alone bend to its will. It often descends into plotting and conversation that are so deliberate and labored as to reduce what could have been tragedy to mere farce.Reviews and Reviews of Wayward B- B - Wayward Author Dana Spiotta Publisher KnopfSpiotta's main theme is the overwhelming power and ability to observe or be observed. Wayward examines the way women become invisible as they age. However, Wayward also points out that it is virtually impossible for anyone to experience the eroticism and enlightenment that comes with sustained attention in the distracted, online world we live in. (Flashbacks to Sam's NARAL march are appropriate, as is a romantic description of her marriage. Wayward's most memorable pieces are about this inattention, the inability to see what and who is in front of you. It's evident in the way that the election and its aftermath are filtered through thousands of Facebook groups whose ideologies are difficult to understand; it's also there in the long string of unanswered texts Sam sends her daughter every day. She feels both pathetic and dignified in her consistency, and her restraint. Shortly after Sam's separation, a sex scene between Sam, her husband and their daughter shows how alien we can be to each other. Sam, whose legs are trembling from the sensations of direction and indirection, is entranced by their sex. It featured familiar gestures but was reconstructed and scrambled.AdvertisementWayward excels in situations where the lines between morally right and evil aren't so clear or familiar. Spiotta's 2006 novel Eat The Document sees her characters hide their identities out of necessity. Sam is introduced to a minor Svengali from an online political group. She takes humorous measures to hide her identity. It turns out that she's rich and bored. Sam wonders what this means for her politics. Sam's ambivalence becomes so exhilarating when she learns that her daughter is still a minor and is currently dating a 29 year-old family friend.Wayward is too often unable to feel that sense of alienation, and instead focuses on the numbingly obvious. Sam's conversations with friends about 2017's political state, whether they are at diners that she finds titillatingly suburban, barns owned and persistently resisting wealthy college professors, or the historic house of a suffragette Sam gives tours of, are excruciatingly devoid of subtext or variation. Some characters say, "We didn't know this meeting would be full of cis, straight and white, privileged women." There are many things you need to answer.Spiotta is not a skilled writer of dialogue despite her incredible talent. Spiotta's dialogue is not convincingly natural or distinct enough to be properly stylized. In Wayward, this heavy hand adds to the awkwardness of political discussions. Sam's conversation with the Svengali character is an example of this; it is full of lines such as Ive been asked to denounce you and Are these accusations true?These minor issues are nothing compared to the events that occur just halfway through. Sam is walking through her neighborhood at 3:00 a.m., when she sees the police killing a Black child. This would make it possible to cut the book in half and allow Wayward to focus on the aftermath of the shooting. It doesn't. Sam instead wriggles her hands for a while: Should Sam contact the mother? Do she need to speak with reporters? To the police What's the right thing? She settles for an anonymous GoFundMe contribution. After speaking at a rally to support the murdered child, the plot thread unravels and vanishes. It's simply the protagonist interfacing with the headlines. It is an unexplainable choice. This is not because Spiotta does not have the qualifications to write the event but because it is a reflection of current politics. It makes the death of another child, who was burned to death in a house fire at the end 2016's Innocents and Others, look subtle.AdvertisementHer best passages are in 2011's Stone Arabia's unexpectedly hungry ending or Eat The Documents motel lobby beginning. Spiotta's prose is slightly heightened and her pace is breathless. These qualities cannot be sustained for more than 200 pages. However, Wayward frustrates when its prose becomes stale and pedestrian. Its sentences are less reflective of an emotional break that those from another stage of Sam's life. The book comes to life towards the end when Spiotta documents the correspondence of the fictional suffragette, whose politics and life are being rewritten in the books. These letters not only have a powerful sentence level but also show the intricate interplay between the material struggles and spiritual issues of a period. After the scenes of people disagreeing about what the long-dead woman believed, it is possible to read her writing and to once again understand the power of an unbroken stare.Although Wayward's clever decision to place the correspondence at the end of the letter is smart, Wayward's shoddy plotting has made Wayward look naive. Spiotta still has a fine understanding of the rhythms and decay. Perhaps the metaphor of a falling house for a broken body is too tidy. One of Innocents' young protagonists, a rich and successful individual, sees architecture as a reflection of his inner self. Wayward knows that our physical lives are often beyond our control and subject to deterioration we can't prevent. Although the book is often unsuccessful in diagnosing the moment, it sometimes taps into something deeper and more terrifying.Jessica Marx, Author PhotoPaul Thompson, a writer living in L.A.