EAT THE DOCUMENT by Dana Spiotta

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'em ...take our poll!

Eat The Document (June 7, 2007) Certain novels serve as better vehicles for book group discussion than they do for individual reading pleasure. Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta exemplified this for Book-'Em.

This is the tale of two young anti-Vietnam activists in the early 1970s who must go underground after one of their protests has wreaked destruction and death. Several different narrators alternating past and present events tell the story. As Mary, aka Louise, and Bobby, aka Nash, seek and establish new lives, we are able to explore the components of "identity."

While no Book-'Em member disliked this selection, neither was there any real enthusiasm for it. One member felt that the '70s references were trite and superficial and did not evoke the memories and nostalgia we had expected. Several subplots to Bobby and Mary's story felt weak: they served to provide information about an era and a culture without adding substance to the essence of this story. What we found most interesting was our new perspective. "I had never thought about how someone who had gone underground would live and feel. I just figured that they had gotten away with it!"

What is one's identity created from? Physical appearances and mannerisms, the clothes an individual chooses, personality, interest and experiences, one's history. Can people really shed their identity, re-invent themselves? What would be hardest to give up besides one's family? Several people felt that the everyday paranoia of perhaps being recognized and fear of "slipping" would make life too burdened. Others felt that it would be impossible to form close relationships again. "You would always be hiding a part of yourself and would always know you were being false."

For other members it was leaving behind the tangible of their memories and history: photo albums. Many commented during our discussion on the ironic contrast between the passions and commitment of radicals and the bland and anonymous lives they must subsequently follow. "There's too much contrast. We all want to be noticed, to make a dent. And then, to make no dent at all?"

Eat The Document does highlight the toll extracted on anyone who has to disappear. One of our group noted, "It must just be hard work all of the time!" We also discussed which of the characters who had to go underground, Louise or Nash, had better managed their subsequent life and why, and we looked at a 1993 New York Times article about a '70's fugitive, Katherine Ann Powers, who ultimately had turned herself in. The details of Louise's life in this novel bear a striking resemblance to Power's. Spiotta also conveys in the novel how the serious protest movements of the '70s era have morphed into intellectual game playing in the hands of some today.

Eat The Document is an interesting selection for book clubs. It lends itself to sustained dialogue along a number of tangents, even though we did not classify it "a great read."

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