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Amid Shadows On Screen, 'Innocents' Wonders What's Real

Dana Spiotta's fearless, ambitious new novel is the fourth in a remarkable series of deep dives into our culture's obsession with fame and technological change. Like her 2001 debut, Lightning Field, its main characters are shaped by Los Angeles, where the primary influence is film. Like Stone Arabia (2011) in which a woman watches her beloved brother, a never-famous rocker, document a faux career, Innocents and Others emphasizes the fragility of human connection in a world saturated with media and digital illusion.

Spiotta's focus this time is on Meadow Mori and her best friend Carrie Wexler, filmmakers raised on the fringes of Hollywood. Their loyalty weathers career ups and downs, as they reconnect off and on over the years. Also central to her story is Jelly (for Jelly Doughnut, her phone persona), a lonely, vulnerable woman with an unusual approach to phone sex; she becomes the subject of one of Meadow's final documentaries.

Spiotta opens with an essay Meadow has written for a women and film website, about how she got her start in the business. She claims that after graduating high school, she told her parents she was spending the summer working on a film collective in Gloversville, New York, "remaking lost and never completed films." Instead, she moved in with Orson Welles. She describes her nine months with Welles as "a dream, an unfinished film." This essay is followed by Meadow's credits (an Academy Award nomination for Kent State Recovered (1992), a Sundance jury prize for Inward Operator (1998), and an early series of reconstructions of famous lost films (1984-85). Her body of work, plus 866 mostly snarky comments, including the last: "People, I am calling BS on this whole essay." Already we're wondering: What's real here?

The novel proceeds as a montage of blog posts, website essays, narrative chapters, film reviews, and transcripts, presented with jazzy jump cuts. Spiotta circles back to the 1970s, when Jelly, recovering from an episode of blindness, becomes fascinated with "the fun of imagining sounds bouncing across the world in seconds." Her boyfriend Oz calls it "world whistling." By 1985, she is cold calling powerful men in Hollywood from a pilfered Rolodex, using the phone as a "weapon of intimacy."

And here we are reminded of the sensual pleasure of Spiotta's sentences: "She lay back on the pillow, held the phone so it barely touched her cheek. She imagined her voice going into the transmitter, sound waves being turned into electrical impulses, up the wires to the phone lines to the switching station, turned into microwaves speaking across the country with the memory — the imprint — of her exact tone, her high and low frequencies, her elegant modulations, to the switching station in Santa Monica ... to the Malibu beach house and into Jack's receiver."

Cut to Carrie, who takes the commercial route, directing six features, winning a Writers Guild award and two Golden Globe nominations. She compares herself to Meadow at one point, realizing "she doesn't need to be obsessed or disillusioned. That exhausted her... She liked the idea of taking a genre — say the high school film — and doing a really interesting version of it."

And what drives Meadow, aside from her compulsion to reinvent and falsify? Spiotta portrays her passionate love for her art, the indie film impulse. (Meadow says her love of cinema is "as pure as any I have ever known.") But there is a dark side to her obsession with digging for what she sees as truth, revealed as she lures Jelly before her camera and gradually discovers the consequences. Art, Spiotta writes, "is partly a confidence game. And partly magic ... you also need to be a gleaner ... You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores of discards."

Spiotta throws in many surprises, keeping us off balance throughout this complicated and important book. She reminds us to wonder what's "real," and what's constructed by visible or invisible others. And how can we tell? Spiotta has been compared to Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, but as her work accumulates, it's clear she's one of a kind, on her singular path through our contemporary wilderness.

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Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.