We’ve been big fans of Dana Spiotta since her 2012 novel Stone Arabia, a novel so good that it sent us dashing through her back catalogue (for the record, Lightning Field, Eat the Document and Innocents and Others are all well worth a read). We’d go as far to say that Stone Arabia has been one of our regular go to recommendations for the last decade, one of those books we regularly buy copies of as gifts for people who take reading seriously. So, it’s fair to say, we were looking forward to her latest.
Our narrator is Sam, a woman on the verge of menopause who decides one day – as far as her husband is concerned, apropos of nothing – to end her marriage and buy a house of her own, a special house, she thinks, a rundown house with interesting heritage in a dodgy area. As you’d expect from Spiotta, Sam is a keen observer of both the world and herself and her interrogations are sophisticated:
“Sam knew that you were sold the idea that you could be independent-minded even as you bought what everyone else bought. You were allowed to keep a vain and precious sense of agency. This was the very secret to consumerism working in a savvy, self-conscious culture. Her sense of resistance was as manufactured as her need to buy flattering clothing.”
Like No One is Talking About This or Fake Accounts, Spiotta refracts Sam through her reaction to social media (it can’t be avoided, you have to have an opinion, but simultaneously you need to develop a fortress away from the noise):
“…she knew part of what made Facebook – and the internet, really – addicting was simultaneously indulging your own obsessions while mocking (deriding, denouncing even) the obsessions of others from the safety of your screen.”
Her personal crisis is seen in tandem with the crisis of America (“the world – and this country in particular – was in disgraceful shambles”, plus, you know, the “environmental apocalypse”) – “her fucking rage” walking hand in hand with the sense that “she had done everything wrong”. Part of the journey of the book is in Sam coming to realise that – despite crowds of people “wearing their crudeness as some kind of emblem of authenticity, just like their fat president” – “…despite everything, [she] did care about the humans, the coming extinction.”
“What happened to us” she asks. “When did progress become so ugly?”
Spiotta’s book lands more or less the same week as a thrilling article by David Remnick in the New Yorker which explores the very real possibility of either a future Civil War in America or an actual end to democracy, and Wayward thrums with the sense of the problem of contemporary America (as Ducks did a couple of years ago).
As a postcard from the edge, then, Wayward is tremendously effective. But the novel is also (at least) as interested in the relationship between Sam and her daughter Ally, a young woman finding her place in the world, stepping out with a much older man and navigating the first few stepping stones of adult life estranged from her mum. This part of the novel is arguably more conventional and its eventual resolution offers few surprises.
What’s more, the more conventional aspects of the novel act as something of a drag on the more ruminative elements, such that – by the time Sam becomes a witness to a crime, the kind of crime all too familiar in America, the kind of crime that feels like an electric hotspot to all kinds of tensions – it feels, curiously, like a distraction from all of the things that are interesting and clever and compelling about the novel.
Which possibly sounds more critical than we intend, really, but that may in part be as a result of the fact that we come to Spiotta with high expectations. If we were asked, at say the point of a blunt stick, if we thought Wayward as good as her previous novels, we’d duck the question and say Wayward is good. It’s serious and engaging and human and it gets stuck into the meaty mess in which we find ourselves.
Any Cop?: Dana Spiotta is a writer who deserves to be read more, and discussed more, and lauded at least as much as younger debut writers. Whilst Wayward isn’t her best (in our humble etc), it’s still pretty damn good and a worthwhile way to spend your hard-earned and your time.