Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and others follows the life of three isolated women, Meadow, Carrie and Jelly, using a diverse and fragmented narrative structure in a non linear time line. Meadow and Carrie are high school friends who become film makers, and their films label them as high and low culture: Meadow, also an example of maximisation with her various obsessions leading her to create art-house films on human suffering and Carrie with her low brow “lounge-around-in-your-sweatsuit Netflix fodder”1 and then there is Jelly who fends off loneliness through her telephone relationships, living in a bubble of hyperreality until her story merges with Meadow when she decides to make a film about Jelly. Spiotta’s novel is riddled with postmodern techniques including pastiche, fragmentation, hyperreality, language games, metafiction and poioumena to offer a narrative that is a textbook example of postmodernism.
Jean-François Lyotard's La Condition Postmoderne offers the concept of postmodernism as, “seeing the world in more rhetorical terms as a field of content in smaller narratives where people strive to make their point of view and their interests paramount by making their narratives more convincing.”2 Spiotta’s Innocents and others offers such small narratives broken up into biographical essays, transcripts of video and film, diary entries, and online forums, for example “Portrait of Deke”3 is formatted as a script, using centring for the characters in capital letters and action in italics. The time stamp appears throughout the dialogue between Deke and Meadow. Another example of a small narrative is the online forum on Meadow Mori’s essay which gives bite sized narratives4 with various comments from people and “trolls” as well as the language of the online forum such as “show more comments in this thread’ to direct us that these could be ‘real’ comments.
Lyotard’s postmodern concept continues with Lyotard stating that portrayal of his knowledge “makes no claims to being original or even true” and that his hypotheses “should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the questions raised”⁵. Like Lyotard, Meadow Mori makes no claims that her narrative is true which leads to the questions raised about her faux memoir of an affair with Orson Welles, termed ‘fan fiction’ by one of her students, as well as the Jelly narrative as truth or faction. “People, I am calling BS on this whole essay. Welles famously lived and died on Stanley Avenue in Hollywood, not in Brentwood. Everybody knows that. Even the death date is off. She is pulling your chain.” 6
Is this a postmodernist faction? Is this a concoction of narratives based on real people’s lives? Jelly is almost a carbon copy of Whitney Walton aka Miranda Grosvenor who used to hear Billy Joel on her answering machine with his latest unfinished song or chat to Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Robert De Niro, Johnny Carson and Ted Kennedy; 7and why does Spiotta use Orson Welles wife’s surname ‘Mori’ for her character, Meadow, implying a thread to the ‘real life’ Orson Welles?
We are told that Mori sees herself as a “story conjurer”8 and we are told that Meadow “ tells her own truth in her own way – you just have to yield to her vision of the world.” 9 When she is making the film, Children of the Disappeared, she terms her production as “It was enactment, and it was not real. It was manipulation.” The theme of manipulation continues with Jack’s dialogue about ‘Nicole’ in Inward Operator. “She lied to me, and she manipulated me… I can’t have feelings for her if there is no her. How can I know if any of it- of her – was real?”10 This offers the post modernist view that realities are only social constructs and has one questioning the theme of manipulation in regards to truth.
Meadow is a lover of Welles, “the great confidence artist, the prevaricator, the big fake who tells you he is manipulating you.”11 This is what Spiotta is executing, an imitation, a manipulation of the reader. Meadow gives her ‘story conjuring’ a term borrowed from Robert Scholes, “fabule”, a postmodernist label. “ Meadow was creating what she called a fable, a wish-story about herself, half dream and half fact.” 12 This term shows that Meadow and the writer are both keenly aware of postmodernism and it’s meaning.
Meadow creates her own language terms as do other characters executing Wittgenstein’s language game. ‘Gleaner’ is one of these examples which relates to Meadow’s creation of reality in films. Carrie gives us this knowledge when she says, “I will close with what Meadow once told me about being an artist. It is partly a confidence game. And partly magic. But to make something you also need to be a gleaner. What is a gleaner? Well it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants.” 13 Is Spiotta herself a ‘gleaner,’ taking the ‘real’ Whitney Walton and turning her into Amy Thomas, one of the phone phreaks?
The language of the ‘Phone Phreak’ community shows clear examples of Wittgenstein’s postmodern language game with Oz being the ultimate linguist. He could talk to Jelly “about the intricacies of the phone system like he was a line engineer: “single –frequency dialing system” and “ hook dialing” and “ Strowger switch.”14 Oz and the phreaks have also developed their own words such as “world whistling,”15 “warbling”16 and they all used nicknames or fakenames. Oz’s language is a technical one, in the world of telephones, “Oz never had much interest in talking. He liked tones and the mechanics and the distant clicks, whilsting from one responsive line to another.”17
Oz and his language are juxtaposed against Jelly who is also part of his phone phreak community but her use of the phone dialect is about connecting with people on a mental level rather than the physical/technical level that Oz uses via whistling and being technically connected to cities around the world. Jelly instead listens to the sounds people make on the phone such as “the bottle unscrewed or uncorked followed by the pour of liquid over ice and the cracking of the ice.”18 She declares that, “The phone was built for this. It had no visual component, no tactile component, no person with hopeful or embarrassed face to read, no scent wafting, no acid collection in the mouth.”19 We see her real voice become an imitation through technology, “She imagined her voice going into the transmitter, sound waves being turned into electrical pulses, up the wires to the phone lines to a switching station, turned into microwaves speeding across the country with the memory – the imprint – of her exact tone…” 20 This is a prime example of Lyotard’s computer age of “coded messages within a system of
transmission and communication.”21 It is also introduces Baudrillard’s hyperreality.
Technology constructs a new social reality, which Baudrillard terms hyperreality. This hyperreality is created from simulacra which one mistakes for reality. Jelly’s state of hyperreality is formed by the telephone, a technical device that sends an imitation of her voice to the listener at the other end of the line. The telephone in Innocents and others is conceived as Foucault’s ‘heteropia’ but replacing Foucault’s mirror for a telephone as an object that shapes the voice that is heard and thought of as Jelly. Her voice, a fragment of her, represents an image of a whole for the men she talks to on the phone, yet she realises that this fragment of her does not represent the overall package of “Nicole”. She thinks, “What to do if what you look like is not who you are? If it doesn’t match.”22 She solves this dilemma by taking photos of the good looking Lynn to represent “Nicole” to those she telephones. Now with a voice and an image ie the photographs, “…she began to feel that she was a part of this wondrous world. She began to believe that the distance between her life and their lives was not so big after all.” 23 Her physical image of herself changes through this fragment to that of a hyperreality, “She felt blond and supple and young when she talked to Jack… She did not feel dowdy and heavy.” 24
The hyperreality is also reflected in her conversations as a telemarketer when she tells people she phones how wonderful ‘Outer Banks’ is although she has never been there. “She didn’t even mind making things up (her own experience at Outer Banks Escape, for example, was limited to emotive elaboration of the photos in the brochure.)” 25
Meadow is a lover and producer of hyperreality and artificiality as hinted early in the narrative when she declares, “I was addicted to the slightly cooked peppermint – chemical taste of Diet Dr Pepper. Perhaps the blatant artificiality of it pleased me – it wasn’t trying to taste like anything real, the way diet Fanta or diet Fresca attempted to have “fruit’ flavours…” 26
We see her construct her own Dr Pepper style false realities in her films. One of the first films we see her make, which is distributed, is when she films her boyfriend Deke who she sees as “imitating someone without knowing it. An imitation of some fake gay man in a bad movie. So an imitation of an imitation.”27 Yet Deke’s reality is different to Meadows when he exclaims in the film, ‘I am not fake!”28 The reader is told that she is aware of her constructing of a reality through editing, asking only the questions she wants to ask, filming from certain angles, when she says that people are aware that a film says “A Film by Meadow Mori” right on it. Of course it was cut a certain way, constructed by her.” 29 She realises that this film knowledge she has is converted to power when she thinks, “Cinema truth is deceptive that way. It can tell you something but show you something very different. And you can bet you will walk away believing in what you saw.” 30
The reality theme of Baudrillard’s claim that Disneyland and television constituted America's reality, takes another turn in Carrie’s essay about how she started in film making and the impact that television has had on her. She details an example of a Tuesday in her past and how much her life was influenced by television, “The dinner in front of the TV while Mom and I moved into Tuesday prime time: Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley. The world in half-hour increments and punctuated by an endless stream of repeated commercials.” 31She goes on to discuss how she connected to people through watching of television because everyone watched the same shows on the same days, “so you could talk with your friends about what was on One day at a Time or M*A*S*H. It was a continuous. Thread.” 32
Film and the making of it is one of the main aspects of this novel, which represents metafiction and poiomenon, key aspects of postmodernism. Poiomenon was coined by Alastair Fowler to describe a story that is about the process of creating a story, sometimes even the creation of itself and fits under the heading of metafiction, fiction about fiction i.e. fiction that includes within itself reflections on its own fictional identity. 33 Innocents and others is on one level, a story about film makers, how they get their ideas for films, then how they film them and how they physically put them together. Throughout the novel we see how films are made, both the type of equipment needed and how it was used, “They used a vintage wind-up Bell & Howell 16 mm Filmo camera,” just like the one Jean Rouch used to make Moi un noir.” The camera shot for twenty seconds and then needed to be cranked again,” 34 through to how they are filmed, such as Meadow’s filming of trains from all different angles, “Meadow filmed the trains by lying in the cold wet mud and pointing the camera right at the point of contact of wheels on tracks. She also filmed pointing the camera up at the train from the same vantage. She filmed them from faraway…She stuck her camera close to the gap where she could see and hear the tracks as the train rushed over them.”35 Poionmenon is not just seen in the film making but also when Meadow ‘story conjurs’ her stay at Orson Welles house, which we later find out from Carrie, is a ‘fabule’. Meadow details for the reader how she makes up a story to tell her parents where she will be staying for the next nine months, “The sips helped me buy time, as I was making this up as I spoke, or at least partly.”36 Not only is Meadow spinning a story to her parents, she is also spinning this fiction within fiction to us the reader, as we find out later in the chapter, Carrie tells the truth.
Film is also used to present Pastiche, defined by Jameson as “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry without any parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.” Meadow fragments of films, cut and spliced, pieces lives and stories together with images of the past cut and pasted in between takes or creating the feeling of the past through filming with a grainy film. Her love of the past extends beyond film to fashion in the 1930s and 1950s. At the beginning of the book, we see conveyed a “history of aesthetic styles” which “displaces real history” which Jameson sees as a “symptom of waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way.” We see this in Meadow’s home with “Louis XIV gilt painted tables” which overlook palm trees and in her penchant for 1930s style clothes, “ I so loved the clothing style of the 1930s that my prom
“dress” was a slim, high-waisted vintage men’s suit.” 37 The pastiche is apparent through her mothers not understanding why Meadow’s generation liked to wear vintage clothes “ She never understood our desire to dress up in sock hop outfits for ‘50s days’ and felt that watching Grease was ridiculous (not to mention inaccurate, i.e. “the fifties weren’t fun, by the way.”) 38
Pastiche continues in Meadow’s celebrating of great film makers, borrowing from names such as Kubrick and Warhol, “The film had some relationship to Guy-Blaches titles, but they also had evidence of Meadow and Carrie’s noticing everywhere, Kubrick and the found music and summer in Gloversville. Reimaginings rather than reenactments, they had found a way to collaborate with the history of cinema.” 39 Another example is “her big variation on Warhol - aside from the addition of sound and color – was that she wouldn’t slow the film down to four minutes the way Warhol did.” 40 All of her films rely on borrowings from genres as early as silent films, and the films she borrows from are named throughout the text highlighting another postmodern trait of intertextuality. Her films are mouthpieces for certain groups to be able to speak for themselves, in their own voice and have that voice accepted, an aspect of post modernism described by Michel Foucault as authentic and legitimate and essential to the pluralistic stance of postmodernism. 41 Meadow offers her subjects the opportunity to be heard, such as Deke, ‘Nicole,” the parents of the “Children of the Disappeared.” The words in Meadow’s films are theirs, representing their construction of the truth which is then manipulated by Meadow to produce what she wants to see as the truth and thus when looked at more closely is not a true representation of the voice of her subjects, if this could be possible.
The films like the novel are fragmented. Whilst the novel is divided into small narratives, the films too, are edited and this fragmentation is defined by Jameson as “postmodernism abandons all sense of historical continuity and memory whilst simultaneously developing an incredible ability to plunder history and absorb whatever it finds there as some aspect of the present. 42 Jameson describes this as distinctive of the late capitalist age 43 of which Meadow is a prime example. Her art house films in the beginning were funded by her parents giving her money to survive and to buy equipment, and then when she gained notoriety, she was able to get other funding.
Linda Hutcheon claimed postmodern fiction as a whole could be characterized by the ironic quote marks, that much of it can be taken as tongue-in-cheek. This irony, is one of the most recognizable aspects of postmodernism.44 Innocents and others is rich in irony. An example is of Mary Ann who suffered through the event of having people shot around her in Kent State: Recovered but it was ironic to see that it was the photograph of her that changed her life, not the event. “Not because she was there, but because she was photographed. She is pictured on her knees in her genuine anguish on t-shirts. Her parents will sue people for a share of the proceeds. She will try to move on, but the photo will affect her life for years to come. … When she leaves her kid’s PTA meeting, parents will lean over to another parent and whisper “You know who she is, don’t you?” 45 Irony is threaded throughout fragments and the whole in that Meadow and Carrie with their different high and low brow approaches could never have made a film together, yet they have joined forces in this novel, the only art form to contain them.
In conclusion, after looking at ideas and characteristics of postmodernism as defined through the writings of Lyotard, Foucault, Hutcheon, Baudrillard and Jameson which include pastiche, irony, hyperreality, metafiction and poiomenon, it can be seen that Innocents and others is flooded with examples of these characteristics throughout the novel at both a macro and micro level – a macro level in terms of structure, character, and story and a micro level through dialogue and language and is a textbook example of postmodernist literature.
Elluga Dino Modules on Jameson On Postmodernity
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