It is easy for a life to become unblessed. Thus begins Dana Spiotta's complex second novel as young Mary Whittaker goes underground in 1972, after a Vietnam War protest turns fatal. Mary is leaving behind not only her lover, Bobby DeSoto, who has gone separately underground, and her family, but her very self. She's been coached on how to create a new identity if the need arises (Eat the Document could be a textbook on this process) and, even more important, how to become that person.
Spiotta moves her narrative back and forth in time and among several characters in addition to Mary: Bobby, who has become Nash, and manages an alternative bookstore where he is a daily witness to how the activists of his generation have changed; Henry, who owns the bookstore and who has the dreams of a Vietnam War vet although he was actually 4-F; Miranda, who is looking to shake the suburbs off her forever, and with whom Nash is smitten; and Jason, Mary's son, a 15-year-old obsessed with the music of his mother's youth, primarily the Beach Boys. Spiotta explores what happens to people forced to live false lives that gradually become their real ones and investigates the vast differences between the protesters of the '60s and '70s and the activists of the late 20th century. It's a world of sad and savage ironies: the same company that manufactured the dioxin that poisoned Vietnam vets now makes money from the drugs needed to manage their symptoms; a website hacker is offered a job by one of the corporations whose website he sabotaged and takes it; various alternative communities, including one Mary once spent time in, are turned into centers for franchising and profit. Although the novel's structure gives it an inevitably fragmented feeling, Eat the Document (the title comes from a documentary about Dylan's 1966 tour) is a powerful and disturbing book.
Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.