An ambitious and powerful story about idealism, passion, and sacrifice, Eat the Document shifts between the underground movement of the 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the 1990s.
A National Book Award finalist, Eat the Document is a riveting portrait of two eras and one of the most provocative and compelling novels of recent years.
Group Reading Guide Eat the Document Dana Spiotta If you want to change your life, first change your name. In the heyday of the 1970s underground, Mary Whittaker and Bobby DeSoto were the quintessential political activists -- in love with each other and their cause. But when a radical protest against the Vietnam War ended in tragedy, they vowed to never see each other again and start anew by changing their names and identities. Now a fugitive on-the-run, Mary keeps the truth, and the authorities, at bay by altering her image, dying her hair, and never staying too long in one place. Mary reinvents herself as Caroline Sherman, and then takes the name (and social security number) of a dead infant named Louise Barrot. It's now the 1990s, and "Louise" lives with her teenage son Jason in the suburbs of Seattle -- a son she hardly knows but who revels in the music of her day. Jason becomes suspect of his mother's strange ways, and with the power of technology, he puts together the pieces of her secret past. Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the consequences of those choices in the 1990s, Eat the Document is an unflinching examination of the polarities -- from rebellion and subculture to advertising and trends -- that can define a generation.
Questions for Discussion
One of the prominent themes in Eat the Document is that of identity. For Mary Whittaker, "her identity was more habit and will than anything more intrinsic" (10). Who do you think the "real" Mary is and how did she manage to convince herself and others of her made-up existence?
The relationship between Nash and Miranda, as well as the one between Louise and her son Jason, define cultural gaps. Explain the differences and why you think they are important to the story.
Jason claims that he is, "the center of the culture . . . I am fifteen, white, middle class and male . . . People get paid a lot of money to think of how to get to me and mine" (123). Cite instances where advertising and merchandising try to imitate the youth culture, but instead miss the mark. How did advertising's hidden agenda cause the demise of Henry? Discuss why defacing or destroying billboards is portrayed as an act against corporate hegemony.
Where in the story does Jason play a parental role to his mother Louise? Despite her overprotective nature when her son was born, do you think Louise is a "good" mother? Why do you think she hid her secret from him for so many years?
Jason describes suburbia as a "freak's dreamworld" (73). What does the sterility of suburban life provide for those like Josh who thrive within this environment? Why is the notorious, disorderly Black House "pure post-suburban paradise for a girl like Miranda" (57) and her housemates? What is so appealing about city life for these otherwise sheltered kids?
After being sexually assaulted and trying to erase the incident from her memory, Caroline claims that "time lessens everything -- the good things you desperately want to remember, and the awful things you need to forget" (195). Is this statement true for other characters? How does Caroline's penchant for moving and redefining her memories compare to Nash's preference to staying in one place and letting fate run its course?
"A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. . . . Both allow groups of people to act in concert but without consequence" (238). Compare the women's commune in upstate New York to the corporate giant Allegecom's "First Self-sustaining Techtopia in America," Alphadelphia. Discuss the ways in which these two communities can be seen as social experiments.
How do you think Nash views the young para-activist groups who call themselves the testers? How do these technologically savvy, often self-righteous teens of the nineties compare to the political activists of the seventies?
Miranda soon discovers that everything from anarchist clothing accessories to franchised alternative communities is a commodity. What happens when the subculture becomes the mainstream? Do you think capitalism and mass consumption devalue the political ideals behind the products?
One difference between Mary and Bobby is that she is an activist at heart, and he is more of an idealist. Do you think Mary influenced Bobby to orchestrate the war protest? Was she ultimately the driving force behind their plan?
When Bobby and Mary meet again as Louise and Nash, do you think their love has survived? What is the fate of their relationship?
Do you think Louise will actually turn herself in? If so, why do you think she would after twenty-five years of hiding?
Enhance Your Book Club The title Eat the Document comes from a documentary about Bob Dylan's 1966 tour. Watch this documentary together and discuss why you think this is an appropriate title for Dana Spiotta's novel. Take action! Go to www.speakout.com to get information about animal rights, race relations, and other topics. You can also take part in virtual debates, online polls and surveys, and write to elected officials. Or visit www.volunteermatch.org to find volunteer opportunities in your area. Move your book club meeting place to an independent bookstore near you like Prairie Fire, and for fun coffee drinks you can make at home, visit www.epicurious.com.
Dana Spiotta is the author of Innocents and Others; Stone Arabia, A National Books Critics Circle Award finalist; and Eat the Document, a finalist for the National Book Award. Spiotta is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize for Literature. She lives in Syracuse, New York.