Dana Spiotta’s Political Fiction


Dana Spiotta’s political fiction.


What role did white women play in the story of Donald Trump? In the months after his election, pink-pussyhat-clad white women positioned themselves as the paradigmatic victims of a misogynistic president, even as commentators pointed out that 47 percent of them (or, I should say, 47 percent of us) voted for him. By the end of his term, news-making “Karens” showed that white women not only voted for Trump in large numbers but were often active participants in the racist state violence he championed. Pink pussyhats recalled the moment when Trump was caught on tape bragging about his ability to assault women with impunity; now white women were caught on video, bragging about their ability to deploy the police against people of color.

Dana Spiotta’s fifth novel, Wayward, is set in the early days of the Trump administration, and it focuses on a suburban liberal named Sam, whose aggrievement and complicity make her an apt representative of the vexed role that white women play in contemporary politics. In the weeks after Trump’s election, Sam feels that “the world had moved against her.” In response, she attends a feminist meeting hosted by a Cornell professor at her “beautifully restored stone farmhouse” in a “wooded and wealthy” enclave. There, a young queer couple challenges the crowd to account for the number of older white women who voted Republican. Sam shares the younger women’s disgust at her own demographic but also resents their ageism. After the meeting, she scours Facebook for feminist groups—like the “Hardcore Hags, Harridans, and Harpies”—that eschew the bourgeois pretensions of the Cornell professor without necessarily achieving a more radical politics.

A couple of months after Trump’s inauguration, Sam is ready to shrug off her own middle-class milieu more permanently: She leaves her husband and buys a fixer-upper in a disinvested neighborhood of Syracuse, N.Y. The move brings her closer, geographically, to activist groups trying to “hold the local police accountable for targeting people of color.” At the same time, Sam’s lackluster support for their cause demonstrates how distant she feels from the realities of racism.

As other reviewers have suggested, Wayward is largely a novel about living as a middle-aged woman during the moral and political confusion created by Trump’s election. It follows Sam’s experience of menopause and her growing sense that our culture makes older women invisible. Spiotta also mines the difficulties of parenting by including several chapters written from the perspective of Sam’s teenage daughter, Ally, who is caught up in a sexual relationship with an older man assigned to mentor her at school. Through Sam and her daughter, Spiotta helps us feel the weight that patriarchy places on younger and older women alike. But in ways that Sam may not even perceive, her story is also about the police violence, gentrification, and neoliberal policies that continue to threaten marginalized and working-class communities of color—whether a Democrat or a Republican is in office. A chance encounter late in the novel brings Sam face to face with this reality and challenges her to reckon with her own privilege, although it may be too little, too late.

Spiotta’s past fiction has focused on wayward radicals and underappreciated geniuses. In Eat the Document, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, we follow the tale of Mary Whittaker, an anti–Vietnam War radical who is wanted by the FBI and hiding out in suburban Washington. In Spiotta’s 2011 Stone Arabia, we meet Nik Worth, an indie musician so indie that he is his own band, critic, and fan club. He records dozens of albums under various names, while also penning pseudonymous reviews of his own work. These characters exude an eccentric or dangerous cool that Wayward‘s Sam can only aspire to: “Always she liked to imagine herself as subtly different from everyone else, enjoying the tension and mystique of being ordinary on the surface but with a radical, original interior life,” Spiotta writes. Yet while Eat the Document’s Mary uses an ordinary surface to cloak a genuinely radical past, Sam tries—and largely fails—to cast off her suburban comforts and to realize a more “radical, original” vision of herself.

While charting Sam’s political journey, Spiotta satirizes some of the more bizarre aspects of contemporary American life: Facebook groups celebrating their nostalgia for traditional gender relations; a high school club for aspiring tech “disrupters”; a butter sculpture at the state fair featuring “two cops with holstered guns helping a kid milk a cow.” Sam often criticizes such displays of “willful, unapologetic American stupidity and cruelty,” but at other times, Spiotta catches her embodying these violent undercurrents. One chapter, for example, begins with Sam chastising a mansplainer at the gym and ends with her angrily keying a car that has been parked a little too close to the dividing line.

The novel’s plot follows a similar trajectory. Sam’s purchase of an old house is initially presented as a feminist gesture—an effort to escape suburban conformity and her patronizing (but basically inoffensive) husband. Yet the move also makes her an early gentrifier of a disinvested neighborhood, a problem that she seems to recognize without taking seriously.

After her move, Sam wanders into a church that is beloved by the community but will soon shut its doors due to the cost of overhead. There, she finds a meeting of “Syracuse Streets, an activist group…plan[ning] a response to the arrest of an unarmed man who’d ended up mysteriously bruised and beaten.” Although Sam reflects that “she should be supportive if she wanted to live in this neighborhood,” she soon finds herself distracted by the church’s stained glass windows—she can’t help but be taken in by the beauty of this doomed building. Spiotta further satirizes Sam’s passion for restoration by aligning her with Joe, the man sexually exploiting her daughter. Joe, we learn, is a libertarian real estate developer who uses government grants intended for historic preservation to turn vacant buildings like this church into swanky apartments.

Spiotta also satirizes the reflexive fear that Sam feels in her new neighborhood, which makes her a threat to her neighbors. As Morgan Jerkins points out in Rolling Stone, “White women have weaponized their fear and discomfort…for centuries.” This “white feminine fear,” she argues, “does not produce innocuous behavior, but a kind of harassment that often leads to racial trauma.” Spiotta turns this fear into a recurring theme: It defines Sam’s character throughout the novel, and while it is never explicitly racialized, it is often oriented around class. Sam speculates that “some of the neighborhood denizens had seen her move in and probably figured her for an easy target.” She then asks herself: “[W]hy was she afraid of poor people?”

Late in the book, Spiotta shows how this white feminine fear is weaponized through police violence. At the end of the summer of 2017, Sam becomes the only direct witness to the police murder of a Black teenager named Adi Mapunda. Up late with insomnia, she wanders the street and sees Mapunda shot by a female police officer, who then falsely claims to a male officer that she was the one in danger:

The female cop stood up and shook her head at the male cop. Sam could see her face now, red, breathing heavily.

“Why did you fire?” he said, his voice loud and shaken.

She looked back down. “He was charging us; he had a weapon.”

At first, the shooting allows Sam to distance herself from the cop’s racism and to redeem her own presence in the neighborhood. Sam had been “slumming-it ‘poor,'” Spiotta writes. “But now she understood her obligation. The obligation of history, of her wealth, of her position.” Sam soon realizes, however, that this is not her moment to correct all the wrongs of history. The Citizen Review Board seems unlikely to act on her report, and when she reaches out to Syracuse Streets, offering to speak at a rally, no one responds, perhaps because—as Spiotta pointedly tells us—her attendance at their meetings has been spotty. As the friend Sam calls for help after witnessing the murder tells her, “Your problem…is that you think you can redeem yourself from all your shit, all this shit. And by saving yourself, you’re saving the world. Or maybe it’s the other way around.”

Yet while Sam can bring no punishment for the police and no comfort to Adi Mapunda’s family, the event shifts her relationship to her own fear. After the shooting, Sam reflects on her daughter’s relative security: “Ally was protected…. What a luxury, what an advantage…. Or, maybe…it was not a luxury at all, but the basic thing every person should have. Which was not the case, not now, not in this moment.” Throughout the novel, fear characterizes not only Sam’s view of her neighbors but also her relationships with her own family. Ally bristles at Sam’s overprotective parenting, and Sam’s mother, Lily, hides her cancer diagnosis to prevent Sam’s frantic WebMDing. But by the novel’s end, Sam’s anxiety is tempered if not transcended. When she sees Ally with her older boyfriend, for example, she decides it is up to her daughter to “weather this asshole” on her own.

By connecting Sam’s overprotective parenting to the murder she witnesses, Spiotta points to the ways that white women’s imagined or professed fears are used to justify police violence. This subject is worthwhile to explore on its own, but it is also unsettling that Sam’s epiphany about Ally’s relative security is achieved through the death of another teenager. What could Sam’s realization possibly mean for Adi Mapunda and his family?

Sam recognizes that there is something “monstrous” about the way that Mapunda’s death enables her transformation. As she reflects on whether she should call his mother, Spiotta describes her thinking: “Contacting her would give Sam something (what, exactly? a purpose, a place, for what she had seen), but at what cost to this woman? Just back the fuck up. Monstrous, to think she had a purpose here. Was the boy who’d been killed a part of her purpose? Her penance?” Yet if Spiotta easily diagnoses and interrogates these disturbing tendencies in her protagonist, readers cannot evade another question haunting the novel: Is there also something monstrous about Spiotta’s decision to make this murder a turning point in her book?

Scholars, activists, and other commentators have repeatedly pointed out that images of Black people being murdered by the police are traumatizing for many Black viewers—especially when, as Kia Gregory writes in The New Republic, “these videos showing violent black death are treated by the media as death porn or perverse entertainment.” Of course, Spiotta’s novel provides a brief description of the event, not a graphic video. Yet it is still unclear why Sam needs to witness Black death directly in order to reckon with what was, by 2017, all around her: Any leftist or liberal closely following the news at the time would have already been made aware—many times over—of the racist violence perpetrated by police.

It is also unclear what the reader is meant to take away from this scene of violence. When Spiotta writes that the safety Ally enjoys is something “every person should have,” she says something true about racism and white privilege but does not lead us to any new understanding. Other parts of the book succeed in revealing the quotidian forms that white women’s complicity takes. It is revealing how Sam’s anger moves between righteous fury at the patriarchy and entitled complaint; it is revealing that her passion for restoring old buildings is shared by a real estate developer who is preying on her daughter. But the violence on display in the book does not in itself tell us anything that Americans of color, particularly Black Americans, don’t already know. What it fails to tell us is also glaring: Mapunda’s murder reveals very little about his own life or about the systems that led to his death. One can easily imagine a less gratuitous way that Spiotta could arrange for Sam to encounter the violent realities of racism in the United States. But by displacing Sam’s everyday complicity onto the violence of the officer who kills Mapunda, Spiotta lets her character and her readers off the hook; they are not forced to confront the larger system of violence in which that act had taken place.

Describing the fabled “Great American Novel,” in a 2008 book review, Tim Adams observes that “there comes a time in the mid-life of every male American writer when he feels compelled to make his big statement about the state of the union.” Kasia Boddy has described Spiotta as part of a generation of novelists who seek to reimagine the “GAN” for female American writers, too. If Wayward is Spiotta’s attempt to make her “big statement about the state of the union,” one can understand why she chose a white woman—abused by the patriarchy but also adorned with her own privilege—to represent the contradictions of the current moment.

By exploring Sam’s specific experience as a middle-aged liberal gentrifier, Spiotta does succeed in illuminating one corner of American life—no small feat for any novel. Yet in trying to encompass the larger political moment, she proves less deft—perhaps demonstrating the dangers of the GAN’s sweeping ambitions. In addressing racism, Wayward emphasizes the dehumanizing violence that ends Adi Mapunda’s life over a real engagement with his humanity or a full reckoning with Sam’s complicity. If fiction is to successfully confront racism and violence in the United States, it must go beyond a simple restaging of them. Novels like Spiotta’s should help us to see through and behind that violence—to the less spectacular, more quotidian harms that underpin it and, most importantly, to the lives and experiences it threatens to erase.

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