In “Wayward,” A White Woman’s Midlife Crisis Gentrifies the Neighborhood
Dana Spiotta on why we need more fiction about menopause and reading as a counter-cultural act
Dana Spiotta’s novels often feature inventive structures reflecting the tastes of her educated, often Gen X protagonists, who tend to be practicing artists or interested in the arts, though 2006’s Eat the Document also dealt with the intergenerational fallout of radicals protesting the Vietnam War. However, in Spiotta’s newest novel, Wayward, the characters in the predominately white liberal space Spiotta writes about are devastated by the choices of other whites.
In Wayward, Sam is living a comfortable life in the Syracuse suburbs with her husband and teenage daughter, only to have all faiths shaken in the aftermath of the 2016 election, right as her mother’s health is failing and she is entering perimenopause. In an effort to reckon with her own complicity in modern-day American society, Sam upends her own life, and along the way interrogates the female body, aging, and white womanhood present and past.
Dana Spiotta is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, a Creative Capital Award, and the John Updike Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her books have been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Book Award, and a New York Times Notable Book Award.
Spiotta and I recently spoke by Zoom, and discussed writing a different kind of mid-life crisis, writing the body, and making art in a capitalist society.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: In Wayward, you addressed the intergenerational impacts of white male patriarchy. Can you just discuss writing, particularly as a Gen X woman identifying as white?
Dana Spiotta: What I thought was interesting about Sam is that she has wealth and she’s white and she hasn’t had a very hard life. But as a woman, she experiences oppression. I was interested in sorting out the complexity. Having her realize in mid-life as she’s going through these perimenopausal symptoms and she can’t sleep in the wake of the election, that she needs to interrogate some of the assumptions about the status quo that she has both colluded in and also been oppressed by at the same time.
I find in fiction, it’s very interesting to explore these kinds of paradoxical points that kind of go in two directions at once. Sam knew, of course, that the country was not equitable. She knew that there was racism and misogyny, but she wonders whether she has done enough. She is having this reckoning with her own moral core, which is a good thing to do in mid-life, but is a hard thing to do because you have so much invested in the status quo.
The other reason why mid-life is such an interesting point for me is because you’re losing your elders, your parents are failing, and if you have children, they’re growing up and separating from you. Physically you’re at a very complicated place with your hormones going up and down. When a lot is required of you, you are not completely yourself. Or maybe you are, right?
I hadn’t read a lot of books or seen a lot of films that dealt with menopause in fiction deeply. What’s interesting about it is we’re told that the rage-y feelings that you have when you are an adolescent and you’re going through those hormonal changes and when you’re in mid-life, although it’s less talked about, that that’s all driven by hormones.
I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but when you were PMS-ing, you’d get angry, but it wasn’t that you were irrational, it’s just that your ability to swallow the anger was diminished. So you had distorted feelings that were real, just harder to express.
I think that happens in menopause too, who you are is somewhat distorted by hormones, but it’s also revealing some suppressed truths. But on the other hand, when you get to a rage point, you don’t feel good afterwards. You feel ashamed. I was interrogating that idea too. What is the role of anger with women? What’s an appropriate place to put the anger?
DJS: In Wayward, you address consent and spiritual abuse with Clara Loomis, a member of the Oneida community. It parallels a situation another character experiences in modern-day Syracuse. Can you discuss writing consent and young women?
DS: In Oneida, they had this complex marriage where everybody was married to each other. They wanted it not to be about possession and property and vanity, this kind of a Bible communism kind of idea, and heaven on earth. They didn’t want shame with sex. They wanted birth control, so they had male continence. But of course, they got into that weird spiritual cultivation and eugenics.
John Humphrey Noyes was the most spiritual; he had the most children. Some people say like 18 or 20. And of course, consent in that context is impossible for someone to give. Because if you were an 18-year-old girl and the most spiritual head of the Oneida community wants to sleep with you, wants to have the sexual congress with you to celebrate God, you’re supposed to be free to say no, but are you really? It made you see that (Clara’s) own problematic elements had their root in this more innocent time in her life, where she was trying to escape Victorian society and the limits that were put on women there.
DJS: In Wayward, you are writing about a largely white world that has been disrupted by the choices of other white people. It’s the most politically focused novel you’ve written since Eat the Document. Can you discuss this—why now and what echoes you’re working with?
DS: I am interested in writing about what it’s like to be alive in a specific time and place. To write that kind of fiction, you have to engage the bigger cultural issues. It’s impossible to write about America since 2016 without writing about the bigger political things that are happening. How could you write without writing about equity? Without writing about race? Just like in Eat The Document in 1972, you’d have to talk about the Vietnam War.
But I also think the specific place of Syracuse itself is very progressive, and right outside it, you have these rural areas that in the past, I think Sam—she’s a good liberal, she’s got this lefty background—would say, “Oh, these good working-class people. They have a raw deal.” But then she kind of realizes that they all voted for Trump [laughs] and she has to reconfigure her view of them. In Syracuse, it is almost impossible to escape because there’s so much poverty here. There’s such segregation between the haves and the have-nots.
DJS: I loved the way Syracuse, place, and architecture inform this novel.
DS: I think fiction works best when it’s really specific and really particular and eccentric. Locating it in this very specific place seemed important.
A lot of times when people write about mid-life crisis, especially for a woman, you have a sexual affair because you’re feeling like your allure is fading or something, and that’s how you deal. Before I even knew who Sam was, I had this idea that this woman was looking at this old house that was once beautiful, but it’s falling apart. She signs a contract (to buy it), and then only when she’s driving home, does she realize she’s actually leaving her husband. She doesn’t realize she’s leaving her daughter.
I liked the idea that instead of falling in love with a person as a way out of the marriage, she falls in love with a specific place. I think somehow the wreck of a building speaks to her because of her body’s own decay or changing. That got me into all the self-optimization subculture, the narcissism of the gym bros, and listening to a bunch of podcasts of people talking about how to expand their life. And you’re just thinking, “For what? What is all the extra life for?” Which seems to be a big question that Sam asks. She also finds that kind of precious and narcissistic and solipsistic. That’s something I was into too, this weird obsession with self-care and self, self, self in America. In the face of so much that seems obscene.
One of the things that was interesting, is that internalized misogyny that she has. She’s at that party after the election, and the younger women say, “It’s women over 40 that put him over. White women put him over the top.”
And she’s like, “Yeah, I sort of hate these women too, and I am one,” and she’s very hard on the moms who are really fit and do plastic surgery. But the ones who don’t, she’s hard on them too. All of that is really an expression of her own inquiry about herself. Just because you’re aware of your own internalized misogyny doesn’t allow you to escape it.
DJS: Sam is wrestling with being a complicated white woman and also with how complicated white women are historically. Can you discuss?
DS: Again, it’s that complicity of historically and presently benefiting from the status quo. There’s a price. You can look and see that you are both complicit in it, and also that you are subjugated. This is what we all have to understand, is that to try to fix things is to benefit all of us, right? She wants to reject that and find a different relationship to the world where she is not complicit with these things. Doing nothing is complicit.
This is the thing that Generation X has to wrestle with. We don’t run the world because of course all these old men still run the world, but we run a lot of the world, and it’s still really messed up. #MeToo really affected a lot of women of my generation, because we inherited from second wave feminism, radical change, and then what did we do with that?
One of the reasons why Trump won is because he hates immigrants. Another reason is because there’s a lot of misogyny in the country. And so all these women going back at the same time and looking at what they put up with, is another kind of reckoning too that the book is interested in. The legacy of that is that for young women coming up, they have to fix it because you didn’t.
DJS: “Yeah, sorry, kids.”
DS: “Should have done better. Yeah.” I think we are going to do better. A lot of really brave women are changing things—this is what is great. Things can change and they ought to. You can’t just kind of go into your bubble and just think about yourself and get away with that.
Somehow when you see yourself as part of the whole world, the urgency of obsessing over yourself kind of dies down. You can see with more clarity. You can actually have a more integrated authentic relationship to the world.
DJS: In all your books there is this recurring theme of money vs. art.
DS: Stone Arabia is less political, but money was so important in that book, and poverty, and to face middle age when you haven’t bought into the capitalist dream. I guess one of my questions is, can you remain counter to the culture? Can you have that relationship as you age and as the culture kind of wears you down and co-opts you? America is a really hard place to be an artist, particularly.
I’m hardcore Gen X. My generation grew up being much more suspicious of rich artists. Today, it’s sort of like you’re a brand. Part of me is very skeptical of that, and I realize that makes me old in a lot of ways [laughs]. Which is fine. One thing that Generation X got right, maybe, is being suspicious of being co-opted and being made into that.
DJS: I remember fifteen years ago when one of my friends’ bands got sponsored by Outback Steakhouse, people freaked out. But now it’s like, “Well, the only way you can make a living is by getting some sort of corporate sponsorship.”
DS: These things have an effect, and I think some of it is technologically driven. When we buy into these technologies that are monetized, that does shape who we are as artists. When we participate in it, it shapes our thoughts and how we live our lives. We have these dopamine addictions to our iPhones or social media and that changes the culture in profound ways.
I think that’s one thing that’s interesting to do in fiction, to explore this, because it is sort of an antiquated technology, reading. But reading is almost inherently counterculture right now, because it’s long and deep and requires this kind of focused attention. You can’t click through it. You can’t comment while you’re reading. It’s participatory, it goes back and forth between the reader and the writer, but it’s very different from being on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
(Fiction) is a fun place to engage with technology, and to think about how we use it in an estranged way. I like putting internet things in novels because it’s so much a part of our lives. You can’t write a novel about what it’s like to be alive now and not talk about technology that shapes us.
For me, it was all about putting it back on the body. When you press your phone awake, what does it feel like? How does it feel in your hand? All of that body experience of the technology. We’re spending so much time on it. How is that going to change Gen Z, how they’re growing up and how it makes them see the world? It’s interesting to me.