• Safe As Houses: On Dana Spiotta’s Wayward

    Justin Taylor

    Fall 2021

    I can’t with this

    Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Wayward, takes place during the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election, which at this point might be the single most boring subject in the entire world. As soon as I realized that Trump was going to have a role in the proceedings, I seriously considered tossing my advance copy into the recycling bin. Never mind that Dana Spiotta is one of my favorite living writers, or that I waited years for this book to appear, or that I begged for this assignment to write about it. Seeing this premise instantly turned my brain to jelly and bled all the joy out of my heart.

    But Wayward turns out to be a complicated novel that takes big risks, some of which pay off, ahem, bigly. I’m also pleased to report that in the end, it’s barely a novel about Trump, whose name does not appear until late in the text, when it is glimpsed on an offensive novelty T-shirt at a state fair. There is an early set piece involving divergent his/hers perspectives on election night (the husband, Matt, is upset but insufficiently so, at least in his wife Sam’s eyes) but it is mercifully brief and self-contained, and Spiotta gets through it without saying either candidate’s name.

    There’s a lot to love about this novel. As a fiction writer, there’s plenty to envy. But I’m going to lead with what the B-school boys call a top-line takeaway and admit that Wayward is an uneven and not entirely successful book. It may even be a failure, albeit a fascinating and rewarding one, like Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait or Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street. That is, she fails as only genius can. Of Dana Spiotta’s five novels—which, again, when taken together constitute one of the strongest bodies of work by any living American writer—Wayward is the fifth-best. There are two subplots that should have been cut and another that is important but MIA. Both overstuffed and undercooked, Wayward often feels unfocused, its mood the surly stupor of a late-night doomscroll. It may be that Spiotta’s intention is to ironize that mode through straight-faced mimesis (like every SNL sketch from July of 2016 to February of 2021) or it may be that the Trump era actually broke her brain. Or mine. Could be both, I suppose.

    You must change your life

    The deep subject of Wayward can be posed in the form of a question: What happens to a person when she overdoses on information in a desert of ideas? What damage is done to the heart, to the mind, and to the spirit—and can it ever be undone? It’s a novel about having your brain poisoned by the internet, by social media in particular, and how hard it is to withdraw from the digital equivalent of an opioid addiction, to knit the shreds of your life back together while bearing the shame of what you’ve been reduced to, and who you hurt. Wayward is, arguably, a recovery novel, and a sophisticated, moving, blackly funny one at that.

    Per its jacket copy, however, Wayward is a novel about “a wife and mother reckoning with a hunger for new freedoms in midlife.” Not a bad log line, but it leaves out a lot. Wayward is a novel about internalized misogyny, historic architecture, the suburbs (they’re bad!), aesthetics as a form of eros, the crisis of having—of being—a body, the soul’s endless yearning to be known by God, what it means that modern liberalism has taste instead of ethics (it’s bad!), gentrification, menopause, police violence, stand-up comedy as a thirst trap for cringe, and Facebook (it’s bad!).

    You could say that Wayward is a novel about rage and despair, which are two sides of the same coin; as well as privilege and risk, which are the same side of two different coins. It’s a novel about who gets to choose the conditions of their existence, and what it means—indeed, whether it is possible—to reject the “choices” that have been made for you, such as the race, gender, class, and historical epoch into which you happen to have been born. It’s also a novel about age, unchosen but unfixed, always advancing—until it stops.

    You could also say Wayward is a novel about a woman who leaves her husband for a house. The woman is Sam Raymond, her husband is Matt, and the house is a dilapidated but architecturally significant building designed by Ward Wellington Ward, an early twentieth-century architect whose major works are all in Syracuse, New York, where the novel is set. Sam’s day job is at the Clara Loomis House, another notable historic dwelling, albeit because of who it belonged to rather than for who designed it. Loomis, we learn, was a nineteenth century feminist and spiritual seeker lately deemed problematic; she made significant advances in women’s health and birth control but may have done so for racist reasons. (To be clear: Ward is a real historical figure; Loomis is Spiotta’s creation.) Sam’s part-time job becomes an obsession as she begins to see more and more of her own story, and her daughter’s story, in Loomis’s own struggles with sex, loss, faith, and self-creation. 

    The Ward house is utterly unique: lovingly detailed, entirely handmade, and falling apart. It happens to be for sale. The house is in such bad condition, and the urban core of Syracuse is so economically depressed, that the asking price is a mere thirty thousand dollars. Sam buys it the same day she tours it, by cutting a check. This is on its face an introduction to Sam’s character: headstrong, rash, craving for change. “You put it all in motion, and then you watched as your life fell apart,” Sam muses at one point, speaking not just of the house but of a whole suite of shortsighted and self-sabotaging decisions she has made. But set that aside for a second. The fact that Sam drops 30K on a whim tells me less about her personality than her class. 

    Sam tells her mother about the purchase but not her husband. She holds her secret close for several days, fantasizing about her plans for the house the way one might fantasize about what a lover is wearing beneath their clothes. When she finally does tell Matt about the Ward house, she also tells him that she’s leaving him. Their marriage is dead, she says, and has been for a long time. Matt is stoic about the money she has blown, shaken but unsurprised by her defection. He even volunteers to support her, since she can’t possibly get by (much less afford the work the house needs) on her meager salary. Matt seems to feel that this meltdown has been a long time coming, and that the best thing he can do for Sam, their daughter, and himself, is wait her out. He tells Sam she can come home whenever she is ready, which only further enrages her. Matt’s biggest concern is how Sam plans to break the news to Ally. He is adamant that Sam be honest and not insinuate that the separation was a shared decision.

    “Ally. Good god, she hadn’t thought about having to tell Ally. Ally would love that little house. They could fix it up together.” As it happens, Ally—who is “almost seventeen”—has a secret, too. She’s been having an affair with Joe, a twenty-nine-year-old libertarian and aspiring gentrifier, a business partner of her father’s as well as her “citizen mentor” at “Young American Disrupters,” a civic organization for high school students interested in entrepreneurship. Ally is understandably furious with her mother’s decision and has no interest in moving. She doesn’t want to change schools during her junior year, which would rob her of the cover story she’s using for the affair, as well as leave her trapped in a crappy old house in a crappy neighborhood with a woman whom she views as pathetic, overbearing, and unstable. If you look closely at any conversation between Sam and her husband, daughter, or mother, you start to see that they’re allworried about her, and that they have been for some time. They’re also wary of her short fuse. Sam’s departure for the Ward house feels less like “a hunger for new freedom” than the sort of wounded self-exile that follows a failed intervention. 

    Justin Taylor’s next novel, Reboot, is forthcoming from Pantheon in 2024. He is also the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, and the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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