With only her second novel, Dana Spiotta has proved herself a major chronicler and interpreter of contemporary American culture. Beginning in the early 70s and ending in 2000 (before the planes hit), this book evokes the lives of two contrasting generations of socially concerned US citizens.
The big influence here is DeLillo, but Spiotta manages to combine the insights his work provides with a renewed emphasis on characterisation and a warm resonance in the dialogue which contrasts with his studied coldness. Each character manages to be real and rounded, as well as representative of a recognisable strand of contemporary experience.
The book deals with nostalgia in a critically astute manner through Jason's eventual understanding of both his mother and his obsession with the Beach Boys. We see the depressing corporatisation of protest and social concern in the figure of Josh, contrasted with the renewing possibility of a radical politics in Miranda. The question of disturbing generational inheritance is probed through the figure of Henry. The place of art in politics and culture is interrogated subtly and persuasively in the discussions of Bobby's films. And the tone throughout stays the right side of sentimental, even in an ending that weaves all the strands together.
Finally, and most prominently through the figure of Mary/Caroline, we are left to ponder the question of responsibility in our (post)modern world; where it might reside and how to regain and renew it. The articulation of this question is the book's finest achievement, and places Spiotta firmly at the centre of a new wave of American writers dealing with this and other pressing concerns. Rarely has such a short novel dealt so impressively with so many of the difficult issues that face us at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A National Book Award nomination was the least it deserved.