Wayward by Dana Spiotta review – midlife madness in a mad America

Show caption ‘History is being obliterated, along with art, thought, justice, morality and landmark buildings’… Dana Spiotta. Photograph: PR Book of the day Wayward by Dana Spiotta review – midlife madness in a mad America Perimenopausal and appalled by Trump, a suburban woman looks for answers to her country’s crazy collapse Lucy Ellmann Sat 1 Jan 2022 07.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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It’s 2017 and Sam, a middle-class, perimenopausal wife and mother living in Syracuse, NY, is maddened by America. Who wouldn’t be? The US is both terrifying and electrifying in its inventiveness. In this, her fifth novel, Dana Spiotta is prepared to itemise her crazy country’s collapse. If her data collection effort ultimately becomes an exercise in passivity, there are a few good “Whoa!” moments along the way.

This is the first year of Donald Trump’s destabilising presidency. Innocence has been defiled. Unarmed Black teenagers are getting shot in the back by cops, don’t-mess-with-me gun ownership is the prevailing ideal, and everybody’s a tattletale. At the state fair, which previously seemed innocuous to Sam, even charming, she now encounters T-shirts for sale that say things like “LGBT (Liberty, Guns, Beer, Trump)”. Other slogans attack the liberally minded, now derided as “snowflakes”.

History is being obliterated, along with art, thought, justice, morality and landmark buildings. Sam seems almost alone in treasuring Arts and Crafts architecture and furniture, peeling paintwork and antique tiling, her daughter’s prepubescent years (now over), her mother’s perpetual love, the mid 19th-century Oneida community (exultantly adventurous about sex, but blemished by the practice of eugenics), and L Frank Baum, who gets off very lightly here despite his genocidal attitude to Native Americans.

Dissatisfied with her fellow menopausal Trump-resisters – all sauvignon blanc, “landmine squats” and Hillary Clinton pantsuits – Sam leaves the comforts of suburbia for a solitary life in a crumbling house in downtown Syracuse that, like Sam herself, is “dirty, falling apart, empty too long”. There, she relishes the freedom to stay up all night, polish wooden floorboards and hardly ever eat. She even attends ghastly open-mic events at a local comedy club.

She seems to be abandoning her self in order to study her society. Or she might just be unravelling. In place of old structures, sincerity and taste, online she discovers bizarre new allegiances that have emerged like fungi overnight, groups for this, groups for that. (For “group”, you could substitute “hatred”.) She meets a few of these networkers in person, but most of her investigations seem restricted to the stinky, stagnant pond of the internet, making the novel smell somewhat of the lamp. Still, many of Sam’s findings are plausibly excruciating.

A staid narrative approach, complete with flurries of zeitgeist, make this feel like an up-to-the-minute Anne Tyler novel

Some of the off-gridders Spiotta catalogues advocate survivalism, others are opposed to cosmetic surgery (yet make exceptions for stomach flab). There are witchcraft communities with sidelines in sundials, and lots of Christians and dieters (anti-vaxxers haven’t yet hatched). A clandestine sorority of ageing women, calling itself Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies, is matched by another outfit: Men Going Their Own Way. Some renegades dress badly; others have superb teeth.

Sam has pretty much left her real life behind, including a husband – good in bed but offputtingly dependent on post-workout amino acid and whey protein shakes – and their teenage daughter Ally, a straight-A student who’s into etymology, dating older men and bearing grudges against her mother. Given Sam’s obsessive attitude towards Ally, which has at times driven her to spy on her daughter’s online activities and fixate on her breasts, this is probably just as well.

To focus on a middle-aged woman is still an enterprising novelistic task. Alas, the book is besotted with the kid. Why can’t an ageing female character exist on her own in a piece of fiction without being mirrored by a youthful one? Held in this Trumpian vice of desirability, the younger contender (except maybe in the case of Bette Davis in All About Eve, or Mrs Merdle in Little Dorrit) is pretty much bound to come out on top. Ally duly develops an air of moral superiority, but she and her mother are so similar in outlook, you really wonder why Spiotta felt she needed them both. It would have been better to concentrate on Sam’s psyche, which wavers oddly between bewildered and smartass. Is she even likable? “Sam hated her own shallowness” … so do we.

Spiotta’s analogy between the Trump presidency and the menopause is apt: both cause fatigue, anxiety, revulsion, sadness

While everybody in Syracuse runs more and more (as ordered by their personal trainers), Wayward plods along. It can get preachy and pedantic, too, and overly medical. Spiotta tussles valiantly with serious things – human nature, racial conflict, cancel culture, homelessness, road rage and feminism – without reaching firm conclusions. A fairly touching soliloquy on menstruation comes out of nowhere, then disappears as if ashamed of itself. Instead, the normally staid narrative approach, complete with loads of dutiful backgrounding and flurries of zeitgeist, makes this feel at times like an up-to-the-minute Anne Tyler novel.

Spiotta’s analogy between the Trump presidency and the menopause is apt: both cause fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, sudden upsets, fury, revulsion, ostracism and a lot of sadness. But on second thoughts, this maligns the menopause, which can be a real liberation for women; Trump is only about terror. It’s clear men should not be running the world, but the wishy-washy women of Syracuse seem almost as untenable.

• Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar. Wayward by Dana Spiotta is published by Virago (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.