by Weston Cutter
Taking in Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia was a weird experience—not only was it hugely praised and hyped, but it was p’d+h’d in the immediate wake of Egan’s crazily great Goon Squad, and since both books share some concerns—specifically music and questions and struggles regarding authenticity—I figured all the chatter must’ve meant that Stone Arabia was even better than Goon. Which, of course, maybe, was the wrong way to approach this book, because I thought Goon was one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years and I’m guessing almost nothing will (to me) hold a candle in comparison for some time.
The essentials first: Stone Arabia features middle-aged Denise and her brother Nik, he a genius/recluse type—imagine Daniel Johnston without brain trouble, or imagine a sort of Chilton/Brian Wilson character. Nik at least capable of crafting great pop songs, and had a chance, in the late 70s/early 80s, to maybe have a shot at recording a record with a major label, though this should be made fully clear: Nik was never Some Next Big Thing, About to Blow. He was a local (this is all in Los Angeles) player who made compelling of-the-moment music and attracted label interest, and he chose, instead, to snub them for reasons that might be considered something along “artistic integrity” lines.
(I know this is all convoluted and dicey; trust me when I say the book’s organization’s similar).
Nik, 49 in 2004, the year the book’s happening in (also the year of the Abu Ghraib photos), has spent his life making music for himself and chronicling a “fake” or “other” life—the Chronicles (one’s got to assume a nod to Dylan [one of the odd bits of fun in Stone Arabia is tracking the little tells and nods toward other musicians, different legends]) each cover a year and in each Nik gathers the faked and manufactured evidence of this parallel life—one in which he’s legendary, in which the records got made and were subsequently released for purchase and loved, in which his artistic genius is recognized. None of those aspects overlap with his actual real world life: he lives above a garage, works at a bar, is in shit health and getting worse from the drinking and smoking. He makes music, yes, but he burns individual copies for families and friends and he makes the sleeves by hand.
So, that’s Nik. His younger sister, Denise, is the novel’s narrator (though she’s not: the book jumps from third to first person 28 pages in and switches back to third roughly the same at the book’s end; a reader’s sure welcome to ask why the switch but should be appraised this reviewer’s got no satisfactory answer for the switch), and she’s Nik’s biggest fan. Biggest fan of his music, of him as a brother, and she’ll come close to financial ruin to support him in his quest, in his attempt to live this very protected life (the only checks I remember her writing in the novel were those with horrific interest rates, those ones provided by credit cards). Denise and Nik’s mother’s memory’s deteriorating, and Denise spends long stretches thinking about memory and aging and the slow demise and failure of the body. Also, Denise has a daughter, Ada, and a boyfriend, Jay, neither of whom ever come close to feeling like real characters (and, in fact, Jay feels worse than not real: he feels like a cruelty, a joke—he brings Denise Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ gifts on their get-togethers, and the reader’s again sure welcomed to wonder if these are given and received smartly ironically or what).
Again: apologies for how this is coming off. What’s weird is that I’m glad I read Stone Arabia, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time, but I’m not sure I liked it, nor am I sure it succeeded in doing the things I most enjoy books for doing. For instance: that third to first person switch 28 pages in? What happens is that Denise claims to basically be hijacking the narrative, which move is a sort of correlative with Nik’s decision to hijack the narrative of his own life and craft the Chronicles. Okay, the reader’s thinking, fine, there’s resemblence and echo. Or: Denise is (like all of us, like who isn’t) someone who spends her news-gathering and -reading time and energy skimming, surfing in lieu of going deep, but then she gets incredibly taken by the story of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the story of tragedy befalling Amish communities. A canny reader might try to connect these characterization dots, find a way to fit the tragedies Denise is taken with and by into her life, yet even if you find space for them to connect, the question still hangs, as it does about the hijacked narrative thing above: Why is it being done?
Ultimately, Stone Arabia is a book about siblings and dreams, and it’s great in exactly that capacity. However, Stone Arabia seems also to be a book that’s trying to do several other more high-minded po-mo things, and it comes off, to me, as cold, as a miss. Please know: I love me some high-minded po-mo stuff, particularly in fiction—one of the reasons I so loved Goon Squad was because of the PowerPoint chapter, which I thought was as moving and gorgeous as anything I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t remember feeling much moved, ever, by anything in Stone Arabia: the book ultimately feels more calculating than I enjoy my fiction to feel.
For what it’s worth: I’ll admit to having a hard time with fiction lately—I finished a bit back one of the fall’s big anticipated novels and loathed it, felt it disconnected and causeless. Let me be real clear: Stone Arabia is, according to damn near everybody, a fine and powerful and stellar work of art. Perhaps. It is also, according to this reviewer, the story of middle-aged siblings trying to make their way and their peace with their lives, but that story’s unfortunately bedecked with bunches of other asides which ultimately feel cutesy or insignificant or both. Still: read the thing. I’m probably wrong—seriously, everybody everywhere loves this book (you think I’m kidding? Check out five part this roundtable at EChampion’s Reluctant Habits)