by Dana Spiotta
Scribner ($24.00, 240 pp.)
Before everyone crafted a new life on the internet – whether an evolving profile on Facebook, a portfolio of pithy tweets, an avatar on Second Life, a Tumblr blog or Flickr gallery; some people created an alternate persona in paper diaries and scrapbooks. In her newest novel, Stone Arabia, National Book Award nominee (Eat the Document) Dana Spiotta focuses on two siblings in their late forties whose facsimile lives (“chronicles” as both call them) make school girl diaries look like…well, school girl diaries.
Spiotta’s narrative weaves in and out of the written and recorded paraphernalia of aging rock star Nik as told in both first and third person by his sister Denise in her own hastily written chronicle of Nik’s last year. Even Denise’s daughter Ada is in the chronicle business, although she too is a few tech decades short of the internet and works with DVD camcorders. Talk about old school.
Yet, Stone Arabia is very much a novel of contemporary life. Divorced and living alone (but for the weekly visit of an old-movie-loving, not-bad-sex boyfriend) Denise is certainly of the moment: “I couldn’t wait to get home, get in my bathrobe, eat my dinner, watch something stupid on TV.” Her favorite time-killers are endless drill-down web crawling and the endless cable news shows where her eye follows even more endless news updates tracking along the bottom of the screen.
This mostly solitary life is only interrupted by the frequent need to deal with the advancing dementia of her aging mother, infrequent calls or emails from Ada in New York, and her underpaid daily job as a personal assistant. She is depressingly strangling in her valley subdivision of Los Angeles.
Only her brother Nik and his music can lift her spirits and take her outside of herself. Nik was always the musician, the artist…and yes, also the irresponsible addict who never found a drug or drink he didn’t love and couldn’t afford. Even as a child, he loved the dizzy high he got from winding up the swing set chains and then letting them unwind in an uncontrollable spin. “Swing sets were his gateway drug…how he craved anything that undid his equilibrium.” It is left to Denise to pick up after him; but in exchange, she always gets the first pressing of a new CD with his hand-painted cover.
The Demonics and The Fakes
Nik’s musical career got off to a fast start with the teen metal band the Demonics which later morphed into the multi-hit, pseudo-pop band the Fakes. He changed his name from Nik Kranis to Nik Worth, but then dropped the whole band thing to begin creating his “chronicles” and a twenty CD compilation of his life’s musical work, “The Ontology of Worth.”
As he enters his fiftieth year and closes in on the last CD of the collection, Nik’s niece comes to LA to shoot a documentary of his life. There she finds him in a room surrounded by the pastiche of these chronicles, “the various iterations of recordings…movies and videos…separate books by some of the characters…items of merchandise…tie-in promotional products…court documents…spin-off projects.” The young Ada is bewildered – “Why make a fake life? Why not do it with real life and get a real audience for all your work.”
This interview is Denise’s last view of Nik, for it takes place in the year he disappears; and all we know about him is what Denise records while sitting at his desk writing her own “chronicle” of his life. Ada’s documentary of his life “wasn’t strictly part of his Chronicles because it was about the Chronicles, and the Chronicles don’t exist in the Chronicles, of course. So Ada’s movie fits into my chronicles, the fact-based ones.” Don’t be alarmed if you don’t quite get it. Spiotta’s story unfolds in different voices at different times, but it all holds together amazingly well.
Stone Arabia in many ways is a sad story. Denise has plenty on her plate, but she also knows herself well. She can see how Nik has planned for and created his own legacy, even his own obituary which “would leaven even the most sordid life with comforting obitual formality.” She knows his longing for “what it was like when he began, before all of it had piled up into a long life.” And she knows that “he would go and I would stay. I would stay and watch as my life wound down. I would watch the decay and the quiet. I would endure the dregs and the hangover. I would stay till the end, to the slow slipping and gradual dropping away of my life. This is what I did: I endured. Nik would leave, and I would endure.”
Redemption in the Music
If there is redemption for Denise, it comes in the music Nik left behind and in the Chronicles which were his way to “imagine letting go of explanations, of misinterpretations, of commerce and receptions…to imagine doing whatever you want.”
Alone, she skeptically listens to the last CD of his “Ontology” with its childlike lyrics and pop orchestral accompaniment until “the harmonies overwhelm the strings and the next tough-sweet guitar riff comes in. I am won – all of it, even the dreaded violins. Now I really feel something: love, sure, need, sure, even hurt, just everything all at once.”
Spiotta knows her music, the music scene, and Los Angeles. She also knows families and Tolstoy’s famous dictum about unhappy ones. In the end, Stone Arabia may just be a modern family saga where “we are all really good at pretending we are a normal family, and somehow us pretending all at once is a big part of what makes us feel like a family.” This is a novel about how we can create our own lives, and by doing so, perhaps create meaning and even some measure of contentment when the real world lets us down.