STONE ARABIA by Dana Spiotta

Book Quote:

“It is the feeling that your life has just left the room.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (SEP 6, 2011)

Nabokov stated in the first page of his 1961 memoir, Speak Memory, “…our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” In Diana Spiotta’s new novel, Stone Arabia, eccentric narcissist, obsessive archivist and iconoclastic musician Nik Kranis mines that fleeting fissure of light and warns his sister, Denise, “Self-curate or disappear.”

This nostalgic and affecting story of siblings (and family) is a philosophical meditation on memory and the driven desire for autobiography–to document and render a consequential life, and to assemble disparate experiences into coherent narratives. “And even then,” says Denise, “the backward glance is distorted by the lens of the present…It is not just that emotions distort memory. It is that memory distorts memory.”

At the vortex of this novel is fifty-year-old Nik Kranis, aka his alter ego, Nik Worth, a pre-punk, no-hit wonder, LA musician, whose band The Fakes almost made it twenty years ago. “Nik had the sensibility down. And Nik had the look down. He was born to look pasty and skinny and angular.” But a combination of self-sabotage and solipsism undermined commercial success, and he alternately constructed a legendary career in music via his manufactured narrative, “The Chronicles.” Stretching back from 1973-2004, “The Chronicles” is a thirty-volume reinvention of a life, a daily scrapbook and fictionalized biography of Nik Worth, platinum rock star. It is a career arc so detailed and spectacular that it would rival Dylan’s.

Included in “The Chronicles is every band Nik was ever in, every record he ever made, and his solo career, recorded via his twenty-volume “Ontology of Worth.” We also get liner notes, reviews (sometimes highly critical and damning, all created from Nik’s imagination), obits of former band members, and detailed artwork for every cover. Nik is what we would call a legend in his own mind. We depend on Denise’s shifting narrative modes to trace the authentic Nik, a hermetic, aging, chain-smoking, alcoholic mooch who is blasé about his present decay and his future prospects. “He pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future.” But even Denise is hooked on Nik’s worth as a musician.

The story is narrated largely through Denise’s point-of-view, which shifts back and forth from first to third person, and is conveyed like the 80’s eclectic music scene, mash-up style, that fans of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad will appreciate. She’s the slightly younger sister and caretaker of the family, and Nik’s biggest fan. However, Denise is concerned with exact recall, and is writing “The “Counterchronicles” as counterpoint to Nik’s mythical biography, to earnestly document an accurate record of recent events. Besides Nik, her life orbits around her daughter, Ada, a documentary filmmaker who wants Nik as her next subject; a tepid relationship with boyfriend, Jay, who she sees every two weeks for sex and old movies; and a mother who is suffering from early dementia. Denise is frightened of her own memory loss, convinced that it is imminent and inevitable.

Trebly and anxious, Denise panics vicariously through sordid and tragic news events. External though they are, they penetrate her personal boundaries, leak inside and cause ongoing existential crises. SARS, Abu Ghraib, and a celebrity murder-suicide are but a few of the terrors that invade Denise’s psyche. Moreover, Denise and Nik are enmeshed to a degree that “My sister doesn’t count as my audience because she feels like an extension of me. She’s, well, an alternative version of me.”

Spiotta’s creamy prose is abundant with quotable lines and arch aphorisms. There isn’t much of a plot, but the story is powerful and vibrant, laced with mordant, electric riffs and visceral, melancholy chords.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 38 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner; First Edition edition (July 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 6, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters

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