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Review: Where Things Are Allowed to Have Complexity

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (New York: Scribner, 2011). 235 pp. $24.00.

Nobody much likes the term literary fiction, but nobody knows what else to call it. Publishers and booksellers feel the need to reassure shoppers that the novel they are weighing in their hand is not a “thriller” or a “detective novel” — it’s not, God forbid, “genre fiction,” whose readers know exactly what they are looking for. But in the process, as Howard Jacobson grouses in the Independent, intelligent readers are put off and 1,000 good writers are consigned to “the scrapheap of oblivion.”

“The truth is,” Jacobson concludes, “the best novels will always defy category.” Maybe that should be the category term. It sure fits Dana Spiotta’s breakthrough novel Stone Arabia, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Partly about the relationship between a sister and brother in middle age, partly about a “garage band” rocker who compiles detailed scrapbooks of his career as a secret rock star, partly about the sub-middle class life of marginal and dislocated people who are not quite Bohemians in L.A., Spiotta’s novel is made up of parts that fit together only in the unique logic of family and personal­ity.

The miracle is not only that the novel fits together at all, but it does so in a way that is continually surprising and unexpected without ever becoming pretentious, self-conscious, “experimental.” Better perhaps than any other novelist I have read recently, Spiotta is successful at avoiding the “neat­ness” of conventional form and structure, at wrapping things up in literary artifice, while not overbalancing into the fallacy of imitating ordinary life’s untidiness in an extraordinarily untidy narrative. Her story is carried along, not by “observations” on the American scene or framed samplers on the human con­dition, but by Spiotta’s style of exacting and remorseless sympathy.

Stone Arabia also defies summary. The year is 2004; the place, Los Angeles. Denise Kranis is a 47-year-old personal assistant to a real estate mogul. Her three-years-older brother Nik is a guitarist and songwriter, whose real art is not rock music but his life. Although he played with a pretty decent warmup band as a teenager, and though he later discovered a natural gift for songwriting, Nik is without ambition or career. He spends his time drinking, smoking, and taking drugs (“a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future”). Outside of work—to pay the rent he tends bar—he obsessively chronicles a fantasy life as a famous rock star, compiling scrapbooks of his invented career “in minute but twisted detail.” He began the Chronicles in 1978, when he was 24:

They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his chronicles—scrapbooks, really—thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work.

Nik writes and records the music documented in the Chronicles; he even designs the album covers and painstakingly hand-letters the liner notes; but outside of Denise and an ex-girlfriend or two, his only audience is Nik himself. Four decades ago, Robert Coover wrote a novel about a solitary obsessive who creates a parallel universe for himself, but The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is about a man who gradually loses touch with reality. Nik Kranis (or Nik Worth, as he calls his rock-star self) does not go insane. He is not ashamed of his secret vice. He ignores all entreaties to “get real.” His life, like his music, is entirely self-referential. And there is, according to his sister, some integrity in that:

Nik was liberated from any dialogue with the past work of others and certainly with the current work of others. His work was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years. I knew his solipsism had become his work, in a sense, that this was complicated to think about, but at some point there is the unyielding, the concentration, and the accumulation that becomes a body of work. Whatever the nature of that work, it is hard to argue against.

But what is left out of account is Nik’s relationship with his sister Denise, and the toll it takes on her. As she wryly comments, “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.” Denise does not have any such luxury. Her work is the ordinary business of living, although their complicated closeness—Nik calls her an extension of himself—complicates her life as well. By all appearances she leads a fairly normal life (a job, a daughter, a house and mortgage, boyfriend, an elderly mother whom she cares for), and yet Denise is the one who is more disabled for living. She experiences memory problems and is tossed by the nightly news—the abduction of an Amish child, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Beslan school hostage crisis—between extremes of terror and apathy.

“Imagine total freedom,” Nik tells his niece in trying to explain what she calls his “fake life.” But if total creative freedom ends in the sterility of an interesting solipsism, as Spiotta suggests, then its converse—responsibility to others, not seeing them as extensions of yourself—entails a submission to the real. Significantly, Denise calls her story at one point the Counterchronicles. Whatever normality she attains, whatever happiness, is the product of a sustained resistance to the gigantic want into which her brother disappears.

“A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity,” she told an interviewer four years ago. And perhaps that is what Dana Spiotta has reinvented—the novel of reality’s complications. In a literary age of adolescent wizards and romantic vampires, that may be more than enough. Stone Arabia stands as a subtle testament to the allure and damage of obsessive fantasy, the reconstructive work of ordinary living.



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