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The Return of Moral Fiction

This past weekend I was in Washington, D.C., to teach a seminar on “American Jewish Fiction and American Jewish Identity” to an a parliament of rabbinical students from the three major branches of American Judaism. Very quickly I was instructed in an important lesson. Literary discussions invariably crumble into a quarrel over first principles, because no one shares any these days. On one side was the postmodern resistance to what one student (a Brown grad) called “the tyranny of the author”; on the other side, an even stiffer resistance to any source of authority outside “Our sages, may their memory be blessed.” One side did not care what an American author had to say about any topic on which the Talmud might be consulted instead (“Who cares what [Cynthia] Ozick says about idolatry?” a young Orthodox Jew cried); the other side did not believe that authors really say anything at all.

To return home to Mark Athitakis’s dissent on Dana Spiotta’s new novel Stone Arabia was a relief, because Mark and I share the faith that great literature says things — things worth listening to — about the human experience. We also agree that Stone Arabia is a wonderful novel. Where we disagree is whether Spiotta’s book is a rock novel, although much more is at stake in our disagreement than the classification of one recent American novel.

Mark argues that Stone Arabia is not a rock novel, because Spiotta treats rock music as “more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality.” And he compares the book favorably to Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, a 1973 novel that is sometimes nominated for the position of Great American Rock Novel. “Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook,” Mark says, and though Stone Arabia is not “strictly a DeLillo-esque novel,” Spiotta is closely akin to DeLillo in her awareness of “how a subculture can be used metaphorically.”

The comparison to DeLillo cuts to the bone of our disagreement. I myself do not overesteem DeLillo’s fiction; in fact, as I told Mark, I think it stinks. “Pah!” Mark replied. So John Podhoretz brilliantly parodied DeLillo’s word-choked style: “He tergiversated. ‘Pah,’ he finally exhaled, as the teleological horror overtook him.”

But there’s an even better reason for not reading his books. Namely, DeLillo’s philosophy of literature. DeLillo prefers the metaphor to the reality of human life. He believes that literature is incapable of decoding the world, it cannot penetrate evil, it fails to light up the smallest inch of human conduct. Nowhere does the inadequacy of his thinking show up any better than in his 9/11 novel Falling Man, which isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character beyond shock and disorientation.

Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is not a “DeLillo-esque novel,” but its exact opposite. It does not “use” rock music as a “metaphor.” Nik Worth’s music is actual, it is beautiful, but it is also solipsistic. It is entirely self-referential. It is, to borrow one of T. S. Eliot’s favorite terms, self-moved. It is the perfection of a poem. It is, in short, a well wrought urn, removed from history and the fumblings and reversals of the moral life.

As Mark astutely observes, the central conflict in Stone Arabia is “the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise . . . who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in.” The novel understands the attractions of removing art from the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. It is sympathetic to the impulse that leads a writer to protest that he is obligated only to metaphor and image, the play of language, the self-perfection of art. In an afterword, Spiotta reveals that the “inspiration” for Nik Worth was “a real-life person, my stepfather,” who is likewise engaged in a “self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star,” and who is a “true artist.” Moreover, the last person thanked in her acknowledgments is Don DeLillo.

Nevertheless, Spiotta’s novel is a warm-hearted criticism of the thinking that would unfasten an art like rock music (or literature, for that matter) from the human society of will and failure. In its quiet way, Stone Arabia is an argument for fiction of moral purpose. Cynthia Ozick once said that, “with certain rapturous exceptions, literature is the moral life.” Dana Spiotta’s new book is reason to hope that American novelists might return to such a view, no matter how many readers may have been trained to want something less demanding.



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