“Self-curate or disappear.”
Those are the cryptic words of wisdom delivered by one Nik Worth to his sister Denise in the opening pages of Dana Spiotta’s third novel, Stone Arabia. The irony is that Nik has done both. A Los Angeles musician whose career quickly withered and died on the vine in the early ’70s, he’s spent the ensuing decades obsessively cataloguing every last album, review, and interview he makes, gets, and gives, in massive annual volumes that comprise what he calls The Chronicles.
But he’s already disappeared. The albums are real, albeit hand-printed and -distributed. The reviews and interviews, however, are complete fabrications. Nik doesn’t even perform live anymore. He’s created a fully formed life as a rock star on paper, perhaps to save himself from having to do it in real life.
Yet most of Stone Arabia is spent not with Nik but Denise, his support pillar and number-one fan. She has problems of her own, mostly to do with a fear that her memory is failing her, something that’s only heightened by visits to her increasingly dementia-addled mother. Mostly, though, her thoughts are with Nik—and therein lies the problem. We spend so much time lingering on Denise’s brother secondhand, it’s like studying an approaching car through the rear-view mirror: you learn so much about the mirror itself (its cracks, its smudges of dirt) that the car itself remains blurry and indistinct.
Structurally, too, there’s something lacking, though it’s hard to gauge who’s at fault and why. On the one hand, part of Denise’s fascination with Nik’s Chronicles is that they’re meticulous, thorough, airtight. It was the one part of his life he could pin down. Her “Counterchronicles,” on the other hand, which make up the bulk of the text, are all over the place. My guess is that this is intentional—Denise’s actual life story kind of has to be messier than Nik’s vacuum-sealed fictional one. That’s what life is: messy. Indeed, the fact that Denise can find no such comfort in her own day-to-day existence is one of the sparks that fuels her.
On the other hand, if that’s the case, why give us Denise’s account at all? Stone Arabia is short enough that almost none of its heroine’s relationships—with her boyfriend, with her daughter Ada’s estranged father, or even with Ada herself—are given much juice. Only her ties to Nik pay off. If the book were 90% Chronicles, with minimal framing from Denise’s perspective (almost like liner notes, or an anthology introduction), I’m not sure much would be lost. And much would almost definitely be gained.
There’s one element of Denise’s story that cannot and should not be expunged, however. That’s her ongoing, but largely undiagnosed, fragility in the face of mass-media tragedies. She can cry for days on end after reading a story in the paper, or seeing one choice picture on the local news. Denise thinks of it as merely “feeling too much,” but these stories have more in common than she seems to realize. All are about people whose lives have arrived at a crisis point—something that became inevitable, but which could have been avoided, had steps only been taken earlier. This is maybe true of Nik’s situation, and definitely not true of her mother’s. But Denise sees it all as a waste of free will; the only thing left to do now is take her lumps. “That was what I did,” she thinks. “I endured.”
Along the way, Spiotta shows flashes of crackling wit. When Denise tries to inspect the fine print on a credit card statement, she realizes “[t]he first time you actually read the words on these things was to feel the last connection to your childhood die.” But Stone Arabia strays from its course too often, and down too many detours, to let any real kind of narrative pleasure accumulate. Like Nik’s scattershot discography, you tune in and out.
Scribner, 256 pp, $27.99, hardcover