Sunday, August 16, 2015

Stone Arabia (2011)

Dana Spiotta's third novel is the first by her I've read. It has a number of things going for it: Los Angeles rock scene of the '70s and '80s, a nice coming of age story out of that scene, and the genuine feeling for a sad but enduring bond between brother and sister. In the end, I'm not entirely sure what it all adds up to, but the getting there is a pretty good trip. The narrator (mainly) is Denise, the younger sister by a few years of Nik, an eccentric rock star (qualified as "wannabe" by those so inclined), who made a tiny splash circa 1979. Now both well into middle age—in fact, Nik's 50th birthday approaches—their lives are compromised, fractured, and diminished by all the usual forces of time and indifference. Spiotta has to whip up a fair amount of fake history to fit in and around the Los Angeles and rock 'n' roll milieus in which this story swims, retrofitting it to the gap between the Beatles breakup and the assassination of John Lennon, known as the '70s. Denise and Nik were weaned on the Beatles, dipped deeply into the wells of glam and glitter, and coped with the coming of punk-rock and "New Wave," and oblivion beyond that. Stone Arabia is a short novel but it hums with activity. Denise has an ex and a complicated and disappointing love life. Denise's only daughter is a hip Millennial geek with a blog and ambitions of becoming a documentary filmmaker. Nik is a benign alcoholic and drug addict. Their mother suffers from onset Alzheimer's. Their father died before they were teens, separated from their mother even before that. Denise has no memories of him. Nik is basically the star of the show, a recluse, intensely creative still and toiling away in obscurity at strange, large-scale projects. Still writing pop songs, which in the late '70s earned him the kind of cachet enjoyed now by Nick Drake or Alex Chilton, he has spent years assembling a more experimental 20-volume CD project. And writing his own alternative meta history of his life, which he calls "The Chronicles." His sister calls Stone Arabia the "Counterchronicles." The tone has the familiar flatness of disaffected novels of the past 20 years. Much happens though little feels experienced, but it remains compulsively readable, opening into a world with peculiar levels of media saturation knowingness and a Brady Bunch innocence that effectively recall another time and place with a surprising amount of vivid force. Worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. The J. Henry Waugh aspects of the brother's story were the most compelling parts of this for me. I found the symbolism of the "Stone Arabia" ending unsatisfying.