An intelligent, engaging novel about a deeply obscure rock musician and his troubled, devoted sister.
Dana Spiotta won deserved praise for her 2006 novel, "Eat the Document," a morally complex book centered on two Vietnam-era radicals, one of whose offspring favors the sort of hard-to-find rock albums that turn fans into evangelists, spreading the word along with homemade tapes (though not too far, the work's obscurity being part of the fun). Spiotta's new novel, "Stone Arabia," concerns an eccentric rocker whose would-be cult favorites can't claim a proper cult. Nik Worth enjoyed modest success on the L.A. late-'70s club scene, and has since made dozens of home-recorded, self-released albums. His audience could now be counted with one mittened hand.
The book is mainly set in the first half of 2004, as Nik approaches 50, the years betraying his open-door policy toward drugs and alcohol. He nevertheless soldiers on obsessively and without self-pity, documenting his anti-career in "The Chronicles," an extensive series of scrapbooks containing self-authored (though not always self-aggrandizing) reviews, notes and scholarship in which Nik is a reclusive, million-selling legend.
Denise is Nik's younger sister, a divorcée with a pleasant but loveless new relationship, a dull job, a mother in rapid mental decline and a growing debt to match her growing tearfulness. For decades she's been Nik's biggest fan. To her, Nik is closer to an unsung genius than an undeterred also-ran, and her emotional and financial support is steadfast despite her brother's narcissism and dissipation.
"Stone Arabia" includes excerpts from Nik's Chronicles, but most of the book is told from Denise's vantage -- both in the first and third person, with some abrupt transitions between the two. Besides being increasingly worried about (and exhausted with) Nik, Denise is experiencing what she calls "breaking events," times in which, as she puts is, she "can't quite negotiate the border between myself and the world around me." Mostly this means she becomes obsessed with news stories. It might be a sordid human-interest story, or it might be Abu Ghraib, but either way she takes on "an unhealthy correlative feeling of suffering," and fears she has "become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously."
Most everyone in this book is experiencing life at one remove or seeing it through a distorted lens: Nik has his elaborate fantasy life, Denise her medicated anxiety, their mother her probable dementia. Though the book takes place before the rise of Facebook, it speaks well to the variously phony lives many of us lead on the Internet.
This is a looser novel than "Eat the Document." That book's secrets weren't hard to guess, but Spiotta kept one wondering how the inevitable would play out, to the point that her narrative teasing at times felt forced. There's less of that here; tension builds toward the end, but "Stone Arabia" is really propelled by Spiotta's unflashy eloquence, dry wit and depth of feeling. She's an exceptional novelist, as sharp on sociopolitical history as she is on romance and family and, especially, the spaces where such things overlap.
Not every subplot and digression in "Stone Arabia" is fully realized, but the book's eschewal of neatness seems appropriate; though the writing is polished, the book has some of the idiosyncratic, improvisational feel of a great home recording. Now if only we could order the limited-edition Nik Worth boxed set.
Dylan Hicks' first novel will be published in 2012 by Coffee House Press.