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Stone Arabia (2011)

by Dana Spiotta

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3551557,075 (3.7)31
Sharing a close bond that supersedes other relationships, Nic, a fiercely reclusive musician, and Denise, his dedicated sister and solitary audience member, become increasingly isolated in the wake of Nic's obsessive work.

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» See also 31 mentions

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I've now read each of Spiotta's novels, and all of them were fascinating period pieces. I don't mean she really caught the spirit of the '90s in her first novel, the '70s in her second, and the '00s in this one. I mean her novels are exactly what people will think of when, in a few decades, they talk about early 21st century American literary fiction. There is much existential angst about meaninglessness, empathy and emotional distance. There is stuff about new media. There is metanarrative. There is some very mild formal trickeration, but not enough to scare anyone. There is tired mumbo about "memory", a theme and abstract noun that should really be banned for a few decades at least.

This is frustrating because (not Spiotta's fault, I know) she's feted as "a major, unnervingly intelligent writer" by people who really should know better (Joy Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Michiko Kakutani, Thurston freaking Moore). That kind of praise made me buy her books. It also set up false expectations.

Anyway, Spiotta is definitely getting better as a novelist. Lightning Field was distressingly bad; Eat the Document was kind of disappointing; the first half of this book is pretty good. The trickeration is contrived, but also entertaining (musical genius brother writes fake Chronicles of his life; average sister Denise writes Counter-Chronicles of those Chronicles--and, eventually, Denise's daughter makes a film about her uncle). Denise is far more entertaining than Spiotta's third person narrator, though far less entertaining than her brother. A book that was just some Chronicles, some counter-Chronicles, and bits of the film could have been fascinating.

Instead, Denise has to worry about the form her Counter-Chronicles take (because metanarrative worrying), which becomes an excuse for shoving bits in to the novel that don't really belong there (mother is dying; world is going to hell but we either feel too sad or not sad enough about it; memory is interesting but also misleading, right?).

How long, dear reader, do you think a novel has to be before it can successfully deal with the themes of: memory, family, aging, death, art, populism vs elitism, imagination, empathy, world politics, new media, self-destruction, CHILD ABDUCTION, THE AMISH, INTERNET MEDICAL ADVICE, POPULAR CULTURE, AND ZOMBIES?

Okay, there are no zombies.

But if you answered 230 pages, congratulations, this is the book for you, and I envy you your ability to think that 'successfully dealing with' is actually a synonym of 'mention in passing'.

I really, really, really hope Spiotta follows her character into isolation for the next twenty years and works on a long enough book for long enough to really fulfill her ambition to write about fucking everything. That would be worth doing. A fourth short book about everything, however... we probably don't need that. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
This is a curious little novel seemingly focused on the oddly curated life of a small-time rock star—in actuality, it aspires to examine postmodern culture’s impact on our ability to connect with each other in emotionally meaningful ways.

The majority of the story is narrated by Denise, the younger sister of Nik Worth, an inscrutable musician who seems to prefer living in a fictional world that he curates through self-produced music, ghost-written reviews of said music, obituaries, and “chronicles” that he produces, documenting his not-quite-authentic life. Denise, single, in her 40s, with an adult daughter whose documentary film about her uncle rests yet another layer upon his palimpsest of a life, struggles with her memory—she has trouble recalling names, dates, events—and news stories about tragedies (missing children, terrorism, torture, mass murder) seem to affect her more powerfully than events in her own life or in the lives of her family members.

An omniscient narrator takes over briefly— and rather abruptly—when Denise seems to struggle the most and then relinquishes the narration back to Denise; in addition, the novel’s structure mirrors the circuitous path of Denise’s free-associative mind (her narration is often sidetracked by digressions). It’s never quite clear whether Denise is a reliable narrator, since the story itself frankly questions the nature of memory, truth, and reality. It’s a curious and compelling read that wraps up with an inconclusive mystery, much as it began. ( )
  jimrgill | Nov 7, 2017 |
In Stone Arabia author Dana Spiotta examines the fraught bonds between two siblings. Brother Nik is a rock star manqué; as he approaches the age of fifty he is still living out the fantasies of his youth by spending most of his time recording idiosyncratic albums and writing fictitious reviews of them. His more practical sister Denise is his enabler. The plot revolves around Denise's attempts to understand and support her brother, even as he's flirting, as a rock star would, with his own death.

Stone Arabia tells a decent story, and the writing is good, but I was expecting more from it than it actually delivered. The novel contains many references to George W. Bush-era current events, which make it seem dated without being historic. The scene that involves "Stone Arabia" is not striking enough to justify naming the whole book after it. Furthermore, as far as I was concerned, the novel had too much Denise and her pretentious filmmaker daughter Ada, and only glimpses of Nik.

A side note: Spiotta's depiction of Nik is highly reminiscent of the outsider musician Jandek, a mysterious figure, who, like Nik, records in a variety of styles and is the sole artist on his own boutique "record label". Jandek rarely appears in public and communicates with his select group of fans by mail. I don't know that Spiotta has ever heard of Jandek, and she claims in her afterword that Nik is based on her stepfather, but to me the similarities between Nik and Jandek are too numerous to be coincidental.

Stone Arabia is a quick read, so if you are intrigued by the premise, I recommend it to you despite my reservations. ( )
  akblanchard | Jan 18, 2017 |
I didn't know quite what to expect from this; it was a random purchase on my part. I enjoyed the author's use of language, but the story, though it was strong enough to keep me reading, never really demanded my attention. ( )
  YossarianXeno | Jul 18, 2013 |
Another Biblioracle recommendation - but this one falls a bit short of the mark.

Certainly engaged me, premise-wise, and I found Nik's Chronicles to be one of the most interesting and original literary creations of recent memory... but there wasn't enough. This whole book feels so slight, so much like a missed opportunity, that I can actually say I was let down by it. It promised so much and the inherent ability seems to be there... but it just never takes flight like you want it to. A shame, really.

More disappointed ramblings at Raging Biblioholism: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-hf ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dana Spiottaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aronson, PhilippeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodgers, Elisabeth S.Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Sharing a close bond that supersedes other relationships, Nic, a fiercely reclusive musician, and Denise, his dedicated sister and solitary audience member, become increasingly isolated in the wake of Nic's obsessive work.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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