Dana Spiotta's third novel, Stone Arabia, explores the possibilities buried within those questions. Based to some extent on her stepfather, who was a part-time musician who almost but never quite made it big, her brother-sister duo of Nik and Denise Worth strikes a chord with those of us who envisioned ourselves being the next Robert Plant, the next Johnny Rotten, or the next Patti Smith. It is hard for some of us to let go of our fantasies, to accept that we do not have the songwriting talents of a Bob Dylan or the guitar-shredding ability of a Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. Sometimes, those dreamers end up depending upon (or even using in a parasitical fashion) family, friends, and loved ones to give them $20 in gas money to drive the beaten-up van to the next gig or $500 for that new Gibson or bass drum. Think back long and hard enough and a great many of us can remember those in our lives who dared to attempt the impossible dream, only to fall flat. Spiotta's novel is replete with those moments where the dreams run head-on into a harsh, indifferent reality.
Denise is the grounded sibling of the two. Stone Arabia revolves in part around her look back, from the late 1970s to 2006, over her brother Nik's life and how his dreams, chronicled in short passages aptly named "Chronicles," warped around the expectations of the world around him. It is also a chronicle of a musician who almost made it, who had that record contract just slip out of his grasp. But Stone Arabia is as much Denise's story as it is Nik's, as both are in their mid-to-late 40s and are confronting the driftlessness that has defined their lives, especially Nik's, to that point. A key passage in the novel occurs almost exactly halfway in, as Denise has learned of the grisly fate of a former TV actor and his wife:
For days, I would return to the Garret story. I checked the tribute site, but after a week it stopped getting new posts. The story dropped away, just an autopsy toxicology report of the various substances in the bodies' bloodstreams. I didn't care about that, how the contents of your blood became public information. I just thought about, and could not stop thinking about, what Garret Wayne's last day was like. Did he get up and think, This will be the last day of my life? Or did he fall into a sudden rage, a rage of such distortive, annihilating force that he couldn't stop himself? Was the gun sitting in a drawer, just in case? I stared at the headshot photo of his actress wife that had become ubiquitous now. Did she know what was coming? If not, how was that possible? I stared into the artfully lit eyes of this pretty, ordinary girl and tried to see if her future was written in her face.
We all long to escape our own subjectivity. That's what art can do, give us a glimpse of ourselves connected with every human, now and forever, our disconnected, lonely terms escaped for a moment. It offers the consolation of recognition, no small thing. But what the televised bombardment of violent events did to me was completely different. I didn't overcome my subjectivity; rather, my person got stretched to include the whole world, stretched to a breaking point. I became pervious, bruised and annihilated. That's what it feels like, this debilitating emotional engagement – annihilation, not affirmation.Contrast that sobering passage with a "present day" comment, presented in drama-like dialogue, where Denise shares with her daughter about why Nik began making his "Chronicles":
I guess it really started around '79 or '80. It coincided with his ending his band. 1979 was the last year Nik was actually in a band. The year of the big disappointment. I think it is fair to describe it as not entirely a surprise. Nik was faking it. I knew it, he knew it. He wasn't really interested in the punk or post-punk music scene that was exploding. He was too old, for one thing. Nik was twenty-five and everyone else was like seventeen. He was a poseur, as we used to say.
I took a sip of water. I paused for the effect of recollection.
It is important to understand what was going on in those days. After years of deadness, Los Angeles suddenly had this legitimate scene. Nik cut his hair super short. He knew what would work. No gigs unless you had that look. But already Nik betrayed himself with harmony and hooks. Why not? The Sex Pistols and the Clash had harmonies and hooks. Okay, you spat and you cursed, but it wasn't ever that far from the Beatles. What you couldn't do, though, ever, was play solos. No guitar pretension and no drum solos and no complications. Fine. But LA was not London. LA had to answer for the Eagles and Jackson Browne. LA had some issues in it. Somehow out of the good sun and the long days, LA felt a deep ugly rage. It was swollen with heroin and debauched wastedness. It was a badly stitched, angry-red, keltoid-scar rage. It was a self-scratched, blue-inked, infected-prison-tattoo rage. I understood, almost instantly, what that rage meant. I loved that rage, the anti-tan pasty look, the deliberately ugly. I understood how subversive ugly could be. We had a terrible hunger for the nasty, the horrible, the deformed.Beneath all of the excerpts from Nik's "Chronicles" lurk façades, deliberately constructed images that are at odds with the world around him. Nik fabricates events, mythologizing them in the process. His segments resound with the hopes and dreams of countless number of musician hopefuls. When juxtaposed with Denise's more pessimistic portrayal of him and his talents, Nik's scenes take on a sense of bathos, as the exuberance fades quickly into a denial of the world around him. Spiotta does an outstanding job over the course of 236 pages to explore these dynamics between the two siblings, their contrasting world views, and how hopes and dreams can lead to myths that are unknown to all but a small handful who view them with as much wistfulness as fond recollection. Stone Arabia is a brilliant portrayal of a time and attitude that can seem a bit foreign to those of us who did not live the dream, but its ability to make even the more grounded readers experience the passion that fueled those wannabe musicians makes it worth reading for a wide spectrum of readers.
This review appeared in a slightly modified form at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2012.