Caitydid's Reviews > Stone Arabia

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
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Sep 02, 2012

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Read from September 02 to 05, 2012

Dana Spiotta's quick, nostalgic novel Stone Arabia about aging, memory and forgetting, and the punk and post-punk music scene of the 70's and 80's boasts an impressive pack of praise from critics, authors, and appropriately enough, our buddy Thurston Moore.  It's a story about stories, and the narrator Denise (whom we can only assume is a stand-in for Spiotta herself) relies on the drama and creativity of others to tell her story.  Denise, a neurotic, tired and sensitive middle-aged mother, obsesses over the news on tv, cares for her mother, who is slowly declining into an Alzheimer's confusion, keeps a youthful bond with her young adult daughter, and finds herself tangled in the self-abusive and compulsive inner world of her brother, Nik.  Nik is an aging rock star, or would be, but when he failed to find success in the music world of reality, he retreated to a made-up fantasy of fame and it's foibles.  The Chronicles, a decades-long project created by Nik for seemingly no other audience than his own destroyed ego, documents years of fake bands, fake fame, even fake downfalls.  Denise's daughter Ada, a happy-go-lucky blogger and indie filmmaker, is inspired by her eccentric uncle to make a documentary about him and his prolific outsider art projects. 
  Spiotta's writing deserves, in it's most thoughtful, unembellished moments, the praise it has garnered from critics.  The character of Denise is so worried, by her Mother's mental decline, her brother's physical decline, and her own hypochondria that it's tiresome, but it's also out of these neuroses that the occasional passage of brilliant, emotionally affecting writing is hewn. The book has been compared, with it's obvious parallels in the topics of aging and rock stardom, to Jennifer Egan's Visit From the Goon Squad.  That book was also critically praised, and won the national book award in 2010, but many of the problems I had with Goon Squad are revisited in Spiotta's Stone Arabia.  It may be an unfair bias of my own, but whenever I'm reading a novel and 'myspace pages' or 'googling health symptoms' and the like come up, it's a huge turn-off.  The world of the internet, celebrities, and tv are so plastic and stagnant compared to the visceral emotions I expect from a good novel.  Don't we get enough of that in our own lives? Reading a good book sinks you into another mindset, another life, and as Spiotta remarks in one of her lovelier passages, art provides us with a reflection of ourselves and in doing so, shows us that we are not alone, no small feat.  Yet Stone Arabia throws us into these sensitive, artful moments and then startlingly pulls us out again with irritating pettiness. Denise's sleepless news-watching obsession, recounting true new stories from 2003-4, is frankly boring.  Many of us share this somewhat morbid voyeuristic tendency, but reading about someone else watching the news and crying over a child's kidnapping provides no interest or insight beyond a vague 'yep, I do that too.' The hubbub over a certain young army soldier and her horrifically-posed photos with tortured Guantanamo Bay inmates was an overcooked spectacle then, and reading several pages of Denise reflecting over this news item in particular felt like incredibly lazy writing.  Dana Spiotta proves herself a much more competent, worthwhile writer in other parts of the book, but her reliance on the action and drama of external stories, instead of her own, seems careless.  Near the end of the book, Denise wonders if she might be a 'pain tourist', a great term for the problem with her character.  Indeed, the one narrative yarn that promises us some sort of climactic rise and fall is so worked over throughout the entire book that it's hardly a surprise, hardly of interest.  
  Still, the best bits of Stone Arabia nearly make up for it's unfortunate doldrums, and I would still consider it worth reading, especially if you are interested in the post-punk music scene, or lived through it. There are pages that qualify it for the praise it's been given, and I was at times moved by the echoes in my own life of Denise's relationship with her daughter and with her elderly mother.  The story of Nik's bizarre compulsion to create a faux-stardom for himself with his 'Chronicles' wants to be as odd and compelling as the true story of Henry Darger and his outsider art, but it falls flat with narcissism and a lack of imagination.  In the end, the writing and characters were just enough for me to plug through to the end, and not regret it, but had it not been a quick read, it would've been left unfinished on the subway and not worth the space on my bookshelf.

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