Book Review: Dana Spiotta's "Stone Arabia"


Stone Arabia's about an eccentric rock musician named Nik Worth who lives by the motto "Self-curate or disappear" (by the way, he's just disappeared). Or it's about the persistence of memory. Or it's about new spaces for communication created by technology. Or it's a story about one women who feels that she's slowly losing everything, including her mind. Or it's a satire of pretentious navel-gazing. Maybe it's all of that. Maybe it's none of that.

In her third novel, Dana Spiotta takes full advantage of the power of perspective. She weaves in a series of fictions and falsifications within the contradictory narratives of siblings Denise and Nik, and leaves her filmmaker daughter Ada to sort it out in her documentary, which is plagued by its own problems of perception.

Everyone worships Nik, perhaps no one more than Nik himself. He persists in intruding in the narrative that others have constructed around him, adding to the general confusion about his history and his music and his general attitude to creativity. He even intrudes on them by using their own voices, crafting fake letters from one character to another.

Spiotta gives us excerpts from Nik's fake biography, Ada's blog, Denise's journal, music press,liner notes and stories told by former band-members.

In this way, Stone Arabia mirrors the way we receive information in real-life; we are left to sort through millions of contradictory signals, guessing at the agendas and biases of the informers, always filtering information through the lens of our own experiences.

But is it good?

Spiotta certainly knows how to craft a sentence; she peppers the novel with tiny observations that may seem irrelevant, but each contribute to a clearer picture of the truth of Denise and Nik.

But I never lost the sense that there was too much going on, that Spiotta's play on the media of our time left the novel a little unfocused, a little too mysterious about the true nature of her characters.

The strongest sections of the novel allowed real-world events to pierce the narcissistic bubbles of our lead characters; even with tragedies like Abu Ghraib, Denise manages to make it about her. These moments are precious and few, the moments that tell us who Denise really is, not how she imagines herself, how she wishes herself or how Nik imagines herself.

If you've read the novel, you may be interested in an extended round-table discussion hosted by Edward Champion, with comments from Spiotta herself. Here's Part 1:

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