Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia
reviewed by Art Edwards

For decades, many fiction writers have operated under the assumption that rock music and literature don't mix. There's so much bombast in the rock world, so much kinetic energy, any attempt to render it through a novel or short story would most likely come across as artificial or trite. Then in April of 2011 Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which depicts rock executives, musicians and fans in various states of modern disarray. This was followed in June by Eleanor Henderson's novel Ten Thousand Saints, which deals with the straight edge punk culture of the 1980s. Now we have Dana Spiotta's novel Stone Arabia, a story of one reclusive rock musician told from the point of view of his Nick Carraway-esque younger sister. That's quite a bumper crop for rock lit, but not all these titles are created equal. Of the three, Stone Arabia offers the most fully developed rock and roll character and the most compelling rock-tinged story. The novel's narrator and "absorber of events" (38), Denise, is concerned for her reckless older brother Nik, a lifelong musician and composer who over the course of several decades has created The Chronicles, a mish-mash of music, journalism and ephemera encompassing his made-up life as a rock star. The Chronicles, containing some twenty albums recorded by Nik, is Nik's world of his own, which the unmoored Denise finds both captivating and worrisome. Through Denise we see the forces that necessitate young Nik's gravitation to music, like when their father gives him a guitar for his tenth birthday.

The father reached down and pulled the guitar up with one hand on the neck and the other hand under the body. Mother-of-pearl was inlaid on the fingerboard between the frets, and there was matching inlay trim along the edge of the body and an inlay rosette around the sound hole. He handed it over to Nik, who pulled it to his chest. Nik stared down at it. He finally spoke in a reverent whisper. "Thank you." And that was it. (7)

But as Nik moves into middle age, his rock habits fit less comfortably, at least from Denise's perspective. "When you are old, like Nik, when it is a very old habit, smoking looks mostly like reckless delusion" (70). And when Nik and Denise listen to punk music with one of Nik's former bandmates: "The nihilism of the lyrics came with a bright up-hop to the guitar riff and some nice sloppy oohs that made us all feel momentarily happier, though it couldn't have been lost on any of us how young the music sounded, how ridiculous" (77). Decades of hard living have taken their toll on Nik's health. He borrows money from Denise, misses work, avoids applying for disability insurance. The rock and roll act is wearing thin.
Corresponding to Nik's downward spiral is Denise's need to render her own chronicle of sorts, which includes her "Breaking Events" (106), random news items that affect her deeply. "Although I did not experience the events, watching them and reading about them and my reaction to them was a kind of experience nevertheless. It sounds meager when I describe it, because the feeling it finally recalls really is, no matter how intense, meager" (108). Denise recounts a few of these items -- a drunk woman who neglects her baby on New Year's Eve, an actor who murders his family, a missing thirteen-year-old Amish girl.
Perhaps by design, the Breaking Events section doesn't have the immediacy as the sections concerning Nik. However, they show Denise struggling with her own inner life, and this plays counterpoint to her retelling of her brother's descent.
While largely effective, Stone Arabia isn't perfect. Spiotta's occasional shift into third person -- while backed up by context -- coincides with a jumbling of the story's timeline that confuses more than enlightens. Also, Spiotta seems to lose steam as the novel moves on, abandoning Denise's sharper insights for more of a simple unraveling of events. I couldn't help but feel the writer's attention wane.
Novels and short stories rarely convey the bombast of anything. Serious fiction's role is to offer insight into characters' lives through story. When it works, we see our own lives through these characters. As rock music has been a part of our culture for more than half a century, it's foolish to think it can't play a role in our fiction. With Stone Arabia, Spiotta shows one way fiction can be both insightful and about our rock and roll hearts.