A su­per star that shone purely in a pri­vate world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

WHEN David Bowie turned 65 last month (and yes, take a mo­ment to think about that), rock critic Alex Petridis wrote a piece ar­gu­ing Bowie ‘‘ didn’t re­ally fit with the no­tion of the star in the 21st cen­tury’’.

Petridis’s point was not that Bowie’s mu­sic hadn’t aged well; quite the op­po­site. Rather it was that Bowie’s en­dur­ing in­ter­est lies not in the man but the myth, a cre­ation that has lit­tle mean­ing in a cul­ture ob­sessed with ac­cess to the ‘‘ real’’ per­son via Twit­ter and Tum­blr and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion.

This gap — be­tween the public self we con­struct and the pri­vate self we pre­serve, be­tween the il­lu­sion of ac­cess and true in­ti­macy — is one of the var­i­ous dis­junc­tions ex­plored in Dana Spi­otta’s re­mark­able third novel, Stone Ara­bia.

In this book, New Yorker Spi­otta not only dis­tills some­thing es­sen­tial from the dis­con­ti­nu­ities of our me­dia-sat­u­rated cul­ture but also speaks elo­quently to the far more fa­mil­iar dilem­mas of age­ing and par­ent­hood and loss.

At the novel’s cen­tre are two sib­lings, Denise and Nik. Now in her mid-40s, Denise’s life has been a fail­ure in many ways. Brought up by her mother with only oc­ca­sional vis­its from their charm­ing but ab­sent fa­ther, she got preg­nant young with her daugh­ter, Ada, bring­ing her up alone be­fore fall­ing into the role of carer (and chief banker) to Ada, Nik and their fail­ing mother.

But if Denise’s life has been a fail­ure Nik’s has been some­thing wholly stranger. Older than Denise by sev­eral years, he be­came ob­sessed with mu­sic in his teens, form­ing sev­eral bands which en­joyed enough suc­cess in the mid to late-70s for the last, the ap­po­sitely named the Fakes, to be of­fered a record deal. But when the deal went sour Nik elected to with­draw from the mu­sic scene and con­cen­trate not on public suc­cess but on writ­ing and record­ing mu­sic pri­vately.

This is the tra­jec­tory of any num­ber of young mu­si­cians, beau­ti­ful kids with gui­tars who burn briefly but not quite brightly enough.

But for Nik merely writ­ing mu­sic is not enough. In­stead he be­gins to en­gage in a process of ‘‘ self-cu­ra­tion’’, (‘‘self-cu­rate or dis­ap­pear’’, he ad­vises Denise at one point, be­fore de­cid­ing the bet­ter op­tion might be to self-cu­rate and dis­ap­pear), in­vent­ing not just bands but an en­tire ca­reer, com­plete with fic­tional re­views and in­ter­views, scan­dals and suc­cesses, all recorded and filed in a se­ries of fold­ers he keeps in his apart­ment and de­scribes as his ‘‘ Chron­i­cles’’.

The life Nik cre­ates is both his and nothis: when his dog dies in real life Nik’s dog dies in the Chron­i­cles, ex­cept there he gets a trib­ute al­bum and ‘‘ fans sent thou­sands of con­do­lence cards’’.

Sim­i­larly, in one of many bril­liant but un­set­tling mo­ments in this novel he ven­tril­o­quises a let­ter from an imag­i­nary Denise to an imag­i­nary Ada, cre­at­ing in the process a ‘‘ witty, bru­tal par­ody’’ of the real Denise.

These ques­tions about au­then­tic­ity, ide­al­ism and our ca­pac­ity to mis­take the dreams of youth for truth are not new ones for Spi­otta, whose sec­ond novel, Eat the Doc­u­ment (also framed by a se­ries of imag­i­nary ex­cur­sions into the ephemera of pop mu­sic) fo­cuses on a for­mer stu­dent rad­i­cal who has taken on a new life and a new iden­tity to es­cape the past.

But in Stone Ara­bia they take on a new ur­gency.

This is partly be­cause of the man­ner in which the book’s cool, beau­ti­fully poised sur­faces pull against the depth of feel­ing they con­tain. It’s tempt­ing in this con­text to com­pare Spi­otta to Joan Did­ion, a writer she re­sem­bles in more ways than one, ex­cept that Spi­otta’s writ­ing is more ex­pan­sive, less ob­sessed with its own per­fec­tion.

But it’s also a re­flec­tion of the dis­tilled power and charge of Spi­otta’s writ­ing more gen­er­ally. Per­haps ap­pro­pri­ately for a book so con­cerned with the con­structed na­ture of iden­tity, Stone Ara­bia is a highly con­structed piece of work, mov­ing with de­cep­tive ease be­tween Denise’s own rec­ol­lec­tions, ex­cerpts from the Chron­i­cles and Ada’s blog. Yet de­spite that the book never feels con­trived or over-de­ter­mined, even when it prompts us to see the dilem­mas of its char­ac­ters as symp­to­matic of larger cul­tural phe­nom­ena.

In­deed in many ways the re­verse is true. For even as the book moves to­wards its gor­geously un­der­stated final pages (and the mean­ing of its some­what gnomic ti­tle) it seems to find new depth and res­o­nance, its many pieces com­ing into fo­cus and al­low­ing us to glimpse the way we of­ten need to let go of our dreams to be­come our­selves. James Bradley is a writer and critic. He blogs at city­oftongues.com

Cover of Dana Spi­otta’s Stone Ara­bia

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