A super star that shone purely in a private world
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