Subjects Discussed: People in their mid-thirties who are crippled by their own self-judgment, empathy and resentment, workaholicism, feeling paralyzed, kidults and grups, pursuing a project without seeking a larger sociological reach, hats and gloves, the number of characters in The Future that operate as failed artists, July’s theory that most artists are in a constant state of crisis, moments in life when you don’t know what to do with yourself, entering the space of not knowing, outside forces that compel artists, talking moons and crawling T-shirts, nudges from your own security blanket, the relationship between art and commerce, the dry-erase marketing campaign for No One Belongs Here More Than You, the Internet as a commercial medium, Google+, art springing from boredom, anger and addiction, T-shirt puppeteers, screaming out windows, Howard Beale in Network, yelling out windows in real life, girls who bury themselves in the ground, self-enforced endurance rituals, vital methods that emerge from voicing a talking cat, playing multiple roles, sticking with initial intentions, accidental slips, whether July feels any obligation to speak to her generation or a cultivated audience, and the liberation of writing, directing, and performing in your own sex scene.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I want to discuss the fact that you have two characters in this movie who are in their mid-thirties. They are too lazy to leave the couch. They are unable to get their lives together to pursue their careers. When it comes to keeping track of the calendar, they prove negligent — I don’t want to give it away. And they are crippled so much by their judgment that Sophie is very diffident in the very beginning when she’s making these 30 dance videos and Jason keeps his hand permanently on Sophie’s head. So as a guy who is in his mid-thirties and who works very hard, I was interested in these characters. But I also felt somewhat resentful towards these characters. And I can only imagine, in concocting these characters, that you, who have worked quite hard also may have experienced perhaps some resentment towards your creation. And I was wondering if you could talk about this double-edged sword. What did you do to shake off potential resentment towards people who are really not going anywhere in their lives — at least for the large majority of the film?
July: Well, I didn’t — I felt more understanding of them than that. I mean, yeah, I’m really, really productive. Maybe even a workaholic. But I feel paralyzed a lot of the time. And just cause I work a lot doesn’t mean I feel like always deeply fulfilled or that I always know what to do next. Or who I am. So in a way, I took a lot of doubts and fears and put them into my characters and, in a way, to break out of the patterns of some of like, you know, using work in a kind of unexamined way. And yeah it’s embarrassing. It feels kind of awkward to play that role or to give these people time and space. But at the same time, I don’t really want to see a movie about these fantastic people doing everything right and knowing themselves completely. I don’t relate to that either.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, were you trying to depict a current crisis among many mid-30s types? I mean, some people could make the comparison that it absolutely mimics both the Southern California layabout and also the Williamsburg hipster. That’s one of the virtues of this film. But on the other hand, I’ve been seeing a lot more artists — especially books and now increasingly films such as yours — which are really depicting this kind of kidult phenomenon that was written about in New York Magazine. Was this a concern of yours? Did you study any larger sociological reach along these lines to depict this type of feeling?
July: I never care about the larger sociological reach. I mean, I’m almost entirely concerned with, like, an internal world. And, you know, sometimes I kind of lament that I have to create characters in order to get inside of them. You know, like I just want to start out already in them. And then I hope, if their insides resonate and are through, that I’ll end up making characters that people connect to — whether they love them or hate them, they’ll seem relevant. But I never work from the outside in like that. Yeah.
Correspondent: How do you jump around from putting your hand into the glove versus, I suppose, creating the glove and stitching the sequins and all that? What’s the difference? I mean, do you have to put on two hats? Is it one continuous process?
July: That’s a lot of clothes flying around here.
July: Hats and gloves.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, there is a T-shirt in the movie.
July: And there’s a shirt in the movie. I mean, you’re talking about sort of being inside the movie and making it.
Correspondent: Yes. Acting, writing, directing. Especially some character who has this particular feeling.
July: Yeah, I mean, it seemed like if you were going to make a movie that had a lot to do with doubt and fear, like it might not be a bad thing to have a lot of doubt and fear making it? Apparently, I thought that was a good idea. Because I did. I did have lots of doubts. And when you’re in it, you know, that is part of your job. Is to feel all those things and to believe in them and to not judge them. And then when you’re outside of it, well, it’d be nice if you add some distance. But I don’t really. I pretty much am like method directing. Which isn’t that fun for everyone on the set. Especially when it’s a darker movie.
Correspondent: Why not? Why isn’t it fun?
July: Well, with like the first movie, it was more kinda hopeful and innocent in a way. And I think I embodied that as I was making it to some degree. And the second one, I also embodied. Which meant that I was fairly haunted the whole time and kind of a little bit wishing that I could flee it the same way. Very dedicated and yet still having fantasies about just walking away from the whole thing. The way that my character does. Yeah.
Subjects Discussed: The need for dramatic emphasis, basing novels on real life crimes, having a preexisting narrative framework when working on fiction, mysterious PBS documentaries about missing girls, blurring criminal details to create tangible fiction, writing in locations that you don’t live in, special corners of the brain, the advantages of maintaining a blinkered perspective, Raymond Chandler, the perils of critically assessing a writer you love, James Ellroy, Daniel Woodrell’s methods of shattering language, maintaining a rhythmic balance in sentences, writers who only have one story to tell, Paul Schrader, agonizing over repeat metaphors, fanned out objects, “doomy” vs. “do me,” deploying the words “fulsome” and “candescent,” James M. Cain, using similes after five novels, Chandler’s similes, being unafraid of influence, having a hyperbolic head, working with editors (Denise Roy vs. Reagan Arthur), severe line editing, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (Lish’s edit of “Beginners”), stylistic repetition within sentences, breaking out of certain ruts, the difficulties of including a drunken nightclub scene in a novel about a thirteen-year-old girl, fornication within novels, pinpointing the precise moment that the police show up in a Megan Abbott novel, contemplating a pre-Amber Alert era, shame and guilt, the phrase “the end of everything” contained in Die a Little, FLAME, MASH, and childhood folded paper games, girls who are “body-close,” building a foundation to find a bridge to the end, Bury Me Deep and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, reviving twenty pages from years before, psychoanalytical connections with the American novel, using Freud to balance judgmental behavior within a novel, Stewart O’Nan, Alice Sebold, when missing girl novels are pegged as crime fiction, struggling with the absence of plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, literary fiction cannibalizing from genre, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, John Banville/Benjamin Black, dismissal of genre from literary practitioners and marketplace conditions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, Martin Amis’s Night Train, John Updike’s external sexual imagery, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, the relationship between sex and observational judgment in Abbott’s fiction, nonjudgmental sexual moments in life and in fiction, strangers who have sex in motel rooms, why peach is the best hue to describe porn, discovering body objectification as a kid, authenticity with real and fictitious places, David Lynch and rabbits, kimonos and forelocks as essential elements to a Megan Abbott novel, film imagery vs. tangible human experience, In a Lonely Place, fixing up a room to match the look of a room you’re writing about, nostalgia and site-specific memory, and direct transposition from reality.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Missing girl novels are really interesting to me. Because you have people like Stewart O’Nan and Alice Sebold, who have written these missing girl novels and yet they don’t have to face the dilemma of being pegged a “crime novelist” or a “mystery novelist” or a “noir novelist.” Why do you think O’Nan and Sebold are able to get away with this and you aren’t? I mean, obviously you’ve written noir. But what of this? I was thinking to myself, “Well, can you really call her books ‘mystery novels’ or ‘crime novels?'” I was talking with people about this. And I said, “You know, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction. And fiction should work.” So how do you deal with something like this?
Abbott: You know, I’m always so mystified by that too. Because I think — talking about The Lovely Bones and what people may call the “missing girl novel,” but they’re certainly not calling it a crime novel — it sort of stupefies me. And all those designations do. Because stories are stories. Especially missing people stories. They’re really about identity. They’re really about these big issues that, in many ways, all novels are really about. The missing or the gone, and how we attach these labels. On the other hand, as a lover of crime novels, I feel okay with that too. It doesn’t bother me. But I guess there’s this fear. The fear I always have in this case. People always say this about crime novels and they won’t say this about literary novels, but they should. Which is: “Oh no. Not another missing kid book.” Or “Oh no. Not another heist novel.” Or a PI novel. And that’s just because they’ve read some that don’t sing for them. But I think that with literary fiction, you can get away with that more. I mean, someone perhaps should say, “Not another novel about a crumbling East Side marriage.” But nobody seems to! No one would say that. Because they’ll say that’s the stuff of life. Well, you know, crime is the stuff of life too.
Correspondent: Or: “Not another novel about a middle-aged man going through a crisis.”
Abbott: That’s the one I was trying to think of. (laughs)
Correspondent: That’s the thing. I mean…
Abbott: Who’s going to fall for the younger woman. (laughs)
Correspondent: (laughs) Even worse. Yes, I know! Why don’t we peg those as genre and the crime novels, which have a little more variety…
Abbott: We’ll call it the Ralph genre. (laughs)
Correspondent: Maybe the solution here is to just win them over with prose. If you have original enough prose, do you think that you can escape the label? Or maybe there’s a certain advantage in being locked within that label. Because you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.
Abbott: You’d think that. You know what I mean/ I guess the sort of dream is that you’d have a book that would work in both ways. That’s one of the things. I struggle with plot. It’s not my natural thing. But I love plot as a reader. And I’m a big literary fiction reader. But often the struggle I have with them is the absence of plot. It just seems like the ideal situation are those books. And I think the Sebold is one of those, where you’re able to merge the strength of a genre book’s plot with all the originality and the innovation that you can get away with more in literary fiction than you could in a crime novel. Though I think you can. Most crime readers are totally open. Because they read so much. And obviously they don’t care that much about plot. Or they wouldn’t be reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! (laughs)
Correspondent: Sure. But we’re also seeing literary fiction cannibalizing more from genre, I think, in the last five to ten years.
Abbott: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: I mean, Colson Whitehead. His new book is a zombie book.
Abbott: I hear that!
Correspondent: Why isn’t that categorized in the science fiction section?
Abbott: Richard Price. It’s somewhat puzzling. Who’s the new one who’s doing it? There’s another one. I keep hearing of all these literary authors writing their crime novels. And I’m sure they’re doing it for a variety of reasons. And I don’t blame them for doing it. But what frustrates me sometimes is the reception they get, which is…
Correspondent: They get a free pass because they’re the literary person dipping into genre.
Correspondent: You, by way of being the experienced genre novelist, get more criticism.
Abbott: Right. Exactly.
Correspondent: Do you feel that this is what the situation is with you?
Abbott: I don’t know. I mean, I guess we’ll see. I feel that my books are part of the same world. And I think a lot of these turns are sort of imposed by outside…
Correspondent: Marketplace situation.
Abbott: Right. So I think that’s okay. My greatest frustration is the John Banville thing, where it takes him three days to write a paragraph under his name. But when he writes under Benjamin Black, it takes him five minutes to write. Like that kind of dismissal of genre.
Correspondent: Well, I don’t think he really means to dismiss genre.
Correspondent: Because if you’re spending five mintues on what normally takes you three days to write, of course it’s going to seem “easy.” Of course, you’re going to sneer down on it. Even though he’s also having a lot of fun. Even though he’s also come out and said, “Oh, I love Donald Westlake, and Richard Stark novels you must read.”
Abbott: Yes. And I think that’s the place I’m excited about. When it comes from a love. When you can feel an author’s love. When they’re not being arch. A lot of people gave Martin Amis a hard time when he came out with Night Train. Which I thought was great! Because you could tell. He was not being pastiche or arch.
Correspondent: No ambitions whatsoever. He just wanted to write a mystery novel.
Abbott: Exactly. And it’s beautiful. He didn’t hold back on his prose. He did exactly what he wanted to do. And when books come from a place of love, they always work.
Correspondent: I also feel that Paul Auster has faced that problem too. Because he’s writing very ornate mystery novels to some degree.
Abbott: Right. You think of Ellroy and DeLillo. How are they that different?
Correspondent: Yeah. They’re both confronting the major events of the 20th century.
(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion!)
The residents of the Mohawk valley will ever feel a deep interest in the career of Colonel John Brown, who in the fall of 1780, under the inspiration of a lofty patriotism, came with his Berkshire Levies to this valley, to protect its fields from pillage, its dwellings from conflagration, and its early settlers from the cruelty of a savage foe. This interest is doubtless enhanced by the consideration that when he first engaged actively in the business pursuits of life, he was a resident of this valley, and that he fell while fighting heroically on one of its battle-fields, near which his ashes now repose.
Now doesn’t that sound a bit like Nik’s Chronicles? This got me thinking about whether Nik’s Chronicles represent a new lofty patriotism, or whether the act of plucking a lily (Paula’s question causing me to plunge further, not unlike Ada’s documentary filmmaking) from the vast swaths of electronic fallow is really what Spiotta is remarking upon. If the Battle of Stone Arabia can’t be remembered, if Colonel John Brown’s heroic actions stand no chance of being committed to memory (and we’re arguably living in a nation where our political figures commit more historical gaffes than ever before), then does Nik stand a chance?
I’m glad that Susan has brought up one overlooked facet of the book: Denise’s tendency to diagnose from the Internet (Spiotta’s own answer to WebMD?). It’s a woefully insufficient and darkly humorous response to the present healthcare crisis. You don’t have the dough for a doc, but maybe you’ll stand a modest chance with unreliable online info. Perhaps there are unseen Battles of Stone Arabia going on around us —- people dying or getting sick or, in Denise’s case, seeing their emotional life break down because this is the new method with which we survive by our bootstraps. “Pain tourist” is indeed a suitable term.
As Porochista says, even in her refreshingly honest takeaway, it’s not just the points about memory that drive this book. It’s about a place associated with a Revolutionary War battle -— maybe not on the level of Bunker Hill or Valcour Bay -— inevitably transforming into a small hamlet with an Amish contingent (the very opposite of war) without anybody truly observing the changes. So perhaps there remain remain plenty of under-the-radar facets of our culture hiding in plain sight! Like Judith, I feel the impulse to go to the library and drag books off the shelf when there is a name or a memory pertaining to another subject. And yet there’s no way that any Chronicles, or any life, will contain it all! I wasn’t kidding when I said that I would “read forever or die trying” when I threw down the gauntlet for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. Maybe this is why, when it comes to life and it comes to literature, perhaps we really do have the obligation to finish it.
Thanks again to everybody for such a great discussion!
I read Stone Arabia (a title I expected nothing from) as the story of a savvy and functioning middle-aged white woman narrating (reliably?) the story of her life, which includes an idiosyncratic and increasingly dysfunctional brother, a mother whose faculties (and thus her ability to live independently) are diminishing and a grown-up daughter who seems the healthiest in this cast of characters (she got out and moved away from the family’s melodrama).
In the context of this story, I find Denise admirable for her support, her concern for her kin and for her sensitivity to the outside world (the mother arrested for taking her infant to a bar, her reaction to Abu Ghraib, the Chechnyan school tragedy, and one other instance I have now forgotten). I wonder if any of us had anything more than a a passing reaction…
On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy for Nik. He may or may not be talented in an accessible way. (And I don’t award him much for his ability to mimic various elements of the creativity business.) I am not certain whether he was easily thwarted by any resistance to his ambitions (on the verge of success, his band was apparently sabotaged by one of those sharpies with which the record business is infested), but his nearly three decades as a barkeep in a Los Angeles dive bar is, at best, evidence of a pathetic lack of self-preservation. His substance abuse, which he refers to as his consolation, provides ample evidence that, whatever the obsession to fantasize a life of creativity means in his life, it does not offer (much) relief for what ails him. Did Nik kill himself? By that point in the story, I had stopped caring.
Denise’s (failed?) relationships don’t strike me as particularly telling, except in the pleasure she derives from escaping into the world of old movies with her useful paramour Jay. Her concerns about her mother’s decline meld into her not unreasonable midlife anxieties of her own mental diminishing. That’s life. She appears to be a caring mother — either I missed it or her bringing up the younger Ada was not part of this narrative.
Apparently, Stone Arabia was sufficiently engaging for this group of dedicated readers to call forth a plenitude of analysis and interpretation as well as some brainy cultural references. I thought the title fell slightly short of being useless in my reading and the cover art may have referenced the quintessential punks, the Sex Pistols. But the cutout newspaper typography was not original to them -— not to mention, did I need to get these references to Nabokov and Byron to reasonably enjoy Ms. Spiotta’s meticulously spun tale? Also, while Nik’s (artful?) mimicry could lend itself to hypertextual adaptations and flourishes, I think such gimmickry is incidental.
Hmmm….did I like this book? Not in particular -— though I respect Dana Spiotta’s rendering, I am not much impressed with what I see as Nik’s parroting of the music business. That his sister is devoted and supportive turns out to be too small a story to really engage me. I certainly do not regret reading this and I am pleased to confirm the variegated subjectivity, which I note this group of readers brought to this Medusa-headed conversation.
Here’s a handful of tossed-off points, because I can’t help myself:
Does Jay actually like Kinkade? Or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
How does Spiotta do with endings in general? This is a question for those familiar with her whole body of work. Again, full disclaimer: it’s been a while since I read Eat the Document, but I kind of remember question marks going off over my head around that book’s ending.
The idea that women should be behind other women writers 100% makes me feel like I need to go read a stack of Tom Clancy novels. I mean, I know, I know. But. (It’s a perpetual point of shame that I’m not reading enough women writers, etc., etc., etc., embarrassed my current stack is male-dominated, etc., etc., etc., to be rectified in the coming weeks/months/years, etc., etc., etc.)
I like Ed’s notion of Stone Arabia representing an unknown place in plain sight. The history we’ve lost is, what, billions of times more in pure quantity than the history we’ve kept? Reading The Chronicles as a form of patriotism seems a little like a reach to me. Nik is free to do what he wants. And if he wants to spend his life writing a fake story about himself that nobody reads, well, people have died so he can. Are there more depths plunge into here?
Speaking of Nik (because he’s the flashy guy who can’t help but steal attention from anyone else in the room) has the term “self-portrait” been used here yet? I ask because, in my current drawing class, we’re working on self-portraits. And I spent four hours last night staring at a three-foot-high developing rendering of my own face, Nik couldn’t help but come to mind. His Chronicles are essentially a self-portrait in words, aren’t they? (What’s to stop me from critiquing my own artwork?)
Speaking of myself -– and by extension, all of us -– on a meta level, I’m totally fascinated by the weird tension between reading the book as a text and reading it as a reflection of ourselves. Not that I have anything interesting to say about that, other than I like it.
And there are so many other things I want to ponder, review, and discuss further. Ed and all, you may have ruined me for books for which I can’t participate in a roundtable like this. Thank you!
Ed: I agree that Stone Arabia is not a random place she picked, nor a random title. Spiotta is far more deliberate than that and she loves hidden meanings.
I thought it was pretty clear that Jay’s love of Kinkade was ironic.
Whether I liked this book or not? I’m happy I read it. I found the second half very engaging. It had some weaknesses, but very few books don’t. Emily Nussbaum wrote that Mary Gaitskill’s first novel “flawed” and disparaged it. I love that novel, love it, and I know it’s flawed. I think Stone Arabia is a very smart book, brimming with the author’s intelligence and compassion. Quite frankly, the flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths. In general, I doubt it’s a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m very glad I did, thanks to Ed. I should read more things that aren’t my thing (meaning, I need to stop rereading Tolstoy, Greene, Gaitskill, EJ Howard, and so on).
Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
We never get a lot of info on whether or not Jay’s in love with Kinkade. We only know that his “obsession” was “pure.” Jay “wasn’t a very good looking guy.” He wore sweaters that gave him “an off-putting, almost creepy diminutive effect.” Just about the only positive thing Denise has to say, other than his between-the-lines, non-threatening nature, is that his obsession is pure. We get that in the Kinkade and the James Mason movies. Denise goes on to say something about how the world is full of “fake obsessions” and there’s little that’s more terrible to her than faking an obsession. We would hope it’s an ironic obsession, but aren’t “irony” and “purity” antonymic?
This is both on-track and off-track, but it’s interesting to juxtapose Porochista’s question (“but did you like the book?”) with Darby’s observation about Stone Arabia taking place in 2004, the year of Facebook’s birth, with all the talk of memory and fakery and the sheer number of intense personal narratives we’re sharing (and how I feel tremendously honored to be one of the share-ees, so to speak). Because even though I didn’t think that it was Spiotta’s intention, the mere fact that I’m connecting these disparate strands demonstrates why Stone Arabia is so damn relevant and necessary: it’s a book to admire, that inspires both deep emotional responses, but also this wealth of analysis that travels as far back in the past as 1780 and as far forward as, well, 2011. When we’re all thinking about what it is to be “authentic” and “true” and whether the word “like” has been corrupted by Facebook (and also the word “friend”) when “follower” is now a social media buzzword more than a description of someone leading disciples (which, in this case, means Nik is the cult leader and Denise is his ardent acolyte; I will refrain from stretching this metaphor to needlessly thin Jesus/Paul comparisons, however).
Truth in art has been on my mind — in particular, with respect to documentary films. The last few I’ve seen have really cemented my belief that the form is suspect, that it is impossible to have a reliable narrator, and that facts are wilfully misrepresented and contradicted with a Google search or two. Which, of course, makes fiction “truer” — at least to me. So when Spiotta explores memory, its boundaries, and its limitations, her quest becomes that much more meaningful. Sure, there’s artifice. But there’s also tacit acknowledgment of this artifice. We can’t trust “facts” and “truth.” So why not do something greater, whatever that entails?
Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
I didn’t get the sense that Kinkade was an ironic thing that develops between this couple. Because Denise and Jay weren’t that kind of couple. They were all business. So they couldn’t even have the kind of interaction that would make this strain of charming irony and history possible. The way Jay was written makes irony, on his part, rather implausible. Or maybe I just really hate the character and Kinkade so much that I’m hoping there’s no irony in the obsession.
Roxane: I’m very curious (and I did try reading all of the comment threads; so maybe you’ve already explained this) as to why you dislike the Jay character.
I think that irony — or kitsch — is implicit in the Kinkade collecting. It serves as a counterpoint to the writing of music that includes “Soundings.” It is the opposite of that sort of “art.” I honestly believe that Kinkade himself made his work with a strong sense of kitsch, knowing that he was mocking “real” art. As little as I know of LA — and I appreciate all the people who have commented on the LAness of this book — people in LA are much more likely to gravitate to this type of art and the collection of items that may seem lowbrow, than the classical musicians I know in Vienna.
I’m going to throw out some ideas that I don’t completely believe. Delillo. Spiotta loves him. I’ve never managed to get through one of his books. My bad, for sure. But let’s say I see this book as a woman’s book wrapped in a man’s book. There could be many reasons to do this. Women’s books are not taken as seriously because they deal with the domestic. Men’s books deal with world issues, with structure and language, and with abstract notions. Hey, men are better at math. So Spiotta utilizes this slightly weird framework, chews on ideas (as opposed to the inner lives of humans). She contemplates ideas of art, the meaning behind these ideas, and history (thanks Ed, for elaborating on the title). She’s mocking, she’s ironic, and so on. But to me, the meat of the book is the story of a damaged family. A woman wrapped in a man. Yet it’s a woman’s voice, wrapping herself around a man’s self indulgent life. There is so much “bothness” in this book — a favorite term of mine, coined by David Foster Wallace.
I read as many male writers as I do female writers. I often feel that male writers — and maybe “often” is unfair, maybe “sometimes” is a better word here — use technique and literary pyrotechnics to avoid getting at the emotions that rule our daily lives.
All of the above is offered to continue the discussion. I’m truly on the fence about it. But I felt the need to throw this out there.
I’m not sure I agree on the gender divide stuff at all ( for one thing no male writer I know has touched Gertrude Stein in levels of experiment). Interestingly enough, I would have killed for more literary pyrotechnics here! The opportunity was there and it was not taken — at least not all the way. She made a gesture in that direction but backed away from really going there…which, yes, my beloved (maybe favorite writer) DFW would not have done. But since I don’t trust today’s big publishing climate, I have to consider, to be fair, that maybe Spiotta wanted things to be more experimental and she was pushed out of it. Who knows? From reading her other book, I’m inclined to think she shied away from it. Even Egan I wanted to be more experimental! We need female experimental writers to be recognized because lord knows they are out there. The industry allows white males to be more wild and intellectual and experimental; the industry recognizes and nurtures the desire in them. So I think we all have to write about things greater than just ourselves and our own personal experience. (I mean, without fail, nine out of ten editors want me to dish on minority female experience, are interested in reading me for anthropological insights on the Iranian-American experience, want to hear me go on about men and dating and relationships because I am still “youngish,” etc.)
And finally, I want to confirm that it’s true that LA people have a high tolerance for cruddy, campy, and kitschy shit. Maybe even Kinkade garbage. But Kinkade, while he must have realized he may profit from the joke, was not originally in on it, I believe. At least that’s what the 60 Minutes segment on him once made me believe.
Apologies about entering this (really, really insightful and wonderful) thread so late! I’ve been on vacation this week, and have a sinus infection that’s left me feverish and incoherent. Hope I don’t derail anything.
I want to talk about cliche, kitsch, and rock music. From the very first sentence, Nik’s story is explicitly linked to the dominant narratives of the “golden age” of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1960s — “he changed in one identifiable moment.” A Hard Day’s Night is cited by a number of groups (esp. the seminal LA band, The Byrds) as a formative moment in their evolution; similarly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have linked their decision to begin playing music to a moment just after seeing Jailhouse Rock (“now that’s a good job,” John Lennon would say later about Elvis). The sudden appearance of a guitar, and it’s immediate transformation into an object of obsession, is also inked onto the pages of rock lore. Over the course of Stone Arabia, Spiotta links Nik’s experience — his actual experience (the manipulative managers, the strange left turns, the substance abuse) and his Chronicled experience (the motorcycle crash, “every person who did see them live seemed to have formed a band of their own,” the substance abuse) to dominant (and very cliched) narratives that characterize so many biopics and biographies about rock music, both popular and underground. Interestingly, these narratives, manipulative and often tacked on as they are, are what define the “authenticity” of ’60s and ’70s rock music. It’s why The Killers grew mustaches and went out into the wilderness to record their second album, why The Kings of Leon will always remind you of the fact that they’re all related, and how they grew up traveling the Bible Belt with their preacher father. At this point in time they’re kitsch narratives — harkening back to a time that never really existed, imitating a narrative that was already mostly a lie.
There are Easter eggs — connections to archetypal rock lore — on almost every page of this book, and the relationship between the narratives that run through The Chronicles (perhaps also a nod to that perfect rock “memoir” of (probably) mostly fiction, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles) and the narratives offered by musicians and journalists to explain rock music is crucial to my reading of the novel. What happens when you have a series of fake narratives that echo real ones that both signal authenticity and are, frankly, composed of bullshit? These are narratives that either heighten or diminish reality, that often make reality seem more dangerous and comforting at the same time. This, in my mind, is the connection between Nik Worth, Denise’s anxiety about her memory, Thomas Kinkade, and the “Breaking Event” chapters. Each provides a narrative that converts “real experience” into something that both signals a kind of authenticity and that is kitschy. They all are meant to “identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience,” to borrow a description of Kinkade’s work. The Aladdin Sane birthday cake also illustrates this connection nicely.
Of course, Worth is positively subterranean, and the conflict between life underground and the rock ‘n’ roll dream narratives within The Chronicles is what I find most interesting about Stone Arabia. Nik is as authentically underground as it gets, but both his “real” life and his second life in The Chronicles all mirror cliches. He’s authentically underground, while also exemplifying the inherently inauthentic narratives that determine one’s status as authentically anything. In his interview with Ada, he says “Imagine doing whatever you want with everything that went before you. Imagine never having to give up Artaud or Chuck Berry or Alistair Crowley or the Beats or the I Ching or Lewis Carroll? Imagine total freedom.” Of course, all of those things show up as formative cliches for the Beatles, Dylan, and Morrison (among many others). Perhaps Nik’s project is a way of trying to free himself from anxieties about authenticity itself, an attempt to both hold on to talismans and rid himself of their power? And what is authentic experience anyway? That’s the dominant question of the Breaking Events chapters, and a crucial one within the novel itself.
My fever is back, though. So I’m going to cut off here. A few quick notes before I go:
When thinking about Nik’s life and music, I kept thinking of people like Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Daniel Johnston. Interestingly, all of these artists are mentally ill. I’m not suggesting Nik is mentally ill. I’m just somewhat surprised that I kept instinctively making the link. Did anybody else have that experience? I suppose it may just be that these people all spent significant time “underground.” Arthur Lee, the Godfather of L.A. underground, was also on my mind.
I have no idea what Nik Worth’s music sounds like. While I had my problems with the Richard Katz sections of Freedom, I ended up getting an idea of what The Demonics and Walnut Surprise (easily the worst fake band name ever) sounded like. His list of influences was diverse (and aweseome! Can, the Incredible String Band, and The Residents? Sweet. He does lose points for hating on Wings, though.). Denise and The Chronicles tend to use genre (or cliche!) as a substitute for description: “power pop,” “progressive” “unique sound to counter to both commercial progressive rock and punk rock,” “dark lyrics and art rock dissonance,” “fatal hooks and crafted melodies,” “unique, intense,” “proto-glam,” “crystalline gorgeous harmonies got them compared to the Beatles,” “perfectly rendered songs of herartache and youth,” “unprecedented path of experiment and innovation,” “full of cryptic and hermetic references,” “Who would have guessed what we were all waiting for was a collection of atonal, arrhythmic assualt compositions mixed with concept sound poems?” “A Futurist sound experiment, a dada poemlet.” That’s just what I found in the first 94 pages. None of it helps me hear Nik’s music, though I do think some of it is relevant to what I talked about earlier.
There are three songs that were on my mind when I was writing this post:
Wilco – “The Late Greats” (The best band will never get signed / K-Settes starring Butcher’s Blind / Are so good, you won’t ever know / They never even played a show / You can’t hear ’em on the radio)
Bad Company – “Shooting Star” (The ultimate rock success cliche song!)
And a parody of the Bad Company song (and others like it) by America’s Beatles, Barry Dworkin & the Gas Station Dogs (as performed by Ted Leo)
Thank you to Ed for doing this roundtable. I am so grateful for all the time everyone put into the discussion. I knew this was a book that would elicit complicated reactions, but I was so pleased to see people found so much to discuss. What thoughtful and interesting responses. How generous you all are to read the book so carefully. With so many books in the world, and so many other things demanding attention, a novelist is extremely lucky to get serious readers.
I can’t help imagining Nik getting the roundtable treatment for his life’s work. He would love it. It is glorious to have deep and long attention to your work. But then he would hate it — because you can’t control responses. People bring their whole long lives to it; it is as subjective and complicated as any creative act. That is one of the book’s concerns: artistic creation and response. Nik would have fun making up his own roundtable, and part of the fun I had in writing the book was taking an artist’s desire for control to an extreme. Maybe there’s no one who is more of an obsessive control freak than a novelist. You sit in your room and play god for years. Then you emerge with this crazy thing — not unlike Nik’s Chronicles, which is a kind of long autobiographical novel. You live in this made-up world as you are creating it. Everything you do and are interested in relates to your secret world. At least that is how it works for me. It takes over my dreams and my rhythms and my speech. Its defects become my defects, which can be a little traumatizing. For me, writing novels is a strange and antisocial thing to do. But I feel more attentive and closer to people when I am writing. So it is complicated. In this book I was interested in the world within the world, and the cost of being close to a person who does that kind of work. So the first big question you all asked — is Nik a “real” artist? Of course he is. Who can say he isn’t? Which doesn’t mean he isn’t a narcissistic freak. I was quite deliberate about leaving the quality of his work ambiguous. I was mostly interested in his devotion. The challenge was suggesting this lifelong, hyper-elaborated art piece. (It meant writing as Nik pretending to be someone else, a sort of double fake that still had to be convincing. It couldn’t be boring or badly done. So Nik is as self-reflexive as I am, he likes contradictions and inside jokes. For example, the irony of his wanting to escape criticism but then needing to create a kind of mean snarky critic within so it feels real to him.) I showed various clips from his Chronicles, but I needed to leave a lot out because I wanted, as I describe below, to focus on Denise’s perceptions of it. I wanted to show just enough, but I didn’t want the novel to be the Chronicles. I didn’t want an iPad app with his music and album covers. That is one possible way to go, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this to be a novel of tricks and games. I really didn’t want it to be cheeky and cute and merely clever. I wanted it to be about being human, about how humans cope with the given terms of this cultural moment, and I wanted it to be about family: the hermetic, complicated, intimate, and relentless idea of family. Even the novel’s very deep concerns about memory and identity are rooted in the strange romance of family.
I am only interested in writing about things I haven’t figured out. In other words, I usually start with a question. And rather than discovering an answer as I write, I try to make the question as deep and complicated and honest as I can. The momentum, if it exists, is in that increasing complication. I think some people perceive this as ambivalence — I tend to undercut everything with its opposite — but I don’t see how anyone meditating on anything deeply can feel only one way about it. People in my novels have strong desires, but they don’t only go in one direction. So I think I begin with ideas, and then it changes as I get into it. In Stone Arabia the inaugural idea was of an artist who doesn’t achieve success in the world, but then he keeps going. And like many isolated artists, he has one person who believes in him and acts as his audience, in this case a sibling. So I wanted to see what that was like twenty-five years in. And I wanted him to be the real deal, but I also wanted him to be a “loser.” I wanted it to be as complex as family is: a long elaborated relationship from which there is no end (or beginning, for that matter).
I started with that. Then, as I was working, I realized that the sister — the audience — would narrate it, had to narrate it. And the thing became a novel of consciousness. As a writer I am really interested in the depiction of consciousness in fiction. I think the novel describes — enacts — the experience of a mind better than any other medium. I also like how a novel is relentless and inescapable the way a mind is. (I really like that you can’t click through to something else. Of course you can always throw the book across the room.) I wanted the book to be claustrophobic and distorted by emotion and doubt and subjectivity. As I worked I wanted the story to be emotional — practically deranged with emotion — but I also wanted it to be unsentimental and uneasy.
All of the structural decisions came out of these concerns. I wasn’t trying to be experimental or conventional. I wasn’t concerned with realism or metafiction or postmodernism. I think of those things as a reader sometimes, but as a writer I try to be more intuitive. I try to “go to the jeopardy” as Gordon Lish used to say (or that’s how I misread him to suit my purposes). I try to be brave about proceeding despite my own shortcomings and limits. All I can do is make myself relentless. My deformations are my own — just go there and go deep. So the form came out of necessity. The form came out of my interest in the interplay of Denise’s consciousness and the idea of a long elaborated fantasy life. Of course the shape also came out of the difficulties, failures, and deceptions of using language as an organizing force. How to tell a story necessarily becomes part of the novel’s deep concerns. Since the novel largely consists of a first person “written” narrative created by a mostly self-taught and self-conscious woman on the edge of emotional collapse, I really needed those third-person narrative breathers (primarily at the end and the beginning) to frame it, even if they never move all that far from Denise’s consciousness. Denise, Nik, and Ada all have specific language strategies. The challenge was in distinguishing all these documents and pieces without losing the connective thread of the human emotion. I don’t know how close I came to achieving my ambitions for this book. But that is what I was going for. I like having everything at stake, and then if I fall short (and I always will), I still end up somewhere interesting.
By the way, I did not see Nik as mentally ill at all. Maybe that shows how crazy I am. He is fully aware of what is real and what isn’t. He is certainly an alcoholic (by an decent standard), but he is unapologetic and I see him as a resister. He has found a way to be the person he wants to be. He seems immune to the judgment of others. He is deeply unconventional and eccentric, albeit very self-obsessed. I admire Nik’s ability to create his own artistic world. He was supposed to quit and get a real job, or he should have gone out and promoted himself. But he isn’t interested in that, and he pays the price. He isn’t bitter — he has been content in his odd way. I personally hate the way novelists are expected to self-promote. How everyone is expected to self-promote. I hate feeling helpless about how to sell books to people. Wah wah wahhh, right? That is another thing Nik has going for him. He isn’t full of self-pity and complaint.
Of course your life is never just your own, and your choices have consequences. I am obsessed with consequences, and what moral — yes — obligations we have to each other. So Nik makes a decision in his life to be intransigent and live at the margins. By the time he is fifty, he is falling apart. I was very aware that these characters lived in America of 2004. A specific time and place. There is no room in the US of recent years for people to live eccentric lives, especially as you age, because of money. Money was one of the big complicating factors. I wanted this to be a book where money weighed on everyone. (I thought of Joyce and how he wanted no one in his books to be worth more than 1000 pounds. He wanted to have Bloom and Stephen counting every penny. He wanted the ultra-realism of money and bathrooms. So far I have left out the bathrooms, but I too have no interest in the lives of the rich.) Health insurance, second mortgages, food stamps, WIC, medi-cal assisted living. I wanted the details of money to play a big role. Because one reason being an artist is so difficult is because of money. And especially without national health insurance, trying to live at the margins becomes nearly an act of suicide as you age. Denise and Nik didn’t get the education they should have had, given their potential. Their mother always had to work, their father left, so they are under parented. They are almost feral children, self-taught and self-raised. Money was clearly a big force against them. I do think being an artist — especially if you are not a mainstream artist, or a born promoter — is harder than ever. I chose Topanga for Nik’s garage because it is one of those American places with a history of off-the-grid artists, a place that encourages eccentricity. Good luck finding a cheap place there now, and good luck trying to live like a bohemian anywhere.
I don’t see Nik as a bad guy. He is just an eccentric human being. Denise gets a lot out of being his sister. She made different choices. She had a kid — which I think made her more responsible as well as more ordinary. But it also gave her so much comfort, and it gave her a concern for the future and the world beyond her own life. Partly the book became about how we manage to comfort ourselves in the face of mortality. As we start to fail, how do we cope? Denise is trying to cope. I think her anxiety gets located in the barrage of information and media she subjects herself to. Another thing that came up in writing the book is the difference between information and art. Nik’s work — whatever its worth — is satisfying and something she understands. She gets all the inside references and it is meaningful to her. She is moved by it. But the flow of intense and relentless information, the bombardment of the external, is really annihilating for her. It is not all that far from Nik’s substance issues. She should resist it, but she can’t. It is destructive. It is chaotic in an infertile way. She becomes stronger when she writes her Counter Chronicles, when she answers back, when she addresses/organizes things with the force of her consciousness. (This is also like novel writing for me, a way to answer back.) Another question the book is interested in is How do we resist the parts of the culture that will annihilate us? How do we stay human? And I think Nik has one way — a kind of retreat — and Denise’s is another. She tries to look at the world and figure it out. She even tries to dive in. The end of the book — the Stone Arabia scene — came up organically. She is, in fact, approaching a different place mentally, and she is also reacting — as Paula said — to her profound grief about losing Nik (and her mother). She leaves her home and reaches — bodily — out in the world. The novel is interested in consciousness, but also how the body relates to memory and mind. Her watching a body fail (Nik) and a mind fail (her mother) puts these connections in high relief. Denise is losing it, and she makes a kind of desperate leap. I wrote that scene slowly and carefully. I knew it was a risk, but it had to happen. Denise tries to reach out beyond herself. And I knew, as it happened, that her desire for connection would fail — of course it would — but I knew she would try. And Stone Arabia was the place where people disappear (her connections are associative), so it tied into Nik, and it was far away and so different from her life. People are like that, we are — we think geography will change our lives. That physical distance will give us spiritual distance. So she fails, but it is touching to me nonetheless. I chose that town because I discovered it driving one day. It felt magical to me. (I suppose I have that magical belief in place as well. If I lived here, I would be different. It is true and it isn’t. Just as Mina runs away in Lightning Field only to return. She has changed and she hasn’t at all.) I was resisting this idea of an epiphany, a revelation. But I also didn’t want it to be simply an anti-epiphany. I wanted her to go, she had to. I wanted it to be a raw gesture. I wanted it to be about our desire for something to change, which we have, and how the idea can almost be enough, failed or not. Stone Arabia itself is an austere, beautiful place with a long, mysterious history. It has this evocative name — both solid and exotic. I love that name, Stone Arabia, and the sound of it, the feel in the mouth as I say it, it draws me in. It is beautiful, which is reason enough. After, Denise goes back to what is left. She steps out so she can step back in. Maybe she can even be somewhat content with what is left. Not the Chronicles — which are almost a burden — but her daughter, her own life, her endurance, her mind.
So the first part of the end is about adult longing, and the last part of the end is about childhood longing.
The very end was intended as a memory/reverie. I wanted to end on the art, the glimpse of transcendence you can get from art. But it is fraught and melancholy, because it is in the deep past. The very end contains a mini version of the whole book — Nik leaves her (or she leaves him). She is alone with her thoughts. I didn’t plan it that way, it just came out and then I noticed it when I read it all together. Young Denise puts on some music she has never heard before from a band she doesn’t know. She goes from her desire for another to her own desire for herself to just pure desire. It is response to art as a kind of salvation, but it is located in longing and a glimpse of possibility. I wanted it to be innocent. I wanted the last note to be the (remembered) innocent longing of a young person.
The book had to end with a memory, as the novel is also a novel of memory (as any novel of consciousness is). She has the physical experience of being in her old house — memory for her is located in the body as well as the mind. Then she has this vivid dream of the past. The irony, of course, is that Denise has an excellent memory. Her fears are not rational. She does remember.
Thank you for reading the book. And thank you if you got through my rambling response to your responses. Writers are the worst readers of their own work, right?
PS I agree with Alex that Nik shouldn’t have been hating on Wings. But that was very young Nik. Adult Nik loves Wild Life. (And you are dead-on about Nik’s use of rock-and-roll tropes and clichés. They are deliberately planted all through his Chronicles. I wasn’t sure if many people would get all the references, but it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. It made it feel right to me as I wrote it. Nik would have all these tropes in his head and play with them.)
PPS Sorry, I forgot a few things. I meant to say that all the interpretations are interesting, and I wouldn’t want to shut down any possibilities. Novels are meant to mean different things to different people. Explaining a novel also feels like a really bad idea for the novelist. (One last parenthetical: as far as what is given in the book, Nik doesn’t commit suicide. He does kill himself in the Chronicles, but in his real life he just leaves, which is very different from killing yourself. I was toying with this Ray Johnson idea of enacting your own death as an [insane] assertion of art over life. But then I realized Nik can, and would, have it both ways. He would author his own death in the Chronicles [because the Chronicles are high romantic drama], but he would just disappear in his actual life. How could he resist writing his own obituary? It is what he has been working toward his whole life.)
Our fourth roundtable installment features Susan Straight remarking upon the book after a death in the family, Porochista Khakpour coming to grips with her Los Angeles past and her academic present, Roxane Gay pursuing the issue of supporting women’s writers, and Judith Zissman investigating memory.
(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)
A little intimidated. Not going to lie. And my late entry wasn’t intentional. We had a death in my family — a young cousin murdered — and a big funeral. Ed, thanks for being patient. And I’ve enjoyed following this intelligent, wide-ranging conversation from all of you, which helped a little with my sadness.
So death and abandonment and the landscape of southern California and the idea of fame and obscurity were foremost in my mind during these past two weeks I read the book.
During this same period, I read two Ross Macdonald novels. Because I had this feeling that Dana Spiotta had an interesting, concise/succinct tone echoing Macdonald, a way of describing a person just as sharply and perfectly as he did. People often overlook his California. Writers haven’t overlooked Spiotta’s Southern California — Casa Real, Hollywood Boulevard, the clubs, Topanga and the Valley — but she still did things with them that I liked.
I liked that Nik and Denise were opposites. She cleans rigorously; he hoards obsessively. She lives in the Valley, land of quiet desperation and anonymous-looking tract houses and condos; he lives in Topanga Canyon, in one of those cliched post-’60s residential appendages in an artsy wooded place, replete with his tools and guitars (I love how she makes fun of it when she visits him on Page 100). She has lukewarm sex, as has been pointed out, with Jay, who is the opposite of true art with his Kinkade-loving self; Nik has himself and whoever wants him. Or he is just above any needs. Denise feels intense emotional attachments with total strangers because of the Internet and television; Nik feels nothing and has no interest in strangers. Nik cries over their father when he dies; Denise wants to feel that too and stares at the photo of someone who feels a total stranger to her until she can cry as well.
What I thought about at night were Nik and Denise’s scenes with their father, and their mother, and their children. In a few places, I thought Spiotta was fairly Flannery O’Connor-like, especially in the childhood places, when I reread the book. “He would have been a great uncle,” Nik says to Denise of their father. Their father doesn’t live with them, he visits. He won’t eat with them, he drinks a scotch. He doesn’t love them, he dies.
So after that, Nik loves the guitar, and himself. Why not?
I love the night when Denise watches Nik remake himself with a scarf. I love the way they’re both feral children and teens, like I was in southern California back then — although my knowledge of the music in the novel, as you can see by this post, is minimal since I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone listened to Al Green, Funkadelic, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, or Lynyrd Skynrd and AC/DC. Van Halen — that’s Pasadena. But I always approach novels as I do any art. My immersion into Nik’s music and The Chronicles was foreign, like the first time I saw Constable’s English landscapes, but pleasurable.
Odds: I liked “pain tourist” and the idea that Denise goes to SymptomSolve.com (is that a real site?) to learn about “déjà vécu,” or fake memory. That sounds so damn fake. Half the memories in the novel, or all of them, could be fake. I thought it was weird that she goes back to Casa Real at the end and talks about memory palaces, since Tony Judt’s excellent memoir is called The Memory Chalet. The Judt memoir and Mira Bartok’s memoir, The Memory Palace, were everywhere this spring, reminding me how obsessive American culture is about memoir and memory, and not fakeness or that fine line between any of it. Spiotta seems to make fun of all that — with The Chronicles, with her own “journey” to meet some woman who she doesn’t even know (if she really took that trip), and with Ada’s film.
Ends: Did he kill himself? Did she “break up with him” and we just didn’t know it? Of my siblings — three half-siblings, five foster siblings, four step-siblings — only one was my actual full brother. He and I were as opposite as Nik and Denise. He was a master marijuana grower, famous for eighteen varieties before anyone else could grow weed, and he was invisible — no Social Security number, no phone, no driver’s license, tax ID, nothing. Ever. He never even got a tattoo — he said to me once fifteen years ago, “What the fuck could anyone put on their body that hasn’t been done before?” He was the absolute antithesis of American social media and culture today. He died in 2002, and I think of him every day, and how he’d make fun even of what I’m doing right now — typing this, telling strangers what I think about a stranger’s book — because the only thing that mattered to him was clan and weed.
So, as the sentimental contributor, Spiotta’s novel haunted me on several levels for these past days. Nik, his sly yet pathetic rejection, his courtship of fame yet not fame, his obsessions, Denise’s sad mirror dance and dutiful caretaking, the way Casa Real exists in not fake memory in a better way than anything else that came after…
Thanks for the stimulating comments (though I too have not read some of the recent ones just yet) and thanks so much to Ed for including me on this panel with such intelligent, vibrant, and interesting “peeps.” And I thank Ed doubly for his selection of Dana Spiotta -— a big point for my literary female author team, especially a literary female author with some experimental inclinations, a club I perhaps presumptuously like to belong to.
So given that, what I’m going to say next might surprise you: all week I’ve been fighting the strong temptation to write Ed, and Ed alone, a note to say that I need to withdraw from this. That I read the book, that I have even reread it, and that I don’t feel like I can speak well of it. For too many reasons to get into here, I’ve suddenly turned into one of those writers who is suddenly scared of speaking her mind. In my defense, this is very much the opposite of what I used to be not too long ago (and there is even ample Internet evidence of how this has landed me in trouble). Suddenly, I see something in the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” adage. I can say several nice things, but, if there is even a chance that the not-nice might outnumber the nice, why would I go there? Especially in times like these: when I, as a woman writer, should be 100% behind any woman writer who came before me. Especially one who is undoubtedly my superior, one who is adventurous and somewhat experimental. Who am I to go there? As an artist and as an academic, I probably make the worst critic: one hand trying to do this stuff myself and the other hand teaching too many of her predecessors as a professor of literature (including Experimental Fiction and, of course, creative writing) to even look at this stuff freshly and fairly. What use is it for me to publicly denounce any aspect of this book?
And then I got to a truth that will save me, here and maybe everywhere. What use is it when it’s my problem, not hers? I usually cringe when people bring their personal experiences into the discussion (though I found the nostalgia and even the tears many of you shared very lovably human, all making me rethink from a sorta needlessly stern MFA poker face distance). But I’m about to do it big time (and don’t worry, I make myself cringe too).
I related to this book a lot. And not just this book, but Spiotta’s first book, Lightning Field, too. (I reviewed Lightning Field in 2001 for a highly superficial glossy, and I think the review was mixed. But I definitely remember feeling uncomfortable while reading it and relieved when it was over — though my twenty-three-year-old reviewer self probably wasn’t old enough to just fess up that it was my problem, not hers.) I am a suburban LA kid. Plus a wannabe punk and an ol’ baby scenester, the type that lived for music yet bought ripped T-shirts at malls and probably played Groupie #1 more in memory than in reality. A poseur through and through. Plus, even more specifically here, I have a brother who’s a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll prodigy, who is also my best friend. Sure, I’m in my thirties. And I’m a product of growing up in the ’80s and ’90s — unlike Denise in her forties, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. But I feel very much a Spiotta subject: as much as any of her characters. And the Los Angeles she writes about is very much mine: dystopian, dark, and dismal LA; the quieter, more dreary, and desolate side of my other LA, which is also the unbearably dark but more manic LA of Less Than Zero. I get where she’s coming from and I hate where she’s coming from. It’s an LA I very much ran away from at eighteen.
(Incidentally, though I don’t live in LA anymore, I read most of this book on a particularly June Gloom-y beach day in Malibu -— my kind of anti-beach-read -— and I’m composing this on the road, on the drive from LA to Santa Fe. This parenthetical also doubles as a plea to forgive typos and grammatical glitches.) [ED: Don’t worry. That’s what I’m here for.]
So this is a long way of disclaiming that one of the only explanations I can come up with for why I have this tendency to not love Spiotta’s work is because it must hit too close to home. The ambience is often too harrowing for me because it works. Spiotta nails some aspect of my reality that I can’t handle. Give me a million gritty New York City epics, but nothing will make me feel more dirty, scarred, and disconsolate than a slim Spiotta volume. I’m probably going to have to avoid her next book, the way that, as I get older, I’m less and less likely to linger before a mirror.
Exhibit A: This book works. Just not for me, which matters almost not at all. But this still must be stated before I ramble on.
Lightning Field was saturated in Los Angeles, literally dripping with consumer name-dropping, and LA facts and figures. It was lyrical to the point of reading like a long poem which meditated on all things Angeleno. Stone Arabia is less on that end of the spectrum; it focuses on time rather than place. Post-9/11, War on Terror-era American life is in it everywhere, competing against the sepia of Nik’s former and fake lives, which Denise has been an arguably key figure in. Maybe this setting feels less personal. Because I lived for all the SARS stuff, the Abu Ghraib mentions, the Kerry name-drops, the YouTube comments, and all things of the last decade. They felt authentic and accurate, sans irony and kitsch. Nothing vintage, retro or camp about it — unlike some of the Angelophilia and Angelophobia within Lightning Field. It is the past that we are still entwined with. But we can somehow see it outside of ourselves. Spiotta rendered this well: not too hot or too cold, but with a sort of narrative nonfiction cool that really glitters in the best realist fiction.
So, as I mentioned, I’m getting more personal than I’d like to about anything that even pretends to be a textual analysis. But here’s another point: this book seems rooted in something concerning the personal that hinders it (more on that later -— I’m talking about Page 237, of course). Without this, I cannot entirely grasp what compelled Spiotta to write this in the first place.
It can’t just be the points about memory, which feel clear and easy and, at its weakest points, a little all too done for me — not unlike the meditations I read by advanced undergrads who are prone to too much reflection. I don’t even want to comment on the thematics here — partially because you all have done a lovely job and I think all that can be said has been said, but also because, aside from some of the digging that some of you have diligently done, this was the most pedestrian part of this book for me.
So let me swan about the fringes. To piggyback on some of your comments about the cover, let me ask about the title: why oh why Stone Arabia? Like many aspects I why-oh-why’d about, it seems simply stylish, edgy, and hip. (A Thurston Moore blurb anyone?) But was there anything else? Why tag it with the small hamlet in upstate New York? It was one of the least moving and most artificial moments of the book for me: not the epiphany or some unforgettable twist and turn warranting the title treatment. Now I don’t want to overdue emphasis on titles -— another personal commercial break. I personally suck at them (Levi, an old Google alert once told me you thought my own novel title was “wretched!”). But this is a book that demands dissection. Or it makes the reader feel like they should be. So why who can blame Levi for leaping to Ada Lovelace? This was a theory I enjoyed, though I’m less eager to cling to this as Spiotta’s intention.
My favorite parts of the novel were the brother and sister relationship, as several of you highlighted. Jay (Kinkade was a good joke for a sentence, but for the main character trait of an otherwise invisible character, it was total overkill), Ada (she seemed most effective as the personification of a blog, that emblem of our contemporary culture), and the mother (a device to further discuss memory and what lies past our conscious and subconscious distortions of it, its ultimate organic failing) were all presences that felt like distractions that were, at best, bland and, at worst, irksome.
So Nik and Denise, Denise and Nik, the love story and tragedy of star-crossed siblings. Certain things, of course, become inevitable. Like heartbreak. So did anyone else feel like his suicide felt somehow like a copout? (Despite not having a proper MFA, I realize how this echoes the most tiresome smartass at the MFA roundtable.) Again, I wonder if it’s just me. I read all these student stories every year, which all seem to end in suicides. Is it my workshop-worn pedant PTSD that provokes an automatic knee-jerk response to a story that ends or nearly ends in suicide? I guess I’m more interested in what would have happened if Nik had survived himself -— a story that starts there might become even more twisted. I’m wary of this point though, because I do think Nik was mentally ill and, at the least, a longtime sufferer of a very agitated depression. Suicide is a plausible end to that story, but there was something so familiar about that move that it almost felt fatalistic. I knew this was going to happen way too early. So when it happened, it evoked (at best) the dreaded “meh.” And hell, maybe I’m just a sucker for a story that defies the forces of its own gravity.
Like I said: This is my problem, not Spiotta’s.
The other aspect I enjoyed is the minutiae —- the sentences, the turns of phrase, the interesting adjectives. I like the microcosm here, but have reservations about the macro. Spiotta can write sentences for sure, really interesting and “true” ones, but the sum total sometimes disappoints me. I think it’s simply a matter of us speaking similar languages but having very different concerns — even as we come from some of the same places as people and as writers: California, the post-9/11 era, etc.
And also: I don’t think it’s wrong for you guys to mention Egan. There will undoubtedly be comparisons. I admire both brilliant female authors for doing something outside of the oppressive, psychological-realist, American female author “norm” (I’m mainly avoiding a word that roughly rhymes with “piglet”). But Egan seems to wear it more naturally for me and goes further into true feral experiment. Thus, her book becomes infectious and addictive. Goon Squad hooked me in a way I did not feel here.
Which brings me back to Robert’s original comment: Would I have finished it? I have to be honest and say maybe not. The heart of it, the Chronicles, just didn’t feel interesting to me. I think the mix of disappointment and aha I felt at the Author’s Note says it all. Spiotta does not hide this being an homage to her stepfather. And it always disappoints when writers say “based on a true story,” even if they mean roughly so. I felt, as I often do with the true-story-based, that the truth held the author back somehow. Something felt very tame to me in this book, a mannered way of approaching something that wanted to be postmodern, as Darby ventures, but never gets there. Usually the architecture and style indicate that to us. Here the central plot point — the Chronicles — were supposed to make it experimental, but it felt mismatched to me. It wore the clothes of experimental fiction but seemed to have the heart of the most conventional commercial fiction. That hybrid need not be a bad thing of course, but it felt at odds for me for whatever reason. And I know I must sound like the badly pierced Manic-Panicked hanger-on I was, but somehow it felt like something of a normal rendering the world of an other. It felt at times more encyclopedic than insider. Not that authors have to live the tales they want to tell, of course. (Let’s avoid even caring about the basis on a true story so close to home for her.) But I think they have to make the call that they are the best vessels for certain stories (example: I would be the wrong writer to write the historical fiction I desperately want to write because my talents do not lie there at all, as much as I want them to). And while I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of several other authors I would have rather had in charge of this story. Maybe I mistakenly sensed a timidity or uneasiness in the author’s hand at taking charge of this story, but after the Author’s Note I really started to wish her stepfather was a writer of literary fiction.
I guess one question I have that I can’t determine from the comments is: did you guys like the book? The more I read, the older I get, the more that very basic question interests me. Perhaps all the thoughtful excavation of the text implies that most of you did. As for me, I would say I’d recommend Spiotta without reservations, but this book with some substantial ones -— though I’d emphasize that I may very likely be the worst critic possible.
Did I mention how badly I wanted to love this book, Ed?!
You said quite a few things that interested me, Porochista.
I did like Stone Arabia, but I did not love it. The parts I did not love made me angry.
I enjoyed this book for a lot of weird, small, personal reasons. My mother makes me diagnose all medical concerns for her and my father via Dr. Google. So I related to Denise using the Internet to self-diagnose. I spend an inordinate amount of time on It was one of those human details I enjoy in fiction. As someone just past her mid-thirties, the stuff about an aging parent, managing adult sibling relationships when you’re very close with your siblings, grappling with middle age or at least the onslaught of it, all of that was also relatable. It was, in many ways, easy to like this book. I also liked the level of detail with which Spiotta chronicled The Chronicles; though as I noted in my first message, I really wanted the book to deal more with The Chronicles on a design/conceptual level. You really expressed my reservations with regard to The Chronicles in that it was dressed up as experimental work but surrounded by a rather commercial traditional narrative. As I read this book, I thought of Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, which had this great interactive feature where the text contained these symbols, leading the reader to a companion website with metatextual bits. Something like that could have been done with Stone Arabia. In this day and age, the multimodal possibilities for a book like this are endless. I was disappointed to see that kind of creativity overlooked.
The ending faltered and was rather disappointing. After Nik lives, the book pales. Just as Nik was the center of his sister’s world, he was the center of the book even if our understanding of Nik was mediated through his sister. It was as if Spiotta lost her enthusiasm for the book when she didn’t have Nik to write about. The final chapter, set in 1972, was a smart choice in that we had the opportunity to see one final glimpse of Nik and Denise when they were at their most magnificent. Everything about the final chapter was decadent and dripping with Los Angeles cool. I couldn’t get enough of it. I also thought the last line was fierce. I felt it in my teeth. However, the ending preceding the ending was frustrating and strange. When Denise visited Stone Arabia, I wanted something more from that moment. The awkwardness of it did, I suppose, speak to the inherent awkwardness of going from watching the news to pursuing those people whose lives make the news. But, other than that, there was no… logic to that narrative direction. The scene felt rushed and ill thought out, as if Spiotta had written herself into a corner from which she could not extract herself. It didn’t stand up to the rest of the book in tone or substance. That part of the ending almost read like it belonged to a different book entirely.
I chose to ignore the title. Because if I thought too hard about the title, I got angry. I can think of any number of titles that would have worked better. That, of course, is what all armchair quarterbacks say, but still, Stone Arabia? Every once in a while, I’d try and make sense of the title to no avail and then I tried to make myself forget it again because it was too irritating. My reading process is a vicious cycle.
Many of the plot threads seemed to fade into the background without resolution. I don’t demand resolution from a novel but the lack of resolution in this book drove me to distraction. While it was a nice twist for Nik to just up and leave that felt a bit easy. I really wanted to know where he went and how he acquitted himself. There were other ways to resolve his story without killing him. Ada’s storyline, the mother’s storyline, these too faded away weakly and we were left with Denise unmoored, and then Denise as a young, young woman wanting it all so bad. I struggled mightily with these ambiguities.
The romantic relationship between Denise and Jay was a cop-out. It depressed me thoroughly. A perfectly interesting woman who, based on the story, seems pretty hot, stuck (even if by ennui) in a drab little relationship with a guy who wears cardigans and loves Thomas Kinkade made me want to punch myself in the face. This is not to say that hot women don’t end up with cardigan wearers but in Los Angeles, she has options and I would have been more interested in a middle aged woman having a satisfying sex life with an interesting person or a bad boy or even a nice guy. Jay was… the color of water. It truly upset me to see a middle aged woman having a clichéd, dissatisfied sex life with a guy who seems really quite revolting. I just could not with that. To see how she ended up, juxtaposed with her interesting sexuality when she was younger was far too much of a disconnect. People don’t change that much, especially when they love music.
I find it interesting, Porochista, that you say that, as a woman, you should be 100% behind any woman writer. I have struggled with this too, at times: this idea of solidarity when we have so much evidence about the ways in which women writers are fighting an uphill battle in the publishing industry. However, that attitude does women writers a disservice. The vagina does not exempt us from critique, nor should it. Women don’t require special handling or consideration. (I know that’s not quite what you’re saying.) As a writer, I don’t want my writing to be supported by other women just because I’m a woman. I don’t want my gender to have anything to do with how my writing is received. Unless money is involved. (I kid. Sort of.) I want my writing to be supported because it’s great. If a critic doesn’t think my writing is great, I’ll cry about the negative review, curse the reviewer to hell, and drink to make it better. As a book reviewer, I rarely write negative book reviews. Because life is too short. If I don’t like a book, I don’t talk about it publicly (there are exceptions). Because I’d rather spend what little time I have writing about books I love. This approach raises questions. How can you trust the judgment of a critic who loves everything? I don’t know. But for every book I review, there are three or four books I’ve read, gathering dust and going unreviewed because I really dislike them. Even though I don’t feel obligated to be 100% behind any woman writer, I do spend more energy promoting/reviewing books I love written by women. It is the one modest thing I can do. And I’m happy to have a few platforms available to me to do so. I liked Stone Arabia just enough to review it, but I’d rather be honest in my review and address some of the weaknesses I perceive in the book.
My biases: I loved Lightning Field, liked Eat the Document, work in the music industry, have contentious relationships with my brothers, and am fascinated by the subjectivity of memory — to the point where I help organize an annual conference on personal archiving.
Things I adored about this book:
All of the constructions of memory: the packing and unpacking, the deliberate obfuscations, the way our brains break down in parallel with our bodies, the ways (as Susan mentioned above) Spiotta renders childhood so perfectly tinted. I’m with Ed that Ada must reference Nabokov — the urge to pull my copy of Speak, Memory off the shelf to find the exact parallels is tempting. What does it mean to create memoir, autobiography, chronicles, archives, and documentaries? How does Spiotta’s constantly shifting narrative call attention over and over again to this construction? The Nik/Ada interaction also clearly references Orson Welles’s F is for Fake, his fictional biographical documentary film and a masterpiece of shifting subjectivity.
As in her previous books, Spiotta’s Los Angeles feels absolutely real to me — in the sense that Los Angeles itself only ever feels half-real to me. All of the cities within cities, the shiny surfaces, the movie-lot facades, the shimmering light.
Spiotta’s gorgeous nimble language. Tiny scenes and phrases stick with me from each of her books. She’s incredibly graceful and electric in unexpected places, and there are such moments in this book that are perfect and breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the things that are perfect and breathtaking for me are are not at the level of the story or the characters, but rather the commentary on things like the nature of siblinghood, or the way you feel memories in your body, or a description of a place. I don’t like the characters — the secondary ones, like Jay and Ada, are sketched so broadly, and the main ones, Denise and Nik, didn’t connect for me either, at least as adults. And maybe this is deliberate — one expects the recounting of childhood to be hazy and the present vivid. Perhaps this is a deliberate inversion, some Alzheimer’s-like filter where the past is vivid and the present flat, but oh so flat. The first half of the book was really a challenge for me to care about any of these characters. Had I not committed to finishing the book (I very much enjoyed the existential “to finish or not to finish” questions you’ve all raised this week), and had I loved Lightning Field so much that it has stuck with me for ten years now, I would have abandoned Stone Arabia early on.
Another digression re: Lightning Field vs. Stone Arabia: It is interesting to consider a body of work vs. a piece of work — either as a creator or as a fan — and I am intrigued by the ways Spiotta touches on this in this book.
I am very much enjoying this discussion, and look forward to seeing where it goes from here.
Subjects Discussed: Occupying the insides of planes, positive mania, Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, novels as a dress rehearsal for a memoir, troublesome aspects of being a young female novelist, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Belle’s Going Down, the freedom of writing memoir, misery memoirs, male addiction memoirs, double standards with gender, baring one’s soul while contending with marketing labels, psychiatrists who attend readings, the personal vs. the professional, the benefits of non-prescriptive therapists, Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy, victimhood and celebrity culture, the miniscule Jewish community in England, newspaper articles as a solution to longing and misery, Colin Farrell’s fan community harassing Forrest, cutting, the relationship between self-disgust and self-obsession, Internet addiction, the keyboard as a surrogate knife, writing the book through osmosis, unusual General Zod metaphors, why Forrest referred to Colin Farrell as the Gypsy Husband, not being able to write other people’s names down, contending with the imprecision of memory, remembering incidents completely wrong, the difficulties of writing and speaking about rape, being susceptible to labels, breaking down before an audio book producer, being judged by others through one’s body, body image, the relationship between work and self-concern, whether the act of writing is capable of full exorcism, the English class system, Forrest’s father “learning to become British,” Jewish identity in Britain, Howard Jacobson, Superman as an inherently Jewish story, distinguishing between the serious and the trivial, the 31 flavors of pain, dissociation, rabbi sermons, whether words can change one’s life, Blur’s “Tender,” and songs vs. novels.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You said in an interview with The Awl that much of this book ended up on your screen by osmosis, that there was material here that you don’t even remember typing.
Correspondent: If you’re caught in a fugue state when you’re writing something like this, at what point do the words mean something? At some point, you’re going to have to look at these words and come to terms with them and iron them out. So I’m curious how you became more aware of yourself and your life experience and the world if you weren’t aware of it initially?
Forrest: Well, you may have also read that I had this whole deal with myself that I didn’t have to publish it. Just because I was writing it, it didn’t mean I had to publish it. And when it was done, I did think it was good enough to publish. And, you know, I read it all the times I had to edit it. But actually — so I handed it in a year and a half ago. It takes a while for a book to come out. Now that it’s out and I’ve been touring — this sounds awful, but I’m going to admit it — I’ve been rereading the book quite often and actually enjoying it and, I think, getting out of it what you’re talking about for the first time. It’s taken a year and a half to get into it and say, “Oh! That’s what you’re about and that’s what you’re doing wrong.” And now I get it. And now I get the lessons. Because it is trapped within the pages, it’s safe for me to explore almost with an eagle eye from above. You know what I mean? Like looking down on myself.
Correspondent: On the other hand, most writers — even writers of memoirs — get sick of looking at their own work. Why is it such a great…?
Forrest: Well, I didn’t. Because I looked at it in the bare minimum. When I was editing. And we did a very light edit, actually. I find it fascinating now because I feel so removed from it. It’s like I’m intrigued and empathetic towards this girl that isn’t me anymore. It’s harder on the reader because it reads so viscerally. I’m comforting readers all the time, saying, “I’m not her. I really am not that person anymore. Don’t worry about me.”
Correspondent: Well, we are all some part of our past lives.
Forrest: But do you remember the part in the book? The rabbi’s sermon.
Forrest: About transformation. And you don’t have to be Jacob anymore. You are now Israel. And part of Jacob will cling to you for the rest of your life. But that isn’t the entirety of who you are. That’s where I feel I am.
Correspondent: But you’re saying transformation. Describe this more specifically. How do you deal with these parts of you who you inevitably are? Is it really just a matter of rereading? Is that your reminder? Why isn’t your memory of it enough? You know what I mean?
Forrest: Memory’s dangerous. It’s hard to have volume control on memory. Writing it down is my volume control. And that’s what made it safe. And that’s what — I’m going to use the cheapest pop cultural allegory. It’s really in my head. Like the villains in Superman II — is it II that they’re trapped in glass and flying through space and time?
Correspondent: Technically, I and II.
Forrest:I and II.
Correspondent: But II is where they broke out.
Forrest: Flying through space and time through all eternity, my memoir is Terence Stamp beneath the glass, trapped. And so that’s why it’s all safe for me now. And done.
Correspondent: Well, I don’t know if General Zod is the best…
Forrest: And it flies through space and time. Because it’s a book that hopefully will stay in publication.
Correspondent: You’re using General Zod as a metaphor.
Correspondent: Now this is dangerous. Because, of course, he wanted to be the ruler of the planet.
Correspondent: He asked people to kneel before Zod.
Correspondent: I’m certainly not going to kneel before Emma.
Correspondent: And I don’t know if the reader is going to do that. But the reader may empathize.
Forrest: Some of them are!
Correspondent: Some of them are?
Forrest: (laughs) I didn’t ask them to!
Correspondent: Wow. So you’re seriously — why not someone humbler than General Zod?
Forrest: Because there are things in there that are evil and upsetting. Like General Zod. Come on! We have to get off this.
(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)
First of all, thanks, Ed, for putting this together and for giving me a reason to read something new.
Levi, I was interested to hear your thoughts about Nik: specifically, that he can in no way be considered an artistic success. It actually never occurred to me that he could be seen as anything but, since my rather rudimentary sense about what makes an artist is largely based on (a) being really weird and (b) creating a body of work. Item (b) is crucial here. I’m not saying Nik Worth is Emily Dickinson, but I think there is always something compelling about a person who puts in such an astounding amount of work for a limited or nonexistent audience, at the expense of health, happiness, and personal relationships (Nik also fulfills another category in being a dick and causing his family heartache). Of course, the fact that the only judgments of Nik’s musical output come from his sister and niece (they laugh about this over pink champagne) is suspect. That said, the nature of Nik’s work — the cross-referencing, the album art, the storylines — takes him out of traditional musicianship and cleverly elides the necessity of getting a ruling on the merit of his output. If someone spent thirty years ruining his health and his sister’s finances writing a twenty-volume novel sequence, we have to see the novel to know whether it was “worth” it (see what I did there?). But in Denise’s descriptions of Nik’s output and the alternative reality he has created for himself, he’s more of a performance artist than a musician. It’s a convenient way of leaving us (or me, anyway) unable to decide whether Nik is a genius or what. I’m sort of on the “genius” side, but I guess it doesn’t matter so much.
While I’m on your comments, Levi, I was also intrigued by your Byron-Augusta reference. I don’t have siblings. So I don’t know what’s what about brother-sister relationships. But Denise and Nik have something that seems more like an unsatisfactory romantic relationship, without sex, and with one partner withholding commitment, household contributions, etc. As another panelist pointed out, Jay fills the sex niche. The fact that Jay is, in and of himself, not your average sex-niche-filler — for one, he has very specific, effete interests that he and Denise actually share — is, to me, a testament to the overwhelming power of the sibling relationship here. Which is not to suggest that Denise should just be happy that she has a man. But Jay seems like a good fit. How often to you meet a guy with an unavailable 1950s film in the trunk of his car, a film that you actually want to watch too? (Maybe it’s a Los Angeles thing.) So this Jay is kind of a character and maybe a catch, but she’s just not that into him. We don’t know what Denise is like when she is in love — with the father of her child, with her second husband. We only know what she is like in love with Nik (she’s “Little Kit Kat, the wonder tot”).
What else? I get a kick out of the fact that we are discussing this remotely (and that when I received the first response, I was in the middle of uploading Facebook photos). I’ve never met you fellow readers. I Google you to see what you’re about, and I owe the Internet to my very presence on this panel. Like Ada, and later Denise, I identify “audience” (such as it is) in page counts, or in disembodied comments, which could, for all I know, be left by one intrepid, shape-shifting troll. I think Spiotta deftly invites us to consider the new confusion about fame and art/not-art in the Internet age, without belaboring the point. She gives a couple of sample inane comments on her daughters’ blog, for example, and for me these conjured up a decade of confusion and anxiety and gratitude to the Internet. Nik’s work and persona make it onto the Internet and generate interest, but people who use the Internet, or who try to cultivate their own small fame plant, know how little his 5,000 YouTube hits might turn out to mean in the long run. He hasn’t been made. He’s just been archived in the digital cabinet of curiosities (did I steal that phrase from Denise?).
Darby, I love your comments about Stone Arabia as a non-postmodern novel with postmodern stuff in it. As I read, I kept thinking that I should feel as if I were deep in Paul Auster territory (frustrated, scared). Despite its frames and edgy preoccupations, the novel felt like a good old-fashioned look at relationships. The plot and the external details of the characters’ lives were, I thought, sort of incidental. I didn’t buy the trip to Stone Arabia — it didn’t feel necessary to me. The fun-uncle dad and Ada’s married lover are just stand-ins, Daddy Issues props. What really moved me was Spiotta’s ability to transmit a feeling that might be your own — sadness over a parent, anxieties about memory and loss. I have to say I did a little crying over this novel (the crying factor is not the only thing this novel shares with some episodes of This American Life, incidentally). Most of all, I immediately recognized the sense of yearning, what Spiotta calls want, that she transmits through Denise. I was amazed at the way she was able to recreate the humming-wire feeling of adolescence — the way you want to destroy your ears with loud music, and be beautiful, and do something. And maybe, because I read this book, this is why I had two beers, put on headphones, and revisited some seminal tracks of my high school years the other day.
To add one more name to the mix, Sam Stone: original bassist for the Demonics, ruined veteran in the John Prine song of the same name. Take it or leave it.
I like your criteria for what it means to be an artistic success, Lydia. When you put it that way, I can’t disagree. But yes, I was surprised to find Ed focusing on the question of whether or not Nik had artistic integrity, because it had never occurred to me that anybody could be impressed by Nik’s career — and I mainly mean this in relation to what the characters in the book must feel, not so much to what readers can feel. Even if we can be impressed by Nik (though, like Darby, I wasn’t — been there, done that, was embarrassed about it), I still feel sure that Denise, Ada, and their Mom were not proud of Nik. And most importantly, Nik wasn’t proud of Nik. Maybe some of Nik’s girlfriends were for a few minutes. Anyway, Roxane’s reference to the TV show Hoarders hit it exactly right for me — I was planning to bring the same comparison up. Nik is a “funny obsessive,” like the people we gawk at on Hoarders, and that’s what’s sad about his YouTube popularity.
A couple more things: I’m glad Lydia said she doesn’t buy the trip to Stone Arabia, and I’d like to take this further — did that trip across the country even take place? It seems unreal. I wonder if the author put that “trip” there (and named the book after it, sans any explanation or justification) as a signal that this narrator is more unreliable than she may otherwise seem. What do all of you think the book’s title is supposed to mean?
Finally, to answer Darby’s question about the album cover: well, I think Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols must be the reference point for an album cover with titles composed of kidnapper-style cutout letters. An ironic reference point, since this album helped introduce punk rock to the world (and thereby helped to kill Nik’s earnest mid-1970s musical innocence).
I’m fascinated by Levi’s obstinacy here, which I now feel compelled to rectify in light of Roxane’s sharp observations about Nik being “a blogger before there was blogging.” Levi seems to be pushing the notion that artistic integrity is inexplicably connected to commanding the respect of an audience. To which I reply: is the respect of one person (in this case, Denise) enough to justify artistic integrity? In other words, what kind of artistic integrity are we talking about here? You’ll note in my opening salvo that I mentioned the “right side” of artistic integrity. And since Diane has brought up the abominable Lee “Lux” Smith — the increasingly extinct (and banned?) incandescent who is described by Denise as having “long lurked at the periphery of the various Los Angeles scenes,” who has “always had his icky fingers in an anthology or documentary,” and who started off as a songwriter, penning a few jingles for a group called the Ginger Jangles — I’m wondering if Lux might have ended up on the “right side” of what I’m going to style “exclusive artistic integrity” if he had not pursued money or had not been so content to crown crap as hype (such as the “uncomfortably handsome singer from Canada”).
Diane suggested that Stone Arabia was “about loving somebody who is incapable of returning that love.” Well, what better description is there of the fan’s temperament? What’s interesting is that Spiotta doesn’t quite get at the issue of how the artist must smile and nod when presented with a fan’s unabashed (and uncurated) ardor. But I’m going to go out on a limb and offer the theory that Spiotta’s “exclusive artistic integrity” — which all of us are capable of, even though it’s become increasingly harder to find outsider art in an age in which nearly every phenomenon goes viral or becomes a sensation “known by all” — is what ultimately puts an elaborate response to art (which Nik’s Chronicles may very well be, as some folks here have already mentioned) on the same footing as art. I think this fits in with Lydia’s idea of being impressed by “a person who puts in such an astounding amount of work for limited or no audience.” (And, Lydia, isn’t that just what we’re doing with our respectiveefforts to read the entirety of the Modern Library 100? I’m now raising the champagne flute in deference to another quirky soul!) I think Our Man Birnbaum is smart to bring up the idea of how we can even complete the prospect of reading or writing about a book. How many of you feel that the act of artistic engagement has become almost a full-time job these days? And do you think Nik has created the ultimate solution for this? I guess I have more sympathy for Nik as a “funny obsessive” than Levi does. Keep in mind that Nik is creating these personae in order to survive — even though his own diminishing returns swell like gout.
I also feel that I must intervene in the apparent “disagreement” between Bill and Diane. Why can’t Jay live “in the moment” (there’s a phrase that defines polyamory for you) and be a fill-in? Keep in mind that you’re talking to a guy who spent thirteen formative years in San Francisco. I saw quite a lot of this type (and even slept with a few): the person who throws herself into an affair or an unusual sexual arrangement (and Jay does fulfill the role of a secondary, doesn’t he? who do you think Denise’s primary partner is in this polyamorous relationship?) that feels “different” or “alternative” from the apparent norm, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s right for that person. Remember, this is “an affair without urgency or agenda, it seemed.” It seemed! Two key words suggesting that Denise knows exactly what she’s getting into (who wouldn’t with Thomas Kinkade, the most unsubtle American artist, involved?), but doesn’t wish to be honest. What does Denise really want? I mean, she tells her own daughter, “So you are eighteen, on quaaludes and dressed like a whore — I don’t have to explain that this often led to a less than fulfilling outcome for young women.” What we’re pussyfooting around here in this discussion is how Denise’s relationship with news headlines and photos is just as problematic. Not especially fulfilling, yet very much an “outcome” rather than something that can be changed. Or can it? Darby has brought up Jennifer Egan (it was bound to pop up), but, since we’re establishing comparisons with last year’s books, I’m almost tempted to compare Denise’s journal against Patty Berglund’s “Mistakes Were Made” in Freedom. To my mind, this seems a more fitting parallel, if only to see how Denise is both oblivious to the root cause while very aware that memory might very well provide some pivotal context for it to emerge, whereas Patty is ostensibly ordered to write the damn memoir by her therapist. Is a greater cure for the unfulfilled life likely to emerge from active straightforward writing? Perhaps. But what happens if you’re living in the shadow of a brother who will always write more “elaborately” than you? If Denise really is the book’s emotional core, as Darby suggests, then I’m wondering the degree to which Denise’s legitimate feelings can be asphyxiated by a bustling culture of commentary — to which all of us here are quite pleasantly guilty!
To briefly return back to the “Ada” dance that Levi and I were involved with, I’ll see your Ada Lovelace and raise you Nabokov’s Ada! With Nabokov, you’ve got some reliable incest, a hundred years of history, and a manuscript contained within a book. Fun for the whole family! Did the Stone Arabia trip actually happen? Well, do you speak Stone Arabic?
Finally, to answer Darby’s question about the album cover: well, I think Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols must be the reference point for an album cover with titles composed of kidnapper-style cutout letters. An ironic reference point, since this album helped introduce punk rock to the world (and thereby helped to kill Nik’s earnest mid-1970s musical innocence).
I’ve obviously totally outed myself as not having a punk rock background, pre- or post-popularizing, yes? The red in that cover is now the red in my face.
How do we take the narrative interludes that break up the Counterchronicles? Are they from the some omniscient presence who drifts over Denise’s shoulder? Denise’s Id? The way they literally interrupt sections of the book, the jarring quality of being pulled out of the first-person “looking back” and tossed into a third-person “present” — is this “reality” as Denise would prefer we all stick to? Or is this all another rabbit hole within Nik’s Chronicles? It struck me as odd that we’d begin with Nik’s letter, then never once step back into the Chronicles.
It seems like the author calls so much attention to the act of making art — that the vast majority of the book is neatly sectioned off as pieces of “art,” whether diary-style Counterchronicles or those odd, ordered “permeable events” — but then the narrative sections are just “there.”
I’d guess that I’m sniffing at the wrong scent on the wrong tree in the wrong forest, but still, it caught my attention.
Darby, at least you have the stones to admit your lack of punk. I spent the majority of my high school and early college years pretending I’d lived with a permanent sneer during the Whitesnake and the Damn Yankees years, and loved (or even knew about) the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag.
On the Jennifer Egan note, I’ve a plainer question for people in the know: to what degree can/does the publisher dictate how much Egan-ness (or, for another example, Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) can go into a book? I’d guess that, relatively speaking, those sections that require the PowerPoint presentations or photographs (or even blank pages!), anything that isn’t simply text, would cost more to produce — if for no reason other than that these sections take up space where words would traditionally go. Would someone with less clout than a Jonathan Safran Foer or a Jennifer Egan get away with inserting pictures or lines and graphs or a silly drawing of a kitty cat in a “traditional” novel? Case by case, I’m guessing, of course. But I wondered if the author had wanted to put more of the Chronicles into the book, if her editor would’ve “gently persuaded” her to stick with text only?
Apologies for drifting off into hypotheticals, but I was interested in the push-pull of the actual business decisions and how they reflect the “vision” of the artist. Like if we would have benefited from seeing more of the Chronicles, and the author’d created the work, is this a case where multimedia, or even ebooks, would be a better medium for the story? Would it be tacky to add “to see more of Nik’s art, go to www.StoneArabia.com”?
I’m getting into the discussion late and honestly was unable to read everyone’s responses — which I plan to do later — but I wanted to just give my few reactions to the book itself and then to the few responses I was able to read before the week was over.
I agree very much that this book is about Denise primarily, and that Nik is her obsession, but frankly, we learn very little about him and only see him through the eyes of others.
I found the first half of the book slow going but was won over with the second half. I realize Spiotta — in many ways, with the idea of the Chronicles, Ada’s film, her Counterchronicles, etc. — is trying to examine storytelling, truth, and memory. I found the most compelling parts to be the first person Denise, writing the Chronicles — and the small framing device of third person, although symbolic, almost not necessary. For one, the voice is exactly the same. Secondly, I got confused and the payoff — when I figured out what she was doing — didn’t feel huge.
I wondered about the whole chewing on purity and authenticity in art — obscurity vs. well known, impenatrable music; Nik’s experimental style, the ridiculousness of “Soundings” (those were funny; I find that parts of this book are very slyly mocking). Because Spiotta clearly wants an audience. And as someone else here mentions, this book, despite all of its framing, is a conventional, realistic tale of a family. And I like that. I like that much more than the framing, just as I generally like more-or-less conventional pop music. (I’ve been listening nonstop to PJ Harvey’s new record about World War I: here is a woman who does whatever she wants, with no real regard for stardom, and has a real career anyway. She’s a successful Nik, a less “fuck you” Nik.) Compare this with Laurie Anderson, who I loved in high school. Can we talk about how many people, and not just myself, grow out of the novelty of “boundary pushing” or people trying to do something different and “new”?
I agree this book is as much about memory as it is about middle age: how we feel our lives slipping away, how Denise’s mother’s mind is slipping away. I was really moved by the way Denise takes her mom’s medicine, and fears her own memory loss, because of her mom’s illness. This is the exact same thing going on with me. My mother has severe dementia and I keep thinking I’m developing it. Which brings me to the intense bonds of family that this book is also about. Nik became all that Denise had because of the loss of her father and her mother working nonstop. And, to me, that is the ultimate tragedy of the book — not being able to move on because you never had enough. Someone mentioned that Jay is a lukewarm fuckable Nik. That’s an interesting point. Denise can’t have a healthy relationship — a real committed one — because she committed to Nik. I see these types all the time. They make all sorts of excuses about why they aren’t in healthy long-term relationships, but it’s often as simple as not being able to break with their primary families. I never had a wedding, but the symbolism of a father “giving away” a daughter isn’t just a symbol.
Lastly, I like how people mention the reality of their own lives coloring their reactions to certain aspects of this novel. I recently went through a massive revision to try to make an editor happy. I haven’t elevated the obscure outsider art since my teens or maybe my twenties. And, even then, I didn’t elevate it much. But so many people do. It’s an interesting issue with art, but, as I believe, one that I believe is secondary to the human issues in this book.
Regarding The Ontology of Worth, whether Nik’s work is worth anything, the Fakes, and the question of authenticity in relation to Nik’s work (in particular the Fakes phase), I truly feel that these are questions that Spiotta leaves unanswered for a reason. I don’t believe she thinks there are any answers. And if this is the case, I agree with her for the most part.
Lastly, people have commented on the Stone Arabia ending/title issue. I agree that it seems slightly off, but I read it as a not-so-subtle (and I love how not-so-subtle much of this book is) way of having Denise deal with her grief and sadness about the love of her life (Nik) by projecting her emotions elsewhere. She grieves through the news, and even, God bless her, the Lifetime Movie Network, which I obsessively watched — meaning six hours a day — after my dad died. So it works for me on that level, even if it feels a bit forced. Grief makes us do strange things. If life is stranger than fiction and fiction has its own rules, perhaps this can be too lifelike, feeling slightly off in the land of fiction.
Also, does anyone want to chime in about the significance of Stone Arabia? Historically, it was a famous spot during the Revolutionary War. But is Stone Arabia’s obscurity part of its importance? That’s a good metaphor for the book, I think.
“I’m not familiar with Spiotta. So I did not know what to expect from this book. But I found it very timely. I read Nik as a blogger before there was blogging…”
That, Roxane, is an awesome insight/reading, which prompts my own incredibly half-cocked response. Is this an apropos place to mention that Facebook was launched in 2004? Facebook itself stands firmly against the kind of identity-manipulation games that Nik plays through his Chronicles. Video killed the Radio Star. Mark Zuckerberg killed Nik Worth.
Flash back to the Net (or your local BBS scenes or whatever) in the late ’80s and ’90s (and however further back it went; yes, I was young when I first stumbled into it at speeds nearing 300 baud), when it was possible to be whomever or whatever you wanted to be. You could recreate your identity from whole cloth for an active audience of anyone technologically elite enough to join in.
Today, that model of identity has lost. We demand the truth about you (far be it for you to be more complex than you need to be, James Franco, cough cough) and we’re tying it all up into any available social network. What you are is the sum of all the actions you take online. Nik is a relic — if he tried to do the Chronicles as a Net piece, complete with invented reviews and reviewers, he’d eventually be outed, labelled a fraud, and run out of cybertown. (Is there a band working today that doesn’t have some modest thread of legitimate authenticity in their relationship to the world?) Not that it isn’t or couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be possible to do that today. I suspect there’s still a chance one could spend the time required to make an alternate life seem real. But.
This is where I begin to question and probe my own interest in Denise as the emotional core of the book. From this angle, she reads as a full subscriber to the post-Facebook model of identity, authentic, honest, sincere in her presentation of her identity to the world. And, yes, that may have always been the mainstream model all along. She is the future, and she desires the comfort of a future in which the people on the television are real people with real problems (problems that she could, in theory, help solve). She desires a future in which she is nothing but herself, her real self, and her fears of senility or dementia play against that. A sick mind that gets it wrong would interpret her to be more perilously close to being like Nik than she might like. (Though he does what he does for his own reasons, at least). Is it ideologically telling that I used the word “wrong” like that? Am I revealing my own issues with sincerity? In reading Denise as someone unable to be anybody other than who she is?
The first thing I was drawn to in Errol Morris’s new movie, Tabloid were Joyce McKinney’s eyes. They darted to and fro, down at her hands, up towards the ceiling, left to right, side to side. But they never faced the camera — or Morris’s Interrotron — directly. Considering that McKinney had quite a story to tell, that of a former beauty queen so enraptured with a Mormon missionary who she flew to London to rescue (or, well, “rescue”) him from that life and convince him through violent means that they must be married, the immediate conclusion on my part was, well, she wasn’t to be trusted. Couldn’t be believed.
That was all well and good, since I knew the bare bones of the Joyce McKinney story. I knew how the FBI’s version contrasted sharply with hers, and how the official — or perhaps “official” — version created a tabloid sensation that, even after almost 35 years, exceeds hyperbole. The UK Fleet Streeters, their dirty laundry credentials aired to full putrid effect throughout the month of July thanks to the never-ending phone-hacking scandal, were well in their element with McKinney, who was arrested and accused of kidnapping her Mormon man Kirk Anderson at gunpoint, squirreling him away to a Yorkshire abode, and raping him repeatedly for three days straight.
But then the camera left McKinney, who is now sixtyish and still a narcissist, to fixate attention on a younger man — raised a Mormon but now removed from the religion — though somehow expert enough to provide color commentary on its supposed cultish activity. And once I realized the younger man, too, did not face the Interrotron and Morris directly, Tabloid lost me. It’s one thing to cast an eye on your supposed subject and make him or her look wholly unreliable. That’s what documentaries do. But when the same techniques for doing so fall down in the face of some outside expert, there’s a serious problem at work.
Unfortunately, once the illusion of narrative coherence broke apart, the reality of how Morris failed in his efforts set in. If tabloid culture and its lurid taste for new content was so important, why did he only speak to two such types? There’s the capable but culpable reporter from The Daily Express, whose claim to fame was being taken in by McKinney’s not-exactly-truthful tale of pious living on the run after she and her accomplice Keith May (who died in 2004) jumped bail and fled London for America. His descendant probably got axed along with News of the World last week. Then there was the more sleazy photographer tasked with finding past dirt on Joyce in the form of bondage photos, among other pictorial delights, his tongue almost involuntarily going to his lips as he recalled the whole exercise.
But what of the larger culture of tabloidism — just eight years removed from Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of NotW and its sister daily paper The Sun? What prompted the relentless pressure for arid scoops like what McKinney seemed to offer with Sex ‘n Chains? Why were the UK public so riveted by the story? Tabloid certainly wasn’t about to tell us. There was also an easily missed note in the credits that McKinney’s old boyfriend — the not-quite-innocent provider of the photos that splashed across the Mirror‘s pages for days on end — “could not be located.” Well, why not? Based on the scant number of people Morris talked to — at least compared to his earlier, more masterful investigative documentaries — it’s hard to shake the idea he didn’t really try very hard, helped by the fact that many of the other principals were dead (like May) or clearly unavailable (like Anderson).
McKinney may be pathologically self-absorbed, or something more complicated, but Tabloid doesn’t really care about her, other than to subject her to the mockery of the audience. There is little in the way of empathy. Worse, there’s a rather nasty undercurrent of misogyny, aided by the fact that McKinney is the only representative of her sex. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the current fallen Queen of UK tabloidism is Rebekah Brooks, and when the subject of female-to-male rape has only men to rebut it. I was also discomfited by the notion of all these men ganging up on Joyce in a manner not unlike the fictional Lisbeth Salander, whom Stieg Larsson depicts as the anti-beneficiary of a terrible tabloid campaign. Because hey — to be goth and bisexual and weird is to be splashed across the pages as a triple murder suspect and subjected to a punishing smear campaign that can only be resolved through the cathartic trial that brings the Millennium Trilogy to a close.
McKinney’s catharsis, on the other hand, never really arrived. She found refuge in her home state of North Carolina, still pining — or obsessing — over Kirk, but now so devoted to her dogs that the act of cloning them brought her back into the news cycle in 2008. Tabloid doesn’t really indicate what Joyce McKinney is like now, though it certainly judges her, mocks her, and paints her as a cartoon of ridicule. Morris, I suspect, would say that’s the point. Because tabloids do the same thing. But as we’re all finding out this month, there are limits to what behavior can be tolerated. Even sleaze has a ceiling. All Morris has done by engaging with this in the shoddy manner he has is to reveal uncomfortable truths about himself, most notably that he, too, counts among the man som hattar kvinnor.
Our second installment features a footnote-charged cover dissection from Darby Dixon, thoughts on reader obligation from Robert Birnbaum, insights into concession from Insulted by Authors’s Bill Ryan, and connections to hoarding from Roxane Gay.
(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)
A lot of interesting stuff so far. I’ll start off with my own opening thoughts — which pick up a few points from this discussion, I think — though there’s plenty more here for me to consider in more detail.
I’d like to start by looking at the book’s cover. Which — if this is in any way a novel about music or any sort of glory days in which the cover as a physical artifact actually means something — is hardly a bad place to start. But I find the cover of this book troubling for two particular reasons. Is the cover poorly executed? Or, more hopefully (and perhaps more likely), do these issues point to aspects or views of the book that I missed on my first reading?
Consider the treatment of the title and the author type on the front cover. I’m not referring to the copyright mark placed after Spiotta’s name, a witty winking question mark that pays off with a dot-dot-dot-exclamation-point within the novel itself.* Rather I’m looking at the supposed handmade quality of the cover. If it is meant to allude to Nik’s self-made album art, why does it have to look so Photoshoppy? This cover never stank of real glue or caused any paper cuts. Why not?
What also bugs me — and you’ll have to see it by taking the dust jacket off your hardback copy and stretching it flat on the table in front of you — is that the background is mirrored from the front to the back. The distress along the top inside flaps is the tell. I can’t think of a good reason why it had to be this way.
Why then this postmodern take on the handmade? I ask because I did not read this book as a postmodern novel, although I guess there’s postmodernish stuff inside it. There’s some framing going on and a little bit of self-reference. But it felt well-contained to me; the effects are just means to an end. This is essentially representational work; neither Nik nor Denise feel like ciphers or “texts” to me, but, rather, realist characters with real issues drawn in a real manner: each drawing himself or herself into being. Maybe the mirrored back cover is a superfan-level Easter egg, a nod to whatever mirroring is happening between Nik and Denise. They are two creators, two storytellers: one far more gung-ho and self-assured than the other. But as I type that thought, my internal editor is all like, “Uh, really?” So.
So. Am I missing layers of irony and self-reference and other postmodern gobbledygook? Or do I have a legitimate desire for a cover that gets more real, more DIY? Is this a bit more of a scorched mess?**
Full disclosure: I came to this book (and this book discussion) a skeptic. I read Eat the Document because it sounded like the kind of book I was supposed to read. And, while I don’t remember hating it, I don’t remember loving it either. Stone Arabia mostly won me over though for various reasons. In time, I’ll get back around to Document and give it another shot (and pick up Lightning Field along the way). It didn’t hurt Arabia‘s case that my current reading project involves a stack of 1,000 page+ books. Being able to sit down and read Arabia over the course of a single weekend? Well, it read like an absolutely blissfully quick short story; so much so that, due to miscalculation on my part, I didn’t realize the ending was the ending until I turned the page and found no more story following it. (That ending. I’d like to swing back around to it in more depth later in this discussion, with anyone who is game.)
This book worked for me less as a novel about art and rock and success, and more for me as a novel about memory and time and how we use both to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives.*** Levi has offered quite a bit to chew on in this regard, and I’m still chewing on it myself. For me, what I think bumps the memory issue up on the queue is the fact that everything in the novel is filtered through Denise’s consciousness: either directly through her writing or indirectly through her point of view. She sees the kind of failing memory in her mother that might await her in later years, and it’s scared the wits out of her.**** She’s anticipating the downfall that awaits her and she’s struggling to arrest it before it can arrest her. In some way, she’s highly jealous of Nik’s apparent freedom from that; his ability to make his own story up has to be a severe kick in the sibling rivalry gut. But what can there be of it now? It’s funny how little left there is of their mom to approve or disapprove of the actions of either sibling. It’s a bit of a tragedy of impending morality. Denise and Ada also act a bit like Horatio to Nik’s Hamlet. If the journals and the albums are Nik’s heroic acts, the documentary and the Counterchronicles are their stories, at least the stories that people might actually get to hear.
This is where all the Nik stuff comes into play for me. Where it really works is in its service to a story about memory, about making memory, and about making a story out of the life one is living. Is Nik a success? Neither commercial nor popular. Okay, is Nik a success as a brother? As a son? He seems too self-involved for that.***** No doubt this is a book as much about time as it is about memory, if indirectly. To pull off the projects that Nik pulls off; well, it requires massive amounts of time and effort and dedication. (A twenty album cycle! Not five, not ten. Twenty! You can’t do that while holding down a productive day job and taking care of your sick relative.) In this regard, he’s a success in a completely logical way. He did the things he set out to do. He succeeded, at whatever cost. He only needed a small handful of people to witness it, to make it real, and, even then, he never seemed especially interested in their actual reactions.****** In a day and age when fame and fortune appear right around the corner for everybody willing to fart out a lolcat-style meme, there’s something admirable about that. Is this a withdrawal from reality or a redefinition of reality? A determined, self-defined vision of reality? Could this book have been set in 2011 rather than 2004? Perhaps today, Nik’s “success” might feel all the more anachronistic. How much of this is happening right now that we don’t know about and aren’t supposed to know about?
In going on about Nik like that, I realize I’ve detracted a bit from my belief that Denise really is the emotional core of the book. She is, though, in some strange way, the character I felt myself most identifying with; or at least she’s the one I sorta rooted for. It’s something I’m trying to unpack for myself still; and for some reason I keep coming back to that crushing pile of debt she has been accumulating while taking care of her ailing brother******* and her ailing mother. You can’t buy memory, but having money on hand to try doesn’t hurt. More on this later in the discussion, I hope.
* — The whole author/artist-as-brand conversation is probably worth a couple thick discussion threads alone. I’ll admit that, as a current student in real art classes trying to make real art, I found the Thomas Kinkade stuff funny. Painter of Light, indeed. Paint this, Mr. Success Pants.
** — Is there a rock album cover that inspired this treatment that I’m not aware of? I’ll admit to missing vinyl the first time around due to youth, and, due to finances, neglecting the recent indie-hipster resurgence this time around. So my personal cover art experience is largely based on a 90’s and early 00’s CD collection. I know, I know. The big beautiful vinyl cover square is superior as a means of conveying the visual side of an album. But I think the folded up CD liner sheet gets (or got) a bit of a short shrift; how much earlier would I have hit the hay in high school if I’d been strictly focused on homework instead of occasionally pulling out one of those squares, unfolding it panel by panel to find the secrets contained within? How much has music’s impact on me been minimized by the lack of something, anything, physical to go with it? I, for one, miss accidentally cracking jewel cases. But I just can’t see finding time and cash enough to put a record player in anytime soon.
*** — Reading Nik as simply musician-creating-for-no-audience felt a bit “meh” to be, taken at face value. I mean, I’ve done the same thing, on a smaller scale; made stuff nobody’s listened to, I mean. It’s not that interesting a thing to me. Music is for ears! Music-as-music is better when other people hear it and like it. Or am I being overly simplistic (or obtuse?)
**** — Having seen some of those issues in the last decade in my own family has been similarly both terrifying and sobering. My dreams of my writing career eventually actually starting and lasting me well into late in a long, healthy, productive, and active mental life? I dunno. What will I think of this discussion fifty years from now? How shamed will I be in my distraction from blogging about the books I’ve been reading, from more actively keeping journals, from taking more pictures? What bundles will I leave behind that tell some small portion of my story, to whomever might be around to hear it?
***** — I’m not passing judgment there. I’d only be passing judgment on myself. I’ve got a lot of guilt bound up in my relationship to art, in the hours devoted to potentially fruitless pursuits that may have been better spent with loved ones or what others might call “doing good”: doing charity work or hopping a plane to a distant city to help someone other than myself. What good is that unpublished novel, or that self-portrait tucked away in a closet for the rest of my life? I can’t pass judgment on Nik because in some ways I wish I was him, the jerk.
…and of course I realize immediately after I hit “send” at least one thing that I meant to (and forgot) to clarify: if I’m critical of that cover, I’m also so, so, so, so, so glad to see it was conceptually relevant to the contents of the book! This could have easily been yet another one of those blurry photos of a woman with her face turned away from the camera or cropped out of the frame. And maybe some flowers or something like that. Yawn. I praise the concept (and that red really is the right red, somehow, isn’t it? the kind of red you just want to curl up with in your hands while listening to it on a gigantic pair of headphones, no?) while raising an eyebrow at aspects of the execution. (I’ve had similar love/hate issues with the covers for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I badly need to reread, because, yeah, duh, there’s things to compare and contrast between these books; sadly I think the deck is stacked against me this next week. But, suffice it to say, I’m an self-acknowledged Egan fanboy, yes, and Spiotta, I think, is up to something else with her book. So it’s probably unfair of me to try to pick a book I prefer to another. If this was a Tournament of Books thing, I would politely and ethically rescind my position on the brackets. But! I’d very much like to see the two books sit down at the bar, grab some drinks, and talk shop. Is that what I’m saying? There’s enough bourbon here for both.)
I am struck by the realization that the more vocal of the aggregation who read on this planet expend a lot of verbiage and hand wringing about the prospects of books, literature, reading and what not. So it should not go unsaid that this opportunity for a diverse, spirited group of readers to commune is a joyful affirmation. So thanks for that, Ed Champion.
I am lucky to have, for the most part, the freedom to choose the books I want to read. While this is not a totally unblemished blessing, it is an immeasurably wonderful one. So the books that I pick up tend to reach my hands and eyes in almost infinitely (a large number) manifold ways. Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia came to me via Eddy’s latest literary initiative. But there is a context for reading this book — since, for me, reading takes place within my life and not as stepping out of it. If you know what I mean.
In the short period before picking up Spiotta’s tome, I had read two books — which pulled me in different, if not opposing directions. I picked up the ARC of Lydia Millet’s new opus, Ghost Lights, and delved in, propelled by the nimble and ironic prose. I found myself about two thirds of the way into this tale of a disenchanted IRS employee who embarks on a mission to Central America for his equally disenchanted wife. I was losing interest. But being close to the end, I finished the book. Besides a mildly surprising ending, I was not impressed or engaged.
In the meantime (or the same time), I had one of my periodic conversations with Jim Shepard, The Wizard of Williamstown). Part of our talk hit home immediately:
RB: I no longer feel compelled or obliged to finish books.
JS: Yeah, that’s really characteristic of a life spent reading. I am struck, when I talk to students or younger writers how much —- I guess I remember that feeling too —- how much they feel like, “No. If I got this far, in I want to say I did it [finished]?”
RB: There is always the occasional book that it takes longer to figure out.
JS: That’s the danger. If you bail too soon. I try to give books every possible reason to keep reading. But I don’t any longer feel bad about bailing. It’s not anger or contempt -— it’s “I think I get the idea here.”
In that same chat, Jim mentioned that he was reading and impressed by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, American Salvage. Which prompted me to pick up the copy of Campbell’s novel, the one that had been previously dispatched to some pile of miscellany.
Wow, this is a book that grabbed me from the first page. And though its resolution was profoundly satisfying, I was a little bereft to leave the lush and variegated world of riverfront Michigan.
So the next book I picked up was The Secret History of Costaguana by Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez — mostly because I had tried to read his American debut, The Informers, with little pleasure. Another chance for Vasquez, and a trip to beleaguered Colombia with Joseph Conrad as a character, seemed enticing. And I was digging my way in when I received Stone Arabia and remembered my intention of participating in another Ed Champion extravaganza.
So with no background (except some dust jacket info), I began to read. I reached Page 92, impressed by Spiotta’s precise and nimble prose but not engaged by the characters. Not unhappily, I had to put down the book to read Josh Ritter’s Bright’s Passage in preparation (such as it was) for my chat with Ritter (sweet and charming kid, by the way).
And then came Eddy’s first invitation (incitement?), which I may or may not have responded to with the clarity that I hope to exhibit in these later offerings. At that point, having read about half the book, I was clear that, had I not committed to joining a discussion, I would not have gone on reading Stone Arabia.
I don’t by any means see this as a negative assessment of the book. It wasn’t my kind of story. Plus, I already have to deal with the deaths of close friends, aging parents, and worries about losing my memory (and, ultimately, my mind) in real life. Plus the call of the unread always haunts me.
But then did I read the book in its entirety without other narratives impinging? As you can see, my thoughts so far about this book are so far mostly about my thoughts.
I see Part Two of this mission, where I now read what others have said and where I may arrive at something more objective (or less subjective) about Dana Spiotta’s book. That’s narcissism, isn’t it?
I suppose, since everyone is pretty much throwing their own interpretive bowling balls in this opening frame, I’ll do the same. I’m going to fire off a half-cocked argument in which I can this very moment poke holes. And what fun is a discussion if someone can’t be completely wrong?
I’ll start off (with apologies) by disagreeing with Diane — I think Jay is slightly more than a fill-in. He’s the fuckable opposite of Nik. Denise and Jay deliberately ignore each other’s memories, and actively avoid discussing their histories. They prefer to live (cringe for cliche) “in the moment,” and seem to survive as a couple so long as they both agree to do as much. With Nik, there’s nothing but history, “shared knowing.” Jay teaches the next generation about art, Nik makes it for an audience of two or three. Jay brings her Kinkade’s schlock (seriously, take a look at Bambi’s First Year for a lurid example of Kinkade’s art) that “piles up in her garage.” Nik brings art that she treasures: a mere taste of the art that’s piling up in Nik’s garage. She fucks Jay (albeit lukewarmly), finances and forgives Nik, and ultimately carries his torch. We get no news of poor balding Jay and his “off-putting, almost creepy” sweaters.
I think here we get Denise’s answer to Sarah’s question about the value of art, purity, etc.: Thomas Kinkade’s “art” vs. Nik Worth’s music and Chronicles.
The only thing that Denise really appreciates is Nik’s art, and seeing him carry that art to its conclusion was Denise’s self-imposed destiny. Nik “is” his art, for better or worse. Denise is his art’s audience. Just as it’d be unthinkable for me to tell Richard Serra what shape his next giant metal sculpture should take, Denise ultimately can’t stop Nik from following through with his art.
Denise admits that she’s complicit in Nik’s downfall. She is, if not pushing, then enabling Nik towards whatever end he comes to at the end of the book. Her need to write her own history of the events preceding “the crisis” meant to read as a pardon for her part in Nik’s death. Like Sarah mentioned, she’s rewriting family history in the Counterchronicles to fit the history she needs to forgive herself for Nik’s apparent suicide. An alibi.
That might also explain her need to get it all down, beyond just her failing memory. Even when she should “call someone” when she’s almost certain her brother’s killed himself. She has to write, she has to formulate a reality in which she isn’t a complete failure. Her brother’s sarcastic note about her being a “writer, now” could also be read as a grim prediction and condemnation of her rewriting history.
Throwing on my pop psychology hat now, Denise can’t stop him because she’s afraid to upset whatever mixture of drugs, alcohol, and psyche come together to create the art she alone can appreciate so well. Nik’s “concessions,” his need to “get off his face, out of his head, expand, shut down, alter, spin, fly, sleep, wake up, float” was there as long as Denise could remember.
Denise has her own “concession.” Nik, his music, his art, his life, is her life’s concession. If everyone lives with these consolations, and if the non-stop dissociative drugging was Nik’s consolation, Denise was willing to accept those terms so long as she could feel the “consolation of recognition” that she felt in Nik’s art. Because Denise is ultimately empty. She fills herself with whatever she can — she regularly “possesses” these “permeable moments” that wrack her with guilt and empathy. Again, I read these moments as further attempts to convince her audience (us? herself? Ada?) that we should forgive her, the patron saint of lost musicians. She’s so useless that she ends up crying on the doorstep of the woman she’d flown cross-country and driven hundreds of miles to “help.” How could she help Nik?
Finally, when Nik’s gone, Denise becomes the de facto arbiter of Nik and his art. Now, rather than just his audience, she’s his curator. “It’s hard to believe [Nik and his art] is really gone,” Denise says. “But there is this.”
“What remains,” says Ada.
“And what I remember, of course.”
I’d be hard pressed to think of a more dismal life than correcting YouTube commentators, but this is what Denise is finally left with. Maybe it’s enough, negotiating the Chronicles and Counterchronicles. It sounds like a sad fate to me.
I’ve enjoyed the conversation thus far. I’ll just ramble through some thoughts on this book
I’m not familiar with Spiotta. So I did not know what to expect from this book. But I found it very timely. I read Nik as a blogger before there was blogging. The Internet makes it very easy for artists and writers and musicians, and even people who are none of these things, to chronicle their careers or lives obsessively — whether those careers or lives are real or imagined, interesting or quotidian. It was interesting that Ada actually was a blogger and Denise stayed apprised of her daughter’s interior life via blog, while staying apprised of her brother’s interior life through the Chronicles, or his retro blog. Nik and his imaginary life, the Chronicles, blogging, social networking, sharing what we’re watching on Twitter — all these things speak to Sontag’s thoughts on living as having one’s life recorded. And this, along with the idea that we are not truly alive and can’t be remembered if we do not leave artifacts behind documenting that we were, indeed, here. Documenting our lives also connects to memory which was such a dominant theme in this book. Denise became the documentarian of many lives — her own, her mother and brother’s lives, sometimes her daughter’s life, sometimes the lives of strangers in how she followed the news. At times, I felt like she saw her responsibility as bearing witness.
I don’t know if Nik is an artist, but he certainly performs the part of the artist very well. I was fascinated by the sheer extent of how he chronicled his imaginary career and the obsessive attention to detail, and how Spiotta was able to convey the obsession so convincingly. I would not say Nik is an impostor as much as he is a coward. He believes in his art enough to make it, but he doesn’t believe in his art enough to push it beyond the claustrophobic community he has created himself — people who, for the most part, have a certain obligation to love and appreciate his art. I thought of Hoarders, which airs on A&E, as I read this book. The show follows people who hoard trash, dolls, beer cans, and other strange ephemera that holds some deep emotional significance, even as it threatens to drive these people from their very homes. I read Nik as hoarding this chronicle of his imaginary life, slavishly devoted to the upkeep of that imaginary life even in the face of what would be deemed, by many, as abject failure.
Edward asks what our judgments are worth when so many people are providing their own commentary and it is a good question: one that people in many fields are asking. Social media, the Internet, and what have you have made it possible for everyone to be a critic. So we have to ponder the value of criticism when it has been diluted the way it has in recent years. Nik himself proves that everyone’s a critic when he solipsistically reviews his own albums. He certainly takes that solipsism to a new level by sometimes critiquing himself negatively, but I find his project to be the ultimate expression of this notion of anarchic, overly democratic criticism — both creating art and then providing commentary on that very same art. Who does that? If a self-published writer (who is already pretty marginalized in the publishing world) were to then review her own work, the response would be swift and merciless. There’s a real tenderness, though, in how the people in Nik’s life view his Chronicles and self-criticism. It would be easy to think of Nik as a deluded, obsessive genius or impostor or coward but there’s also more to him. He demonstrates a real awareness, for example, when he articulates that he knows precisely the slant Ada will take in her documentary. He knows how he appears but remains undeterred. There’s something to that.
I would have loved to see more done with the design of this book. I kept wanting to see more evidence of the Chronicles other than the brief glimpses we were given. There was a real opportunity here to do something conceptually interesting and that opportunity was missed.
(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)
This week, Dana Spiotta’s third novel, Stone Arabia, hits bookstores. Spiotta is previously the author of Lightning Field and Eat the Document and also appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #28. Reluctant Habits will be devoting the entire week to authors, journalists, critics, bloggers, and various readers discussing Spiotta’s book further. We’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday.
I don’t want to give away the ghost from the outset (although it’s possible that I may be remarking on a spectre), but it’s interesting that a novel depicting how we respond to art should begin with an epigraph from Jean Dubuffet, who believed very much in the idea of lower art (specifically images and paintings) possessing greater authenticity and humanism than loftier cousins, while ending on the ultimate image wish fulfillment: in 1972, Nikolas Kranis (aka Nik Worth and possibly the sketchy Nik Kat) is photographically positioned as rock star paragon for his sister Denise and his then girlfriend Lisa. But that artistic status is also there in the order of his room, the makeshift coffee table, and the sundry posters arranged in “idiosyncratic” spots throughout his garage studio. So the big burning question I have for you good folks, one I’ve been dying to ask you for weeks, is what you think this all amounts to.
Here we have Nik, a musician who has devoted decades of his life (1970s-2003, a time period that intriguingly matches how long it took Brian Wilson to get around to finishing Smile, which I bring up because the Wilsons features prominently in Spiotta’s previous book, Eat the Document, and also because the gloriously hallucinogenic “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” now blasts through my speakers; but I digress) to two bona-fide private projects: the Chronicles, a written compendium of journal entries, press clippings, and assorted articles in which much of the biography has been fabricated (and which contains, moreover, any number of inside jokes and prevarications), and The Ontology of Worth, a twenty album project released in descending order (last volume timed with his fiftieth birthday) to Nik’s immediate circle of family and friends. For Denise (our primary guide through this book) or Ada (Denise’s daughter, a documentary filmmaker who soon beings work on Garageland, a Nik documentary named after a notable Clash song that begins “Back in the garage with my bullshit detector…”) to make sufficient sense of this, they must wade through a bogged labyrinth of invented personae, cruel parodies mimicking and meticulously referencing their real lives, and other wetware manifestations that serve in lieu of the truth (Nik, washed out rock star suffering from gout, reliant upon family handouts, brittle vocational truth not revealed until very late in the book). (“Versions of Me” indeed!) So we are forced to confront difficult questions: Is Nik, who is clearly capable of impressive encyclopedic insularity, building up to his own masterpiece akin to Smile? Or is he, as many of the characters in Spiotta’s previous novels have been, an impostor? Some go-nowhere bum to be pushed into reality or an unhatched autodidactic genius who requires encouragement? Is Nik’s private work, emerging from the house he calls Cafe Real (perhaps with a shit-eating grin or a “smiley smile”), more humane and authentic in its lower and personal efforts than his efforts to pin down power pop through The Fakes or glam aspirations with The Demonics?
On the other hand, what right do any of us have to make judgments on artistic intentions — even the fictional ones contained within this book? Just to be clear on this, I certainly don’t wish to hinder any of you from doing so! But to my mind, Spiotta promulgates a legitimate question: What are our judgements worth when so many people (including the characters in this book) are talking over the cinematic soundtrack, providing their own commentary? (Even Nik is seen writing “while someone is talking to him.”) That goes for the YouTube commenters seen near the end of the book, who present their own theories and are mostly interested in the old Fakes footage, as well as the “scripted” interviews from Ada’s film-in-progress — a stylistic technique Spiotta also deployed in Lightning Field. To what degree is the text that Nik or Denise present commentary? And if Nik’s Chronicles are “a private joke he doesn’t have to explain to anyone,” why then has he (or, for that matter, Spiotta) layered the joke with so many inside jokes (some explicitly mentioned, such as Neil Young’s Skyline Drive; some not, such as the Garageland reference I pointed out above)?
Would we be more satisfied accepting art on its own emotional terms? That’s a big question too. Because just look at the serious grief Denise offers in response to the news cycle, the ostensible “reality” that she feels compelled to confront. She can’t even name Lynndie England as she takes in the Abu Ghraib photos, but, much as many (including Nik) speculate on Nik’s character, she finds herself fixating on England’s “storm chasing,” even after Denise confesses that she “eluded any explanations.” Perhaps this is the ultimate response to Debuffet. And if we want to bring up Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others” into this discussion, to what degree do you think Sontag’s thoughts (“To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images.”) inform this novel or even our experience beyond the novel? Must we accept all this if we wish to have a relationship with art? Has the advancement of artistic creation and artistic commentary made us merely Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, Voluntary Missing Adults, or (to offer a pleasantly overreaching take on the book’s affinity for acronyms) inversions of “dad” (Ada) who feel compelled to shoot attention-seeking video instead of seeking “basic words of familiar vocabulary hid behind missing letters”?
I realize that’s quite a lot to trot out, especially since I haven’t mentioned Denise’s twin concerns of aging and declining memory, to say nothing of the book’s frequent concern with trading off accumulation for elimination. I’ll leave others to remark on some of this before I jump in again. But I can’t resist closing this jam-packed opening with Spiotta’s joke about Denise having a “sort-of boyfriend” named Jay, who teaches art history (and sometimes film). This is a pretext to get laid and watch James Mason films in lieu of actually living outside the house. But the truly sad thing is Jay’s interest in Thomas Kinkade and how this meaningless affair is, for Jay, an excuse to maintain a minimum of grooming habits. I have to ask whether you folks think there’s anything redeemable in this relationship. Or is this relationship, like many of the distractions presented in the book, a reflection of some new dull narcotic and wholly insufficient existence in bloom? Perhaps it’s something referenced to the Stones’s “Dead Flowers” — an especially bleak song representing the Stones’s effort to shift to country that Nik likes to play every New Year — “I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon.” Steering from your natural voice creates some fairly rocking material, but at what gloomy cost? Another of Spiotta’s inside jokes, especially since the Stones refused to play this song live for quite a long while.
There is so much to unpack in Stone Arabia, and, by extension Ed’s wonderful and jam-packed opening salvo, that it almost threatens to do my head in! As such, I’m going to do an end-run and touch on a couple of topics Ed didn’t bring up, with the hope of circling back a little later on.
First is the idea of audience, and even that idea, as filtered through Spiotta’s novel, goes off in a number of different directions. There’s young Nik playing and posing to his girlfriend Lisa and Denise, the image Spiotta returns to in a big way at the end of the book (and which led me to a particular conclusion about the book that I’ll get to in a bit). Obviously, there is Nik’s choice to conduct his massive project more or less privately, with Denise as his primary audience, commentator and admirer. There’s Ada and her documentary, wishing to bring her uncle into the light of a greater audience. All have intentions, noble and selfish, thoughtful and venal – and that’s one of the many things that so impressed me about Stone Arabia, which is that it tackles the notion of whether the expression of art is “purer” with a tiny audience while also subverting it. Does art function in a vacuum? Is “selling out” a less worthy or more worthy goal? Spiotta simply presents possibilities here, but it’s up to us, as readers, to come to our own judgments, and then, in reaching them, get hoisted by our own petard because we sought some element of rightness or wrongness here.
Then there’s the relationship closeness of Nik and Denise: she’s his closest confidante and supporter, he’s the conduit by which she can express her own nascent artistic desires, or think she can. There’s some double-fold work here, because, on the one hand, brother-sister closeness seems to resonate a little less in literature than same-sex sibling relationships — unless there’s some cliched element like “brother protecting little sister from bad boyfriend” or vice versa. (I love, too, that the deepest love in Stone Arabia is familial — brother-sister, mother-daughter — and romantic attachments are almost incidental, never measuring up in terms of emotional power.) But in this case, Nik and Denise are both protecting and perhaps enabling each other: if Denise wasn’t around to be Nik’s #1 admirer, might he have reached that larger audience? Or was her active support really the only way for him to produce those many albums and to stay on the “right side” of artistic integrity? And is Ada, Denise’s daughter, representative of Denise’s admiration the next generation over, or is she part of some weird familial artistic triangle that will upend everything?
Based on what happens to Nik — his disappearance and his canny self-obituary, seemingly left for Denise to find after he’s gone — it seems like the explosive triangle is the likeliest option. But again, I love that Spiotta leaves it open for interpretation. Which is ultimately why I read the end of Stone Arabia as Denise’s attempt to rewrite her own family history, to put Nik on some kind of artistic pedestal while also finding a framework to focus her own thwarted ambitions. (“I feel like I am him, this is my little edge of want.”) Or, to riff off of the “impostor” idea Ed mentioned, Nik and Denise’s artistic output are the same, manifold in different expressions, and even if it turns out that this whole massive project may be in Denise’s head, a manifestation of shifting (even failing) memory, or that she essentially created “Nik Worth” so she had a more legitimate way of expressing her artistic self (which would also help explain her evasion on camera when talking to Ada — her own daughter! — about the so-called origin events of how Nik came to be a rock star) it still doesn’t negate the artistic truth of what’s been expressed. Or, to state it more simply, does it matter who created or who expressed art when the art itself carries so much meaning for whomever experiences it?
I came away from reading Stone Arabia wanting to experience art more fully and more deeply, but also caring a little less about the semantics of it all. There’s so much to rewrite and rework and reshape that, ultimately, it’s the context any audience member or reader or observer brings that adds vital truth to it – especially if the bonds are so strong, so familial, as to attach even greater importance to what’s being created.
Well, I think I’ll take a cue from Sarah and avoid responding to Ed’s impressive questions (because I don’t know how to answer these questions) and instead kick off with my own first impressions of the novel. There will be time to circle back in this roundtable later, I’m sure.
First, unlike Ed and possibly Sarah, I never entertained for a minute the idea that Nik Worth could be considered an artistic success, or that he could be seen as having any artistic integrity based on his extremely weird decision to fork off a fantasy career as a rock star after the evident failure of his real career as a rock star.
He is a gigantic success, in my opinion, as the central character in this novel — I love the character (and, since it happens I’m nearing the age of fifty myself, and am also grappling with the gap between my own fantasy career and reality career as a writer, I relate to him more than I want to admit). But Nik Worth could not have seen himself as a success, and neither Denise nor Ada nor anyone else could possibly have been proud of him. His retreat into fantasy seems to me a mild analog to schizophrenia. His decision to detach himself from reality and find solace in a world of sarcastic self-reference is like Alonso Quijana’s decision to become Don Quixote. And everybody knew that Don Quixote was mad.
I think Ed and Sarah have done a better job than me of analyzing the many connections in the novel — I didn’t think about Brian Wilson, though I did think of Spiotta’s great Eat The Document often while reading Stone Arabia — but I did form one strong impression that neither Ed nor Sarah focused on. To me, it’s obvious that this is a book about memory. There are five characters in the book: Denise, Nik, their mother, Jay the boyfriend, and Ada. They form a pentagon of attitudes about memory.
Denise feels everything, remembers everything, takes responsibility for correcting everybody else’s memorial imperfections. She’s not only her family’s conscience, but also the conscience of the world, and she both suffers mildly for this and rewards herself for her honesty.
Nik, of course, is remarkable for his protest against truth. He doesn’t like the world, he doesn’t like the way New Wave and power pop and MTV destroyed the operatic classic rock visions of the great 1970s, and so he tells the world to fuck off and departs from reality: first mentally (when he begins the Chronicles) and then physically when he drives off with his car and guitars into complete oblivion.
Their mother represents the tragedy of memory — she needs it as much as all of us do, but it has left her, and she’s struggling without it.
Jay the boyfriend represents the same escape impulse as Nik Worth, but he escapes in a more “normal” and socially acceptable way: by absorbing himself in Thomas Kinkade paintings, elegant 1950s cinema, and friendly lukewarm sex.
Ada the cheerful filmmaker-daughter represents the youthful fascination of memory. Charged with creative spirit, but too young and unformed to obsess (yet) over her own thoughts, she feeds rapaciously on Nik’s quiet insanity, turning it into YouTube fodder. The fact that she barely seems to care when her uncle disappears demonstrates the lack of depth — a condition of the very young, I suppose — of her own memory at this point, though of course the crises of life await her.
That’s my first takeaway. The other thing I want to say about Dana Spiotta’s writing is that, more than anything else, I appreciate reading a novelist who truly understands the grand masterpiece proportions of 1970s rock music. An Aladdin Sane birthday cake, indeed!
I will attempt one response to Ed’s avalanche of conversation-starters. Ed suggests that the name Ada is an inversion of “Dad,” which is intriguing, and I’d like to hear more examples of acronym-play and inversion-play in this novel. However, I’m completely sure that Dana Spiotta named this daughter after a famous daughter named Ada. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and was notable for her own work on early computer prototypes. The computer language “Ada” was named after her, and since computers do nothing but operate upon memory, this connection supports my idea that the whole book is about memory.
But the reference to Ada is a clever inversion of a different kind, because, of course, Ada’s father Lord Byron was widely believed to have had a sexual affair with his sister.
I had a strongly personal reaction to this book. My brother is a professional musician who, until recently, worked exclusively in Los Angeles. My brother deals with much of the bullshit Nik endures, though, unlike Nik, he is functional and earns a living. I also found this difficult from the same standpoint Levi did: at 43, I find myself gaping at the yawning pit between my “real” writing career and the one that did not happen.
I interpreted Nik’s retreat from the music business and the conventional definitions of artistic success (this may be self-serving on my part) not as failure, but as a decision. Nik is clearly a brilliant guy whose talents would permit him to do whatever necessary to attain broad popular success. Look at the Lux Smith interlude — Los Angeles is full of these guys. Nik is hardly the type who will tolerate such people. Is retreat a form of purity? I suppose it depends on what one wants from her art. The great ballerina Suzanne Farrell, in her biography Holding On to the Air, writes that she hardly intended to spend her life dancing in her living room. Does this make her art better or more important than Nik’s? I don’t think so. Our current artistic culture — in all the arts — is too often a definition of the lowest common denominator. Where would a polymath like Nik Worth fit? In today’s culture, he’d be reduced to a “niche market.”
Interesting to me that nobody noted that Stone Arabia was about loving somebody who is incapable of returning that love. Though Nik loves Denise, as he ages, the relationship moves from siblings on reasonably equal footing to a caregiving situation. Denise is also left as sole caregiver of her mother; Nik rarely even visits. We’ve all known or loved Niks — people who are so gifted, so charismatic, that we fall for them and continue to accept bad behavior long after we should have cut them off. Think Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, or the dazzling lover or friend who took your life over, fucked with your head, and who is now gone (interesting how so many of these people end up dead). But this type continues to absorb too much available brain space. Denise is fully cognizant of Nik’s shortcomings, particularly his drug abuse:
If it came up at all between us, it was usually because I decided I wanted him to change his habits out of simple health…He would simply tell me that this was his consolation. And what could a sister say to answer that?
Yet she defends him to Alize:
“This is a person, if ever there was a person, who will not change. I promise you, all you have is all you will ever get…”
Denise sticks around. Alize does not.
The changes in POV are interesting too. Here is a book-within-a-book, possibly two books: the third-person narrative focusing on Denise, Denise’s frantic first-person correction of Nik’s extensive Chronicles. Atop all this is Ada’s film, which is posted to the media of the moment: YouTube, where Nik’s life becomes an object for public dissection.
Spiotta throws in a lot (to borrow a word from the book) about perviousness of media. The news, such as it is, has become inescapable. Those hideous crawl strips throwing more information at us even as we watch Chechens attack children. We turn off the televised images of Abu Ghraib only to find them on the Internet. Denise is aware that her tears are self-indulgent, but cannot stop crying. Perhaps her obsession with news is a way of coping with the loss of her family — it’s far easier to cry over the suffering of strangers. Then again, how are we to cope with the endless procession of horrors?
Ada is very much of her generation: specifically, younger adults who don’t recall life before the Net. They post extensively on their own lives and the lives of others; there is a compulsion to document every moment publicly. Her decision to be a filmmaker is not surprising. Nor is her blogging.
As for Jay, he seemed to me an aside. His twee obsession with Thomas Kinkade kitsch and lukewarm kindness means Jay lacks the capacity to harm Denise. He’s a warm body. Given that all of Denise’s energies are tied up in Nik and her mother (Ada is independent enough that Denise arguably needs Ada more than Ada needs her), she hasn’t room or inclination for anything more in her life.
One more note before closing this missive: As the book moves toward the end, we realize Nik is going to commit suicide. Denise decides she cannot stop him. She would never interfere with what she knows to be a carefully thought-out plan. But she goes on to say she was meant to “endure.” To see things through — aging, burying their mother, taking full responsibility for Nik’s archives. “I would stay, waiting for the terms to unfold around me. That’s the price you pay for staying around.” Or, that’s the price you pay for compromising, for accepting the mortgage payments, the dental appointments, the day job with health insurance, from turning away from the uncertainties of the artistic life. The page left me sad. Nik’s life may not have been what he wanted — it’s hard to say — but Denise’s love and devotion leave her with scarcely little happiness.
Our Next Installment:Part Two features a footnote-charged cover dissection from Darby Dixon, thoughts on reader obligation from Robert Birnbaum, insights into concession from Insulted by Authors’s Bill Ryan, and connections to hoarding from Roxane Gay.
Subjects Discussed: Returning to old neighborhoods, whether or not the first-person perspective as the most authentic method to get the reader to believe in the account, carryover between Emile in Crawl Space and Vic Mahler in Lola, California, how a third-person novel is like a panopticon, the immensity of motherhood, the chasm in American fiction between the female perspective and male-dominated, idea-centric fiction, postgender fiction, narrative stripteases, fiction as the act of omission, Freud’s dream categories, being aware of the reader’s patience, writing the equivalent of three books for every book, rewarding the reader, short chapters, failed attempts at a 250 page novel, putting the essential into a novel, Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (PDF), Eros and Thanatos driving a novel, people who read Dan Brown during a commercial break, 21st century reader expectations, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, writing about a place when you’re not in it, views of California within and without, Jerry Brown’s assault on California parks, living writers capable of writing a “California novel,” Aimee Bender, TC Boyle, Dana Spiotta, identities in California, “Daughter of California,” needlessly psychoanalytical readings, whether a prison cell can be written as a “uniquely Californian” one, overcrowded prisons, writers who are fascinated by twins, considering robots, the secret language of boys, tactile forms of enlightenment, enlightenment found by embracing one’s origins, false ideals and physical healing, burrito metaphors, using “she lied” instead of “she said,” readers who expect the truth, the courtroom trial as a dramatic device, whether it’s inevitable for an author to repeat herself, and overly modular attempts to explain the novel.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I want to ask about the dramatic appeal of the trial. There was a trial in the last book [Crawl Space]. And there’s a trial in this book. Sort of. What of the trial? It’s the ultimate way to force a character to become contrite with what he has done in ultimate sin. But I don’t know. I look at you now and I see a possible courtroom junkie quality. What of courtroom trials? Do you think that today’s novels and dramatizations seem to have moved away from this basic justice? Why trials?
Meidav: Well, that’s interesting. I mean, in a way, I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I kind of creating a hysterical version of what is actually occurring?” It could be an ethical confrontation rather than something that confronts one of the institutions of society. Not being somebody who has spent a lot of time in any way linked to the law, I think I like playing — and maybe I’ll try and tone it down in the next book — but I like playing with society’s institutions. The prisons, the courtroom; in this book, there’s also a sanitarium.
Correspondent: Yes, of course.
Meidav: You know the spa? I think it interests me especially when you have such an ectoplasmic subject as California. It’s interesting to have a hard-edged setting in which somebody comes into a dark mirror moment. That said, one of my favorite scenes in literature is in Madame Bovary — to go back to Flaubert. I love this scene — and this is kind of a societal institution too — where you have a kind of village marketplace like a pig contest. A very agricultural contest taking place. And up above, you have the two lovers having this intimate scene. And it’s interspersed with this judging of the pigs. And I love that interweaving of the very small personal against the bigger habitual unseen eye of society. So maybe that’s an answer.
Correspondent: Or maybe it’s a way of turning something that is seemingly individual or personal into something that has the resonance of history. If you align a personal strength or failing with an institution, suddenly, yes, there is the societal impression! There is this sense that everything we do will matter more if it’s being judged by a jury. (laughs)
Meidav: That said, I also do deeply believe in this Wordsworth idea that in the meanest flower, a universal wind blows. So I’m hearing it. I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe in the next book, I’m going to avoid all big scenes.”
Meidav: I’m going to keep it smaller.
Meidav: More personal. But, you know, maybe I’m starting to lean on that as a crutch.
Correspondent: I don’t know though. I mean, you’re going to inherently repeat certain elements over several books.
Correspondent: But approaching it from a different angle, it’s going to become fresh. There’s one really great early moment where the girls are stealing slices of pizza from a parlor that, if you think about it and if you want to reduce it down to its basic essence, well, it’s common shoplifting. It’s a common theft. But because of the way you describe it, it actually means something and it resonates. And I don’t know if avoiding, say, a trial or avoiding a specific element in a future book is really an honest approach if you’re writing fiction.
Meidav: That’s true.
Correspondent: Do you think?
Meidav: Yeah, right. Because when you said that, I suddenly had this view of fiction like the mosquito eye with all its little parts. You rotate it. The element needs something different. So perhaps.
Correspondent: On the other hand, you have to be extremely reliant upon the subconscious in order to write fiction. You have to completely capitulate to the muse, so to speak, and not be aware of conscious repetition. Conscious things you may have been employing in previous books and the like. What do you do to deal with this? Do you think that the whole enormous operation of honing a book pretty much negates any concern for “Oh, I’ve done this before” or “Oh my god, Ed has noticed this from a previous book” or something like this? I mean, to what degree should it even matter?
Meidav: Do you think it’s a truism that most writes essentially write and rewrite the same book over and over and just get better at it? Until they are not better?
Correspondent: To some degree, I believe that. And it all depends on the voice. And it all depends on the ambition. I mean, some writers write the same book if you boil it down to its basic elements — even though every book will be different. I think once you strive to not do that, and I think the best way to counter that is to simply approach something perhaps as you have. An enormous mosaic of institutions with which to splay the typical into something that is a little more distinct. You think?
Meidav: You know, it’s possible. I was just thinking. You know, there are certain writers I admire. I’m thinking of Saul Bellow or others who work against this societal backdrop. Or J.M. Coetzee. But there’s a way that, even if their elements are identifiably repeated, each book they are really in a different timbre. And this is also true in a way of Alice Munro! Even though her turf is a different turf. We’re sitting in this restaurant maybe two blocks away from where, years ago, I interviewed this woman who each year — her name was Linda Montano, she was a performance artist. Each year, she would wear a different color. And that was her art. And she would have someone see her to bring out different energies. And it’s probably a question of focus. One probably brings the same understanding to what literature is meant to do to each novel. But I was trying to use Linda Montano’s words — a different shock — for this book.
Correspondent: Or maybe it’s that ambition that causes difference. I mean, okay, I love PG Wodehouse like you wouldn’t believe. But he does have a tendency to repeat some of his basic elements. But you know what? At the same time, I don’t care. Because it’s just very delightful. His sentences are so rhythmic. There’s a great sense of fun. There’s a great sense of quirkiness. Same thing goes for a lot of comic novelists. John P. Marquand, the great undersung guy who won the Pulitzer and now nobody reads. Or Donleavy, for example, who I read for the first time this year — The Ginger Man was incredible. And then I read his next book and said, “Wait, this is the same thing as the last one.”
Meidav: You know what I’m thinking as you’re talking? Maybe each author over his or her lifetime is creating rules of counterpoint. And within that, there’s greater potential tension. In other words, if you know the furniture is there, maybe you can create different kind of energy, a heightened energy, once you’ve established this is the furniture of my craft.
Correspondent: So do you think it’s a matter of every author creating as many furniture options as possible so there’s the illusion that the author is not repeating herself?
Meidav: Yeah, possibly. Possibly. I mean, that sounds so modular.
Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work that way.
Meidav: (laughs) Right.
Correspondent: It’s not like a desktop theme or anything.
Subjects Discussed: States of exhaustion, Project Nim’s purported origins of the 1970s hippie residue, scientific ethics and Columbia code of conduct, attempts to teach a chimpanzee to use sign language, Professor Herb Terrace, the transgressive aspects of ripping an animal from his mother, Skinner, Harry Harlow’s experiments, Terrace’s efforts to seek media coverage, Nim Chimpsky’s attacks on grad students, Terrace’s concerns for insurance issues over harm and suffering to students, Washoe, a filmmaker’s obligation to history, contending with demands from studio executives, when Marsh recreates moments in a documentary, dramatic reconstructions, murdering poodles, the inherent danger in cutting too much, audience imagination and the dangers of being too literal, balancing the needs of individual perspective and audience reaction, having ongoing debates while editing a documentary, some of the qualities that cause a documentary filmmaker to become prickly, the potential conflict of interest of obtaining film clips from the very subjects you’re interviewing, having sexual feelings for a chimp, being faithful to the honest confessions of documentary subjects, viewing documentary subjects as actors, earning trust as a filmmaker, Philippe Petit, whether discomfort is required in the questioning process, asking a question in ten different ways, trying to get a scientist to reveal he committed an affair, why people should trust James Marsh, the moral implications on Catfish, the possibilities that Catfish is a fake documentary, and phony indignation.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You don’t bring up the Washoe project. Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Herb Terrace had a huge rivalry going on at the time. And it’s almost like East Coast/West Coast, Biggie/Tupac…
Marsh: Well, there’s another film to be made about all that stuff. There’s quite a few PBS type documentaries that get into the whole language experiments that Washoe, the Gardners, and that whole debate. That would be a film about science, a film about ideas. And our film is a drama about a chimpanzee and people. So I was aware of that context and many people spoke about it in the course of our interviews. But I thought it was going to be a blind alley for me as a filmmaker to get into that too much. It may be an oversight on my part. But that’s a different film. If you want to go see that film, someone else can make that. That’s not my film.
Correspondent: But don’t you think you have an obligation to present, to some degree, the history…
Correspondent: Of all of these animal language…
Correspondent: Why? Because Washoe ended up having 350 words she “learned” of sign language. You can just do a brief mention.
Marsh: Well, you see, here’s my feeling about that. It’s that a brief mention is not good enough. That’s when you’re playing with it. If you’re just trying to flirt with something and say, “Well, I can mention Chomsky and I can mention Washoe and the Gardners.” You may know about that. But my brother watching the film won’t know anything about that. So I’m not trying to be — I’m being a little defensive here. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s a different kind of film. And that film? Go online. Nova has done that film. Washoe, the fucking dolphins — you know, the Gardners, signs. But the bottom line is that the experiment failed. And that chimps do not learn language. So I can get caught up in this whole discussion about who was right and who was wrong, and who learned the most words. That’s not a story. That’s a discussion about the practice of science and the nature of these experiments. And so I wanted to focus on a dramatic story as opposed to the issues and the context. And, of course, someone like yourself, who is very….who is familiar with this stuff, probably feels a bit cheated. Because I don’t explain and give you the context you are sort of dimly aware of or know a little bit about. But that’s a very conscious choice on my part. Not to get caught up in things you can’t really fully explain and will, I think, be a sort of sideshow to what I think my interest in the story, which is my interest in the drama of it and the life story of this chimpanzee. Now if you’re a Nim, what does he fucking care about Washoe and dolphins and the Gardners? He isn’t going to know nothing about these things. So I’m trying to put you. You know, his life story is where I’m focused here. Not so much on this whole fascinating internexual climate that you’re aware of and the film doesn’t really get into.
Correspondent: To go ahead and correct your impression that I felt cheated, what I’m actually talking about here is how you as a documentary filmmaker make the choice to not include Washoe. Is it really a consideration of “Oh, well here’s a rabbit hole that will create a three hour film”?
Marsh: Yeah. Or where is my interest in this story? Where do I think the narrative is in this story? As opposed to — I think you could cram the film with reference points to other experiments and to other thinkers and linguists. And on and on. But that isn’t the film that I think would work for me as a filmmaker, or the one I’m interested in making. And so to distill my view into I want to tell you the story of this from the point of view of the chimpanzee, who would have no awareness of the other chimpanzee lab experiments and no interest in them either, I think.
Correspondent: So to some degree, it sounds to me that when you make a film — especially one that deals with science as opposed to, say, an event that numerous people see such as Man on Wire — your problem, I suppose, is that you’re enslaved to narrative to some degree. Is that safe to say?
Marsh: Well, that’s my interest in narrative. I guess I’m a little prickly about this. Because there’s quite a lot of pressure around the making of the film of this sort. Explaining to people. “Give me more context. Give me more science. Show me the scientific debate here.” And so I’m prickly about it because it caused me a lot of trouble as I was filming it, getting these comments from people — executives involved with the film — that they wanted more of this stuff. And they’re saying, “Well, I want a narrator for the film.” And I began to get quite pissed off about this. Because it wasn’t the kind of film that I was making, nor did I say that I was going to make this film. I was making the story of Nim the chimp. And films tend to not deal with ideas terribly well. It’s not what films are good at doing. I mean, some films do it extraordinarily well. But it’s not what they’re best for. I think film is best as a medium for storytelling. And so that’s where my interest is in this particular story again.
It is somehow appropriate to announce, on the 235th anniversary of my nation announcing its independence from Great Britain, my independence from Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children is Rushdie’s allegorical novel about India declaring its independence from Great Britain. My announcement is buttressed by the fact that Rushdie himself is British and presently living in the city I happen to live in, albeit in a less interesting borough than mine.
Ultimately, one must separate the art from the artist. Patricia Highsmith preferred the company of animals to people, and was cruel to many. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Knut Hamsun sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize as a gift and called Hitler “a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations” after his death. Yet in Rushdie’s case, it has been difficult to draw the distinction, in large part because Rushdie himself is (a) a study in contradictions and (b) not yet dead. The man has sometimes proved so humorless that, when Insulted by Authors‘s Bill Ryan approached him for an insult, the good-natured literary enthusiast received this response from Sir Salman: “Well, why would you want to bring more insults on yourself?” And this seemed a needless extension of Rushdie’s efforts to enforce his will upon others. A few years ago, Rushdie caused Terry Eagleton to partially recant for taking him to task for his neoliberal imperialism. There have been lawsuits. On the other hand, Rushdie did support online criticism much earlier than one would expect from an apparent windbag.
* * *
When I was 22, I read Midnight’s Children for the first time. I was seduced, like many young and impressionable readers, by the language. I also liked Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I thought The Satanic Verses to be a sensationalistic exercise. The infamous book had earned Rushdie a fatwā, resulting in many years of hiding (with a £10 million tab to UK taxpayers for protecting him over a decade) and a bizarre exchange of letters between Rushdie, John le Carré, and Christopher Hitchens over free speech. Then I read The Moor’s Last Sigh and was greatly underwhelmed. I had the sense that Rushdie’s big mammoth books were less about engaging the reader’s interest and more about forcing the reader to submit. Where was the Rushdie who had charmed in the earlier books?
Still, I decided to give the man another chance. I read Shalimar the Clown and discovered a remarkably ho-hum book despite the promising title. I had observed Rushdie at a few literary events I had attended, seeing a man who appeared to be in love with himself. Since Rushdie wasn’t going away anytime soon, I figured the best thing to do would be to ignore the guy. Let the man stay busy with his half-assed involvement with politics and the film world. Let him have fun persuading supermodels and actresses decades his junior to hop into bed with him. It’s a free country. I didn’t need Rushdie.
Ultimately one must separate the art from the artist. And I cannot deny, in my thirties, that Midnight’s Children is a stylistically accomplished novel. If you know nothing about Rushdie and you are young and in need of patois, it will almost certainly fulfill a need. It is adept in stringing the reader along. Chapters begin with bold bursts of storytelling: “To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death” and “No! — but I must.” So in Saleem Sinai, you have an unreliable narrator who is lying and twisting and inventing and rambling, but always giving you more. And by bringing in such side characters as the Brass Monkey begging, “Come on, Saleem; nobody’s listening, what did you do? Tell tell tell!” and in deftly deploying dependable tricks such as swapped babies and secret basements and political intrigue and creepy soldiers at tables and convenient coincidences, Rushdie’s gargantuan story reminds the reader that not only is this a story, but it’s a story familiar with story. There are indeed very few places in the book where I wasn’t aware that what I was reading was a story.
But Rushdie is not a writer who I enjoy reading now.
Perhaps it is because life is more than story. Or maybe I have reached a point where story is no longer enough to satisfy me in a novel. I confess that I had to take three twelve mile walks, dutifully flipping and sweating into the pages in the humidity, in order to finish this book. And even then, this eccentric form of self-discipline was countered by the many dogs, kids, and people who I talked with along the way — all of whom proved more worthy of my time and more interesting than Midnight’s Children.
The issue is not India’s marvelous history. Before rereading Midnight’s Children, I decided to read an enormous book (Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi), which outlined the great nation’s vivid history in remarkably clear and quite interesting detail. I figured that knowing more about Nehru and Indira and Sanjay — to say nothing of the Kashmir conflict, the battles with China over Tibet, and the wars with Pakistan — would give me additional insight and interest into Rushdie’s carpet bag. And yes indeed! I became very excited to step right up and enter Rushdie’s rollercoaster.
Until I realized the lack of tensility in the track.
The issue is not my mixed feelings about magical realism. I should probably confess that, while I’m almost always game for fantasy and speculative fiction and Murakami’s surreality, magical realism has felt like a cheat to me. Yet in revisiting the Midnight’s Children Conference, Saleem Sinai’s nose, and his ability to clamber inside other people’s heads, I found these portrayals justifiable because Rushdie remained fairly fluid with his allegory.
The issue is not complexity. Even now, when I read Joyce or Faulkner or Gaddis, I still have a good time doing so. I delight over the sentences and the jokes and the obscure words and the convoluted plots and the complex character relationships revealing more human insight, and I still feel very much alive on the second or third or fourth read. (Since some of these titles are contained on the Modern Library list, I look forward to experiencing this life again!)
Rather, the issue is Saleem/Salman’s desperate need to be liked, to smother the reader into a participatory role rather than that of a peer or a fellow adventurer seeking mystery and ambiguity. Back in 1981, Rushdie’s hey presto smashing mingling mixing form of writing was fresh and innovative: a defiant assertion from a wily wordsmith sticking up for his needlessly neglected home turf.
But thirty years later?
* * *
Statement Posited in Recent Weeks to Random Smart Literary People in Empirical Attempt to Determine Rushdie’s Current Stature: “I’m reading Midnight’s Children.”
Literary Person #1: “Oh, that’s great.” (Begrudging tone, recalling something distasteful — as if one is supposed to like the book rather than genuinely like it. Efforts to press Literary Person #1 on subject prove fruitless.)
Literary Person #2: “I read that in my early 20s.” (It’s the opening paragraph she likes, although she agrees with me that Lolita‘s opening is better. Have you reread it?) “No.” (Would you?) “No.”
Literary Person #3: “Oh….Rushdie.” (Do you like him?) “…” (Do you know him?) “…” (What’s wrong with Rushdie?) “Let’s just say I’d rather read Naipaul.” (You and me both.)
* * *
independent:adj. 1. not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker 2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.
What type of person initially read Midnight’s Children? Let’s slide the lectern to our man Rushdie:
“The people who like the book most are young. That’s obviously a simplification, but it’s interesting that very large numbers of the people who came to meet me or hear my talks were very young. They were all Saleem’s generation or younger. And I like that. I felt that it was right that the people who were the essential subjects in the book had taken it for themselves and made it their own. Endless numbers of people, not just in Bombay, would come up to me and say, ‘You shouldn’t have written this book. We know all this stuff. We could have written this book.’ And I thought that was an extraordinary thing for a writer to be told — much the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid me. The older generation, I suspect, were often shocked by it.” — Rushdie in conversation with Una Chaudhuri (interview conducted 1983, published in 1990 in Turnstile 2.1)
* * *
In 2011, I am neither especially old nor especially young. I was born in the state of California…once upon a time. No, that won’t do. There’s no getting away from the book.
I was not especially shocked by Midnight’s Children: not even with the book’s admirable depiction of forced sterilizations. But the assault upon the magicians ghetto near the end felt very much like an author desperately needing to justify his novel’s importance:
…standing in the chaos of the slum clearance programme, I was shown once again that the ruling dynasty of India had learned how to replicate itself; but then there was no time to think, the numberless labia-lips and lanky-beauties were seizing magicians and old beggars, people were being dragged towards the vans, and now a rumor spread through the colony of magicians: “they are doing nasbandi — sterilization is being performed!”
Note the way that Saleem telegraphs this horror to the reader without subtlety. Instead of letting the dreadful action speak for itself, Rushdie feels the need to frame it through “the ruling dynasty of India.” The prose here begs (pardon the crass pun) for a rhythmic juxtaposition between “labia-lips and lanky-beauties” and “magicians and old beggars,” but aside from the visual dashes and a few alliterative Ls in the first phrase, we have commonplace discordance. Is this an occupational hazard of communicating through a mishmash Mother India tongue? Saleem is capable enough to joke of a “djinn-soaked evening,” but why the explicit explanation for nasbandi? (Later Rushdie novels are, in fact, less literal than Midnight’s Children. But it is interesting to me that the Rushdie novel that is most celebrated is the one most cemented in explanation.)
* * *
Rushdie’s early copywriting teaches him to condense. “Midnight’s Children may be long, but I don’t think it’s overwritten.” (The Sunday Times, October 25, 1981)
Rushdie establishes his vocational conditions on his own terms. “There are quite a lot of writers too who do advertising part-time. They both use it for the same reasons, a means to an end. I used to work never more than two days a week in advertising. Those two days would finance the other five. It’s very difficult for a completely unknown writer with no private means to find five-sevenths of his week entirely free for his own writing. In that sense, it was very useful. But it was also good to get out of it.” (Debonair Reviews, February 1982)
* * *
In Midnight’s Children, Saleem declares “…in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.” Rushdie has denied that Midnight’s Children is a historical novel in numerous interviews. Is belief the only quality that remains? Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, is separated from his friends by “this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors.” And yet belief related to birth is both problematic and ugly, as when Saleem states his “belief that Pavarti-the-witch became pregnant in order to invalidate my only defense against marrying her.” Then there is India’s “national longing for form” — “perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality.” The midnight children do eventually lose belief in the very mechanism Saleem creates for them.
So if belief in Midnight’s Children cannot be tied to history, cannot be tied to people both real and imagined, and cannot be manifested even in the positive events that Saleem describes in hindsight (even the ones that result in betrayal), why then should we believe in Saleem? Why should we believe in Rushdie?
It seems to me that what I have been protesting through this essay — admittedly in the manner of an easily distracted tap dancer who longs for another ballroom — is not so much the idea of a novel reframing intricate history in a quirky and robust manner (which Midnight’s Children does quite well at times), but the troubling notion of Saleem (and by extension Salman) refusing to believe or burrow into belief.
In a 1996 interview, The Critical Quarterly‘s Colin McCabe asked Rushdie about the idea of creating a version of Islamic culture that could be inherited without belief. Rushdie replied (in part), “I felt that I had inherited the culture without the belief, and that the stories belonged to me as well. And because they belonged to me they were mine to use, in, if you like, my way.”
So if Rushdie sees culture, both religious and secular, as mere mechanical strata to pluck and claim as his own, then perhaps I’m objecting to his inherent insensitivity: his brazen ownership of other people’s ideas without recognizable deference to the originators. But in claiming ideas so totally in Midnight’s Children (an admittedly admirable performance), I don’t think he leaves nearly enough for the reader.
Subjects Discussed: Fantasy and magical realism being contingent upon reader belief, domestic realism and fantasy, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as a Los Angeles novel, foodies, apartment complexes in Southern California, high school reunions, sustaining fairytale magic in a longer work, how a shift in an author’s temperament affects a writing project over several years, positive pessimism, parallels between writing process and psychotherapy, Adam Phillips and boredom, the fine line between attention and concentration, staying put, believing in the details, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Plausibility in Fantasy,” Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, writers whose complete works you can’t read all at once, author doubt and faulty fiction premises, Kafka, early attempts and restarts on Particular Sadness, the dangers of ranting, the relationship between empathy and fantasy, reverse engineering the human relationship with food, Rose’s early form as an older man on the make for soup, MFK Fisher, the materialistic impulses of Rose’s parents, bottom-feeding consumerism and garage sales, the consumer as an eater of another kind, qualitative precision vs. quantitative precision, mathematics and fantasy, people who love making food, Cafe Gratitude, feeling simultaneously appreciative and cynical about hippie ideologies, grandmothers who send strange packages, Edward Hopper, fatalistic determinism, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the visual advantages of not using quotes, Bender’s experience with chairs, the McSweeney’s logo, whether Hopper’s paintings are truly lonely, “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” artists who don’t enjoy being photographed, whether movies are destroying imagination, shorter attention spans, memorizing poetry, Wallace Stevens, Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, Kay Ryan, students who can’t remember the questions they are about to ask, and whether or not the United States is presently suffering from a short attention span epidemic.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We were just joking about this being a few years since we last talked. This leads me to ask: I know you to be an optimist, both in your previous books and in our previous conversation, which was quite jocular. But with this book, I almost get the sense that you’re exploring this positive pessimism with the Rose perspective. And I’m curious how much that may play into this. The idea of exploring a perspective that’s just a little different from your own. Or perhaps I have misjudged you and you have been a closet pessimist the entire time!
Bender: Well, both! I think I’m both. So it’s both exploring a point of view that’s different from my own. But of course, for any of it to ring true, it has to ring true to me in some way as well. So I think that there’s something of that balance of seeing things cynically and seeing things hopefully. Depending on the day. Will it end in a different spot? But I guess I did feel really focused in this book maybe, in particular, about what would be burdensome for that character. And also what would be burdensome for the brother. And maybe the tone again of the magical quality about her and her brother feeling different. Like hers feeling dark and his feeling darker. I somehow think of them as triangles feeding into each other. Hers is the smaller shape and his is the darker shape in some way.
Correspondent: But what do you do if you’re trying to channel this positive pessimism and you’re in an absolutely peppy mood that day? Because I think that of all your books, this is tonally very, very specific. And so what do you do to maintain that tone? Especially since it’s several years of trying to get this right.
Bender: Exactly. Well, I have this kind of system that has worked for me so far, which is to write a couple hours in the morning. And the rule — a friend of mine from grad school named Phil Hayes said if you write what you’re interested in writing each day, writing will have life in it. Which is great. It seemed simple on the surface advice, but I think it’s pretty deep. Because the idea that each day, you can generate whatever is happening on that day — it means that on the optimistic days, I probably wasn’t working on that book. But the thing is getting a good work day in feels very optimistic and hopeful, even if the work itself is kind of dour and sad and bleak. A good work day feels so good no matter what. So there’s kind of a contrast there already. But let’s say I’m in a really upbeat mood and I just can’t get into the sadness of the book. Then I would work on a short story. So it was all very mood governed. But I think once there was enough material to work with, it didn’t feel sad to work on. It felt like explorative.
Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. Because I’ve always wanted to talk with you about the two hour session.
Correspondent: Which sounds almost like expansive psychotherapy.
Bender: I’ve wondered about that. I think that’s a bit of a model. Yeah. (laughs)
Correspondent: But I understand, and I just want to get this totally clarified, you sit on the couch.
Correspondent: You want to channel your mind into boredom.
Correspondent: And I’m curious about this. It seems to me a more reasonable answer to, say, Jonathan Franzen blocking all sunlight from the room, which I think is really quite intense. I mean, I understand the need.
Bender: And I think he has headphones.
Correspondent: Exactly. Earplugs.
Correspondent: There are bats that fly in his cave. I don’t know.
Bender: Right. (laughs)
Correspondent: But the point is that your level of trying to remove yourself from distraction seems infinitely more reasonable. You’re in this fixed location. How do you will yourself into filtering these ideas? Or if you’re in a situation where you have so many ideas, so much information, so many emotions that you’re writing, that you just need to sit still in order to just access it during that two hour period?
Bender: Yeah. I think you said it in an interesting way. “Channeling myself into boredom.” But it’s not. The boredom happens.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh come on.
Bender: The boredom does not need to be channeled. You know, there are those people who say, “I never feel bored.” I’m definitely not one of those people. So in some way, for me, it feels like a dance between boredom and concentration. And I think my concentration can feel thin. So the idea is blocking out the amount of time so that I’m going to try to concentrate. But I don’t know that I will. And inevitably I get bored. And then hopefully on the other side of boredom is something. There’s this great quote by Adam Phillips, who is a British psychoanalyst. He talks about boredom as a waiting space and as this interim place for a kid where it’s not something to be filled or plugged in. It’s something actually to sit through. And that’s often where a kid will get really creative. And they’ll be like, “Okay, I’m bored. Now I’ve created this land under the kitchen sink.” Whatever.
Correspondent: I use the term “channeling” or “willing yourself” into this concentrated focus. Is it a variation of the Flaubert maxim “Be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work”?
Bender: There is something to that. I do believe very strongly that structure helps creativity and boundaries in that it is like a therapy hour. The boundaries of a time, a creative space where I can go to someplace that is potentially revolting to me and leave. And knowing that I will leave. There’s something very helpful about that. But still, it’s not even that I can focus myself into concentration. It’s just that the only rule I really have is that I have to stay put. And then they’ll be many, many bad days.
Correspondent: So if you stay put, you can confront any emotion. It’s like running the gauntlet here.
Bender: I think that if you stay put, stuff comes up. I think eventually stuff will bubble up and there will be things to write about. But it’s not as if I bravely have the sword in hand and I’m rushing forward into the forest.
Bender: I’m sitting there feeling like I want to get up. I want to get up. I want to get up. And the only weapon I have is stay put.
Correspondent: Got it. Is it a matter of ADD or distraction? Or what?
Bender: It’s not ADD. But I just do feel easily distracted. There are other writers who will say, “I need time to relax. And then get into it. And then I take eight hours. And then I get lost in the world. And I feel all my characters.” And I don’t have that at all. Maybe I’ll get lost into it for ten minutes. And that’s thrilling. But I get a lot done.
Correspondent: Oh, I see.
Bender: So it will be ten minutes. Boom. Productive. And then space out.
Correspondent: Ninety minutes of thinking, thirty minutes of writing. Something like that?
Bender: Yeah. And looking at old files. And rereading, rereading.