The incomparable and prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum shares his thoughts on the year’s best books, the shaky nature of year-end lists, and solicits numerous authors — including Edwidge Danticat, Robert Stone, Richard Russo, Hari Kunzru, and Stuart Dybek — to name their overlooked books of this year (and many others).
(A version of this post originally appeared at Our Man in Boston. This piece was copyedited — with all book titles and author spellings corrected — before being published on Reluctant Habits.)
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, whose conversations have adorned The Morning News, Identity Theory, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, decided to combat year-end list fatigue by contacting several esteemed authors. He asked them to remark upon books they felt were ignored or overlooked. Some of the authors named titles published in 2013. Others expanded the possibilities to the entire history of published literature. What follows is the result of Birnbaum’s grand experiment, along with some sentiments from Birnbaum himself.]
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Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self-centeredness by the admission that, as Van Morrison croons in “The Meaning of Loneliness,” “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus, one is beset with constant instances of self-doubt and self-interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example, I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily: “‘Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,’ says _____ __________. ‘They should read Kael, not Derrida…'” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at a faculty meeting or a party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.
Some Ignored Titles (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)
Okay. For the longest time, I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand, I can see some creative usefulness in lists. Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:
I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.
So, here’s a list (of sorts) that I created. I considered offering reasons for my choices, but I decided to rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity:
One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. My husband (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story.
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David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster):
Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution
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Robert Stone, novelist, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):
Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in Maine published some years ago, called Harbor Lights. It was reviewed “In Brief” at the New York Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel.
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Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG):
So, I don’t know about “tragically.” By “overlooked,” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of the following titles. They are all A+:
20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton The Armstrong Trilogy by Roy Heath In Hazard by Richard Hughes The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin
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Richard Russo, award winning novelist, author of Elsewhere, (Knopf), screenwriter (The Ice Harvest):
But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift. You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but my sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.
I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters. Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, Erasure — a parody of the African-American urban novel — offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeonhole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: The PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Passos Prize.
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Joseph O’Connor, overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker):
Tragically overlooked novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But do you mean tragically overlooked novels from 2013 or in general? In my view, Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coetzee and Faulkner, but it’s a mesmerizing smolder all on its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.
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Stuart Dybek, author, Northwestern University mentor, Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG, forthcoming):
I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is, but I saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on and I don’t think there’s been a change since.
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David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia, author Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson):
Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked, then try The Purchase by Linda Spalding.
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Darin Strauss, author, Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor:
I don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. The Fixer, which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? Perhaps Memento Mori, which I just read and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it, will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe The Statement by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?
All of the above?
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Brian Doyle, novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press), editor of Portland:
Hmmm. Maybe The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: Little Big Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, A River Runs Through It, Lord of the Rings, The Year of Living Dangerously, maybe The English Patient, maybe Master and Commander.
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Daniel Olivas, novelist, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press):
The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya
I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful, but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.
Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review — and little reader-attention). Runner-up: Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year contender) —- perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) The Dinner. Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.
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Ben Fountain, award-winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco):
Several come to mind:
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called “tragically overlooked,” given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late ’60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the Great American Novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.
We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about seven to eight years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62.
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Robert McCrum, author, Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (W.W. Norton):
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards: This is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of folk art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.
Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution -– to quit smoking -– always fails to get any real traction.
I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful and poised. As if Richard Yates wrote speculative fiction.
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Joseph Epstein, short fiction writer, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH):
1. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
2. Sándor Márai’s Embers.
I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well-known, but both are swell novels.
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Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni, memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington):
I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson
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Tom Piazza, novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco), screenwriter (Treme), musical connoisseur:
I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.
Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.
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Susan Bergholz, nonpareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano, et al):
Here you go. Can’t do just one! Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: dead now, extraordinary work. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: a pitch-perfect novel, except for the Afterword. The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, Orfeo: stunning!
I forgot one very important novel: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero
And: Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Okay. I’ll stop now!
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Blake Bailey, literary biographer, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf):
The Lost Weekend, of course. And Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men.
(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 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.