In 1953, the idea of a single female police recruit to the New York City Police Department, let alone a handful, was big news. And when the New York Times wrote up the-then shocking idea of these women engaged in public outdoor physical activity as part of the examinations they needed to pass, naturally they included photos of the department’s newest members — including one young mother and engineer’s wife, born and raised on Ryer Avenue in the Bronx. A decade later, Dorothy Uhnak immortalized her beat-walking experiences — which included knocking down a robber more than twice her size — in her memoir Police Woman.
By the end of the 1960s, Uhnak had added to pioneering police work literary acclaim with a trio of award- winning novels following the career of Christie Opara, a detective protagonist as cool and methodical on the trail of multiple murderers (The Bait) political protesters (The Witness) and mobbed-up types (The Ledger) as she was raising a child on her own and considering a romance with her brash and sharp-tongued boss. Consciously or otherwise, Uhnak was planting the seeds for female detectives more private-minded — like Millhone, McCone and Warshawski — and subsequent generations of hard-boiled literary women. But until the Times reported Uhnak’s death of a self-administered drug overdose in 2006, her contributions went unnoticed by a great many readers — including me. I soon realized this void was shameful on several levels.
Uhnak dispensed with Christie Opara so quickly (a much-altered version of the character surfaced briefly on television in Get Christie Love) because her matter-of-fact prose and complex characters needed more room to breathe. Spurred by her editor’s desire to emulate such 1970s publishing phenomena as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions, Uhnak made the leap from tight-focus cop chronicles to blockbuster sagas, including 1977’s The Investigation and Victims (1985), a loose account of the Kitty Genovese murder. Sadly, the only one of these novels that remains in print is the first, the meaty, multi-generational doorstopper Law and Order (1973), which charts the entwined fates of the O’Malley family and their perpetual employer, the NYPD.
Those twin worlds, depicted between 1937 and 1970, are insular ones. The O’Malleys, with their repeating names and vigorous breeding habits, are too busy taking care of their own — personally and professionally –to bother with what happens outside their Ryer Avenue environs or the codes, written or otherwise, of the department. A brutal opening scene sketches the boundaries of the mindset. When the elder Brian O’Malley, a hard-drinking, rough-living Irish cop, meets his grisly death at the hands of a black prostitute he frequents, “I don’t want any part of it,” thinks his brand-new partner, Aaron Levine. “God he wished they were on their way back to the precinct house. It was nearly time for the tour to end. He never thought that filthy precinct would feel like home, but it was where he wanted to be right now.”
Levine’s wilful blindness, which continues as he slides all the way up to a cushy academic position (the reward for his “not wanting any part of it”) is the key metaphor for how people operate in Law & Order. O’Malley’s death is covered up, blamed on a robbery gone wrong. His eponymous son Brian steps in his father’s place, a brilliant recruit on the fast track to becoming Detective Chief Inspector — but not before he also tunes out the disturbing signals that don’t fit the overall narrative of cop culture. As for the O’Malleys as a family, they too doom themselves to repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation. Margaret, wife of the original Brian, grows from a young woman fearful of the clan she’s married into a hardened shell prone to snapping at her children. Eldest daughter Roseanne pays the price of her insolent adolescence when the wild young man she fancies turns out to be a rotten husband (her niece Maureen, the daughter of Brian Jr., will make virtually the same mistakes decades later.) Brian is himself prone to self-castigation about “sins of the flesh”, going so far as to try purging himself at the confessional, but — even after marrying a girl whose supposed job it is to rid himself of base desires — he indulges in multiple affairs.
The sense of fait accompli comes out even in how Uhnak depicts Brian Jr.’s original police examination: “Thirty-three thousand young men took the examination for Patrolman, New York City Police Department. Fewer than twelve hundred survived the written, physical, medical and background check-out. The class at the Police Academy was comprised of the top 10 per cent of the resulting list of eligibles. Eighty-five per cent of them held college degrees. By the time they received their appointments, they all knew they were something special.”
No wonder then such recruits, like Brian, are invited to do as they please; to free, for example, a statutory rapist of a neighborhood girl considered to be a slut — while another man, guilty of raping Brian’s young sister, merits a life-threatening assault. No wonder certain recruits are allowed to take a doctored exam while others cavalierly murder in the name of shutting up a would-be snitch determined to expose department-wide corruption. It’s only when the stage is set for Brian’s son Patrick, fresh off a tour in Vietnam that’s exposed him as much to war as it has to racial divides, to take his place in the cop pantheon, that the presumptions undergirding the system are threatened.
Which is why, when the bad apples have been shaken loose and events mimicking the 1972 Knapp Commission partially reveal the fault line of corruption – as well as the truth about what happened to Brian, Sr. — we’re left with Patrick, having a drink with his old man, his mouth open and holding his hands up. “Christ, isn’t there a moral way to commit a moral act?” asks the younger O’Malley, sick with disillusionment over how the Department handles corruption from within. His father has none of it. “In all of my life I’ve found morality counts shit when it comes to getting a job done. What counts is doing it any goddamn way you can, but get the job done.”
When their minds meet, resolved in a middle ground, Law & Order completes its newest generational cycle, where innocence crumbles in the face of hard-earned cynicism and means justified by the ends. The NYPD is as much family as the O’Malleys, and in Uhnak’s hard-bitten world, both of them — no matter the cost — take care of their own.
This is the second of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The first, featuring two fictitious sportscasters, can be read here.
I came to Moneyball not having read Michael Lewis’s book. There wasn’t really a good reason. Because I do read source material for a film whenever possible. Why? Because I like to play comparison games in my head. And because if the film doesn’t match up to the book, then I can figure out why. Or if it does measure up (and then some), I can analyze the differences.
Oddly, I didn’t do so when I saw The Social Network, which Moneyball is clearly trying to ape: from the Sorkin dialogue that managed to survive a zillion rewrites and doctoring to the shots of 21st century retro computing (2001 in Moneyball, 2004ish in TSN) to the meetings where old people need to be convinced of something new and foreign (in TSN‘s case, when the fictional Zuckerberg is being deposed by lawyers or telling the Harvard people why he doesn’t give a fuck about them but does about Facebook; in Moneyball, when beatific Brad Pitt as Billy Beane drops his masks and tells a room full of Fathers Know Best scouts they don’t know what they are doing.) Maybe Moneyball needed full-blown Sorkin, but I don’t think his script could have saved the movie, which was pretty much unsaveable from the get-go.
Here’s why: it opens with footage (real? doctored? who cares?) of the Oakland Athletics’s 2001 wild card playoffs, a strike against my childhood self who cried out for her 1994 Expos, their bound-for-playoff run aborted by the strike that killed the game and ushered in three rounds of post-season. There’s Jason Giambi before we knew he took steroids. There’s Roger Clemens before we knew he took steroids, perjured himself, and generally revealed himself to be a colossal douchebag of the highest order. And I’m distracted, thinking of the Mitchell Report, Itamar Moses’s amazing play about the late 1980s A’s, Canseco introducing McGwire to the magical elixir of what these drugs can do. And oh yeah, the A’s lose, Schott won’t give Beane any money, and everybody’s fucked until the Fat Kid Math Whiz comes along to save the day and make Beane look good with his Sabermetric-based statistical analysis of underappreciated players.
Moneyball did pick up. I admit, when the movie turned to the streak, the grinding gears caused me to get caught up in the manufactured excitement. I mean, truth sometimes does trump fiction, and Hatteberg’s homer really was something else. But we’re only a couple of clicks away from finding out that Jonah Hill’s character is pure fiction (the truth, in the form of Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life assistant GM, got edited out because it wasn’t convenient, so DePodesta refused to have his name included), Beane was only following in predecessor Sandy Alderson’s footsteps, and going the quant route only works for the scrappers if the big guns haven’t figured it out. Also, I was kind of hoping for a cameo by some Theo Epstein stand-in, aka the man who ended up with Beane’s promised GM job at the Boston Red Sox. In fact, why hasn’t Ben Mezrich written about him yet?
Anyway, Beane is still with Oakland, though possibly not for long, as this New York Times Magazine piece reveals. He still hasn’t won a playoff. And that’s great, but is this a movie? It’s not that the lack of a Hollywood ending galls. Because it doesn’t. It’s that the lack of a Hollywood ending reinforces the fact that there wasn’t much of a Hollywood beginning or a middle. In other words, I want my damn 1994 Expos. Now there’s a team that might have changed the game further, and their shot wasn’t just ruined then, it was taken away forever.
(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.)
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.
(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.