Stone Arabia - review

Stone Arabia
Dana Spiotta
Canongate, 256pp, £14.99

Just over halfway through Dana Spiotta’s new novel, the narrator interrupts a series of thematic chapters to express the view that ordering events by chronology is “better” than ordering by category: “Things happened in a context, didn’t they?” The question is as good as rhetorical. From the opening sentence, the relationship between Denise, an office manager in her late forties, with her older brother, Nik, a post-punk musician who has turned recluse, is portrayed using conventional strategies of selection and emphasis, with a period of crux taking place against a broader backdrop of events both recent and long past.

It is possible that the book we are reading, though written in a mixture of third and first person, constitutes Denise’s reply to the vast serial project – parody letters, a “fantasy fanzine” – that her brother calls the “Chronicles”. At one point, Denise refers to “my chronicles, the fact-based ones”. It isn’t just the basis in fact that distinguishes the siblings’ accounts. The Chronicles don’t exist in Nik’s Chronicles, so Denise’s account is able to address with detachment the questions about fabrication that Nik plays out in dramatic form. If Nik’s Chronicles, which contain the reviews, positive and negative, that his barely distributed experimental music will never receive, amount to a denial of his retreat from visibility, then Denise’s makeshift memoir is on altogether easier terms with the sense of aftermath that hangs around her life, confronting as it does their mother’s mortality, her own ageing and the ways in which a golden past, or a past idea of a golden future, lingers over the present, emphasising and embarrassing its mundanity.

There’s an element of having things both ways in the treatment of the novel’s central theme, the relationship between authenticity and fabrication. Reality is one of the things that get lost when people cultivate dreams (about fame and fulfilment), as Denise did as a young woman in the 1970s, and fears (about decay and violence), as she does in 2004, and Spiotta exploits ambiguities that inevitably arise when you use words such as “real” and “really” frequently, but without rigour. Asked by Denise’s daughter, Ada, why he constructed a fake
parallel life, he replies that “it was real”. Denise, though generally dubious, concedes that Nik’s “life in the Chronicles wasn’t all that different from his real life”. But the border between the fake and the real, having been effaced or blurred, is occasionally restored for the purpose of irony, as when Denise says that she turned the television on “to see what was happening in the real world”.

Postmodern anxiety about such humanist illusions as origins and endings and epiphanies, though no more than cursory, does the novel a fair amount of damage. The opening paragraph enacts a see-sawing process that can be found at work in different forms throughout the book. We are first told that Denise “always said it started” when Nik was given a guitar for his tenth birthday; then that this was “the family legend, repeated and burnished into a shared over-memory”; and then that, regardless, Denise “really did think it was true: he changed in one identifiable moment”. Since we never leave Denise’s impression of things (“really did think”) in favour of something more authoritative or impartial, it isn’t quite clear whether it’s a case of the legend becoming the truth, or the legend happening to be the same as the truth; but the latter seems more probable. Spiotta wants to incorporate scepticism about the stories we tell ourselves but doesn’t go as far as insisting that we give them up and the novel is incapable of offering cleverness without a sense of shame, candour without an air of apology.

If the novel displays signs of broad philosophical or tribal conflict, then it suffers from an excess of clarity in its use of detail. Denise talks openly of her desire to accommodate empiricism to subjectivity, at one point de­claring herself “interested in recall, exact recall,
of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.” She is
obsessed with scientific recall – though she distrusts photography – while Nik finds it impossible to forget.

“Collage? Pastiche? A list? Rhetorical questions? Or tell a story?” the narrator asks, searching for a better way to “get at” things than the “recitation” of events with some family resemblance. It’s a wink to the reader. Spiotta’s answer has been to make a collage from all of those elements but the result is closer to a mosaic, the constituent pieces creating an image inscrutably smudged in some places, too baldly legible in others.