Book Review: Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta

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Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Photo / Supplied
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Photo / Supplied

Dana Spiotta teaches creative writing at New York's Syracuse University. Her first novel featured in the New York Times Notable Book list, while her second gained a book award.

Spiotta's latest, Stone Arabia, reflects back on the LA music scene of the 1970s and has gained glowing reviews in its home country. Which makes me feel like a bit of a sour duck.
Reading books is a bit like sampling wine. The glass you have in hand can be affected by what you have just eaten, the company, the setting, even memory. I think this novel, with its admirable premise and detail, was thrown off kilter by the books I have recently read.
I was tempted to ditch it at page 88, but I was curious enough to see how it would all fit together (or not) so I kept going.

This is the story of a brother (Nik) and a sister (Denise) who were raised by their mother after their father left. Everything revolves around Nik and his obsessions, although a sense of Denise emerges from this.

Nik used to be in bands and never stopped writing songs and producing music of all descriptions, from pop to low-fi to experimental. This is where you hit the crossroads. You will either love Nik's endless self-promotion (and see it as a remarkable device to bring the 70s music scene to life) or you will find it slightly tedious and not feel the 70s pulse at all.

Nik invents himself in the bands he forms, in the music he self-publishes, in the reviews he writes under pseudonyms, in the daily chronicles he writes. His fan club is pretty much his sister and perhaps his mother.

Spiotta's novel is like a collage of Nik or a pastiche of Nik that is more parody than story. All these bits and pieces - the letters he writes to Denise and in her name, the CD jackets, the fake reviews, the entry in the chronicles - take you right back to this particular time.
Yet despite all this extraordinary detail I am left holding a hollow egg. Perhaps a better analogy is a set of Russian dolls; each layer shining and intricate and bright, but at the end, a void.

It is, however, short-changing the book to say it is all about Nik.

You can go on the hunt for Denise. Denise is obsessed with her brother, doesn't love her boyfriend, is indifferent to the father of her child, loves her daughter, is a film aficionado.
You can go on the hunt for political threads - the role of the media, the presence and impact of violence, the way we are shaped and shape ourselves within contemporary ideology.

Overseas reviews have employed a vocabulary that includes words such as stunning, intelligent, triumph, virtuoso, gritty, mysterious and so on. Yes, some parts did move me, and though I admired the clever authorial shifts and layers, the hollow characters did nothing for either my heart or my intelligence.

Stone Arabia
by Dana Spiotta

(Text Publishing $37)
Reviewed by Paula Green

- NZ Herald

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