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Ron Charles reviews ‘Stone Arabia’ by Dana Spiotta

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“Stone Arabia” is one of those weird titles that sound brilliant only after you’ve finished the book. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” was another one, and it’s curious that both these clever novels jump off the 1980s punk scene in Los Angeles and then move into the melancholy tones of middle age. Like Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta records the smothered dreams of a washed-up musician, but what she’s really listening for is the melody of nostalgia that none of us can resist.

At the center of “Stone Arabia” sits a 50-year-old bartender named Nik Worth who sponges off his devoted sister, Denise. In the late ’70s, Nik and his band almost made it big. “Nik had the sensibility down,” Denise remembers. “And Nik had the look down. He was born to look pasty and skinny and angular.” Like so many other musicians, though, he never attained escape velocity, and his career faded away, another no-hit wonder in the City of Angels. That’s an old story, of course, the provenance of a million electric guitars offered up in neighborhood garage sales. But it marks the moment that Nik’s life became startlingly strange.

Faced with the prospect of oblivion, Nik began throwing all his energy into creating an alternative history of a spectacular career, a sprawling collection of fake documents he calls “The Chronicles.” Even as his real life stagnated into loneliness and poverty, he wrote Rolling Stone profiles of himself, Los Angeles Times reviews of his music (good and bad), fan magazines and newsletters. He created his own concert posters and album covers. He wrote lyrics and recorded his own CDs. Eventually, “The Chronicles” grew to more than 30 volumes of faux history that describe the lifework of a musical colossus on a par with Elvis — complete with all the usual news about band breakups, court-ordered rehab, divorce and paparazzi photos. “It was all quite systematic and gratuitously laborious.”  

I was reminded of a hilarious novel that far too few people read: “Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano,” by Christopher Miller, about a ghastly musician who hires a man to write his fictional biography. But Spiotta’s comedy is more muted and melancholy. And she’s got a casually epigraphic style that allows her to slough off clever lines: “When a young person smokes,” Denise says, “it just underlines their excess life. It looks appealing and reminds you they feel as if they have life to spare.”

“Self-curate or disappear,” Nik tells his sister; the awesome purity of his solipsism is sad, even if he knows it’s a “profoundly elaborated private joke.” Indeed, if Nik weren’t so laid back and cool, the whole thing would be downright scary: Jack Nicholson strumming “Blitzkrieg Bop” in an empty hotel. The level of detail in “The Chronicles” — the handmade ticket stubs and liner notes, the creation of rival bands and academic experts — suggests a misspent creative mania driven by deep disappointment.

And yet in a note at the end of the novel, Spiotta says she was inspired to create this “eccentric genius” by her stepfather, “a true artist,” who recorded a similar “chronicle of his life as a secret rock star.” After reading this dark novel, I’m not convinced by that praise, which sounds more like an effort to avoid unpleasantness at her next family get-together. But there is something essentially American about writing one’s own usable past, an act of self-creation that’s so confident it needs no confirmation from the outside world. Perhaps in our echo-chamber culture of vapid celebrity, Nik’s determination to create his own fame makes him a tragic hero.

In any case, we get only well-parceled glimpses of Nik and his postmodern autobiography. “Stone Arabia” is as much about Denise, the younger sibling who adores him, who thinks of herself only as a footnote to her brother’s private success. She may spend the whole novel looking at Nik, but she becomes the more fascinating, tragically resonant character for us. A hypochondriac who’s desperately unhappy but terrified of dying, she’s rubbed raw with “a nearly debilitating sympathy” for every tragedy she sees in the news. She articulates the common plight of living in a sea of images, videos, stories and Web sites that ask us to constantly witness the suffering of strangers all over the world. “What was a person supposed to do with all of this feeling?” Spiotta asks as Denise weeps through the television coverage of the Beslan school massacre in 2004. “Feeling nothing was subhuman, but feeling everything, like this, in a dark room in the middle of the night, by yourself, did no one any good.”

Denise has the sense of herself dissolving in the acid bath of the world’s pain pouring over her, and it’s that terrifying loss of selfhood that unifies the strains of this novel and gives it the deep chords of profundity. While Nik meticulously constructs his own glorious past, Denise remains panicked about losing hers. She challenges herself every day with little games to forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s that have already ravaged her mother’s brain.

What’s most remarkable about “Stone Arabia” is the way Spiotta explores such broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings. Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling. She’s captured that hankering for something alluring in the past that never was — a moment of desire and pretense that the best pop music articulates for each generation and makes everything else that comes later sound flat and disappointing.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

stone arabia By Dana Spiotta Scribner. 239 pp. $24

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