For a book about rock music, Stone Arabia isn't very loud. In fact, if Dana Spiotta's third novel, which tells the story of adult siblings Nik and Denise Kranis, were a song, it would be something softer: The Ballad of Nik and Denise.
Coming of age in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Denise is captivated and confused by her older brother, the cool, gaunt rocker who plays in bands, "always knows what club has good music and is always being invited to parties." Latchkey kids of a single mother who works night and an "awful" father whose greatest contribution to the family before he died was giving Nik the 10th-birthday gift of a guitar, the two live in their own world of punk bands, parties and drugs. "We made ourselves," Denise recalls, "into little adults." Neither one ever entirely grows up, but the pair develops a sweet, strange, codependent relationship that quietly informs every other aspect of their lives. At times it can seem like Nik and Denise are performing only for each other.
Toward the end of the decade, after a record deal is mysteriously botched, Nik disbands his almost-made-it group, The Fakes, and begins to work on a solo record and a career as an alcoholic, chain-smoking bartender. Denise has a child, moves through a series of superficial relationships and lands a lifer job as a personal assistant to a real estate scion. Nik, who as a child had drawn comics based on his imagined adventures, begins keeping journals — "The Chronicles" — an epic fantasy world composed of record reviews, interviews and other pieces he himself pens about his make-believe life as a brilliant, reclusive rock star. Though he'll go on to write and record a number of albums, often elaborate affairs with painstakingly detailed cover art, releasing them through a number of Nik-owned labels to little or no fanfare save his own, Nik's stardom never exists much outside his head.
"Somehow, as we grew older, we lost our liberated, irresistible claim on being carefree," says Denise. "I felt it then, even if Nik didn't. It had snuck up on us and hardened into something else."
As the pair ages, Nik lives through The Chronicles, creating the legacy he will never otherwise leave behind. Denise loses herself in TV news programs, focusing on the tragedies of others to avoid her own life. She becomes obsessed with strengthening her memory; with a mother ravaged by dementia and a brother living in a world of his own making, Denise feels responsible for remembering what's actually happened. It's not for nothing that when Denise's daughter, Ada, makes a documentary about Nik, committing the family's story — or whatever sides of the story emerge — to film, an entire generation's struggles are overcome with the push of a button.
Spiotta's book is a triumph of structure. Built from flashbacks, unreliable entries in The Chronicles, clips from Ada's documentary and Denise's own observations, and told more or less chronologically from New Year's Day 2004 on as Denise's "Counterchronicles," the story is built engagingly and with enough teenage wonder to leave striking remnants of glitter on an otherwise sad tale. The author's knack for creating pop-culture-soaked stories that follow families across generations, memorably on display in Eat The Document, her 2006 National Book Award Finalist, is apparent.
"Imagine never having to give up Artaud or Chuck Berry or Alistair Crowley or the Beats ..." Nik says to Ada, making clear the sorts of unusual icon he styles himself after. Reading Stone Arabia, it's a relief to be able to imagine holding on to these kinds of heroes. After all, Nik is a star only in his own head, and Denise's enabling of his fantasies is more sad than heroic. But the skill with which Spiotta builds her characters and their offbeat, nuanced relationship makes it easy to feel like the kind of panting fan Nik could only have written about.