One summer, when I was in high school, I took a fiction writing course at The New School in New York; the most valuable thing I learned there was the golden rule of creative writing: "Don't quit your day job." Of course, lots of writers, as well as artists and musicians, ignore that practical wisdom: they gamble all on their artistic visions. We applaud the Patti Smiths and Robert Mapplethorpes; the Emily Dickinsons and John Kennedy Tooles who obsessively forge ahead, because, as it's turned out, their belief in their own gifts has been validated by history. But what about those other folks you never hear about? The ones who don't make it? — the "no hit wonders," "the road kill," as Dana Spiotta sadly refers to them in her latest novel. Should we admire them, too? Or are artists and writers who lose themselves in their art, yet never find an audience, merely losers?
That's a big question at the center of Spiotta's smart new novel, Stone Arabia. Critics often use adjectives like "smart," "brilliant" and "intelligent" to refer to Spiotta's work because she tackles philosophical subjects in an edgy collage-type style that jumbles together time frames and narrative modes. She even throws around words like "ontological." If all that sounds off-putting, be assured that Spiotta's novels are post-modern without the chill: character development and the spiky nuances of family relationships are always a central concern. As much as we're invited, in Stone Arabia, to meditate on the value of the art of Nik Worth, the aging non-starter rock 'n' roller who's one of the main characters here, we're also caught up in the emotional toll his obsessions exact on his sister, Denise. There's almost always a Denise in the life of an "art-for-art's sake" artist, the mother, partner or family member who's grounded enough to worry; the one who comes up with the money for rent and food.
Denise has been Nik's number one fan (and, largely, his only one) since they were teenagers. Nik is a guitarist/songwriter who's played in a few bands and almost got a record deal decades ago. Now, closing in on 50, he bartends part-time and, as Denise puts it, has generally "pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future." The thing that really makes Nik special is his music, which is akin to that fabled tree in the forest that falls and no one hears. Nik has documented his career — or is it a career? — in his other life's work, something called The Chronicles. The Chronicles are 30 or so volumes that stretch from 1978 to 2004 and document Nik's music, including reviews — all of which Nik has written himself under many different aliases. Here's a brief section from Denise's pages-long description of how The Chronicles work:
"Nik's Chronicles adhered to the facts and then didn't. When Nik's dog died in real life, his dog died in The Chronicles. But in The Chronicles he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards. But it wasn't always clear what was conjured. The music for the tribute album for the dog actually exists, as does the cover art for it ... But the fan letters didn't exist. In this way Nik chronicled his years in minute-but-twisted detail."
You could imagine someone discovering The Chronicles 100 years from now and heralding Nik as some outsider-artist genius; or, just as plausibly, you could consider The Chronicles as a testament to a wasted life; the work of a troubled mind. Or both. Stone Arabia evades answers and instead encourages an open-minded blurring of the lines between lived experience and fantasy; art which is authorized vs. art which is un-vetted. The form of this novel itself revels in the confusion: Stone Arabia juggles letters and diary entries; CD liner notes and obituaries — some false, some all too true.
This is a powerful novel about responsibility: the responsibility artists have to their art; the responsibility family members have to take care of each other. It's only flaw — and I would be irresponsible if I didn't mention it — is its ending, which feels at once improbable and weak. But, overall Stone Arabia should make its readers grateful that Spiotta herself isn't one of those outsider unpublished visionaries whose life she imagines here with such compassion and verve.