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Review: Siblings' delusions of grandeur either method or madness in 'Stone Arabia' by Dana Spiotta

Breathes there a boomer who as a boy didn't long to be a rock star? Or who as a girl didn't crush on one?

Most of us are long over it (well, pretty much). But for Nik Worth and Denise Kranis, the middle-aged siblings at the center of Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, those rock star dreams have never ended — although they're edging close to nightmare.

Spiotta's slim, intense novel is an insightful meditation on the damage wrought by a fame-obsessed culture, an unflinching look at family bonds that can turn to shackles and a virtuoso literary performance.

It opens with two transformative events that occur on Nik's 10th birthday, in 1964 in Los Angeles. (His adoring little sister is 7.) They see A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles' first movie, and, Denise remembers, "everything about it thrilled them." They return home to find their mostly absent father is there for Nik's party and has brought him a galvanizing gift: a guitar.

A typical teenage music obsession ensues. Nik shows real promise as a songwriter and starts several bands, playing simultaneously in a post-punk outfit called the Demonics and a Beatle-ish pop group, the Fakes. Denise follows in his wake, tagging along to his gigs, her admiration unquestioning. But a chance at a record deal (this is the 1970s, decades before DIY MP3s) collapses disastrously, and the bands break up.

So far, a story we all know. Most garage band guitar heroes and girls with "I'm with the band" fantasies move on to other lives. But as the book shifts to its main story in 2004, we discover Nik has produced some 30 albums and CDs, including several by the Fakes and side projects such as "moody folk trio" the Pearl Poets, as well as most of a 20-CD experimental opus as a solo artist titled The Ontology of Worth. His shelves are filled with 30 binders overflowing with what he calls the Chronicles: hundreds of reviews and interviews, album art and liner notes, photos and music videos, a full and detailed account of his successful career as an innovative songwriter and performer.

That career, though, does not exist. The CDs do, in limited editions of three or four owned by him, Denise and various ex-girlfriends, the music performed entirely by Nik. So do the Chronicles — every last bit of them written, drawn or photographed by Nik, and seen by almost no one but him and Denise.

Western Lights, the Topanga Canyon estate in which he lives, according to the Chronicles, is really an 800-square-foot apartment over a garage studio. Nik makes not quite enough money to live on as a bartender, does a lot of recreational drugs and sponges off his still-adoring sister, who feels most herself within their self-referential, ironic, is-it-real-or-not world. Denise has a vague job and a "sort-of boyfriend," but her most vivid life — aside from crying jags evoked by remote disasters on cable TV — is her relationship with her brother.

That insular haven is under threat, though. Nik's 50th birthday is looming, as is the last Ontology CD; one of his former band mates is dying; and the siblings' mother is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Denise's cheerful daughter, Ada, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to make a documentary about her uncle:

"'You could, you know, extend your whole project onto the internet. You know, it would be perfect for that, it would make it totally multidimensional, update it. You could even put up MP3s of all the music, reach a new audience. I could help you, you know."

Although Denise spends endless hours online, her brother wants nothing to do with the Web. And does Nik want anyone else telling his story? Early in the book he tells Denise when she mocks the Chronicles, "Self-curate or disappear," but he seems to have chosen to do both.

Is Nik a brilliant outsider artist or a sad dreamer — or mentally ill? And what about Denise? Spiotta turns wicked tricks with narrative voice throughout Stone Arabia — there are sections in which Denise seems to be narrating that turn out to be excerpts from the Chronicles, written by Nik in a "witty, brutal parody of her," she tells us. Perhaps typographical distinctions like italics and shifts between first and third person tip us to when Denise is speaking, or Nik is, or perhaps someone else, but maybe not. Who's really telling the story — and who should be — becomes as much a question as what will happen to Nik and Denise.

Recalling their wild-child, largely unsupervised teen years, Denise (I think) says, "We are all really good at pretending we are a normal family, and somehow us pretending all at once is a big part of what makes us feel like a family. It is like a willed self-delusion. Or maybe you can lie to yourself, that's a self-delusion, but if you have a delusion about several people, if you all share in this delusion, that isn't a self-delusion, is it? That is a family."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Stone Arabia

By Dana Spiotta

Scribner, 239 pages, $24

Review: Siblings' delusions of grandeur either method or madness in 'Stone Arabia' by Dana Spiotta 08/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 15, 2011 12:12pm]
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