Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Scribner, $24, 9781451617962, July 12, 2011)
Like her National Book Award-nominated Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta's new novel has its roots in the 1970s. This time, however, instead of focusing on the political currents of that era, she's turned her attention to the intimate details of family life, the slow erosion of dreams and the faint persistence of hope.
Narrated mostly in the voice of Denise Krasnis, a woman in the midst of a struggling midlife, Stone Arabia is the story of her relationship with her older brother, Nik Worth, a talented if only modestly successful post-punk musician in bands with names like the Demonics and the Fakes, who now, in 2004, lives in obscurity in Los Angeles's Topanga Canyon, barely subsisting on a bartender's income. When he's not working on a massive collection of materials he has assembled to create an elaborate fictional narrative of his life he calls "The Chronicles" (Denise ironically entitles her story "The Counterchronicles"), he's recording an equally imposing, provocative series of experimental CDs he distributes in only a handful of copies.
As was the case for the characters in Spiotta's previous novel, Denise can't escape the incessant drumbeat of stories from the wider world. She's obsessed with the "television bombardment of violent events," the "odd back-and-forth between the ticker crawling beneath and the incongruent images above it." These "breaking events"--the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the Chechnya school massacre, the disappearance of a young Amish girl in upstate New York--insinuate their way into Denise's life as she realizes, with regret, that she "had, in middle age, become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously."
Spiotta perfectly captures the emotional stew of love, frustration, anger and, perhaps most poignantly, the lack of communication that are the stuff of sibling relationships: "We don't talk out everything," Denise tells her daughter, Ada, a filmmaker who's working on a documentary on her uncle's career. "We keep a lot in the air between us." And as she watches, with tender concern and rising alarm, her brother's increasingly reclusive behavior, she must deal with their mother's early dementia, while obsessing over her own occasional memory lapses and fearing she's destined for the same fate.
In a voice that rarely rises above an intense whisper, Dana Spiotta's portrait of Denise and Nik is a tender, inwardly focused story that leaves us with some profound questions: How well do we know the ones dearest to us and, in the face of our most well-intentioned efforts, can their inner lives ever truly be known? --Harvey Freedenberg
Shelf Talker: Dana Spiotta's new novel is an intimate exploration of the complex territory of an adult sibling relationship.