Much is going to be written about Stone Arabia’s apparent proximity to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad but this is a distraction. Don’t be distracted. All you need to know about Stone Arabia is that it is a very good novel by a writer who deserves prizes and plaudits and attention.
It is the tail end of 2004. Denise, a 47 year old woman, is sitting at a desk in her brother Nik’s home reading the Chronicles, a fictional, or semi-fictional, alternative telling of his life, composed of reviews and essays and diary entries and ticket stubs and CD covers. In the Chronicles, Nik Worth is a singer-songwriter of note, frontman for the Demonics and the Fakes, and an experimental journeyman coming to the close of a twenty volume solo work called The Ontology of Worth as he draws near to his 50th birthday. In real life, the real life of the book, Nik works in a bar, needs constant bailing out by his sister who is herself in hock up to her eyes as a result, struggles with his health (he suffers from gout early in the novel) and is resistant to Denise’s occasional (mild) suggestions that he do something with his life.
Like Don DeLillo’s The Names or Christopher Sorrentino’s Sound on Sound, Stone Arabia is a rock’n’roll novel, of sorts, albeit cut through with the kind of postcard from America quality that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral had (Denise, our narrator, is the kind of woman who finds herself effected, out of all proportion, by what is going on in the news, so we hear her reactions to Abu Ghraib and the possibly fictitious abduction of an Amish child that gives the novel its title). The life that Spiotta gives Nik, the texture of his history, feels authentic and well-researched, authenticity given greater credence, curiously, when Denise tells us she isn’t sure about a detail or doesn’t know something.
Like Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, Stone Arabia is also interesting from a structural point of view – although unlike The Flame Alphabet, Stone Arabia manages to successfully juggle the demands of ensuring a novel is interesting and compelling from both a technical and a purely narrative perspective. Denise begins by telling us the story linearly, before switching to what she calls breaking events (viewing her life as if it is a news story on a rolling news channel, or viewing her life in conjunction with stories on a rolling news channel) before admitting that neither device will adequately enable her to say what needs to be said. What’s more, although the novel seems to be heading in a certain direction (and Denise herself informs us of the direction she worries things are heading in), Spiotta is astute enough to wrongfoot us in a way that suggested Haruki Murakami at his best.
Any Cop?: All told, a tremendously satisfying, intelligent novel. If this doesn’t dominate the end of year best of lists, there is no justice in the world.