Stone Arabia is one of those weird titles that sound brilliant only after youve finished the book. A Visit from the Goon Squad was another one, and its curious that both these clever novels jump off the 1980s punk scene in Los Angeles and then move into the melancholy tones of middle age. Like Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta records the smothered dreams of a washed-up musician, but what shes really listening for is the melody of nostalgia that none of us can resist.
At the center of Stone Arabia sits a 50-year-old bartender named Nik Worth who sponges off his devoted sister, Denise. In the late 70s, Nik and his band almost made it big. Nik had the sensibility down, Denise remembers. And Nik had the look down. He was born to look pasty and skinny and angular. Like so many other musicians, though, he never attained escape velocity, and his career faded away, another no-hit wonder in the City of Angels. Thats an old story, of course, the provenance of a million electric guitars offered up in neighborhood garage sales. But it marks the moment that Niks life became startlingly strange.
Faced with the prospect of oblivion, Nik began throwing all his energy into creating an alternative history of a spectacular career, a sprawling collection of fake documents he calls The Chronicles. Even as his real life stagnated into loneliness and poverty, he wrote Rolling Stone profiles of himself, Los Angeles Times reviews of his music (good and bad), fan magazines and newsletters. He created his own concert posters and album covers. He wrote lyrics and recorded his own CDs. Eventually, The Chronicles grew to more than 30 volumes of faux history that describe the lifework of a musical colossus on a par with Elvis complete with all the usual news about band breakups, court-ordered rehab, divorce and paparazzi photos. It was all quite systematic and gratuitously laborious.
I was reminded of a hilarious novel that far too few people read: Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano, by Christopher Miller, about a ghastly musician who hires a man to write his fictional biography. But Spiottas comedy is more muted and melancholy. And shes got a casually epigraphic style that allows her to slough off clever lines: When a young person smokes, Denise says, it just underlines their excess life. It looks appealing and reminds you they feel as if they have life to spare.
Self-curate or disappear, Nik tells his sister; the awesome purity of his solipsism is sad, even if he knows its a profoundly elaborated private joke. Indeed, if Nik werent so laid back and cool, the whole thing would be downright scary: Jack Nicholson strumming Blitzkrieg Bop in an empty hotel. The level of detail in The Chronicles the handmade ticket stubs and liner notes, the creation of rival bands and academic experts suggests a misspent creative mania driven by deep disappointment.
And yet in a note at the end of the novel, Spiotta says she was inspired to create this eccentric genius by her stepfather, a true artist, who recorded a similar chronicle of his life as a secret rock star. After reading this dark novel, Im not convinced by that praise, which sounds more like an effort to avoid unpleasantness at her next family get-together. But there is something essentially American about writing ones own usable past, an act of self-creation thats so confident it needs no confirmation from the outside world. Perhaps in our echo-chamber culture of vapid celebrity, Niks determination to create his own fame makes him a tragic hero.
In any case, we get only well-parceled glimpses of Nik and his postmodern autobiography. Stone Arabia is as much about Denise, the younger sibling who adores him, who thinks of herself only as a footnote to her brothers private success. She may spend the whole novel looking at Nik, but she becomes the more fascinating, tragically resonant character for us. A hypochondriac whos desperately unhappy but terrified of dying, shes rubbed raw with a nearly debilitating sympathy for every tragedy she sees in the news. She articulates the common plight of living in a sea of images, videos, stories and Web sites that ask us to constantly witness the suffering of strangers all over the world. What was a person supposed to do with all of this feeling? Spiotta asks as Denise weeps through the television coverage of the Beslan school massacre in 2004. Feeling nothing was subhuman, but feeling everything, like this, in a dark room in the middle of the night, by yourself, did no one any good.
Denise has the sense of herself dissolving in the acid bath of the worlds pain pouring over her, and its that terrifying loss of selfhood that unifies the strains of this novel and gives it the deep chords of profundity. While Nik meticulously constructs his own glorious past, Denise remains panicked about losing hers. She challenges herself every day with little games to forestall the symptoms of Alzheimers that have already ravaged her mothers brain.
Whats most remarkable about Stone Arabia is the way Spiotta explores such broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings. Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until theyre really unsettling. Shes captured that hankering for something alluring in the past that never was a moment of desire and pretense that the best pop music articulates for each generation and makes everything else that comes later sound flat and disappointing.
Charles is The Posts fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.