Last week, critic D.G. Myers moved his litblog, A Commonplace Blog, to the website of Commentary magazine. Soon after, we got to squabbling over Dana Spiotta‘s excellent new novel, Stone Arabia. We’re both fans of the book, so we’re not disputing whether the book is any good or not. Where we split is in a small matter about how rock music is represented in it, and, in a larger matter, how much the book is an inheritor of postmodern fiction.
Myers used Stone Arabia—which focuses in part on Nik Worth, a musician who’s turned his back on early success to make music in almost total seclusion—as a launchpad for discussing rock novels, a category that’s surprisingly low in quality. I think Don DeLillo‘s 1973 novel, Great Jones Street, is an exception, though, and Nik’s character bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, a Dylanesque musician who rejects his stardom. Myers was having none of that: Great Jones Street “stinks” for the same reason End Zone stinks, he tweeted: “it is not about football as the game is played at Kyle Field, but a wild, wacky football which is more metaphor than reality.”
But in terms of metaphor and reality, I don’t think Stone Arabia considers rock music much differently than End Zone considers football, and I said as much—Nik’s character may be realistic, but his (and the novel’s) vision of rock music is off the grid. “It doesn’t follow that his music is ‘fake,’ even if his life is,” Myers responded, and I think we both learned that Twitter has its limits for arguing about books. In calling Nik’s vision of music a funhouse-mirror one, I don’t mean to suggest that the book is unrealistic, or that Nik’s motivations for his self-assigned obscurity don’t have real emotional underpinnings. Just that he’s less a rock musician than he is an outsider artist: In constructing fake albums with fake vinyl or real albums with anti-pop music on them, Nik is following in the footsteps of Mingering Mike or Jandek, acts who earned their cults as much through obsessive crafting of personas than through any actual music they produced.
Nik himself acknowledges the Henry Darger-esque quality of his pursuit: Oceans of concocted diaries, reviews, and ephemera, like a set of liner notes written by “Mickey Murray, Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music.” Nik is obviously in on his own joke, but that doesn’t make the joke any less obscure. As his niece prepares to film a documentary about him, she writes that it will be “about a life spent making music and art outside the mainstream. Way outside. It is a celebration of a devoted unrepentant eccentric…. Garageland will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.”
Which is to say that Spiotta treats Nik’s career in rock music as more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality. Its central conflict is the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise, the novel’s narrator, who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. And to better address that tension, Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook: The way the narrative deliberately breaks down, with Denise scratching out chapter titles and starting over, or the way Denise fixates on how tragic events are mediated.
That’s not to say that Stone Arabia is strictly a DeLillo-esque novel (though he delivered a rare blurb for her first novel, 2001’s Lightning Field, and he’s thanked in the acknowledgments of Stone Arabia). But like DeLillo, she’s aware of how a subculture can be used metaphorically. In the case of Nik Worth, his fake career represents not just a commentary on selling out but on how we all concoct personas. Spiotta’s achievement is in drawing out how frustrating and heartbreaking such concoctions can be.