Dana Spiotta's "Stone Arabia," a faux-compelling novel about a faux-rock star and his sycophantic sister, has drawn wild acclaim from the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly (which ludicrously opined, "It's as if Nabokov wrote a rock novel"), and even Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, who dubbed it "a rock and roll novel like no other."
To quote Johnny Rotten, whose "Never Mind the Bollocks" cover art font is appropriated for "Stone Arabia's" jacket, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
It's not that Spiotta's book is without worth; surely, the author of the stunning bit of radicalism-meets-the-suburbs that was "Eat the Document," is a hugely talented, ambitious young writer. She has the National Book Award nomination for "Eat" to prove it.
But this novel about a poseur feels as if it was written by a poseur itself, and that certainly was not the author's intention. It struggles to make its two leads interesting, and leaves the reader frustrated at what might have been.
Lead one is Denise Kranis, a ho-hum 40-something with a college-age daughter. Denise makes little impression on the reader, yet is ostensibly our heroine. The majority of the book is written in her voice, but after 233 pages, it's hard to care where Denise is, and what happens next.
Why? Probably because her life is lived vicariously through her daughter -- the novel's most useless, poorly written character -- and her brother, musical wannabe Nik Kranis. "Stone Arabia" lives or dies on the reader's level of interest in Nik, a mix of Syd Barrett, 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erikson, and perhaps infamous "oral history" author Joe Gould. But unlike Barrett or Erikson -- the focus of the truly moving documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me" -- Nik, on the basis of Spiotta's writing, is utterly lacking in talent. This is a crucial, novel-killing flaw, since Spiotta clearly wants us to be moved with Nik's wasted promise, and saddened by his ultimate output.
Nik, after all, has receded into a world of make-believe, one he documents with obsessive detail in what he calls "the Chronicles."
"By 2004 Nik had thirty-odd volumes of the Chronicles," Denise explains. "They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work. Nik had given him plenty of ink these past few years."
It's no wonder Nik refers to the great "Rock Dreams" books of Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert. Like their imagined worlds of the Rolling Stones in Nazi regalia and fur-clad Bob Dylan clutching a kitten in the back of a limo, Nik's "Chronicles" are a complete document of stories and events that never happened: album reviews, news clippings, even criticisms -- all fake.
This is a splendid concept, but what we glimpse of Nik's "Chronicles" work feels cliched and dull. As I moved through "Arabia" -- it is a very brisk read, which I would call a testament to Spiotta's intelligent style -- I waited to feel more enveloped by Nik's lonely self-documentation, or Denise's increasingly panicked outlook on the world.
It never happened. Unlike the tangentially related "Freedom" -- Jonathan Franzen's indie rocker-turned-handyman Richard Katz comes to mind -- or the characters in Jennifer Egan's music-centric "A Visit From the Goon Squad," "Stone Arabia" just feels fake. By the time Nik sits for a painfully obvious interview with his niece for a documentary, where he calls the "Chronicles" "accumulations, like memory, but better," and meets his quixotic fate, the impact has all the intensity of a slap from a guitar pick. So don't believe the hype. "Stone Arabia" is a disappointment, and will likely prove a footnote in Spiotta's sure-to-be important career. Nik doesn't list the Clash under his list of musical influences, but if "Eat the Document" was Spiotta's "London Calling," then "Stone Arabia" is her "Combat Rock." And that's not a compliment.
Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree magazine and a contributing News film and book reviewer.
By Dana Spiotta
235 pages, $24