New Review: Stone Arabia

I’m thinking about past events. I’m interested in recall, exact recall, of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.”

So says Denise Kranis, the 40-ish narrator of Dana Spiotta’s brilliant novel, Stone Arabia. Denise is comparing her own story-telling to that of her brother Nik’s, which involves much more elaborately constructed and documented versions of reality. I love this truth-seeking premise, even more so for the way Spiotta juxtaposes the siblings’ styles and temperaments. They are both truth seekers, but who’s to say which is the real truth?

Everything about this book feels fresh and modern. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad received much more buzz, but this is the better book. For one thing, we care about the characters so much more. Denise is a woman I know in my heart. She is solid and trustworthy, but also broken and seeking. She scrapes by, adores her daughter, takes care of her mother (whose struggles with dementia add another layer to the truth & memory subtext).

Most importantly, she spoils and forgives her ne’er-do-well brother, Nik. Nik has all the trappings of a modern-day loser. A musician poised just on the wrong side of success, he is an unapologetic addict, who does not seem worthy of Denise’s loyalty. And yet, Spiotta writes him with such passion, that I loved him too.

Getting dizzy-high was just the beginning. Swing sets were his gateway drug. Nik had an intense appetite, a special extra need, and as he grew older he grew hungry for any and all alterations. I watched it; it was impossible not to miss his difference, how he craved anything that undid his equilibrium.”

Spiotta smartly tells her story in short chapters from Denise, which move both forward and backward in time. We know she is after some explanation (some truth) to explain where (Nik’s place) and why (upset) she is the moment we meet her.  But to get to that explanation, we have to know Denise and how she thinks, what she longs for. This unveiling is where Spiotta truly shines.

I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me. Inside, beyond my recall of events and dates and talk, there was this hot-wired memory of his body…your experiences, the hard felt ones, don’t fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips.”

Into these passages, she intersperses excerpts of Nik’s Journals, which read like the Rolling Stone version of Denise’s recollections.  Add to this mix, Denise’s daughter, a documentary film-maker and you start to get the many layers Spiotta adds to the story-telling.

My eternal thanks to Kathy, for reminding me over and over that I really needed to read this book. She was right.


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