'Stone Arabia': The Cost Of Artistic Commitment Nik Worth is a failed musician who painstakingly documents his life and non-existent career, leaving his sister to worry about practical things like paying his rent. Dana Spiotta's new novel investigates the long-term costs of an artist's passion.
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'Stone Arabia': The Cost Of Artistic Commitment

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'Stone Arabia': The Cost Of Artistic Commitment


Book Reviews

'Stone Arabia': The Cost Of Artistic Commitment

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Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Dana Spiotta's new novel. Her 2006 novel, "Eat the Document," was nominated for a National Book Award. It explores the life of a middle-aged mother who had been a member of a weatherman type anti-war group in the 70s. Spiotta's new novel, "Stone Arabia," also investigates the long time costs of passionate commitment.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: One summer, when I was in high school, I took a fiction writing course at The New School in New York; the most valuable thing I learned there was the golden rule of creative writing: Don't quit your day job. Of course, lots of writers, as well as artists and musicians, ignore that practical wisdom: they gamble all on their artistic visions. We applaud the Patti Smiths and Robert Mapplethorpes, the Emily Dickinsons and John Kennedy Tooles who forge ahead, because their belief in their own gifts has been validated by history.

But what about those other folks you never hear about? The ones who don't make it - the no hit wonders, the road kill, as Dana Spiotta sadly refers to them in her latest novel. Should we admire them, too? Or are artists and writers who lose themselves in their art, yet never find an audience, merely losers?

That's a big question at the center of Spiotta's smart new novel, "Stone Arabia." Critics often use adjectives like smart, brilliant and intelligent to refer to Spiotta's work because she tackles philosophical subjects in an edgy, collage-type style that jumbles together time frames and narrative modes. She even throws around words like ontological. If all that sounds off-putting, be assured that Spiotta's novels are post-modern without the chill: character development and the spiky nuances of family relationships are always a central concern.

As much as we're invited, in "Stone Arabia," to meditate on the value of the art of Nik Worth - the aging non-starter rock and roller who's one of the main characters here - we're also caught up in the emotional toll his obsessions exact on his sister, Denise. There's almost always a Denise in the life of an art-for-art's sake artist: the mother, partner or family member who's grounded enough to worry, the one who comes up with the money for rent and food.

Denise has been Nik's number one fan and, largely, his only one, since they were teenagers. Nik is a guitarist-songwriter who's played in a few bands and almost got a record deal decades ago. Now, closing in on 50, he bartends part-time and lives on food stamps. As Denise puts it, has generally pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future.

The thing that really makes Nik special is his music, which is akin to that fabled tree in the forest that falls and no one hears. Nik has documented his career - or is it a career - in his other life's work, something he calls "The Chronicles." "The Chronicles" are 30 or so volumes that stretch from 1978 to 2004 and document Nik's music, including reviews, all of which Nik has written himself just for "The Chronicles" under many different aliases. Here's a brief section from Denise's pages-long description of how "The Chronicles" work.

Nik's Chronicles adhered to the facts and then didn't. When Nik's dog died in real life, his dog died in "The Chronicles." But in "The Chronicles," he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards. But it wasn't always clear what was conjured. The music for the tribute album for the dog actually exists, as does the cover art for it. But the fan letters didn't exist. In this way, Nik chronicled his years in minute-but-twisted detail.

You could imagine someone discovering "The Chronicles" 100 years from now and heralding Nik as some outsider-artist genius. Or, just as plausibly, you could consider "The Chronicles" as a testament to a wasted life, the work of a troubled mind - or both.

"Stone Arabia" evades answers and instead encourages an open-minded blurring of the lines between lived experience and fantasy, art which is authorized versus art which is un-vetted.

This is a powerful novel about responsibility: the responsibility artists have to their art, the responsibility family members have to take care of each other. It's only flaw - and I would be irresponsible if I didn't mention it -is its ending, which feels at once improbable and weak. But overall, "Stone Arabia" should make its readers grateful that Spiotta herself isn't one of those outsider, unpublished visionaries whose life she imagines here with such compassion and verve.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta.

You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.

Coming up Ken Tucker reviews Blake Shelton's new album. Shelton has expanded his audience through his role as a judge on the NBC singing competition "The Voice."

This is FRESH AIR.

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