Monday, January 16, 2012

It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up. - Stone Arabia's rock star

Here’s an example:

Nik Worth was a Los Angeles rock musician who almost made it big with his New Wave band The Fakes, circa 1980.  When the Fakes split up, so does Nik, into the “real” Nik, who tends bar, and the Nik who became a famous rock star.  Stone Arabia (2011), the Dana Spiotta novel starring Nik, is a fantasy novel of the non- magical variety.  Nik had always kept elaborate scrapbooks documenting his life and work (the Chronicles).  So he does not stop; that is all there is to it:

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 in thousands of condolence cards.  But it wasn’t always clear what was conjured.  The music for the tribute album 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.  The volumes were all there, a version of nearly every day of the past thirty years. (37)

The material evidence, the music and album art and press materials, of the existence of Nik’s alternative life is central to the concept:

After he left, I put on Nik’s fake illicit record.  He has made a gorgeous little cardboard digipak for the CD.  It was deliberately sort of rough, so it would look like a bootleg.  He had several fake “unauthorized” labels; this was a Mountebank Industries release, which meant it was acoustic demos, not a live concert bootleg…  Nik said he had to tolerate these little sub-rosa products – after all, the fans demanded more than the bands could officially release. (129)

The novel actually begins with the ten-year-old Nik’s cartoon journal, with “elaborate ink drawings of dogs and cats behaving like far-out hipsters” (1).  He might have become an artist if his part-time father had not given him a guitar.  Nik develops a real talent for songwriting, which leads to bands, and LPs, and an agent, and a crash.  But something about Nik’s creativity does not really require any of the external signs of success that he has not created himself.  He can record music, draw posters, write reviews, and be interviewed (by himself).  See pp. 42-43, where his frustrated sister comments “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.”  I am not sure that she is right about that.

The novel is set in 2004, twenty-five years after Nik’s bold creative move, or breakdown, or whatever it is.  He is turning fifty.  It is time to wrap up the persona; that’s the plot of the novel, or Nik’s plot.

Stone Arabia is narrated, or “written,” by Nik’s perplexed and forgiving sister.  She has her own problems – fear of aging, misplaced sympathetic energy, information anxiety – none of which I found half as interesting as Spiotta’s exploration of Nik Worth’s uncompromising private creativity, although the novel clearly needed a more ordinary point of view to tell Nik’s story.  I wish the narrator were a better writer (she’s OK – see above, that’s all her), although that might violate the concept.  She is Nik’s audience, almost the only person who hears his music and reads his Chronicles.  I mean the “real” Nik’s audience.  I mean the other Nik.  I mean both, I guess.

Regardless:  I want to keep Nik’s example in reserve this week.


  1. I actually had to Google this to see if it was real - I half thought that you had invented this yourself...

  2. The flat prose made your theory all too plausible. Prose aside, though, the central conceit of the novel is most interesting.

  3. Okay, I'll have to get past the flat prose when I finally get around to reading this. I've been interested and a bit afraid of this one since I first heard of it. I fear that Nik's fake life may bear too much of a resemblance to keeping a book blog.

  4. A book blog - a music blog - a life blog! An omni-blog!

    No, seriously, it is an unusual novel about how creativity works for different people.

  5. Did you go for this one because of Prof. Myers, or had you heard about it elsewhere? His writeup put it on my "seriously consider, when you're allowed to bring more objects into the house" list. (And from his description, too, the thing that sounded most iffy was the sister.)

  6. Myers + I used to be more interested in the "rock novel" as such, although I have not kept up.

    The argument about creativity should be useful to people with no interest in rock novels.