Summer 2011

The Basement Tapes

Fact and fiction collide in a novel about a musician and his sister


Dana Spiotta’s third novel opens with a pair of sentences that contain the DNA for the book as a whole, initiating its portrayal of the complicated bond between two siblings and its meditation on how these characters present their memories to themselves and to each other. “She always said it started, or became apparent to her, when their father bought him a guitar for his tenth birthday,” the book begins. “At least that was the family legend, burnished into a shared over-memory.” The “she” of the first sentence is Stone Arabia’s forty-seven-year-old protagonist, Denise Kranis. The guitar recipient is her older brother, Nik, and the “it” that may or may not have started with the guitar is his idiosyncratic life as a musician and storyteller, that is, a maker of artifices. The nugget of concrete narrative information in these two sentences—the buying of the birthday guitar—is sandwiched between two pairs of qualifiers (“she always said,” “became apparent to her”; “family legend,” “shared over-memory”) suggesting that Denise’s perception of the event is at a remove from the event itself. Already, Spiotta warns us that recollections here will be slippery and contentious, a battleground between fact and fiction.

Spiotta steadily and impressively amplifies this sense of slipperiness in her first three chapters. In the opening pages, a third-person narrator goes on to describe in seemingly straightforward detail the giving of the guitar by the siblings’ estranged father, and the father’s death not long after. The second chapter then opens with a long letter from Denise to her grown-up daughter, Ada, only it’s not really from Denise, it’s from her brother, posing as her. The letter is a late entry in what Nik Kranis calls the Chronicles, his thirty-odd-volume, unpublished fictional biography of his alter ego, Nik Worth, written in multiple imaginary voices. Nik’s unkind parody of a self-denigrating Denise (“I was such a terrible actress . . . I brought the whole place down”) is one of many personae he assumes in his massive, lifelong, sui generis writing project—about which more below. The third chapter consists of a single page on which Denise lays out her intention to present a factual account of the recent months of her life and Nik’s. Denise’s counterchronicles, as she calls them, written in the first person and constituting the majority of the novel, are intended as a corrective to Nik’s invented alternative life, though she admits that even a good-faith attempt at telling the truth may not be so straightforward: “Can one make causal connections without manufacturing narratives?” she asks. “Or is all memory simply the application of narrative to past events . . . ?”

The first three chapters, then, constitute three different openings to the same story, told by three narrators of uncertain degrees of reliability. Other modes of limning the world, events, and people also come up in the book: lists, obituaries, photographs, conversations, receipts for charitable donations, TV news programs, the “crawl” moving from right to left at the bottom of the screen during said programs, blogs, Googled medical information, transcriptions of filmed interviews, and so on. Stone Arabia is a collage of discursive textures, a polyphonic meditation on epistemology. But I hope I’m not making it sound like some overly clever metafiction. It is not that, at all. It is a smart, subtle, moving story about the complicated business of knowing the people you love.

Click to enlarge

From Jackpot by Kevin Landers (MTV Press, 2011).

Spiotta’s previous novel, the remarkable Eat the Document (2006), features a seemingly ordinary woman whose life is defined early on by an extraordinary act: Years earlier, she and other antiwar radicals set off a bomb to protest a weapons manufacturer and accidentally murdered a man in the process. Stone Arabia also features an apparently ordinary woman, defined in important ways not by an extraordinary act but an extraordinary brother. After a brief period of fronting bands in his youth, Nik stopped playing out but continued to write and record copious amounts of fiercely original, stylistically wide-ranging music and distribute it to only a few family members and friends. The music comes with his own artwork, as well as liner notes and reviews—some glowing, some scathing—written by Nik but attributed to others (my favorite attribution: “Mickey Murray, Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music, The New School for Social Research”). In these wacked-out, brilliantly sardonic writings—and others he evidently does not distribute to anyone, but are also part of the Chronicles—Nik Worth becomes a rock star whose songs regularly make the Billboard charts. Meanwhile, the real Nik—and I use the term real advisedly, given Spiotta’s theme of self-as-artifice—is a bartender who rents a room above a garage, drinks a lot, smokes a lot, does a lot of drugs, is frequently broke, and has ceased to listen to any music but his own. Nor is he the least bit apologetic for his idiosyncratic and self-obsessed way of life. Denise, on the other hand, is just a secretary (“I mean office manager. I mean personal assistant”) at a real estate firm in Los Angeles. She drives to work every day from her overmortgaged home in the Valley. She watches too much TV news; spends too much time on the Internet; trades e-mails and phone calls with her budding filmmaker daughter in New York; takes care of her mother, who is showing the first signs of dementia; has regular sleepovers with a nice guy she’s not too serious about; and worries about her eccentric brother.

For all her supposed ordinariness, though, Denise is a supersharp observer of other people, herself, and the culture at large, as Spiotta’s characters tend to be. She watches her brother smoke: “As he inhaled, he squinted and his face revealed every frown and grimace he had ever made, every cigarette he had ever smoked.” She looks up his increasingly alarming symptoms on the Internet: “But the huge amounts of repetitive medical data, the folk guesses stacked next to scholarly papers, the self-help encyclopedias by the pay-per-access medical advising sites, the automatic diagnostic tools that led to the badly designed sales sites of holistic treatments—all of it—were not directionless, actually. They all led back to you and your lonely, sad little search.” So maybe Nik is not the only extraordinary sibling in this family, though Denise has not spent her life, as her brother has, confidently bringing her talents to bear on a sustained and focused activity.

Reading Stone Arabia, I was reminded of two other recent novels, each of whose female protagonists narrates the life of an extraordinary person she is close to, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica and Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. But whereas both pairs of characters in those novels are women, here the narrator is a woman and her subject is a man. This novel does not speculate as to whether Denise, too, would have received a guitar or some other empowering present had her father not died before her tenth birthday, but she does not appear to have received any such childhood gift. And it is hard not to consider the role of gender when we read that Denise spends her New Year’s Day of 2004 ruthlessly cleaning her house, while Nik spends his organizing and augmenting his voluminous, self-mythologizing Chronicles. “His accumulations somehow underwrote my eliminations,” she says, but the reverse seems to me more to the point. Nik is constantly eliminating what little money he makes in order to pursue his pared-down life of drinking, music making, and chronicling, whereas whatever money Denise has accumulated she freely gives to Nik when he runs out, which he often does. Even their life expectancies she construes in monetary terms: “I knew he would die of cigarettes and drinking long before I would finally die. I just got to witness and witness and stupidly survive. The second half of my life was just the bill due for the pleasures of the first half. And Nik would get to escape payment.”

Nowhere in this novel does Spiotta explicitly say that Nik went one way in life and Denise another because of their respective genders—the story gives no simple answers to this or any question about the causes of personality and life decisions. Even what seems like Nik’s quintessentially male narcissism gets undercut. The cruelty of his fictional letter from Denise in the second chapter may not be what it appears. About “this Denise-on-steroids that Nik created for the Chronicles,” Denise wonders, “What was he getting at with some of this? Nik threw little pebbles and they pinged against the glass,” the implication of this image being, perhaps, that he was intentionally trying to wake her up. And indeed, that snarky letter seems to be the proverbial birthday guitar that goads her into writing her Counterchronicles, a wild, sorrowful, rambling, deeply subjective, incandescently beautiful document. Nik is, then, in his perverse way, a real muse for the fictional writer Denise Kranis, and a fictional muse for the splendid novelist Dana Spiotta. Thank you, Nik.

Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull Press, 2003), Jamestown (Soft Skull Press, 2007), and You Were Wrong (Bloomsbury, 2010).

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