The Basement Tapes
Fact and fiction collide in a novel about a musician and his sister
by Dana Spiotta
$24.00 List Price
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