It’s a bit painful, then, to turn to Denise’s version of the chronicles and watch Spiotta’s virtuoso talent eat itself for dinner. Part of the problem is that Denise feels generic, less a person than a packhorse for all the familiar baggage of modern life. We watch her rack up credit-card debt, navigate the post-divorce dating scene, care for an aging mother, conduct late-night Google searches of scary diseases, and sink into mesmerized paralysis in front of the eternal Exquisite Corpse of the post-9/11 news crawl.
The larger problem, however, is not what Denise records but how. Where Nik’s fake chronicles are surefooted and captivating, Denise’s earnest version is painfully self-conscious. She starts off trying to describe the events leading up to Nik’s birthday chronologically—but no, she decides, “She was going about this all wrong.” Next she organizes her chronicles around a series of news events, which she labels “My Fragile Border Moments,” before crossing off that title (yikes) and renaming them, cutely, “Breaking Events.” Eventually she gives up this strategy, too: “Wait, stop … this recitation doesn’t get it.”
Spiotta seems to want Denise’s chronicle to expose and counterbalance Nik’s, to remind us of the deception intrinsic to any act of storytelling. Yes, realism is artifice, as Denise insists; yes, language, like water, distorts whatever is immersed in it; and, yes, every story we tell presents us with a thousand equally deceptive choices. These are thorny issues and we need all kinds of creative responses to them. But they are also familiar ones, and what we don’t particularly need is a lot of explicit restatements of the problem—which, unfortunately, is most of what Denise has to offer. “Collage? Pastiche? A list? Rhetorical questions? Or tell a story?” she wonders to herself at one point.
No wonder Nik is so appealing. He picks up every writerly tool Denise frets about, shrugs off qualm and caveat, and gets down to the business of writing. His chronicles—like all chronicles—are fundamentally about chronos, about time. We write to record it but also to resist it, and its terrible scarcity is what gives the project of documenting our lives such urgency. Self-curate or disappear: The maddening, tantalizing thing about Stone Arabia is how close it comes to swapping a small story about writing in the face of postmodernity for a big story—maybe the big story—about writing in the face of mortality.