‘Self-curate or disappear,” Nik Kranis warns his sister, Denise, at the beginning of Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Stone Arabia. It is, and is meant to be, the perfect directive for our times: In the last few years, “curate” has become the reigning metaphor for how we organize virtually every aspect of our lives. As I type this, someone, somewhere, is curating the news from Egypt. Someone is curating the contents of a literary journal. Someone is curating—I will bet you a half-dozen of the relevant products—French macarons.
It sounds pretentious, but it feels pragmatic—a reasonable response to the overwhelming quantity of information suddenly available to us. And not just to us, but also about us: You the data set is growing drastically these days. Were you so inclined, you could readily track everything from your body mass to the traffic on your Facebook page. And plenty of people are so inclined (“self-quantifiers,” “self-trackers,” and “life-bloggers,” to name only the most compulsive of the bunch)—but then, plenty of people always have been. (See, for example, Samuel Pepys.) What distinguishes the modern incarnation of obsessive auto-documenters is less the tools available to us than the faith we place in them: the peculiarly modern conviction that the self, whatever it is, is susceptible to quantification—that constructing a detailed record of everything that happens to us will somehow illuminate this strange business of being conscious and alive. Set against that is our equally modern awareness that the “self” is a suspect entity, whose narrators—curators, if you prefer—are inescapably unreliable.
Stone Arabia stages a smart, funny debate about the merits of documenting versus fabricating our stories, and amounts to a powerful vote in favor of the latter. When the book opens, 10-year-old Nikolas Kranis—incipient rocker, incipient druggie, incipient obsessive—is busy making meticulous limited-edition magazines devoted to his alter ego, Nik Kat. By 2004, when the rest of the novel takes place, this habit has yielded a vast, garage-filling set of volumes known as The Chronicles—numbered scrapbooks dating back to 1973. The hitch is that these volumes don’t chronicle the life of Nikolas Kranis. They chronicle the life of a new alter ego, Nik Worth, a chart-topping rock star. In other words, they chronicle the history of the man that the young Nik, a genuinely talented singer-songwriter, once dreamed of becoming. Instead of spending 30 years documenting a life, Nik Kranis has spent 30 years inventing one. He is a kind of single-minded, graphomanic Walter Mitty.
This massive project has only a tiny audience: Nik’s sister, Denise, and her twentysomething daughter, Ada, a would-be filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about eccentric Uncle Nik. Stone Arabia hinges on the moment Denise makes her way to Nik’s home just after his 50th birthday, sick with the conviction that her brother has used the occasion to end his life—or, perhaps more aptly, his lives. What Denise encounters there compels her to sit down and write her own Counter Chronicles. Unlike his, she insists, hers will be accurate; they will “stick to exactly what happened.”
This tension between fabricated histories and real ones is familiar terrain for Spiotta. The main characters in her last book, the excellent Eat the Document, reinvent themselves perforce; after a Vietnam-era protest goes terribly awry, they change their identities and vanish underground. Here, Nik reinvents himself by choice. In both books, Spiotta reveals herself as a kind of literary mystery writer, one who deals not in the whodunit but in, so to speak, the whoisit. Which elements of an identity are fixed? Which ones, out of duress or desire, can we change? How do we experience, remember, revise, and narrate ourselves? In short—and I am hard-pressed to name a greater mystery than this one—Who am I?
As befits a mystery writer, Spiotta is at her best when she’s fooling her readers. This knack for deception is most striking during the climax of Stone Arabia—the scene at Nik’s house, after his birthday, about which I will say only that it’s terrific. But it’s also evident throughout his trickster version of the chronicles. It’s a pleasure to read about Nik’s multiplatinum band, the Demonics; a follow-up group, the Fakes (pushing it, no doubt, except that it’s a pretty decent name for a band); a number of side projects, like the Pearl Poets (“concept electric folk”); and a career-culminating twenty-volume “anti-pop project,” the Ontology of Worth. We also get first-rate send-ups of minor genres: liner notes, obituaries, Tiger Beat–style questionnaires. The ersatz rocker even goes so far as to invent an ersatz music critic who despises him: Lester Bangs by way of Charles Kinbote. Spiotta nails the details of all this, from the canned gravitas of obituaries to the knowing, narcissistic argot of rock. This is good, sly fun, but it is also tender, rueful, and shrewd. Who among us isn’t our own worst critic and greatest fan?
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.
By Dana Spiotta.