The Short Version: Denise Kranis, middle-aged, finds herself reconciling not only her own non-starting life but that of her mysterious, reclusive, washed-up almost-rock-star brother. As the world spins seemingly out of control in an overwhelming way, she examines the fake world he created in his Chronicles – and creates her own “counter-chronicles” to attempt to tell the real story of their lives.
The Review: This book has gotten quite a lot of buzz of late – I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the bracket in next year’s Tournament of Books. However, in the same breath, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it easily dispatched in the first round. It’s that kind of book.
For those who don’t understand what I mean, let me talk shop before going into the book. See, this is the sort of book that has an interesting premise, perhaps an interesting quirk, makes it popular to those ‘in the know’ who then recommend it to their friends and even if the book isn’t superb, it’s still a good read, people talk about it, the author is probably a young up-and-comer… but deep down, it lacks something. It feels just a little… well, slight. Stone Arabia feels, in the end, slight.
And that’s even more of a problem than it might’ve been because of the concept behind the novel. Easily the best part of this book is Nik Worth. Denise’s brother, former rock/pop/punk musician who missed his big break (for reasons left somewhat hazy) and instead retreated from the public eye, creating for himself instead. He obsessively ‘collects’ things, writes fake reviews for his albums, makes up whole episodes of his life… and put it all into these Chronicles. It’s a fascinating – and, to me, very cool – thing. Being someone who is obsessive with the collection not only of important moments but of beautiful things… I associated with Nik. I could see a path in my life where I obsessively began to create something like the Chronicles. I won’t – I have too many people around me keeping me relatively sane – but I associated with Nik on this. I got it. I get it. Most of all, I wanted to experience it. To hear albums by The Fakes. To collect The Ontology of Worth. To see the film Ada eventually makes – to be one of those people who collected everything an artist ever did. I tried with Jack White but that’s too rich for my blood these days. Anyway, before I digress…
The problem with the book lies in… well, just about everything else. Denise, as a character, just never holds a candle to Nik. She’s obsessed in her own way – with tragedy. She watches the news and gets so caught up in these tragedies, these stories of sadness and pain and destruction. A lot of people are like that these days, I know. I mean, it’s why my dad no longer watches the nightly news. But it isn’t an interesting quirk. It’s, in fact, sort of an irritating one. Denise, you quickly realize, is an irritating narrator. There are moments where she’s tolerable, but in the end, I found myself just rolling my eyes at her. She doesn’t have a whole lot of depth – and the strange flashback ending (that seems to add a level of incestuousness to the whole novel that wasn’t really there before) just serves to make you question why she made any of the choices that she did.
The biggest problem I have is that this book just feels like a wasted opportunity. It could’ve been such a thing: a look into the intense bond between two siblings (my sister and I have an unbreakable bond – but not all siblings are like that), an examination of what art is and what makes it “worthwhile”, even just a look at the music industry. But it never ends up being any of these things; it just sort of glances at them. The closest it comes to making a serious point is when it addresses that second issue – that of whether or not making art purely for the sake of making it, even to the level that you’ve created a fantasy world around your work, is actually making art… The Chronicles seem like this incredible piece of art about making art. Someone makes a comment at one point about how freeing it must’ve been to Nik to be able to remove the concern about what people would think and just… make exactly what he wanted to make. Sure, there are plenty of artists who “do what they want” but, really, how many actually do? What would it be like to have no pressure on you? What could you create if you were able to just tap into your creative energies and just… let them flow? Something amazing, no doubt.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I’m actually tempted to give this book something a bit lower – but the redeeming quality of the Chronicles is just such a powerful thing that I can’t say I disliked the book. I just felt so disappointed because I know there’s the seed of a really amazing book in here somewhere. Perhaps if Ms. Spiotta stopped messing with form (the jarring shifts between Denise’s first person narration and that of the omniscient narrator are, well, just that: jarring) and gave her characters a bit more uplift, a bit more life, she could make something really great. Instead, we’re left with something that’s just good – but also a case where “good” isn’t good enough. I expected more – and that’s such a stupid thing to say, but it’s true. I expected more – Ms. Spiotta, I feel like you can do better. Or that someone else can do better. This was just… there.
Still, thanks to John Warner (The Biblioracle) for another recommendation – even if I didn’t like the book as much as I’d hoped, it was still a spot-on rec.