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Book Review: 'Stone Arabia' by Dana Spiotta

A brother and sister have their own ways of coping with reality while their mother is losing her grip on it.

July 17, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Denise is a perfect example, fixated on the effluvia of the culture: news feeds, celebrity gossip, terror scares. "This is the thing," she admits, "the shame: my memory is dominated by events external to my actual life. These events, for whatever reason, stick in my mind and become secondhand memories."

On the one hand, Spiotta is drawing a parallel between Denise and Nik, with his invented history, and between both of them and their mother, whose memory has disappeared. But her real point is not to frame a parallel but an opposition, since for Nik, the internal world "was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years." It is imagination that is the driving force here, and if Spiotta's too smart to suggest that it might save us, she does see it as the source of a futile reverence. "No one," she writes, "— not me, certainly — could deny that this was a form of purity."

In the end, "Stone Arabia" is about just this form of purity, the idea that life and meaning are what we make of them, even (or especially) when the connections have broken down. "It wasn't fake; it was real," Nik explains late in the novel. "Imagine being freed from sense and only have to pursue pure sound. Imagine letting go of explanations, or misinterpretations, of commerce and receptions. Imagine doing whatever you want with everything that went before you." This is the aesthetic of Spiotta's novel, and it sounds entirely genuine to me.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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