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Book Reviews   |    
Stone Arabia

Stone Arabia
by by Dana Spiotta.; New York, Scribner, 2011, 256 pages, $24

Reviewed by Claudia S. Harris, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2011; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.00621518a
View Author and Article Information

The reviewer reports no competing interests.

Dr. Harris is medical director of Westchester Arc, Hawthorne, New York.

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The idea that one could spend the majority of his time pursuing art and ignoring pressure and feedback from the outside world, which might curtail creativity and peculiar inclination, is the primary concept explored in award-winning author Dana Spiotta's third novel.

Stone Arabia begins with an account, as told by Denise Kranis, of her beloved older brother Nik's receipt of his first guitar and his subsequent lifelong devotion to the art of making and promoting his music. It becomes a story about how this devotion develops a life of its own through a parallel fantasy world of Nik's creation—one that appears to ultimately overtake most of his active life.

Stone Arabia tells the story of a family plagued by loss (abandonment by a wayward father, who dies young, and later by the mother, who develops Alzheimer's-type dementia) and financial struggle (due to stalled career aspirations). Nik attempts to cope with his disillusionment via complex polysubstance abuse and through entertaining his ever-shrinking entourage with his ingeniously created stories and elaborate musical anthologies. Denise in turn appears to try to feel connected by maintaining close tabs on her small circle of family members and by following random people profiled in the news, whom she clearly doesn't know but about whom she obsessively fantasizes as if she does.

Available to the reader are entries from Nik's meticulously written “Chronicles,” a journal in which he fantasizes about his alternative life as an “internationally famous” songwriter-musician-artist. Denise recounts much of the story of their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, set in and around the culture of the alternative music scene of suburban northern California during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas Nik appears every bit the solipsistic, tortured artist, Denise presents as a psychologically dependent, superficially judgmental character, indefatigably preoccupied with her quest to help her progressively ailing mother and brother slow their decline (all the while narrowly sidestepping her own).

Ultimately, like many rescuers, Denise finds she must allow her brother's life to run its course, and late in the book, she attempts to pursue her own somewhat odd path with less hesitancy and need for external validation. At the end, we are left with the sense that Nik is a complex character, living his marginal existence with a wink and perhaps a bit more resilience than Denise gives him credit for.

Nik and Denise are engaging for their eccentricity and relational dynamic. Like many siblings who seem to have little in common, they manage to maintain a strong, although frequently affectionately disdainful familial regard for one another. I recommend Stone Arabia to all of those who enjoy psychologically minded fiction and who would enjoy a glimpse into the lives of individuals who are drawn into a circular “dance” of their own creation, attempting to skirt the status quo while struggling to survive in a society unapologetically expectant of quantifiable value.

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