THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Virtual and reality

Artful, modern fable focuses on siblings, long self-deluded, now adrift in midlife

(Ted McGrath)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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What would a dog’s Internet be? Possibly a device that could waft attractive artificial scents to replace the spoor-bearing breeze by which the dog makes out the real world. In “Stone Arabia,’’ her brainy, often elusive, and sometimes difficult novel, Dana Spiotta has devised a brother and sister whose identities have been leached away by the reality-replacing distractions and delusions of contemporary life.

At 50, Nik Worth, a pop musician, has long since abandoned the challenge of public performance, with all its risks and abrasive demands, for a private realm where he composes and performs, and where 30 years of successes and failures are set out in scrapbooks. He gives them the ponderous title “Chronicles.’’

The implication is that they record a life story. In fact it is a virtual life story. He has written it all himself: reviews, news clips, feature articles, readers’ letters. Drinking and drugging heavily, he lives by tending bar with occasional cash from his hard-up sister Denise, a former groupie and still his only genuine human connection.

Denise’s own world wavers between the virtual and the real. In her 20s she went through a promiscuous phase; then, deciding that sex and friendship were incompatible, she took up with a series of gay men. When one proves a vigorous lover, instead of conceding that he is heterosexual she rationalizes that this has to be how a gay man has sex with a woman.

The result was her daughter, Ada, a would-be filmmaker and her most intimate companion. Denise’s care for her is genuine. So are her visits to her mother, who shows signs of incipient Alzheimer’s. When a minor memory glitch convinces Denise, at 47, that she will get it too, she dips into her mother’s medications, imagining flakily that this will work as prevention.

Denise tells most of the story, though much of what relates to Nik is contained in the 32 volumes of his “Chronicles.’’ This makes it murkily confusing for the reader, who can’t tell which parts of his life and musical career are true and which made up. After a while we may not care. Denise’s voice, on the other hand, brilliantly suggests a prisoner contending with her bars.

In “Stone Arabia’’ the bars are the lack of any: our easy access to unlimited information, unlimited music and entertainment, seeming friendships, and all manner of virtual experience free from the rigors of the real. Easy, yet yielding up autonomy to the algorithm.

Denise senses her own disquiet. She watches television news avidly, while worrying about the crawls that run beneath the main story. Simultaneity overload. (“Why is so much happening all the time? Why can’t I stop it and read it?’’) Televised events and the Internet are her ground. When Ada half-persuades Nik to let her put him on the computer, Denise examines the image. “I think it looks great,’’ I said. “But actually it was weird seeing Nik in the real world like this - the real world of the Internet.’’

Even while dealing attentively with those close to her - Nik, Ada, her mother - she reserves her strongest emotions for the melodramas on the TV screen.

A story about an actor who kills his family becomes her personal tragedy; so does the disappearance of a Shaker child in upstate New York. And when she absurdly tries to break out of her virtual life by flying from California to New York to meet the mother, the venture into the real is comically awful. Like ringing someone’s doorbell because you had dreamt you were friends.

Spiotta, author of the much-praised “Eat the Document,’’ has taken a theme that is almost a cliché by now, and written it with an artfulness that makes it disquietingly new. Nik is a caricature, though ingeniously set out; and his convoluted story becomes didactic as well as blurry. But Denise is a heroic disaster; Spiotta portrays her with as much understanding as irony; it is self-understanding and self-irony. Pity and terror with a sardonic smile.

With its shifting border games between virtual and real, the novel has its difficulties, but Spiotta’s lustrous phrases tend to get us through them. Of Nik’s drug habit: “He pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relation with the future.’’ Denise’s daughter - trendily deluded that making a film about Nik will gain her an easy celebrity - picks at her food as if it too were virtual. “She had the eating habits of the relentlessly waifish.’’

Out of “Stone Arabia’’ comes the distinguished music of a writer thinking.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at ederculloch@gmail.com.

STONE ARABIA
By Dana Spiotta
Scribner, 239 pp., $24