IN DANA SPIOTTA’S Stone Arabia, Denise Kranis tries to convince her brother Nik to move in with her. He’s broke and his health is failing, and Denise can no longer continue to support him. He dismisses the proposition, and she changes her approach. He should think seriously, she says, about participating in the documentary, Garageland, that her daughter Ada is making about his music. He’s spent more than two decades self-producing that music, but only his family and a small group of intimates ever hear it. “You never know, Nik,” Denise tells her skeptical brother, “documentaries are big now. She could get HBO to back it. You could get discovered at 50.”
Exchanges like these take center stage in all three of Spiotta’s novels. She’s interested in the moral and financial complexities attendant upon what we might call, for want of a better term, selling out. Her second novel, Eat the Document, takes its title from D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1966 UK tour. Dylan had recently begun recording and performing with an electric guitar, and his new sound seemed to some a betrayal of the populist folk tradition whose voice he had become. A soul-searching inquiry into the contemporary legacy of sixties-era radicalism, Eat the Document tracks characters struggling to keep faith with their earlier political and aesthetic commitments. Its two protagonists set off a bomb in the early seventies and accidentally kill somebody; they spend the next 30 years undercover, coming to terms with the price of their revolutionary politics.
Nik’s participation in his niece’s documentary extends and renders increasingly equivocal Spiotta’s interest in what it means to come up for air after living underground. Nik almost makes it in the seventies. He gives up on ever selling his music, however, after a producer asks him to change his band’s name from The Fakes to The Real. The new name will be ironic, but will appeal both to those eager for and to those skeptical of authenticity. “You can have it both ways,” he tells Nik. “If you want to be successful, you have to get things to work in many, many ways to many, many people.” Nik refuses to play along, and soon thereafter begins documenting the exploits of a fake career he invents for himself in scrapbooks called “the Chronicles.” Though he makes “real” music, he fabricates its reception entirely.
“Do you need an audience to create work, or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” Ada asks this question in her blog, in which she solicits funds for her documentary. But in fact, Nik’s solo career baffles such questions. Nik wants fame — over the course of almost 25 years, he painstakingly documents his rise to stardom. He becomes, in the process, something like the mirror image of the painter Thomas Kinkade, the one-man industry with whom this novel is preoccupied. Kinkade’s name usually appears in Stone Arabia with a trademark sign just beneath it, and we realize by the novel’s end that Nik is more like that massively franchised figure than we might at first imagine. Going through her brother’s files, Denise discovers binders filled with his music and fictive responses to it. But she also discovers “movies and videos.” There are, additionally, “separate books by some of the characters [that he&rsq...read more