The Incorporation Artist

By Michael SzalayJuly 10, 2012

    Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Scribner. 256 pages.

    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’s invented], there are items of merchandise, there are tie-in promotional products, there are court documents, [and] spin-off projects.”

    Did Malcolm McLaren invent the Sex Pistols the better to move merchandise at his King’s Road boutique? We’ll never know, but it’s by no means clear, even if we did, what this kind of knowledge should do to our sense of the band. We need a different set of terms to understand why Nik dreams of becoming, like Kinkade, a brand manager. Fantasizing about tie-in products doesn’t bring him closer to actual money. It seems, instead, that the dream of fame to which he devotes himself entails this kind of managerial ambition — assumes it, almost as a matter of course. It’s reasonable, then, to read Nik as an expression of Spiotta’s unease with the fate of popular music since the early eighties. We might say, for example, that Stone Arabia finds in the music industry the same slackening of oppositional fervor that Eat the Document finds in the world of radical politics. But the more interesting proposition, ever-implicit in this unsettling and remorselessly self-scrutinizing work, is that the alternative novelist might conceive of stardom in the same manner as Nik. “One of the reasons I relate to Nik Worth,” Spiotta told the Los Angeles Times, “is because being a novelist is sort of like being a private artist.”

    Spiotta is not the only contemporary writer interested in the similarities between musicians and novelists. Reading the surprising number of recent novels preoccupied with underground rock (like Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, Matthew Specktor’s That Summertime Sound, Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad) one suspects that they depict the music industry the better to negotiate changes closer to home. For the question often raised by these fictions is whether or not the novelist is in fact a private artist — wary of the mainstream and working in isolation — or somebody who dreams of movies, videos, promotional products, and spin-off projects: fame. The strong implication in Stone Arabia is that novelists are enmeshed in the branding and merchandizing of literary cultural capital on behalf of media corporations — often in ways they cannot control or understand.

    It’s difficult when reading Stone Arabia not to think, for example, of Jennifer Egan, who has sold the rights to A Visit from the Goon Squad to HBO. Egan’s interest in the network is understandable, and widespread among her peers. As William Gibson puts it, “Television has — particularly at the HBO level in the United States — become a completely new genre. Something like Deadwood or The Wire is a whole new thing — there was no equivalent to that medium before.” But for Egan, HBO shaped Goon Squad even before she sold the network her remarkable novel. “I just really adored The Sopranos,” she declared, “and thought a lot about why it was so powerful, and tried to use some of what I learned from it in Goon Squad.” It’s worth thinking more about this closed circuit, in which a novelist declares her indebtedness to HBO and then, immediately after winning the Pulitzer Prize, proceeds to sell the rights to her novel to that network. We might ask, for example, who is borrowing prestige from whom? Put differently, what exactly is being bought and sold here?

    A striking number of accomplished novelists have joined Egan: Franzen adapted The Corrections for HBO; Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Michael Chabon, Karen Russell, and Chad Harbach are also creating shows for HBO; Salman Rushdie is creating one for Showtime. This is by any measure a significant trend. “What’s next?” the Washington Post asked Shteyngart. “I’ve given up on fiction,” he quipped. “And like every other writer in America, I’m working on an HBO series.” This migration of literary talent into premium cable television suggests a radical revaluation of authorial prestige and labor. “HBO has made the writer king,” says Shteyngart. “It’s a fabulous time for us.” He added, “It’s such a natural transition — you create the tune and others play the instruments.” Faced with this admittedly satirical hubris, one might ask what kind of king the writer hopes to be. For, on the face of it, the game of thrones to which some of our best novelists are now committed has as its end corporate fantasies of managerial authority. Rushdie remarks that, “In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist. You have control in the way that you never have in the cinema. The Sopranos was David Chase, West Wing was Aaron Sorkin. Matthew Weiner is Mad Men.” But, he might have added, a different kind of creative artist than he or she traditionally has been: showrunners don’t spend the bulk of their work hours typing alone in their studies. They oversee large workforces and even larger sums of money.

    It’s possible that, when writing the scene in which Denise considers the virtues of selling Nik’s story to HBO, Spiotta was not thinking of novelists who have recently sold dramas to that network. But she was likely thinking of herself, as her comments to the Los Angeles Times begin to suggest. She modeled Nik on her stepfather Richard Frasca, and Ada’s decision to take her uncle’s story to market (along with Denise’s decision to become something akin to a novelist after her brother’s disappearance) suggests the possibility that Spiotta might follow Egan and Franzen to a network of her choice. That said, Spiotta’s interest is in what it means, even in the absence of a TV deal, for novelists to sell their work to media conglomerates that own not simply publishing houses but music companies, news outlets, movie studios and, of course, television networks. A novelist needn’t run an HBO show to be in the employ of Time Warner, Spiotta would have us know. In Eat the Document, Nash explains the value of guerilla street theater: “The point is for us, the players, and perhaps for them, the audience, to feel for one second as if we didn’t have AOL Time Warner or Viacom tattooed on our asses.” These words appear in a novel published by Scribner, which was owned by Viacom when Spiotta wrote them. She writes, one suspects, to explore what it means to have such names tattooed on her own ass.


    “We Are CBS"

    “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS,” declared Mark Perry of Step Forward, an independent label important to the London underground of the late seventies. “CBS [was] one of the biggest weapons and systems manufacturers in the world! This massive conglomerate.” The sentiment is familiar, and it’s safe to say that punk plays an important role in Stone Arabia and other recent fiction (like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Freedom) because its governing ethos chastens the impulse to seek commercial success. But punk holds a special significance for a generation of novelists, now hitting their stride, who came of age during punk’s heyday. Spiotta’s first novel, The Lightning Field, describes the moment in the late seventies and early eighties when “British class war hit suburban Los Angeles and transformed it into a beautiful, mall-driven, middle-class American nihilism.” Spiotta experienced that moment firsthand and has internalized something of that nihilism. As Jonathan Lethem points out, punk spoke with particular urgency to kids growing up in the long shadow of the sixties; it wasn’t their parents’ music, and it didn’t share in their parents’ pieties. The music was often particularly hostile to the racial idealism of the sixties, he makes clear in The Fortress of Solitude, and it’s hardly a coincidence that recent novels about punk seem written for affluent white readers (Michael Muhammad Knight's Taqwacores is an exception to this rule).

    Achieving success in their forties and early fifties with largely accessible work, these novelists invoke punk both to recall their formative years and to inquire into the terms and conditions of their own entrance into a middle-class mainstream. Franzen and Egan seem relatively comfortable with their success, if not with affluence generally. Freedom describes a punk musician who becomes a breakout alt-country star, and a father and son who pit themselves against the likes of Halliburton and lose their jobs as a result, but who do so with the assurance that they will fall back upon sizable family resources. Goon Squad also describes a once scrappy punk rocker who becomes an alt-country star, and another who becomes a wealthy record producer.

    Stone Arabia recalls the heyday of punk, but it takes up characters reaching the end of their financial and emotional resources. Uneasy with affluence, Spiotta explores the disintegrative effects of downward mobility. The novel’s protagonists struggle to make ends meet and feel vulnerable before events and social relations over which they have no control. It’s not surprising, then, that Spiotta asks questions that Egan and Franzen do not. In Goon Squad, one character promotes a concert by taking advantage of his Facebook friends, and then worries that “he was owned . . . having sold himself unthinkingly at the very point in his life when he’d felt most subversive.” His boss dismisses the fear with language the novel asks its readers to take seriously: you’ve just grown up; don’t cripple yourself with your youthful idealism; enjoy the money. No such consolation graces Stone Arabia, which suggests that novelists have more affinities with the working class than they do with the middle, and that as a consequence they are owned, at the moment they think themselves most subversive, under conditions less congenial than those described by Egan and Franzen.

    Goon Squad and Freedom are exercises in mastery; each produces a formally elaborate system — not unlike an HBO drama — capable of sustaining nuanced connections between multiple characters and important events of the day. Conversely, when Denise confesses, “I can’t quite negotiate the border between myself and the world around me,” she’s not describing the effect of any authorial imperative to connect character and society in a grand narrative. She’s describing, instead, the way in which the news “seeps” into her and changes her in ways she can neither track nor counteract. It’s not just the news, however, that bullies its way into Denise’s consciousness. In Stone Arabia, the corporations that provide that news are themselves intrusive and violating. Spiotta stands apart in her willingness to depict not simply punk, but corporations like CBS — which now owns Scribner, and thus the rights to her novel. She’s singularly relevant and unsettling, not because she promotes this or that account of what it was like to be a member of the middle class during the Invasion of Iraq, for example, but because she implicates herself in a way that other novelists don’t when asking what it’s like to belong to a media company.

    We don’t encounter CBS in any overt form in Stone Arabia. Rather, the corporation haunts this novel, displaced and coded. Spiotta’s interest in code might feel familiar to readers of postmodern fiction. She’s preoccupied with our inability to parse the floods of information that assault us with concussive insistence. “You are misreading the signs,” Nik tells his sister, who surfs the web obsessively. We persistently misrecognize the forces that shape our lives, Spiotta suggests, and are thus fated to melancholia. “We feel for the wrong things and for the wrong people,” Denise believes, “and so we are never released.” And yet, unlike, say, The Crying of Lot 49, Spiotta’s novel suggests that we might read the signs correctly, and thus discover some ultimately mundane truths. “There were other ways,” Denise muses while clicking through a series of sites, “other connections that were maybe deeper, other ways of ordering and contemplating and telling and showing.” These “different ways” do not belong to the likes of Pynchon’s Trystero; they are not unknowable, or inherently mysterious. Rather, Spiotta’s reader will, upon clicking through to the right sites, discover that her narrative of familial dissolution is at the same time a narrative of the dissolution of Viacom and CBS, and that Denise’s effort to find her voice apart from Nik’s is also an effort to determine where Spiotta begins and where CBS ends.

    Stone Arabia opens with a series of narrative feints, during which we’re not sure who’s talking. Denise reads a letter ostensibly written by her to her daughter; it takes a moment to realize that the letter is written by Nik, in what he takes to be Denise’s voice, and longer still to understand that Denise reads this letter only after her brother has vanished from her life. The confusion bespeaks the difficulty of disentangling these two siblings, and the degree to which they have been, as Nik puts it, versions of each other, two parts of a collective or corporate self. Their voices contain each other’s, which is why Nik’s departure will be, for Denise, both devastating and an opportunity to find her own voice, which she does by writing out her version of the life they shared in what she’ll call “the Counterchronicles.”

    From their inception, Nik’s Chronicles are “a profoundly elaborated private joke” between brother and sister: Denise understands the references in ways that almost nobody else does. Spiotta’s novel functions, similarly, as an elaborated joke. The Chronicles begin, in essence, on August 1, 1981. This is the date of a clipping, titled “Nick Worth Goes Solo,” that Nik inserts into scrapbooks that, up until that point, have offered accurate accounts of his musical career. The clipping is fictional, since it purports to be a review in LA Weekly of a solo album — Meet Me at the Movies — which Nik never releases. “From this point on,” Denise writes, “his real life and his life as recorded in the Chronicles diverged.” But Spiotta doesn’t mention that the date is significant for another reason. Warner Communications launched MTV on August 1, 1981. Nik’s fictional career and the music video network are born together, as versions of each other. More clues: Meet Me at the Movies includes the track “Sweep Song,” which evokes the J. G. Ballard short story “The Sound Sweep,” which is about a mute boy who vacuums up stray music. Buggles front man Trevor Horne said that he was inspired by this story when he wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was, of course, the first video played by MTV when it launched in 1981. Nik and MTV begin together, playing practically the same music.

    These dates suggest a lineage for Stone Arabia’s male protagonist. Spiotta appears to have named Nik after “Nic,” a musician in Matthew Specktor’s That Summertime Sound. “You’re not making those records just to sell, are you?” the novel’s wide-eyed, authenticity-starved narrator asks the charismatic front man of Lords of Oblivion, a punk band that plays Columbus, Ohio in the mid-1980s. “What other purpose could they have?” replies the singer. “I’ve got plenty of dishes, plenty of coasters.” But, like Nik Worth after him, Specktor’s Nic walks away from a record contract. “This band’s blossoming,” muses the understanding narrator, “mightn’t be for public consumption.” That’s an underground attitude that won’t help Nic’s bottom line. But, by the same token, it’s an attitude that’s likely to appeal to players within the music and publishing industries. Certainly it’s an attitude that appealed to MTV, whose press published Specktor’s novel two years before Scribner published Spiotta’s.

    We might date the beginnings of Nik’s fantasy career differently. Denise writes, “I guess it really started around '79 or '80. It coincided with his ending his band. 1979 was the last year Nik was actually in a band. The year of the big disappointment…” As it turns out, 1979 is also the year that Warner Communications launched Nickelodeon, a network often referred to as “Nick.” But whether seen in the context of MTV or Nickelodeon, Nik’s imaginary career leads back to Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom acquired both MTV and Nickelodeon from Warner Communications in 1986. At 10, Nik receives from his father his first guitar, made of lacquered rosewood. The father dies one year later, but his presence lingers, and propels Nik into his musical career. Do we see Sumner Redstone in that father, or his name in the composition of Nik’s band (armed with his red guitar, Nik joins Sam Stone, on base, and Mike Summer, on the drums)? Perhaps. But far more significant is the division of Viacom, in 2005, into two companies, Viacom and CBS. That split is the watershed event animating Stone Arabia, and we should recall that split when thinking about Denise’s separation from Nik, which takes place in 2004.

    Until 2005, Viacom and CBS were part of one corporate family, called Viacom and owned by Redstone’s National Amusements. But in 2005, faced with declining share prices, and two rivalries souring the company’s operations (one between himself and Mel Karmazin, the other between the heads of CBS and MTV networks), Redstone effectively reversed the CBS-Viacom merger of 1999. Henceforth, National Amusements would retain control of both companies. But these “sister companies,” CBS and Viacom, would now operate independently of each other, pursuing different business models. CBS retained its television stations, as well as control of Simon and Schuster (which owns Scriber, Spiotta’s imprint) and Showtime, the premium cable channel that was then emerging as HBO’s fiercest competitor. Viacom retained MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures, as well as numerous other assets. In large part, the split arose from an effort to reapportion the financial obligations of the two units. “There are a number of factors yet to be determined that are important for valuing the two new companies,” reported Douglas Mitchelson, a media analyst at Deutsche Bank, to the New York Times, on June 15, 2005. “They include how much of the $7 billion in debt each company assumes and the dividend and share repurchase policies.” Mitchelson guessed, correctly, that CBS would pay “a greater share of the debt, given its lower growth profile, which should enhance equity returns.” By October 6, the Times reported that CBS would “carry about $7 billion in debt and most of Viacom's pension obligations.” This debt load was more than double that carried by the new Viacom.

    Denise writes and Nik makes music. If he stands, in some fashion, for MTV, perhaps she represents Simon and Schuster. But it also makes sense to view sister and brother as CBS and Viacom, respectively. Denise carries “a tremendous amount of debt,” Nik’s debt. Her “monthly payments were approaching an unsustainable level” in the months leading up to his disappearance. She incurs much of this debt in an exchange that mirrors the relationship between Viacom and CBS: he gives her his music and the Chronicles and she foots his bills. She pays for his content and, as a consequence, any increase in the value of his library attendant upon the release of Garageland promises the remuneration of those debts. Denise, we hope, will have her payday. Of course we might hope that she’ll get that payday from selling her work rather than his. And who knows but that in some future that only a Showtime dramatic series could reveal, Denise will sell her Counterchronicles to Simon and Schuster. Goon Squad was inspired by an HBO show and then became one; it’s reasonable to wonder whether Stone Arabia, so canny about CBS’s corporate history, might appeal to Showtime, or even have been written for it (as the producer tells Nik, “If you want to be successful, you have to get things to work in many, many ways to many, many people”). Perhaps Spiotta’s difference from Franzen and Egan is nothing more or less than Showtime’s difference from its rival: certainly that network has become gritty and politically risqué in ways that HBO only used to be. Perhaps, also, given the recent rush of literary talent to HBO and Showtime, we should think of contemporary fiction as reflecting and actively engaging distinctive media brandscapes: HBO/Time Warner, HarperCollins/News Corporation, Simon and Schuster/CBS, Random House/Bertelsmann, Hatchette/Lagardère, Hyperion/Disney.

    Intentionally or not, Spiotta’s novel gives voice to the dissolution and subsequent reconsolidation of CBS and Viacom. For example, much of the drama subsequent to the splitting of those companies involved the question of how and in what way CBS would continue to function as the principle consumer of content produced by Viacom. Before the split, Paramount movies went straight to Showtime. They might have continued to do so after the split, but both CBS and Viacom decided that they needed to reproduce, internal to themselves, the functions of their now lost partners: consequently, CBS started CBS Films, and Viacom entered into an arrangement with MGM and Lionsgate to start Epix, a premium cable channel. Stone Arabia presents us with an almost identical process. No longer part of Viacom, CBS/Showtime decided it needed itself to generate the kinds of entertainment that it had before relied on Viacom/Paramount to provide. No longer part of Nik’s life, Denise begins to write only after his departure. Indeed, Nik seems to urge her to write in his final communication with her, seemingly suggesting that his departure should allow her to move from being a consumer to a producer of content, if not both at the same time.

    To recall the terms with which we began, Spiotta’s point is not that Nik might sell out to a corporation — or that he anticipates doing so, when he dreams of merchandise and tie-ins — but that, having removed himself from everything but his family, having arrogated to himself the production, distribution, and consumption of his art, Nik becomes something like an internally differentiated corporate entity. (In this he echoes Redstone, who announced the essential sameness of his person and his company. “Viacom is me, I’m Viacom,” he declared. “That marriage is eternal, forever.” Viacom lends itself to such metaphoric gambits: controlled by Redstone’s privately held National Amusements, that company is, in the words of media critic Michael Wolff, “a hybrid between a public and private entity.”) Before her brother leaves, Denise exists as more than just an “alternate version” of Nik: she’s also internal to what she calls his “world within the world.” Stone Arabia may seem preoccupied with what it means to produce art in the absence of an audience, but it’s more preoccupied with what it means to produce for a captive audience that is, in an important sense, already internal to the producer in question. That nested world-within-a world is small when figured as a person or a family, but just as small when figured as a corporate family: Denise matters to Nik in the way that television stations matter to movie studios; the empirical consumer, at home or in the multiplex, does not loom large in this story.

    After her brother leaves, however, Denise will endeavor, like CBS bereft of Viacom, to be both creator and consumer. The novel’s final rapturous pages express just this wish. Denise recalls listening to a record in her brother’s apartment. She imagines herself the singer of the band and, at the same time, the yearning adolescent who listens; “I want to be the voice and I want to be the one the voice wants. All of it at once.” Suffused with desperation and loneliness, redolent with the erotic longing that characterizes Denise’s relation to Nik, these lines imagine a world in which sisters no longer need brothers, having become them. At once the voice and the one the voice wants, Denise protects herself against further loss, and finds some fashion of release.

    But this closing of the circle also protects against rapacious consumers who might one day read her writing, and who might, in doing so, violate her and appropriate her work. When Nik parodies Denise, and writes to Ada in her voice, he recalls a moment from Denise’s adolescence when she performed for an actor’s workshop. Speaking as his sister, he describes the sudden adulation of the audience for her performance, and her attendant sense of having been breached. “It is an assault; it is as if they are trying to break into you somehow. They are laying a claim to whatever it is you just created.” These lines echo Denise’s reaction, years later, to her experience with television and the internet. Watching both, “incidents penetrated [her] mind, leaked the outside inside.” As a result, her “person got stretched to include the whole world, stretched to a breaking point.” This is a process of incorporation, in which a person becomes something more than a single body, something, we might hazard, like a corporation. But this is also, it turns out, a process akin to what psychoanalysts calls “incorporation.” As Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok have it, a person suffering from melancholia produces a world within a world; she incorporates, or symbolically swallows, information that she cannot afford to understand. A secret that the melancholic would keep from herself, that information resides within a psychic crypt. Something enters Denise, a true melancholic, that she cannot or will not understand, something for which the words “incidents” or “the news” are grossly inadequate. Unable to grasp this something, and unable to name the loss that accompanies it, she incorporates information about the corporations that matter to this novel.


    Inside Trading

    In his influential account of how American fiction “remains deeply informed by television,” “less a ‘response to’ televisual culture than a kind of abiding-in-TV,” David Foster Wallace offers a phrase that anticipates Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. “Television,” he writes, “even the mundane little business of its production, have become my — our — own interior.” Television channels the something that breaks into Denise and becomes her inside. But that interior, thus colonized, looks different from the interiors imagined by Wallace. Spiotta is not interested in the ironic self-distancing that Wallace ascribes to TV, and that, he claims, reaches its literary apogee in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which describes “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.” As Wallace sees it, DeLillo instructs the reader to watch one character, Jack, watching another, Murray, watch tourists watch a barn “whose only claim to fame is being an object of watching.” These are, Wallace avers, “collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision.” Spiotta’s images are of a different order. Near the end of Stone Arabia, Denise follows a TV story about the disappearance of an Amish girl as she watches an image of an Amish barn raising in the background of her screen. She’ll later travel to Stone Arabia, the Amish community from which the girl came. In what is surely a reference to DeLillo’s barn — DeLillo blurbed Spiotta’s first novel, and the two are friends — she’ll attempt to see beyond this mediated image, by seeing real Amish barns, and by making contact with the mother whose loss evokes in Denise her own many losses.

    Denise’s lost brother and mother heighten her longing for Ada, and news stories about mothers losing their children devastate her on at least three occasions. But Denise will find no solace in Stone Arabia. She’ll not see the barn as it really is, any more than she’ll make meaningful contact with the mother. We begin to understand this failure when we realize that the barn upon her TV screen is from the film Witness, a property owned by Paramount, which is to say Viacom. The images that colonize Denise’s interior don’t refer, in literary critical fashion, to the meta-discursive moment of watching. They are, instead, corporate brands, and as such central to the not-so “little business” of television and literary production.

    The problem that Denise confronts is that she’s no longer sure what belongs to her and what belongs to that penetrating something for which “incidents” and “the news” offer only temporary names. “How can these invasive, overwhelming external events be called my memories?” She doesn’t know, though they do feel like they are hers. Her memories of these events are, in this respect, similar to what Eat the Document calls “proxy memories.” “How can you know things you don’t know?” that novel asks. How can you remember things that didn’t happen to you, or things that did, but in the absence of having language for them? Questions like these bring us to the brink of a withheld recognition, and leave us looking for a set of proper names, corporate names, that Spiotta does not supply. The peculiar aphasia that is the condition of her art makes melancholics of us all, unable to find release from the invisible entities and social relations that speak through the news, entities and social relations for which the incidents of the day are, at least in this novel, a screen, an elision, a fetish. Nik’s version of Denise worries, “it is as if they are trying to break into you somehow. They are laying a claim to whatever it is you just created.” These lines refer to the audience in Denise’s actors’ workshop, and they might also refer to the readers of Spiotta’s novel, or even to the incidents that reach Denise via the news. But they also refer, more basically, to the phantom corporate bodies that lay claim to and extract value from Spiotta’s labor. We find in Denise’s lines, already ghostwritten by Nik, evidence of another ghost. We hear CBS breaking in, interrupting the story with a word from the novel’s sponsors. There is no glamour attendant upon this interruption; no seven figure deal. CBS stakes its claim to Spiotta’s creation not as Showtime, offering her a series, but as an insidious “something” that speaks through her, and that haunts her house of fiction.

    Faced with buried references that correlate events in Nik’s life and Viacom’s, we might conclude that Spiotta apprehends this ghost in ways that Denise cannot, and that she therefore describes in her character a condition of melancholia from which she does not herself suffer. Denise cannot know what Spiotta knows. But this novel contains secrets within secrets. During the most recent Los Angeles Festival of Books, Spiotta spoke of her efforts to keep a part of her novel invisible to herself; it was important, she said, that she not know everything about her own motivations and intentions. From this vantage, Denise is the product of a disavowal, that version of Spiotta who has forgotten what another version of her knows: that corporate relations animate and speak through her novel’s family relations, and that writing novels today amounts to channeling forces over which the novelist has little control. Seen in this context, the novelist is herself a medium, a vessel or container through which alien agencies speak. It makes a great deal of sense, then, that Denise’s fear of violation, imagined by Nik, grows out of an experience she had while participating in a Method acting workshop. Stone Arabia embraces the contradiction at the core of the Method: the more you reach inside and become yourself, the more fully you channel something not your own. Authors like Shteyngart and Rushdie imagine the ways in which novelists, working for the likes of HBO, become executive producers. Spiotta imagines, only to disavow, the way in which novelists are actors, vehicles for words not their own, paid to perform at another’s behest.

    Denise’s vision of Nik sits at the heart of that disavowal; it is a static screen behind which Spiotta places all that she would herself forget. In essence, her willed amnesia requires that she forget, and encrypt, a constitutive feature of money. Nik names himself “Nik Worth” and collects the bulk of his music in a 50-volume anthology titled “The Ontology of Worth”: “worth” allied to “ontology” in relation to a saleable archive links that archive to the absolute value that, according to Karl Marx, we cannot but imagine lurks within money. For Marx, money works in three contradictory ways: as a measure of value (price); as a medium of circulation (physical currency), and as an instrument of hoarding. We hoard gold, most commonly, because we believe it to be a “supreme equivalence,” an absolute or intrinsic embodiment of value. The name Nik Worth is appropriate, since Nik removes himself from circulation and comes to function for Denise as a kind of gold standard. He represents an absolute value that gives meaning to her life.

    Of course Denise is going off the gold standard, and she struggles anxiously to forestall her growing awareness, not simply that Nik is going to leave, but also that he might be worth more to her gone. Indeed, any question regarding Nik’s ultimate value should recall for us the tripartite characterization above, insofar as it articulates tensions within our collective fantasy concerning money’s worth. On a daily basis, we act as though our money contains a non-arbitrary value; we disavow our recognition that it assumes value simply because buyers and sellers agree to monetary exchanges again and again. But, as Marx reminds us, the contradictory functions required of money tend (especially during crash and crunch) to tear currency apart.

    Novelists have long worked within the shadow of a related set of disavowals. Good modernists, they have tended to assume that their work was not exchangeable, not translatable into something other than itself. These assumptions stemmed from the belief, articulated most powerfully by art critic Clement Greenberg, that certain aesthetic forms do particular things better than others, and that, as a consequence, individual works of art achieve distinction when they commit to all that is specific to their medium. For example, Spiotta speaks eloquently about the novel’s special ability to represent consciousness within structured social relations. From this vantage, a novel is more than a story; its story might become the basis for, say, a television show, but that show would not then possess the singular features and virtues of the novel in question. Aesthetic forms are as inviolable as people, which is why, for Spiotta, Nik Worth underwrites a fantasy about the value of the novel. This sense of worth depends on a twinned vision of moral integrity (the novel is a private and perhaps truly alternative art) and physical integrity (artistic media have intrinsic and inalienable properties in the same way that people do).

    And yet, in Stone Arabia, people are far from inviolable, as Denise repeatedly reminds us. Put in slightly different terms, this novel’s generic form is no more inviolable than the consciousness it depicts, which is permeable, subject to penetration by other media and the forms of ownership that structure them. Indeed, Spiotta’s point seems to be that novelists are particularly porous, given as they are to channeling things beyond themselves. In this, they are Method actors come to resemble not the kind of medium we take, say, painting to be, but the kind of medium that Marx takes money to be. Novelists are a kind of currency, conduits for a measure of value that is paradoxical for residing, always, elsewhere. And as the rush of literary talent into HBO begins to attest, the novelist is, today, a particularly valuable form of currency, a particularly attractive vessel to conglomerates whose business depends upon the buying and selling of media.

    Of course we tend not to think of novelists this way; we grant them great prestige, and imagine them as standards of a more absolute form of value — never so much as when they seem, like Nik, dissenting voices who refuse to sell themselves for money. But Nik’s disappearance — his translation into an exchangeable abstraction — is a necessary prerequisite of Denise’s literary composition, and by implication Spiotta’s. Denise struggles to understand the meaning of his disappearance, and her confusion suggests Spiotta’s reluctance to avow outright that selling a novel to a conglomerate means acceding to an exchange (the novel made equivalent to money) that promises other exchanges (the novel become only a story, a blueprint for other more lucrative platforms; the novelist become only a brand name, a medium for interests not her own).

    There is no possibility, for an author such as this, that these interests are benign. Spiotta’s corporate ghosts are not friendly. In Eat the Document, Henry, the owner of a radical bookstore, has memories that could not possibly be his. He dreams he’s a bombardier in the Vietnam War, dropping Agent Orange on villagers. Moments later, he’s dreaming as one of those villagers, his skin alight with chemical fire. He wasn’t in Vietnam, and can’t account for the felt reality of the dreams. But he discovers that the company that makes his antidepressants, Allegecom, also made dioxin for the United States military. Allegecom is both poison and cure, as he sees it: “they make the antidepressant that was prescribed for me specifically for depression I have due to dioxin and combat trauma. It was actually designed to treat combat stress trauma, which they caused in the first place.” And poison again: the antidepressant causes the non-Hodgkins lymphoma that kills him. He’s been exposed to dioxin, in effect, as a consumer. A vehicle for consumption, Henry’s body is eaten away from the inside by the needs that Allegecom places there.

    Reading Stone Arabia in light of Eat the Document, we hear Spiotta asking what CBS has placed within her. If her insides are branded, has she become, in effect, the kind of person that corporations are understood to be? Or is she, quite the contrary, no person at all, her consciousness having come to resemble the branded worlds in which her body already moves? Perhaps more pressingly, we hear her asking when her words are her own, how and in what way those words channel crimes for which she is not directly responsible. For to find a corporation inside, ghosting one’s speech, is to incur all manner of unanticipated liability. Like Allegecom, Westinghouse Electronics was a major defense contractor for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. That fact didn’t stop it, after the war, from pioneering the field of dioxin treatment — poisons and cures being, in effect, indistinguishable for giants of that size. Now, Westinghouse is no more. In 1996, it purchased CBS, and then promptly changed its name and transformed itself into a media company. Four years later, Viacom purchased CBS. So it goes — with corporate history and, now, literary history.

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    LARB Contributor

    Michael Szalay is a film and television editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He teaches at UC Irvine and his most recent book is Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television (Chicago, 2023).


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