I recently watched a below average 90s Ed Harris, Madeleine Stowe noir film called China Moon
. Its title comes from Ed Harris remarking that his mother used to say that a full moon looked like a china plate. It's a meaningless aside that has no creepy, romantic, dramatic, poetic or sounds good resonance. They could have just as easily called the film The Piss of a Sick Man after Stowe saying that her husband used to call the pen she is holding that due to its colour. I can only assume they went with China Moon as a nod to Chinatown (a movie with a near meaningless title, but loaded with creepy, romantic, dramatic, poetic and sounds good resonance).
I thought that it would be a long time before I would come across another artistic work with as atrocious a title. A week later and Stone Arabia turns up. It's almost meaningless and will probably turn off more than a few possible readers who think it's going to be about the Middle East. The title has no creepy, romantic, dramatic, poetic or sounds good resonance. I think the author shot herself in the foot with that awful title, and that her publishers should be asking themselves what good they are if they let things like this happen. Are they against selling more than two copies? Off the top of my head they could have used one of the album titles, such as Take Me Home and Make Me Fake It (or a shortened version), as a better title.
At the centre of the book is a fascinating literary creation. The character of Nik Worth is properly, authentically and endlessly intriguing. He is a creative type with a sense of humour. He works as a barman but he has created an alternative fantasy life as a noted and successful cult rock musician. Not only has he recorded a mountain of self recorded albums (all with intricate artwork and liner notes); he has also been documenting his made up life in a sprawling diary called The Chronicles. A diary that features made up positive and negative reviews, interviews, magazine articles, obituaries etc.
He is a prolific workhorse with multiple bands, side projects, bootlegs and experimental releases. And he has musical talent so it's good stuff that he's been creating for decades.
He's just not releasing it. He seems happy to work on his career in private, with an audience of his family and a few ex-girlfriends.
All of this is presented in a lot of detail in the book. And it's good, accurate sounding detail. The type of person who reads Uncut magazine will love this character. Dana Spiotta has clearly immersed herself in rock journalism as she presents excellent facsimiles of the real thing and doesn't put a foot wrong. It's seems way too geeky for a woman to write, so I think she deserves extra kudos for getting into the male mind.
The author ends up leaving us wanting more of Nik as the book is rather slim at only 235 pages (it took me five hours to read). And not all of those pages are about Nik. The narrator, his sister Denise, claims a lot of pages for herself. Unfortunately she is simply not very interesting. Her observations on her own life, concerns over memory etc read like bloat. I didn't care about her and I found those pages to be rather tiresome. And also very tangential. At the beginning we are warned that she could go off on tangents. And she does. I really couldn't work up any interest in what news stories she was watching.
Denise is not an annoying or bad character. Just bland and a bit dull. Her sections are when the author lets out her pretensions, which manifest as weakly disguised essays on various subjects. Denise can't compete with the blazing white hot light of fascination that is Nik. The book would have been much better if her stuff was heavily curtailed. Her brother should have been put fully centre stage as whenever he's not there you just pine for him to return. She is essential to the book though, as he cannot himself be the lead character. The book has to pretend he is a supporting character as he works best as a distant enigma on the horizon, so his story needs to be told via third persons.
Also perhaps her documentary making daughter could have been given a bit of extra space as we never really get a good look at Nik through her eyes.
The novella could have easily sustained another two hundred pages of more Nik. He is kind of wasted here as the book in which he exists is weaker than him. He deserves better. He's a five star character in a short three star book.
Outside of Nik the novella doesn't have much else going for it beyond a good, crisp, to the point writing style. The "plot" isn't up to much, but this type of thing is a character study, not an intricately plotted spy story.
Ultimately the book disappoints. There isn't enough Nik, his boring sister gets too much attention and the whole thing doesn't really amount to much by the end. It's a good read but I would only recommend it to people who love reading about music. I doubt non-music magazine devourers would get much, if anything, out of the book. Its biggest triumph is getting, for about half the novella, superior rock journalism into a work of fiction. It's biggest failing is not clearing the stage for the star turn, and instead cluttering it with a classy bit of quiet fiction.
The book it's most similar to is Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen, in that it had a convincingly realised cult rock musician as a main character. Also readers who take to this book should find a lot to enjoy in Juliet, Naked
by Nick Hornby.