In the winter of 2007 my boyfriend and I invented a game called “Let’s just see where the day takes us.” This would start with taking a bus downtown and end eighteen hours later passed out in a stony booze coma, snoring out a toxic mix of carbon dioxide and alcohol fumes. A few days ago he found photographic evidence of one of those days. The shots taken early in the night are quiet and abstract: a series of match books lined up on the counter of the bar, a pint of beer, candid portraits before our faces turned slack and putty-colored.
His animated face fills the screen in one blurred shot. He’s surrounded by smears of red lighting consistent with all photos ever taken in the back bar area of Pizza Luce.
“I remember the exact moment I took that,” I said, leaning over his laptop.
“It was the header on my blog for awhile,” he said.
Maybe I didn’t remember taking that. Maybe I just remembered the photograph, and remembering the photograph had replaced remembering it in actuality. And then I was able to call on something I had just read within the past twenty-four hours from Dana Spiotta’s novel Stone Arabia.
“I believe — I know — that photos have destroyed our memories. Every time we take a photograph, we forget to embed things in our minds, in our actual brain cells. The taking of the photograph gets us of the hook, in a way, from trying to remember. I’ll take a photo so I can remember this moment. But what you are really doing is leaving it out of your brain’s jurisdiction and relying on Polaroids, Kodak paper, little disintegrating squares glued in albums.”
I love it when that happens. It’s so AP English.
Spiotta’s novel has memory at it’s base: What we remember, what we think we remember, how we are remembered. The story is from the perspective of Denise, a 40-something with a quiet life, world’s biggest fan of her older brother who goes by the rock star name Nic Worth. The two have a remarkable sibling link having grown up without supervision in 1970s Los Angeles. Dabblers in eye liner and weed, anonymous sex and punk rock.
In the novel’s early pages, Denise is reading a fictitious letter from herself to her college-aged daughter Ada, a part of Nic’s life work called Chronicles. Having never achieved rock and roll fame, Nic has created a fictional buzz about himself and his music. He makes albums that he releases to just a handful of family and ex-lovers. He writes reviews of the albums, assigning them fake bylines of fake writers for Rolling Stone or LA Weekly. When real Nic’s dog dies, an event that makes barely a ripple in his actual life, Chronicles?reports fans sending sympathy cards and an album dedicated to the dog. Everything is intricately catalogued and filed and complete to the point that if an anthropologist stumbled on this time capsule in 200 years, they would believe that Nic Worth had been Elvis-ian in stature.
He has concert posters, concert souvenirs, T-shirts. He has fictional anthologies written by the fake Rolling Stone writers.
“The readers would find them entirely plausible,” Nic tells Ada, who is making a documentary about her reclusive uncle. “It would be hard to believe they are conjured from nothing. Particularly when I have all the music. I kept close track. I kept the internal logic and continuity. I have the accompanying scholarship. Verifications could be made.”
The truest art, his sister believes, is made without an audience.
Denise’s defining characteristics are that she is enamored with her brother’s work as well as breaking international news. She is in a pleasant, albeit loveless relationship with a man who keeps her rich in Thomas Kinkade Chaser of Light trinkets. She has a bestie relationship with her daughter and her mother is in the early stages of dementia. She is a blurred character when the story opens, but becomes more intriguing as she comes into focus as a former wild child and a hunter of breaking news about Abu Ghraib.
It doesn’t take teenagers in a psychedelic van to see where the story is headed, but it still unfolds in this really lovely way. Like being on a long slide and deciding halfway down that you don’t want to be on the ride but really, you do. Spiotta also takes Denise on a sort of bizarre side bar that seems a little forced in that put-the-character-on-a-road-trip, a technique that so many novels employ.
This story starts out a little cold and clunky, but it’s purpose starts to reveal itself — not unlike a Polaroid. And then it is a total pleasure.