Stone Arabia: Artifice and Identity

In one of my younger moments of trivial triumph, I told a friend that I was continually amazed that the Velvet Underground made music at the same time as the Beatles.

She did not believe me.

But I was right. Both about the coincidence of the two discographies, and about the unbelievability that “Heroin” came out the same year as “When I’m Sixty Four”.

Don’t you want to take the Velvet Underground home and feed them soup?

People get their decades confused.

  • The Beatles = the 60s.
  • The Velvet Underground = proto-punk = the 70s. The early 70s, at the very least. But nope. They were straight 60s too.

This is one way that punk is a 60s legacy. And one way that Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, in part about punks-all-growned-up is a novel that deals with the legacy of the 60s, though a bit less directly than her Eat the Document.

Stone Arabia is about a middle aged brother and sister at the lower end of the creative class, survivors of the 70s LA glitter and punk scene and struggling to make rent.

Nik almost got a record deal in the late 70s. When he turned down the entreaties of his svengali, he launched a massive, elaborate, multimedia fictional account of an alternate life of fame: recordings by several bands, positive and negative pseudonymous reviews, videos, and an unknown proliferation of additional media.

Denise has held a day job for decades, using her money to support her daughter Ada and Nik, who can’t quite hack it as a bartender. She’s also the main caretaker of their mother, whose dementia is increasingly worse.

And Ada, an upstart wannabe filmmaker, plans (to inadvertently to upset the delicate financial and emotional balance by) making a documentary about Nik’s fantasy career.

That’s the plot. And here’s my recommendation: READ IT! Even if you find punk mildly distasteful, like a chunk of food on the cheek of a patron at the neighboring table, where there seems to be other barely-disguised interruptions to the social contract of dining out. Like don’t have a visible fight with your companions. Eat with your utensils. Maintain a fictional wall of privacy around your table.

Because the novel is not really about punk. Instead, punk is a vehicle to say many other things. About gender. About art and commerce. About family.

And about identity.

Punk is a particularly apt vehicle for this because simultaneously critiques and celebrates artifice.

Elaborate outfits constructed according to idiosyncratic codes of ugly. Rejecting, forcefully and violently, the dominant hippie aesthetics of gentle nature.

Here’s Denise, in Ada’s film, about punk aesthetics:

Somehow out of the good sun and the long days, LA felt a deep ugly rage. … It was a self-scratched, blue-inked, infected-prison-tattoo rage. I understood, almost instantly, what that rage meant. I loved that rage, the anti-tan pasty look, the deliberately ugly. I understood how subversive ugly could be. We had a terrible hunger for the nasty, the horrible, the deformed.

But, as in the hippie movement, these pop culture codes remained highly gendered.

But even as we wanted that Nancy [Spungen] ugly, we thought we looked really good. There is no escape, finally, from it. I mean, we didn’t really want to look bad, we just had this very contextual, specific aesthetic that was precious because it was only readable to those in the know.

Built into this system of rebellion (and into the hippie aesthetic, certainly) were implicit expectations of traditional gender roles. These movements were both rebellious and, for women and people of color, very much more of the same.

Michael Szalay wrote a lovely academic-style article about comparable contradictions: literary production that seeks an anti-commercial purity but relies on a megacorp to get published. Like punk is a musical aesthetic based on a purity and rejection of dominant systems that needs to participate in them to survive.

Rebel music sold by Capitol Records.

Boys that put on makeup and wore dresses but maintained all the power that boys have always had over girls.

Szalay’s piece would be published only in LA: replete with trivia about entertainment megacorps (Viacom, CBS, MTV) whose key dates coincide with dates in Nik’s career. He ties this corporate narrative to the recent trend of novelists (Egan, Franzen, Shteyngart) selling their works to cable networks, and to Spiotta’s publisher being owned by Viacom.

But “selling out” has failed as a critique of musicians and novelists for some time now. It is premised on an idea of purity and authenticity that no longer make sense. Artists have always needed patrons to support their work. Without them, they’d be real estate executive assistants. Like Denise.

Except that Nik Worth remains, in Szalay’s terms, a gold standard. He maintains his artistic purity at the cost of having any audience outside his family. And when Ada is about to release a film about him, for public consumption, he disappears, abandoning his life. He cannot live in public scrutiny.

But his art is drawn from punk artifice: a musical and fashion aesthetic that both adopts the rebel protest of the 60s and critiques it.

And his family’s lives don’t conform to basic, conventional boundaries.

Nik’s lifework is fantasy.

His mother is losing her memory and identity.

And, crucially, Denise experiences an almost total loss of personal boundaries. She feels news events as if she were involved. She takes on her mother’s memory problems (and takes her medication.) She sacrifices her own financial security to fund her brother’s artmaking. And she travels across the country to find solace in someone else’s tragedy, off the screen.

Is identity itself a punk kind of artifice? Contradictory, fragmented, and fading in relevance?

Why shouldn’t we witness a hostage or kidnapping situation on the news as our own tragedy? Isn’t it more human to imagine ourselves as the barefoot, hooded, electrified man at Abu Ghraib?

Would this profound empathy make us less ourselves? Or more ourselves?

When does profound empathy turn into a loss of self? Would this be good or bad?

Is Nik’s purity the only way to make real art? Even when his purity is internally compromised by a fiction of fame? Even when it requires the sacrifices of an adjacent woman?

The reading experience maintains these tensions, fragmenting at crucial times and then tightening around the fragmentation: a maturity that Denise only barely maintains for herself.

Maybe this is real life: a continual dissolving and resolving of boundaries around ourselves. Maybe that’s why music is so powerful, as Spiotta’s key scene dramatizes so powerfully:

“I want to be the voice and I want to be the one the voice wants. All of it at once. I want it so bad.”

I want to be the novelist and the character in the novel. All at once. And the singer too. A teenage explosion of longing that, if we are lucky, we get to keep with us forever.

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