A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
● ● ●
Neal Stephenson by Bill Morris. email Bill. In his book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell writes, “More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that.” Bissell is an avid gamer whose collection of essays on the industry attempts to illuminate — and partially, he admits, to justify — the vast amounts of time he and his peers spend shooting monsters and saving the pixelated world. Bissell wrote an engaging, beginner-friendly book that I turned to with unanswered questions — questions that had been raised, and then ignored, by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde, centers around T’Rain, a massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG) that has (fictionally) surpassed World of Warcraft in innovation and popularity. MMORPGs differ from other video games in that thousands of players all exist in the same virtual world. If you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, you’re up against the game as it was designed. But in a MMORPG like T’Rain, the details of the world you’re playing in are being determined by the other players online. It’s easy to see why this kind of game is even more addicting than its more confined peers. Grand Theft Auto lies dormant without you when turned off, but T’Rain is always changing. Richard Forthrast, the founder of T’Rain, describes it thus: This was part of Corporation 9592’s strategy; they had hired psychologists, invested millions in a project to sabotage movies, yes, the entire medium of cinema—to get their customers/players/addicts into a state of mind where they simply could not focus on a two-hour-long chunk of filmed entertainment without alarm bells going off in their medullas telling them that they needed to log on to T’Rain and see what they were missing. The main objective of T’Rain players is wealth, both virtual and actual. T’Rain characters can earn money in the game’s feudal system or steal it from those they vanquish. It’s designed to appeal both to casual players who want to log on and battle something periodically and to Chinese teenagers who make a living from playing it incessantly. Forthrast was a big gamer before he founded T’Rain, and from the beginning the game was designed with massive worldwide popularity in mind. He hired a geology expert to create the planet T’Rain's geography and climate. He hired two science-fiction writers—one a Cantabridgian Tolkien-like figure and the other a prolific producer of pulp—to write the history of T’Rain—it’s species, nations, ancient feuds, and continuing mythology. They spent years creating T’Rain, so that it was a complete universe and set of cultures before they invited the players in. Fast forward a few years, T’Rain is ubiquitous and Richard Forthrast is a multi-millionaire. I liked Reamde right away. It begins at the Forthrast family reunion in Iowa, where we learn Richard’s backstory, how he came up with the idea for T’Rain and assembled its hodge-podge team of designers and writers. He talks about MMORPGs, their particularly enticing qualities and how the game company continues to shape the world the players play in without exerting obvious influence. Bissell writes that every video game has a guiding story. “PLUMBER’S GIRLFRIEND CAPTURED BY APE!”, as he says, was the original game story, and they have evolved from that into worlds of moral quandary. In T’Rain, characters are either good or evil. T’Rains writers created a history of wars between the two, which new players take up as they join the game. However, as the players become more personally invested in the game’s world, the battle lines started to shift. T’Rain’s two writers — the Tolkien guy and the pulp guy — are public rivals, and the game’s players start taking sides, in what Richard calls the War of Realignmnet (Wor). “So the Wor is our customers calling bullshit on our ‘Good/Evil’ branding strategy,” Richard says to one of his writers, who replies, “Not so much that as finding something that feels more real to them, more visceral.” T’Rain’s players are so plugged in that they’re taking over the story. Meanwhile, a Chinese hacker creates a T’Rain virus, Reamde, that encrypts the infected computer’s files and holds the encryption key ransom. The ransom, of course, is to be paid within T’Rain. As Stephenson describes it, the world of T’Rain and the real world stop feeling distinct. T’Rain isn’t so much a hobby to its players, as a second way to live out their life. That distinction between the Us and Them that Bissell describes, and what makes the Us so crazy about gaming, is one I thought Stephenson was going to keep exploring. And then, how do I say this, enter a pack of jihadists. Richard’s niece and her boyfriend, helping to track down the Chinese hacker, literally stumble upon an Islamic terrorist’s bomb factory. For the rest of the book, there are many many gunfights. Stephenson, known for his supernatural themes, says he wanted to try something different by writing a thriller. This he did, and the final two-thirds of the book is a lively thriller, with Richard’s niece assigned the Kim Bauer role of the constantly handcuffed and espionage agents from Russia, England, and the U.S. all getting involved as the action hops from continent to continent. The problem is, Stephenson showed his hand too much at the beginning. He teased me with a thriller that took place within T’Rain, among its players and runners, visited upon by the limitations and consequences of two simultaneous worlds—real and virtual. I so wanted to read that book. But it was pushed to the background to make way for a shoot-em-up. This is the first Stephenson I’ve read, and I now gather it was a bad place to start. From Reamde, I know him to be a thoughtful, meticulous, and very funny writer (of an MI6 agent going dark in British Columbia, “How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?”), but his talents were misplaced here. He continued to bring T’Rain into the plot. The characters use it to communicate with each other, and the Reamde virus scenario still plays out, although with nothing like the significance the title suggests. The T’Rain novel and the thriller feel like two separate books, the lesser of which gets more attention, sending me running for Tom Bissell to satisfy my new-found interest in gaming. If Stephenson ever decides to finish the T’Rain novel, I’m interested.
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football. This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football. If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals -- and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages -- what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities? Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it. In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer. Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray. In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:” I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure. But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view. Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field. Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline's damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for. This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors. This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell. For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might. Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle: The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind. It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level...But it turns out that our adulation...is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable. Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers. Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion...it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off. The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe. There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain. In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts: From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered...the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells. Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell. Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner's work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other.
In the final chapter of his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman muses on the ultimate dethronement of humankind, the “fall from the center of ourselves.” Just as Galileo plucked the Earth from the center of the solar system, and Darwin relegated us to one twig among many on the evolutionary tree, a century of modern neuroscience has confirmed Freud’s intuition that the vast majority of brain activity occurs at levels of which the conscious “I” is scarcely even aware—much less in control of. What we call the conscious mind, Eagleman argues, is far from center stage, and the more we try to find out who—or what—is actually in control of our brain, the more we find out there is, as Gertrude Stein said, “no there there.” Before he considers the broader implications of our fall from grace, Eagleman spends the first half of the book revealing—through experiments, anecdotes, puzzles, optical illusions, and current events—the extent of the neural wizardry operating behind the conscious curtain of the “I.” It is this wizardry, he suggests, that constructs the cognitive illusion we confidently declare reality. Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, is an agile guide; he is someone who cares about the craft of writing. His bestselling work of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a series of imaginative (if somewhat gimmicky) thought experiments about the possible nature(s) of God, was widely praised when it appeared in 2009. In his latest book, he proves himself, once again. Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible. Eagleman uses everyday experiences, familiar to each of us, which reveal the hidden machinations of the brain working in unexpected ways. Even an intuitively effortless act such as seeing, he shows us, is not a passive process of observation, but rather the product of a vast subsurface machinery (by some measures, nearly one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision) that uses an arsenal of assumptions to interpret the ambiguous barrage of shapes and colors that constitute any visual scene. Most readers will fail to appreciate any of these processes until we are shown how often—and how profoundly—we get it totally wrong. For example, the resolution of our peripheral vision is so shockingly poor that if you ask a friend to hold a handful of colored highlighters out to his side while you stare at his nose, you may have the vague sensation of a rainbow in the distance, but might be surprised to discover that you’re unable to name or order any of the colors. Since the brain constantly darts our eyes around so that the high-resolution central vision focuses on whatever it is we are interested in—and therefore anything we are paying attention to appears in sharp focus—the brain assumes the entire visual world is in focus. We think we see what we do not. What optical illusions really point out is that all of vision is, in a sense, an illusion. One striking optical illusion, in which a dot on the page disappears as you slowly move the book away from your face, demonstrates that a huge region of vision is in fact missing—due to a quirk of anatomy, we have a sizable blind spot. And yet, no one noticed this blind spot until its chance discovery in the 17th century because the brain fills in the missing information. It is constantly inventing a patch of reality. The lesson of examples such as these, Eagleman points out, is that “you’re not perceiving what’s out there. You are perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” Whether you are in control of your eyes or your eyes are in control of you is the central, unsettling question posed by these chapters. The extent to which forces that elude introspection influence not only your perceptions but also your behavior is detailed with increasingly bizarre examples. We find out that a stripper earns higher tips when she is at the most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. People are more likely to marry other people whose names begin with the same letter as their own. Those who are born on February 2nd (2/2) are statistically more likely to live in places like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin; those born on March 3rd in Three Forks, Montana; and those born on June 6th in Six Mile, South Carolina. What these interesting but difficult-to-interpret quirks of human nature reveal is that choices which you happily assign to volition—to free will—may in fact be determined by the alien logic of brain processes inaccessible to the conscious “I.” But does any of this this matter? Is anything in your life going to change if modern neuroscience strips you of the illusion of free will? Isn’t it just fine to go through the course of the day believing what you see, or ignoring the possibility that arbitrary numbers might influence where you choose to live? Unless you are a philosopher, these issues might seem irrelevant, but Eagleman’s book serves as a clarion call to institutions of law and policy, arguing that they need to be based upon a deeper understanding of ourselves. As director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, Eagleman has a thoughtful and considered take on issues of cultural and political power, and his chapter on neuroscience and the law proves to be the strongest in the book. While today’s courts rarely allow such technologies as brain scans into the courtroom, judges may soon deem such scans relevant to arguments about a defendant’s mental state. Many detractors worry moving blame to biology will result in dangerous criminals being exculpated—the “It wasn’t me, it was my brain” defense. Yet the shift is already in motion outside of the courtroom. Most of us believe that diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have a neurological basis, and that factors such as genes make some of us more susceptible to risky behavioral patterns, such as drug addiction. Similarly, most of us intuitively feel that an Alzheimer’s patient that shoplifts is somehow less guilty of the crime, or that a mentally disabled person who murders should not be sent to prison. How is a legal system that rests on volition and culpability going to address this shifting locus of responsibility? Eagleman attacks the question head-on: The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable. He seeks not to revise the definition of blameworthiness but to remove the concept from jurisprudence altogether. It is true that the more we understand about brain circuitry, the more concepts like indulgence, discipline, and motivation can be explained by biology. It’s also true that if there is a measurable brain problem—such as the case in which a man committed murders due to neurological changes brought on by a brain tumor—the defendant is viewed as less blameworthy. However, a system of jurisprudence in which blame is based upon the state of current technology is not on stable footing; rather than adjusting the definition of blame to suit shifting technology, perhaps we should eschew blame altogether. “Blameworthiness,” Eagleman writes, “is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.” Instead, he hopes that we can leverage findings in neuroscience to better structure the way we punish, ultimately replacing the notion of retribution with either rehabilitation when possible or humane incapacitation when not. Almost all of the ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer. However, it’s important to note that, like a lecture, Eagleman’s book does not constitute—nor claim to constitute—original thinking. He has curated examples from the world of modern neuroscience in support of ideas already explored by writers such as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hoftstadter, or biologists such as Gerald Edelman, packaging them into a highly accessible and energetic work of popular science. Eagleman’s book is rooted firmly in the tradition of scientist-as-explainer, along the lines of Brian Greene’s efforts to bring string theory to a lay audience in The Elegant Universe, or Daniel Levitin’s elucidation of the neuroscience of music in This Is Your Brain On Music. While we are left, at the end of the book, with the disturbing sensation of wondering who, exactly, it is we are looking at when we look in the mirror, Eagleman assures us that this latest act of dethronement does not leave us disconsolately adrift. Just as astronomy’s revolution invited us to contemplate the gorgeous, vast expanses of the universe, a better understanding of the human brain “tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined.” Neuroscience can’t weigh in yet on whether or not we house an extrabiological soul, but even if how mind emerges from brain is one day completely described by the laws of classical physics, the threads of causality will be so tangled as to only offer partial insight. So while it is disquieting to ponder the fact that the conscious mind, unaware of the incomprehensible dynamics of multiple neural subsystems blithely chugging away, may be left merely to superimpose meaning on our actions and choices, there is indeed beauty and comfort in knowing that we contain the unknowable.
No matter how liberal we consider ourselves about the slippery line between memoir and autobiographical fiction – even if we are more Exley than Oprah on the matter – there is still something that seems suspicious about the enterprise of full-on fictional memoir. Is this allowable? Can one simply jump in and narrate the course of another person’s life? Perhaps – if you do it right.
● ● ●
“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to? Nik is a rockstar, but only a handful of fans — his sister Denise, her daughter Ada, and a small collection of ex-girlfriends and former band-mates — know it. Over the years, Nik has released dozens of LPs to Denise and his few loyal followers, and he’s kept a meticulous record of his career in what he calls the Chronicles, a thirty-volume scrapbook filled with letters, reviews, and other “willful esoteria,” all of his own creation. The rock ’n roll posture gives Nik’s creativity a framework — one that provides cover for his self-destructive habits, but also spurs him to keep producing music long after his early, promising bands fail to make it. For Nik, celebrity is a state of mind. Nik’s story drives the book’s plot, but it’s Denise who provides Stone Arabia’s narrative lens — and her slow, shapeless days of sorting through bills and checking in on her declining mother couldn’t be further from rock ’n roll. Spiotta writes that the hills of Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles suburb where Denise lives, are “tired” but it seems it is simply Denise who is tired. When Denise begins compiling her own Counterchronicles, her fragmented writings reveal the extent of her mental displacement from her own life. Denise is not an unreliable narrator, but she is clearly an unstable one; there are entire days she can’t account for. She sobs in front of the television while watching the news, and spends hours tunneling through search engine results for more details on the most sensational stories. The ceaseless onslaught of headlines depletes her emotional resources. “It is the feeling that your life has just left the room,” Denise says, broodingly. In the age of the Internet, when we have an instant portal into the lives (real or imagined) of others through our computers, televisions, and smart-phones, it is a feeling many readers will surely relate to in some form, and this is the novel’s key strength. Stone Arabia’s pull largely lies in its ability to recreate the feeling of media saturation that permeates modern life. Take Denise’s birthday for example: Ada called me in the morning from New York. She made me promise to look at her blog. She had posted a photo of us and it said, “happy birthday to my mom,” just like that, no caps or anything. Not “happy birthday mom” but “to my mom” because it was really reportage to some audience beyond me. It wasn’t a personal message to me, but a public announcement about me. Denise stares at her screen for a while; she knows her daughter wants her to post a comment, but she just can’t bring herself to. “I just couldn’t say something spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity,” she thinks. “Those are opposite pulls — eternity and pithy — and if I thought at all about what to say it was even worse.” It’s a familiar dilemma, rendered strangely lyrical through Denise’s eyes. Moments like these repeatedly animate the novel. Again and again, Spiotta perfectly captures the static sound of our televisions and Ethernet cables numbly pumping in more information than we need (or can respond to). And she elegantly depicts the ambivalence this unending electronic stream inspires. In her debut novel, Lightning Field, Spiotta depicted Los Angeles at its most brutally superficial — and female friendship at its most intimate. This was followed by Eat the Document, a mesmerizing story about a fugitive who reinvents herself in hiding, based on the true story of a real-life 1960s activist and her lover. Stone Arabia is also set in Los Angeles, and is also based on a true story. In the Author’s Note, Spiotta writes that though Nik Worth is a character of her imagination, he’s based her real-life stepfather, “Richard Frasca, a.k.a Jon Denmar. Richard Frasca is not Nik Worth but Richard’s devotion to his own music and Richard’s self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star gave me the idea for Nik.” Most novelists invariably incorporate characters and experiences from their lives into their fiction, but there’s something particularly sly about publishing a work of fiction built off someone else’s semi-ironic, private fiction — particularly when that person is the author’s family member. It’s a fittingly post-modern back-story for a novel which finds each of its main characters trying to make sense of their world through art/music, memoir, and film. Stone Arabia’s tangled layers not-so-subtly mimic the tangled layers of media we all live in. Obsessed with its obsessions (“Even the most pointless obsession can yield a certain kind of depth if it is pursued unfailingly,” Denise thinks), and enchanted by the tension between private and public personas as well as the blurry boundaries between self-documentation and self-creation, Stone Arabia is a truly contemporary novel. Do our stories bring us closer to ourselves, or do they simply hide and splinter our real identity? Stone Arabia assembles an impressive collage of questions about aging, identity, art and its audience, fame and its construction, privacy, knowing and being known, and how we define who we are. But as the novel slips from third to first person, from Ada’s video transcripts to Nik’s fake-archives, from blog posts to voicemails to movie rentals to search engine results, its narrative coherence meanders. Surely these are deliberate structural choices, but flattened into prose, the onslaught of technology fractures Spiotta’s story-telling. Spiotta is a writer of keen observation and careful craftsmanship, but — though it summons Lightning Field’s cool disaffection and Eat the Document’s enchantment with secret lives and self-invention — Stone Arabia lacks the grace and fluidity of her previous novels. Denise’s recollections from her childhood and early adulthood with Nik are evocative, but they are strung together only tangentially, and none of the book’s secondary characters stick around long enough to matter much. By the end of Stone Arabia, Nik has concluded The Chronicles, Ada has finished Garageland, and Denise has completed her Counterchronicles, but these works offer no real answer or argument to the questions — both stated and understood — that fill their lives. Ultimately, the interruptions of many forms of media — precisely the kinds of interruptions most novels insulate their readers from — give the book a jagged immediacy that raises more questions than it’s capable of answering.