Friday, May 25, 2012

Are We All Archivists Now?

Kelli's recent post about poets and the importance of archiving our lives made me think about a book I just finished reading, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia.  It's a book that I started out loving, but in the end, it wasn't the book I hoped it would be.

There's a lot to like about this book.  It's an interesting look into the lives of aging musicians and siblings at midlife.  But I most enjoyed its exploration of what it means to narrate our lives, to be our own archivists, to catalogue all our creative work--and to make a creative work out of the cataloguing itself.

Nik, the aging musician, began cataloguing his work early on.  Along the way, he creates both real and fake narratives, which leads us to question what the truth of his life is.  His motto is "Self-curate or disappear" (page 2).  Much of his work is done the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Nik's neice wants to create a documentary, and part of the book shows this process.  It's much more boring to read about her filming than to read about Nik's elaborate album covers, his liner notes, his interviews with fake reporters--he even elaborately illustrates and decorates the paper that he uses to wrap the items that he mails.

I wonder if Spiotta does this on purpose, this making of the hand-made more alluring than the making of the film.  I say this because the end of the book made me feel that Spiotta had run out of steam and just wanted to bring the narrative to a close.  I was very unsatisfied with the ending, although it did work in its own way.

Along the way Spiotta gives the reader an interesting window into the rock and roll world of the late 70's.  The main character Denise reflects about the subversiveness of the Sex Pistols: "No one except us girls understood how subversive Johnny Rotten's anti-sex stance really was.  So obnoxiously and unanswerably defiant, the perfect retort to any concern:  It's boring." (page 162, emphasis in original) and  "One other truly subversive thing about the Sex Pistols and the British punks:  bad teeth.  Bad smells, bad teeth, bad skin--this was the real stuff of rebellion.  It didn't last long as an aesthetic.  But wasn't it amazing for a moment?"(page 170).

The sadness of the book is that no matter how defiant we are in our wayward youth, we all must face aging.  This book shows an aging parent in the full throws of dementia, with some interesting observations about the holding hands that  calms the agitated parent:  "We started out with all this body intimacy when I was a baby and then a child . . .  .  We were back to the intimacy of our two bodies." (page 187).

Here's one of my favorite lines from the book:  "He pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future" (page 33).  And of course, even that kind of coping, the excess drug and alcohol abuse, won't save us.

But will self-archiving save us?  The book doesn't wrestle with that question, not explicitly.  I suspect that it's a question that haunts most artists, just the way it haunts the musician in this book.

No comments: