A woman tussles with memories of her brother, a rock ’n’ roll cult hero, in a sharp, challenging novel about identity and family history.
Spiotta (Eat the Document, 2006, etc.) claims Don DeLillo as one of her mentors, and her third novel bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s classic Great Jones Street (1973). Both novels are concerned with the invention of pop-culture personas, and Spiotta shares DeLillo’s plainspoken, often clinical style of observation. It’s best not to draw too close a connection between the two authors, though: Spiotta’s blend of human portraits and big-picture thinking is wholly her own. Denise, the novel’s heroine and occasional narrator, has had a long love-hate relationship with her brother, Nik, an L.A. rock musician who flirted with mass popularity in the 1970s but more often shunned the spotlight. Using various pseudonyms and working in various styles, he produced a host of self-released albums and kept a regular set of “Chronicles” about himself filled with invented news stories and reviews. Spiotta’s theme of crafted personas is clear (Nik’s most popular band was called the Fakes), but Denise’s wry, mordant character moves the novel beyond a philosophical exercise. The siblings’ mother increasingly succumbs to dementia, which adds human detail to Denise’s musings about what connects us outside of shared memory. She has strong reactions to news of far-away events (the book’s title comes from the name of a tragedy-struck New York Amish community), which gives an emotional pitch to her thoughts about mediated experience. But for all its hard thinking, this book has plenty of novelistic energy: It’s filled with in-jokes about pop, punk and new wave music, and Denise’s character engagingly echoes the music’s tone of irony and defiance.
A fine novel about heartbreak. Spiotta keenly understands how busily we construct images of ourselves for the public, and how hard loved ones work to dismantle them.