"You all wanna be looking very intently at your own belly buttons." ~Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity.
The above quote ran through my head from time to time as I read Stone Arabia, a novel with a protagonist given to the kind of introspection that is better described as navel gazing.
The protagonist, Denise Kranis, is a forty-something woman living in Los Angeles. The story focuses on her relationship with her brother Nik, a talented (?) but failed musician/artist. If the book's blurb is to be believed, the pivotal moment in the story--inciting incident if this were genre fiction perhaps--occurs when Denise's daughter, Ada, decides to film a documentary about her reclusive uncle (Nik). Except, Ada doesn't show up until late in the novel. Instead, most of the narrative is taken up by Denise's thoughts on family, memory--memory being the theme--and her peculiar obsession with certain current events.
Certain aspects of Denise's ramblings are compelling, especially her ruminations on memory. Like this one, where she realizes that so much of memory isn't based in events, but grounded in the senses, especially touch: "I know now how much all of us live in these body places. Your experiences, the hard-felt ones, don't fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips."
Honestly? In smaller doses, I love this level of introspection, this evaluation of the minutia that make up our lives, the utterly mundane. I think it's what's sometimes missing from the genre fiction I read, especially romance and fantasy. In romance, for example, there's a tendency to engage in tell-rather-than-show explanations of what the characters are "feeling." This is supposed to reveal character, but instead leaves me cold. I admit, I can learn more about a character by listening to them ramble about the strange twists their mind takes. Similarly, a character's observations on the mundane in her world, even a fantastic world, would tell me much more about a novel's setting than lengthy description--Fantasy, I'm lookin' you.
OTOH, I'm primarily a fan of genre fiction for a reason. Two hundred-plus pages of navel gazing is too much time to spend immersed in someone's belly button lint.
The main problem, however, with Stone Arabia is that I just don't like Nik. I believe I'm supposed to see him as the great undiscovered talent, that the music scene lost a bright star when Nik rejected fame. Or something. Nik, however, is revealed only through his sister Denise, and a few excerpts of his Chronicles, the fictional, aggrandized version of his life. Those excerpts are some of the dullest portions of the novel, sort of like contemporary versions of The Simarillion, world-building disease run amuck, made worse with a touch of Mary Sue-ism. Given Denise's descriptions, his is the sort of aural noise that's beloved by critics and that leaves prols like me wondering WTF the fuss is about, because that, "That ain't music."
And finally, Nik is a user, IMO. The kind of vampire who sucks family and friends dry, emotionally and financially. Denise is up to her eyeballs in debt, but still feels guilty because she hasn't given Nik more money. In this respect, the characters are very real, since I've known people in this kind of sick dynamic. I don't, however, read fiction to engage with "real," people; I read it to engage with people who seem real but act better (or worse).
I don't find Nik's end particularly tragic. My reaction, frankly, is to hope that Denise would realize how much better her life was without him. A big part of the problem is that the author leaves some of the most important memories, the stuff that explained why Denise and Nik are so close, to the very end. At that point, I just didn't care and the information felt superfluous.
2.5, but rounded up to 3, because I'm an author too, and I'm feeling squishy-soft about reviews.
(Edited for the billionth time to correct the typos that begat typos.)