I read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter last week while I had the flu. It sustained me while my face felt like it was going to explode and entertained me between endless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, but as perhaps you can tell from the fact that I was watching endless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, my powers of concentration seriously were diminished during my illness. So, I have to say, I probably did not get the best read of this book. Although there is a definite fever-dream aspect to parts of it, so perhaps this wasn’t a bad way to read it after all.
There is A LOT going on in this book. I don’t know if I want to call it post-modern–I think I don’t–but we flip back and forth between 1960s Italy and “recently” in LA (then northern Idaho), with other chapters interspersed from a never-finished semi-autobiographical WWII novel, a movie pitch about a member of the Donner party (the movie to be called Donner!), a discarded chunk of a memoir/self-help book and more. Within the 1960s Italy and recent LA sections, there are a multitude of different protagonists, each with their own back stories, trajectories and relationship to the overarching narrative of the whole thing, which has to do with the young American actress who arrived at a tiny coastal Italian hotel during the filming of the Liz Taylor film Cleopatra, her condition at that time, and her present whereabouts. (I just remembered that there is also a whole section set in the UK in the recent past, dealing with the comedic musical one-man show of a failed Nirvana-era indie musician. See? LOTS going on. Richard Burton is an actual character, too.)
I don’t want to say that I’m a purist when it comes to fiction–I have the capacity to really love experimental work–but I did wish I could pick this book apart for some of its threads, calm down the frenetic pace of it, let some of the story lines breathe. Then again, it was thrilling to see a reference in one section to something that the reader, up until that point, had no idea had transpired between two disparate characters–it took this fractured structure and a system of reverse-reveals to create the anticipation involved in finding out what happened during the intervening time. With the particular aspect of the story that I’m thinking of, what really impressed me is that it was a gift that kept giving narratively–after the reader finally knew what happened, there was still a totally heart-rending moment when, long after the sequence of events was resolved, the reader watched another character have to put it together, too. I can’t imagine, as a writer, being able to operate on so many levels.
Hollywood factors large in this novel, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the book was a bit flashy for me. There was something about how realized the whole thing was (a weird complaint, I know)–the complete physical descriptions of each character down to the perfect, perfect head-to-toe choices regarding their outfits, their first and last names being mentioned in their introductions and how incredibly fitting those names were–that made it seem overdone. Like the movie pitch and book chapters within it, the novel seemed almost like an example of a novel…an ur-novel…? It’s what I imagine people imagine when someone tells them they’re working on a novel, perhaps. I sound like such an asshole here–I don’t mean to diminish Jess Walter’s immense talent–I can’t approach creating worlds within worlds connected to worlds like he does in this novel. It almost seems so well-realized, so fully thought out, though, that there isn’t room for the reader to make his/her own connections or interpretations.
That aspect of the novel–how it in a sense closes the reader out by doing so much itself–hits full tilt at the end but, here’s a contradiction that would probably make Jess Walter punch me in the face if he could–by the end, I was actually on board with that. I’d given in and given up and by the time he breaks into this amazing coda where he resolves every single story line in the book–including of all things, the Donner party one–I was having flashbacks to the amazing ending of the HBO series Six Feet Under where we got to see the full life and death of every character on the show. That whole section is the part where, if Beautiful Ruins were a movie (which I can only imagine it will be at some point?), the audience would be laughing, crying and cheering. The over-the-top ending, though, was well-earned.
I saw Jess Walter read once and listened to his Other People Podcast interview and he seems great on top of being a one-of-a-kind mind. Despite my bizarre mixed feelings about the book, I’m very glad I read it.