Monday, July 02, 2007

Steroidal Kudzu

The Ruins, by Scott Smith, Read by Patrick Wilson, Simon & Schuster Inc., 2006

In 1993, Scott Smith published A Simple Plan a novel of eerie, horrifying austerity. Three people discover a wrecked plane with four million dollars inside. They decide on the spot to keep the money and tell no one about it.

From there, everything goes completely to hell, all spiraling away from the title’s promise and hope. What’s so terrifying about the novel is how complicit you, the reader become in the story. At no point in the reading did I wish for the narrator Hank Mitchell to ever get caught, no matter what terrible thing he did. Smith builds upon each preceding atrocity so naturally, one thing growing logically out of the next, that the successive lies Mitchell has to tell himself nearly convince you that he is what he says he is. That is, a normal, decent human being. The novel entraps you in that conceit.

When I set the book down, I was chilled at just how guilty Smith’s narration had made me feel. And I hadn’t even done anything.

The book was an instant success, spawning a just as chilling film starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda. Smith wrote the screenplay for it and was nominated for an Oscar for the adaptation. The publishing world eagerly waited for his follow up.

Thirteen years later, Smith returned with his second novel The Ruins and despite its plot being absolutely and completely nothing like A Simple Plan’s, stylistically and (to a point) thematically there is great overlap. Smith builds his new nightmare step by step, convincingly moving through little details, tightening the noose around his characters. It’s a tense device that creates a kind of delicious, unbearable discomfort that you actually enjoy experiencing.

It’s really difficult to write much about The Ruins while leaving out the largest aspect of the story. The novel charts the course of a catastrophe innocently engaged upon and works through its dawning realizations with frightening efficiency. It is a gripping, compulsive read, one complication after another worsening their situation in a most horrific way.

On vacation in Mexico, four friends, Amy, Stacy, Eric, and Jeff, fall in with three Greeks who speak no English and no Spanish, and a German named Matthias. After the disappearance of Matthias’ brother Heinrich who traveled to an archeological dig at a nearby mine ruins, the four friends, Matthias, and one of the Greek men set out to find him. For the four Americans, it is a touristy adventure; for Pablo, the improbably named Greek, it is a pleasant diversion while his two other friends are out fishing; and for Matthias, it is his familial duty.

From the moment they leave for their journey, small growing signs gather around them. One of the women is groped in a bus station before robbed by small children of her hat and sunglasses; the truck driver who takes them near the ruins implores them to leave; and a blind constructed of palm leaves hides the path to the ruins. Once they arrive, stranded, all this disparate group’s ingenuity will be tested as they seek to find a way out of the trap they’ve fallen into, as they seek to overcome not only physical hardships, but simple complications like the language barrier.

What’s most pleasing about Smith’s novels is how they are both unpredictable sort of fulfill your expectations. With each scene, you think, this is not going to turn out well, then it doesn’t. Precisely how it doesn’t is the novelty part. What’s pleasant about it is that it is both unexpected and once it happens you see how naturally it unfolds from the situation, as if things couldn’t have turned out any other way.

What they find there at the ruins is a vicious, sentient life form that seeks to destroy them, to consume them. In the ensuing trials, they all finds themselves distilled down into their most essential selves. Whiny Amy will object to every plan, every adjustment to their situation. Eric loses his confidence and develops nightmarish anxieties after his leg wound becomes infected. Stacy continues to believe there will be a rescue attempt. Jeff becomes coldly practical, his mind never ceasing to work towards solving each difficulty as they arise, planning for each new contingency with a kind of mathematical iciness.

A nice, creepy touch to the story is how from the bottom of the mine shaft there comes the chirping of what everyone assumes is a cell phone. When it first makes its appearance in the story, you think, get down in the shaft, use the cell phone — even, maybe, that the shaft might be your only way out. Once you notice the cell phone’s ringing tends to move, you see the outline not only of the novel’s terrifying revelation, but shudder at the most devilish of traps.

The story moves rather quickly, circumstantially from inconvenience, to trouble, to nightmare, to doom, each turn for the worse flowing without difficulty. This ordeal ultimately involves amateur amputation, madness, attempted distillation of urine to water, escape attempts, and the fracturing of the group.

Like his debut novel, here Smith refuses to look away from the obviousness of the story line. There are no maudlin aspects to his writing, no sentimentality. You clearly feel reading his books that if the story required a character to bite through an infant’s throat then that is just what would happen, and nothing about it would seem out of place. Such ruthlessness is a rare quality in authors of any stripe (the Marquis de Sade notwithstanding), and Smith’s work amply demonstrates how honed his authorial claws are. This is quite clear in the book’s most nightmarish pages where a man driven crazy by the ordeal flays his own skin from his body.

The [BLANK] was in his right ear. This seemed impossible, but when he reached up and touched the lumpy mass of cartilage, he could feel it there, just beneath the skin. He wasn’t thinking anymore, he was simply acting. He began to saw at the ear keeping the knife flat against the side of his head. He’d started to moan, to cry. It wasn’t the pain, though that was nearly unbearable. It was how loud it sounded, the blade tearing its way through his flesh.

See what I mean? That last sentence is perfectly, unbearably logical, horrible and precise.

Smith’s books are written with that level of constant nightmarish precision all the way through. I hope it doesn’t take him thirteen more years to produce his third novel, but if it does, I’ll be waiting with baited breath the entire time, ready for my next fix.

Patrick Wilson, who recently appeared in Little Children, delivers it all straight, no
fluff, no filler, the best accompaniment to Smith’s spare and beautiful cruelty.

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