Sometimes a book comes along that moves me on such a deep level that it is difficult to words to what has occurred in me. For 2012, that book is BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter.
As I got to the final chapter, in which the final chapter of each of the characters’ lives is also set forth (even the characters who have been nothing more than characters within stories told characters in the book), I felt reluctant to read this last segment. It seemed that this quick, stream-of-consciousness summary of everyone’s outcome would just skim the surface of these lives that had been given so much attention in the earlier, separate chapters. But as I read, my reluctance quickly turned to tears. How did Walter manage to do this? Somehow, all of the longing that is human life is in his words.
For me, this book is an epiphany. I have been reading books that are explicitly “spiritual” for some time – and since I like narrative, this mainly means novels in which the characters are “spiritual.” I even wrote such a book myself! But if the word “spiritual” means anything at all – and I’m coming to wonder if it does – then it can mean nothing more than awareness of the deepest truths about the human condition. BEAUTIFUL RUINS has no overt spirituality in it. No one is trying to get enlightened, and whatever religion is in the book is of the “cultural” kind. (Since much of the book takes place in Italy, this means Catholicism, of course.) But in the end, it teaches us what life is, beneath the surface of our ideas about it.
I haven’t actually said anything about the plot of the book here: this novel is on every other reviewer’s “ten best” list, so a plot summary is easy to find. But to my mind, the narrative, as inventive as it is, is not the main virtue of this book, nor is the way the style of writing shifts from chapter to chapter as the focus moves to a different character — all good stuff just from a “craft” standpoint. But this book is not about story and it is not about craft. Rather, it does what all great literature does: it uses craft to convey the deepest truth.
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