Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Jess Walter’s latest offering is an irresistible potpourri of Hollywood folklore, reality television, love and ambition, and most of all the overweening need to break out and matter in today’s world. The story moves across a fascinating number of places and times including but not limited to, the Italian Riviera of the sixties, the Hollywood of then and now, small town America, even the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh.  Through it all the author shows an awesome command of form and content, and a phenomenal control of his medium, letting out the suspense to build it up again, maintaining  all the while, a light humorous touch that keeps us turning the pages happily. And he has a message too – do what makes you happy and chill. His panacea for the problem of plenty. (Refer my review of Franzen’s Freedom – “the problem of plenty”).
What’s not to like?

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Cleopatra
It is 1962 and Pasquale Tursi of the lovely blue eyes has just returned to his tiny fishing village on the Italian coast, determined to make the family business - a rundown, “Hotel Adequate View”- into a world class tourist destination. To this end, he is busy building a beach, and designing a cantilevered tennis court atop the cliffs, something he imagines would immediately impress visitors coming by boat – incidentally the only way to reach this out of the way hamlet. What happens is that a Hollywood starlet descends on his hotel and Pasquale reacts, as if in a dream’s opposite, a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep. The actress has been sent from the sets of Cleopatra, (yup of Liz Taylor and Dick Burton fame), and believes she is dying. Pasquale finds himself enmeshed in her affairs.

Cut to the present, where Claire Silver, Chief Developmental Assistant to legendary film producer Michael Deane is failing in her own assessment of how she is living her life. Her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. In the course of her work they have hit pay dirt with reality television – and her hopes for making meaningful cinema shrink by the day as she hears out one outlandish pitch after another –

Claire saw why people worked so hard to not get things made - because once you did one thing, that became your thing.

She has a boyfriend addicted to online porn, strip clubs and texting unpunctuated questions - 'milk', 'cereal', 'what up', to quote a few; she is heartily ashamed of him. Claire is onto her last pitch for the week, when who should come looking for Michael Deane, but Pasquale from all those years back. It is lucky that the man who is making the pitch at that time knows good enough Italian to translate for Mr. Pasquale Tursi, who is on a quest for Dee Moray, the sick starlet who came to his Hotel in 1962. Tursi’s only link to Dee, the seventy-two-year old Michael Deane who was then in the publicity department for Cleopatra, and who through an impossible to trace sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem cell injections has acquired the face of a nine-year-old Filipina, and is as hard-bitten and unconscionable a Movie-Moghul character as was ever drawn, surprisingly agrees to help. Lo, the story has acquired a life of its own.

Jess Walter
What follows is an account of what happened in Italy then, the search for Dee  now, interspersed by an interesting set of narratives starring each of the myriad characters populating the book. And reading it is great fun. We are in the pages of a master craftsman. I for one will have to read his most successful book “The Financial Lives of Poets”.
It appears that Mr. Walter disapproves of the ‘extreme anguishing’ that most people seem prone to, especially those with ambitions to be creative. He also wishes to debunk the motto he clearly thinks might be a malaise affecting the populace – Act as if ye have faith and it shall be given to you. He favors doing the right thing, and keeping the wanting in check so it does not take you away from doing the right thing. So Alvis Bender puts his unwritten novel away in order to get on with living (it hits him that, indeed, all that he wanted to say has been said in his first chapter). Pat Bender makes his peace with his relative anonymity, and Claire does what she feels is “right” for her.

If only it were that simple.
Such clear problems and solutions do not make for life, it makes for fiction. Good fiction in the hands of a humorist par excellence, a superb entertainer and master craftsman, who makes you read even as you shake your head. There is no soul searching, no epiphany, or discovered truth as opposed to received truisms. But would that not be the preserve of an artist, the tortured genius who struggles with her medium and extends it, expresses her innermost anxieties, while fighting her demons? (Virginia Woolf comes to mind, maybe because of my feminist 'sheing' of everything in the last sentence.) If that’s the sort of thing you enjoy - I mean art, not feminism - then wait for my next review. “Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, set in Stalinist Russia, written during Stalinist Russia, when wanting and doing the right thing was all set on its head.

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