Existentialism and the Vine: The Ruins Book Review
The story is simple, though hard to fully explain without spoiling things. The book’s four main characters are on vacation in Mexico. They party, they meet new people, they be their innocuous selves. Quickly, however, a German fellow tourist they befriend invites them to come along on a day trip to find his brother. The brother, it seems, had met a girl, and returned with her to the titular ruins, where she was working as an archaeologist. The four hem and haw, their characters beginning to emerge in response to this new prospect, but end up going.
Once at the ruins, for reasons I won’t divulge, the four—plus the German, plus another fellow tourist, a Greek—are unable to leave. The ruins, in fact, place them all in great danger, and the remainder of the book is spent describing their navigation of this danger. Life or death, that’s the question. Suffice to say: the ruins are a scary place, and a place where that Kafkaesque scenario really begins to underline the book’s two strong suits: exciting, horrific, mysterious, page-turning plotting, and adept character development.
Not much more can be said about the former without spoiling things, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that The Ruins is already optioned to be made into a film—and it’ll hopefully be a good one. If the pacing, symbolism, and foreshadowing is preserved, and the gravitas respected (Ben Stiller’s production company holds the rights), it should make a great horror/thriller movie for some summertime release . . . though I bet they’ll change the ending, at least a little.
The latter, however, is even more key, and it’s also what brings out the thematic elements of the story. The six characters who end up on the hillside of the ruins all become more distinct and complex in the midst of their crisis. And they also all begin to conform to types—yet in a good, insightful, easy-to-identify-with sort of way. Who becomes the leader? The one who knows how to ration food and store water and care for wounds? Jeff the Eagle Scout, of course. Do we need a vamp? Does sex come into this picture? Absolutely. Hence Stacy. Comic relief? Check. Eric. What about the strong, silent, mysterious type? The guy who got them into this in the first place? Mathias, the German who lost his brother.
All of the six, in some way, fulfill and question these kinds of classic story roles, even to the point of a very meta and funny conversation between the characters about who will play who when they escape the ruins and a movie version is made of their story (apparently Adam Sandler, Bruce Willis, and Madonna should be expecting calls). But there’s more to it than just how Smith uses these archetypes to flesh the characters out. It’s how language barriers come into play to make us think about communication itself. How what we say in secret sounds when it’s shouted aloud. How our past dictates what people think of us in the present. How being in extremis brings out who we really are, especially in relation to others. And, like all stories of this kind, it’s how easily the reader slips into the shoes of first one, then another of the characters, until we see ourselves, a bit, in all of them.
Thematically, seeing ourselves in the characters is paramount, especially in extremis. This is where The Ruins can become a metaphor—as is so easily done with these Kafkaesque stories—for life and how we react to it. Some characters remain hopeful, vigilant, productive. Would we? Some go mad. Would we? Some give up? Is that me? You? In the end, though, in this particular version of the metaphor, it doesn’t matter how we react to the scenario. Smith gives the impression that the characters, we, are doomed to the outcome—good or bad, I won’t say. He even goes so far as to make these characters’ plight on the ruins circular: it’s happened to others before, it happens to them, it will happen to others in the future. Just like life.
And while there is something to be said for this stoic perspective—even a place for it to be parsed Christianly in an appropriate way—Smith’s take on it is dark, and hopeless, and as embracing of what he perhaps sees as the angst of the real world, as his characters are at times of the angst of their fictional situation. One character even decides, at the end, that she doesn’t, after all, in face of the direness of it all, believe in God . . . a final rejection of hope or meaning in the midst of something that screams for it, amidst their screams.
So is The Ruins finally some big allegory about the meaningless, cyclical, Darwinian nature of life? Are we “the ruins”? Is the world “the ruins”? Are our attempts at meaning “the ruins”? Perhaps we’re meant just to understand: “get through whatever you have to get through, dealing with the other people you happen to be in it with, hoping that hell is not ‘other people,’ and knowing that it’ll end soon.” Or, perhaps, this is only one side of the story. Perhaps Smith would agree with this basic existentialism, yet unlike his character at the end, say that God may yet offer a toe-hold. Perhaps he’d say that life is absurd, meaningless, non-communicative, cyclical, etc., but that God can change all of that—like Kierkegaard, let us not forget, the “father of existentialism.”
Or, maybe that’s just what I’d like him to think, how I’d like to read it, being generally of a Kierkegaardian bent myself. Or maybe, it’s just a good book and doesn’t need to be torn all apart to be enjoyed. In fact, finally, this is for sure the case: regardless of how you interpret the tone, the ending, the characters, and all of that, The Ruins was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time. Definitely a page-turner, definitely worthwhile, and definitely inviting of deeper looks. I give it three Fs for Freaky Flowering Flora, and a high recommendation.