Sunday, September 24, 2006

Don't go into the jungle

Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006) could almost make me a believer in multiple universes. I can clearly imagine two versions of myself, each reacting differently to it.

It’s the story of six young people—four Americans just out of college and a Greek and a German they run into in Mexico—who strike out into the jungle on what they think is a day trip in search of the German’s brother, who has followed a female archaeologist with whom he has fallen in love. But things very quickly begin to go wrong, and the kids find themselves trapped in the jungle, ill-prepared and with, for various reasons that I’ll leave unexplained, little hope of getting back to civilization. Over the course of a few days, the situation deteriorates with astonishing rapidity, and we watch, closely, as the six utterly fall apart, mentally and physically

The me who lives in some other (more critical?) universe would say that Smith’s characters aren’t very well-developed (despite a lot of time and effort), the opening is simultaneously dull and overly portentous, his attempts at interior monologue are occasionally ham-handed, the book’s action is somewhat repetitive, the central threat that holds the characters in the jungle is a borderline joke, and the seemingly inevitable conclusion is far too long in coming.

The me who lives in this universe would, to one degree or another, agree with all those points. But I just don’t care: they’re inconsequential in the face of the alternately terrifying and horrifying thrill ride that Smith sent me on. The Ruins may be the scariest book I’ve ever read—and that’s an achievement even more impressive given that, after the book’s midpoint, there are few surprises. The few that Smith does pull out, though, are classic up-the-ante moves, raising the horror to unexpected new heights. I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t put it down.

Like the characters, I kept hoping that there was a solution to their dilemma. They rest their hopes in a hazy combination of belief in the overall benevolence of the universe and the unspoken plaint, “We’re Americans—this can’t be happening to us!” (The deep pessimist in me, by the way, fears that historians might look back at the twenty-first century and view that as America’s overriding thought.) Meanwhile, I put my faith in the author himself. Surely he’ll help these people? Surely he’s going to flinch? Things just kept getting worse and worse, and the number of pages beneath my right thumb kept diminishing.

Like it did with the multiple mes, The Ruins seems to have split readers and critics, too. People either love it, getting totally wrapped up and terrified, or they hate it to the point of not seeing why anyone would praise it. The negative reviews on Amazon—which for any book are much more informative than the positive ones—are telling. They rehearse the complaints I made above, but a large number also focus their annoyance on the weakness, stupidity, and incompetence of the characters themselves. Why do they fall apart so quickly? Why do they not come up with better plans?

They’re right. The characters do fall apart quickly. They don’t make good plans. But Smith’s point, even if overplayed, is one that I’m in sympathy with: very few of us would cope well with disaster. Throughout, The Ruins has you asking, “How would I deal with this?” If we’re being ruthlessly honest, most of us won’t like the answer. It’s the best thing about the book.

That’s also a sign of the weakness of The Ruins, though, and of why it’s ultimately just a thrill ride. As much as Smith seems to think he’s created well-rounded, interesting characters, there’s never a point in the book where I was worried about them as individuals. Instead, I was worried about them—even at times terrified for them—only as proxies for me. When I finally closed the book, looked up, and remembered that I wasn't in the Mexican jungle, there was nothing left.

But it seems a bit churlish to complain about The Ruins not being full of great characters or deep insights. I opened the book hoping to be scared, and for several hours it kept me that way, so regardless of what the parallel universe me might think, I'm satisfied.

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