Taking Comedy Seriously: Jess Walter's New Novel

By Christopher BollenJuly 17, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

IT COULD BE SAID that golden-age Hollywood comedies tended toward plots where “good things happen to good people.” It could also be said that for a long time now in American and English comedic literature, an inverse formula has applied: “bad things happen to mediocre people.” Our most celebrated comic novels are overrun with mediocre types with nothing noble about them, an almost hostile overcorrection of the sentimentality and saintly characterizations that old Hollywood used to produce like some sort of moral hagiography for its ticket audience. The result is a literature that teems with characters who aren’t characters so much as caricatures of the fallen. Want to make your novel funny? All you need do is populate your pages with the any number of self-serving, bungling, prurient, physically repulsive, ethically addled, deeply delusional beings, ideally with some sort of onset speech impediment or unchecked case of halitosis — the more specific the affliction the better — all in the name of capturing the plight of the human being in 21st Century decline. A comedic genealogy of such aggressive disdain can be drawn from Portnoy’s Complaint through Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, from A Confederacy of Dunces all the way to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to the point that our definition of a “realistic” character in popular fiction rests precisely upon what’s not to love about them.

Certainly, this kind of characterization does have its place — and its subsequent laughs — but, at its worst, this obsessive need to create a casualty class of losers leaves little for the writer to work with once the manic descriptions run their gag time. Often, the character is brought so low to earth, reduced to such small, repugnant size, and mocked so viciously that the reader can’t help delighting in these mammalian vessels of bad habits, quirks, short comings, irritating tics, and embarrassingly infantile dreams without ever really believing in them. The above mentioned books are brilliant comedic novels (so is the one discussed below, I would argue) but their influence has yielded an epidemic of animosity, all under the aegis of tracing a more candid depiction of the human form. Honesty is the justification, and belittlement is the vehicle that will get us there. The problem is that something happened on the way to the punch line. Hollywood caught up a decade or two ago — at least in its indie-blockbuster summer slapsticks, train-wreck reality shows, and cable television series (cancer is now hilarious according to The Big C, and so is being forced to work in the sex-traffic industry, as witnessed in Hung). And even more disconcertingly, commercials recently learned to fill their thirty-second spots with “relatable” idiots stuck in familiar absurd situations (today the difference between the characters in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Steve Carell’s The Office, and the next Doritos commercial is nearly impossible to parse). It is telling to note how quickly producer Scott Rudin has purchased the rights to some of our most celebrated novels — The Corrections, The Believers, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding — with plans to turn them ASAP into HBO projects. Everyone, even the non-reading public, is in on the same joke.

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is in every way a comedy despite (or because of) its delicious opening line, “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cover, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.” It also sets up a rather fascinating chess board between Hollywood then (‘then’ being 1962 during the filming of Hollywood’s great debacle Cleopatra, starring those minor deities Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Hollywood now (‘now’ being the reign of the slick super producer, the fervent studio sales pitch, and the hit dysfunctional reality shows with more mutant strains on their way). Walter is a prodigiously gifted writer. His sentences nearly sing, given long leashes to wind through Italian coasts and deep in the muck of Edinburgh comedy clubs without any fear that they will run off. There are dazzlingly vivid details, such as this one: “her curly red hair splayed out on the pillow like a suicide.” In most ways, Beautiful Ruins is a knockout, highly entertaining, and very human novel. It’s the very human part that makes Walter a writer of his time. I laughed out loud every five pages. That also makes me a reader of my time.

The action begins in 1962, on a highly under-touristed Italian coast town of Porto Vergogna (Italian, we’re told, for “shame”) where the dying actress (who is neither dying nor much of an actress) named Dee Moray arrives by boat for a convalescent stay at the Hotel Adequate View. Adequate View is run by a young, disarmingly innocent protagonist named Pasquale Tursi. Tursi has inherited the hotel from his recently deceased father and has epic plans to turn his property — along with the rest of Porto Vergogna — into a successful tourist magnet, like neighboring Cinque Terre. Tursi is literally building a beach rock by rock and chiseling off a cliff to create a tennis court. (A village named shame, a hotel named Adequate View, and Tursi’s pathetic Sisyphean construction projects clue us in early to the fact that this character is so sweetly misguided, so unselfconsciously pathetic, that we are going to have a wonderful time laughing at his expense). So far the only foreign visitor has been a drunk American writer named Alvis Bender who is writing a novel on his experience as a soldier stationed in Italy in World War II. What better luck for Tursi’s growing empire — and for his heart — than the arrival of a gorgeous movie star, just booted off the Rome set of Cleopatra due to her sudden illness (stomach cancer or stomach something else). Truly funny scenes of language-barrier confusion ensue, and, unsurprisingly, the real lingua franca is compassion — Tursi wants to care for Dee Moray, protect her, restore her to health, and return her to her boyfriend, who, it turns out, is the man taking second billing on the set of Cleopatra. He is also the man who, as we all know, will eventually take Taylor’s hand twice in marriage in the most famous romance of Hollywood history.

It is impressive how agilely Walter fuses his charming romantic comedy with romantic Hollywood lore. He places the reader at the essential moment where celebrity exceeds the limits of film. The love life of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is the real story of Cleopatra, not the noble Shakespearian tragedians who prefer to die than be parted. Walter isolates the death site of old cinema, where stars were custodians to the script and not vice versa. And with that dreamy Italian atmosphere of myth and majesty, the story jumps to present-day Hollywood, absent of solemn dying actresses, earnest Italian caretakers, or the mesmerizing auras of talents like Taylor and Burton. Claire Silver wakes up in bed with all of the symptoms of a contemporary fictional character. She has a stripper-addicted, unemployed boyfriend, a degree in film studies (shorthand for Claire’s pitiable esteem for cinema as an art form) that she’s wasting by reading farcical scripts as an assistant to a successful mega-producer snake named Michael Deane. She’s also weighing a ludicrous job proposal to become a film curator for a Scientology museum.

And that’s when a single wistful thought escapes her otherwise made-up mind: a wish, or maybe a prayer, that amid today’s crap she might hear one… decent… pitch — one idea for a great film — so she won’t have to quit the only job she’s ever wanted in her entire life. Outside, the sprinklers spit laughter against the rock garden.

And we, as readers, are meant to laugh too. Poor Claire Silver. Pathetic Claire Silver. A human in the film industry who possesses a wistful thought.

The decent pitch does come that day by way of another remarkably pathetic character, so familiar to us from shows like How To Make It In America and from any Taco Bell commercial in the last three years, so generationally definitive that we already know how bumbling his arc will be: Shane Wheeler, recently broken up with by his girlfriend for being such a loser (so we’re meant to love him), jobless, broke, trying to make it as a screenwriter with no idea how the industry works. Shane is burdened with a tattoo on his arm that he thought was from the Bible but turns out to be a line from the Paul Newman movie The Verdict: “Act as if ye have faith and it shall be given to you.” In other words, he’s equally wistful. His film pitch is the epic tragedy of the Donner Party (another California origin story), and Shane is so blind to the cynicism of Hollywood that he’s loaded his story with noble characters enacting noble pursuits — a pioneer who returns to save his family and finding them dead refuses to seek revenge on the villain. And there isn’t even a zombie cameo. Luckily for Shane, he arrives at Universal Studios to meet with Claire at the same time an old Italian man comes to the door of Michael Deane’s office, looking for an actress named Dee Moray who once stayed at his hotel in 1962. Even luckier, Shane speaks Italian and serves as translator for Pasquale Tursi. Michael Deane appears, or what’s left of the man underneath his plastic surgery that causes him look like “a 9-year-old Filipino girl.” The reader soon learns that Deane had worked as a studio liaison on the set of Cleopatra in 1962, had something to do with Dee Moray’s appearance at the Hotel Adequate View, and equally had something to do with her disappearance from film and from the planet. Michael Deane, with his many disfiguring facelifts, is the invisible hand that has guided Hollywood to its present-day, shock-schlock, cult-of-bad-celebrity, give-them-what-they-already-want economy (Deane’s working mantra: “we’re not in the film business, we’re in the buzz business”). But like an obedient contemporary fiction character — because being all villain is too righteous one way or another — Deane had wistful dreams once too: he wrote an autobiography that was repackaged as a self-help book for making it in the industry. He also takes Viagra to fuck his young wife.

What unfolds is ambitious, and a lesser writer could never have engineered such masterful jumps through time — back to 1962 with an impressive, pitch-perfect cameo by a drunk, pleasure-seeking, heart-of-chipped-gold Burton, further back to the war years of Alvis Bender, forward to Dee Moray, who is now Debra Moore in Seattle, Washington, working as a high-school teacher and single mother to her delinquent, musician lovechild, Pat. Not only that, but Walter manages to work in an extraordinary number of supplementary genres — the first chapter of Bender’s never-completed war novel; the Donner pitch; an excised chapter of Deane’s original memoir; the first act of a play that Pat has written with his girlfriend about his attempt to make it as rock star; the lyrics of a break-up song. What’s interesting about these extra-literary intrusions is that, in each, a nobility of character, an un-veneered honesty, exudes. And these texts have none of the biting, self-defeating, collapsed, I’m-a-human-being-because-I’m-remarkably-faulty fictional constructions about them. Here we glimpse real real people, in their semi-fictional writing based on their lives, naked but not walking practical jokes. This is an excerpt from Alvis Bender’s novel:

But in the end, this is what I brought home from my war, this single sad story about how I lived while a better man died. How, beneath a scraggily lemon branch on a little dirt track outside the village of R–, I received a glorious twenty-second hand job from a girl who was desperately trying to avoid being raped by me.

In the clever-to-death economy of Walter’s novel, such a passage has to arrive tucked inside a very different novel. There is simply no room in the central narrative for such honesty, for such frank examinations of oneself, for such pointed details — “scraggily lemon branch” or “twenty-second hand job” — not aimed at drawing a laugh.

Certainly it is unfair to single out Walter for being a writer (and a very good one) of his time. I believe I am less criticizing his novel here (because I did like it) and more agreeing with him. Part of Walter’s artistry in Beautiful Ruins is the way he purposely evokes this uncomfortable dilemma of trying to construct a novel with “real” convincing characters in a world driven to the brink with fast, attention-grabbing entertainment, a world that makes a sport out of filming the most demeaning incidents of people’s lives. Beautiful Ruins is steeped in an anxiety about characters unable to live up to their own ideals — in a sense, unable to be Elizabeth Taylors or Richard Burtons, who are neither to be laughed at nor pitied. In Alvis Bender’s unfunny novel, he tries to explain the kind of book he’d like to write: “The sort of funny that makes you sad, too.” The problem with the contemporary characters in Beautiful Ruins is that we largely get characters who are both laughable and pitiable — and rarely anything more. It is telling that Walter’s most fully fleshed, complex character is Debra Moore, a woman who decides to give up the dream of becoming a Hollywood actress.

Throughout the novel, time and again, characters see their own existences as something to watch. Claire remembers a drunken night with her new friend Shane: “Only in the movies does such a moment require a boozy flashback” and then proceeds to flashback. Pat makes one of many observations about the ultimate goal of humanity: “it was all a scramble to get higher, to see enemies and lord it over peasants, sure, but maybe more than that — to build something, to leave a trace of yourself, to have people see…. that you were once up there, on stage.” Debra contemplates life after Burton and Taylor: “as if the scene ended when they left it, the world stopped when they closed their eyes.” Shane, desperate for success in the film business, relies on the lessons of television plot closure: “his generation’s profound belief in secular episodic providence, the idea — honed by decades of entertainment — that after thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out.” Michael Deane ponders the media frenzy around his two stars: “Dick wanted Liz. Liz wanted Dick. And we want car wrecks. We say we don’t. But we love them. To look is to love. A thousand people drive past the statue of David. Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.” Even ethically devout Pasquale Tursi, who we hitherto thought incapable of thinking in Hollywood-ese, reflects on the folly of searching for Dee Moray abuts this rather specious home truth: “true quests aren’t measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant — sail for Asia and stumble on America — and the hope of the scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.” Walter’s consistent reliance on film logic to define the internal motivations of his characters speaks to a need to be perceived all the time as entertaining. Entertaining to others, and entertaining to ourselves. Read against the grain, the emergence of a dying actress to a barren Italian shore in the first line of the book functions like the introduction of a colonizing disease — a disease of Hollywood, a disease to perform, to be found amusing, to constantly entertain. More than once in the novel a character is asked to be funny on the spot. When Pat tours through England, a friend demands, “Say somefin’ funny!” When Claire asks Shane to explain why he chose the Donner story, he replies, “Oh, no… You’re just looking for a laugh again.” When Pasquale suggests that Alvis begin writing by starting at the end of the book, the writer laughs. “Thinking the American was laughing at his suggestion, Carlo apologized for being ‘stupido’.”

But being stupido is preferable to being boring. And boring is now the death knell for any piece of fiction — Hollywood or literary. The easiest way not to be read as boring is to create characters who serve as walking inventories of spectacular, below-the-belt attributes, as if the measure of a successfully realized human being comes down to how many syndromes, symptoms, and embarrassing dreams they can possess. Of course, comedy by its definition has always relied on contradiction — the gross difference between the actual and the potential. It is in this chasm that hilarity ensues. Walter is not off his mark for creating a number of highly imperfect beings in the interest of comic relief. I’m not opposed to any style of comedy — no form of humor should ever go extinct (and of course we could add Don Quixote or The Golden Ass to that aforementioned genealogy of character disdain). I don’t wish for a wave of self-serious novels studded with new-model Hamlets trying to come to terms with reality TV. My problem isn’t with kind but with quantity. There is an unsettling sense in the literary fiction of the past decade that writers have felt the obligation to compete with sit-com or screen writers — always out to entertain their readers no matter what, even if the sacrifice involves belittling one’s own creations in allegedly character-driven novels. (It could also be argued that this approach has been the preferred direction for straight, white males seemingly bereft of sincere topics — a sort of fascinating comic antithesis to the Sylvia Plath school of confessional poetry that plagued young white women poets in the sixties and seventies).

Walter even points to this awkward impasse the fiction writer faces in the advent of a far more dominant art form. When Alvis Bender lectures a young Pasquale Tursi on the nature of story-telling, he makes this cogent observation: “Stores are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short at the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments change, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world. The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait… what is that rising in America? Film?” Yes. It is the rise of the entertainment complex that is partly responsible for the changing demographic of our fictional characters. We can’t take them seriously, we don’t want to, we’d rather laugh at them for the duration of their utility as jokes. It is problematic in Beautiful Ruins that the reader doesn’t care much what happens to Shane Wheeler or Claire Silver or even Michael Deane once the immediate humor of their situations wears to a close. And Walter doesn’t seem to care either, since he wraps up their story arcs at the end with the speed of a melodramatic Wikipedia entry. They are characters primed for short situations (sit com) not extended, changing, transforming durations. It is also noteworthy that a critical scene at the end of the book, where Debra Moore finally reveals who her son’s father really is, happens not only off-camera (Pat destroys a video camera that his friend, Keith, is using to capture the reality-television-worthy drama) but off the page. “Pat shrugs a slight apology to Keith, then makes his way upstairs to find out that his whole life to this point has been a sweet lie.” My hope is for more books that are genuinely funny without mocking their characters so ruthlessly, without making them likeable because they are so un-redeemable, that such anti-heroes could be capable of self-awareness and embarrassingly juvenile tattoos.

The title Beautiful Ruins comes from a Louis Menand New Yorker article where he uses that expression to describe Burton at the close of his career. At the end of the novel, Walter continually echoes the title, “all those lovely wrecked lives” and “the sweet lovely mess that is real life.” Yes, wrecked, but not so lovely. If only his characters, besides Debra Moore, could be lovely and wrecked, not one just because they have been defined as the other. In the meantime, I expect our leading writers to produce more novels with casts that seem pulled from the Beth Israel emergency-room waiting lounge at four in the morning. We enjoy driving by car crashes and staring because we can drive away not knowing who the victims are. Great character-driven novels often force us to remain on the scene, near the blood, waiting for the ambulance.


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LARB Contributor

Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York. His first novel Lightning People came out in 2011. He is currently writing his next novel and is the editor at large of Interview Magazine.


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