by Scott Smith
Published by Knopf
336 pages, 2006
Vine With Me
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
When I get author Scott Smith on the phone, he's in an odd place. Where? "Hiding in my foxhole," he said, "waiting to see what happens."
What's happening is that his new novel, The Ruins -- his first in 13 years -- is about to be published. At the moment, he's finished a draft of a screenplay based on the novel, and he's awaiting comments from the production company, which is owned by Ben Stiller. Which means on the one hand, Smith is waiting to hear how Stiller likes the script, which is based on the very book Smith is talking about when he tells me he's waiting to see what happens. Translation: He's waiting to see what the critics say and whether readers will buy the book.
Frankly, I don't think he needs to worry. If the script is even half as well-made and as visually striking as the book, the reviews for both will be brilliant.
When I read Smith's debut novel, 1993's A Simple Plan, I knew it was going to be a movie. It wasn't conceived to be a film necessarily, the way some novels clearly are, but it was so vivid, so cleanly wrought, that film scenes just popped into mind. When it was finally made, it was bound to be something of a letdown. After all, no matter how wonderful or faithful to the original material a movie is, it's never as good as the one you cast and direct in your own head.
Recently, while reading The Ruins, a delicious and devious tale of horror, I was once again blown away by the author's crisp, clearly-focused way with a scene. He paints each one like a great artist, yet also holds back, sharing only the bits and pieces of detail that you need to make the scene your own. This time, however, I couldn't see the movie in my head, and that was fine with me. I didn't really want to, because I was much too interested in the book itself.
In A Simple Plan the plot seemed to creep up on the characters. It isn't like the two brothers set out in search of four million bucks. The Ruins sets up the same way. Its characters -- Eric and Stacy, Jeff and Amy, Mathias and Pablo -- venture out on a day-long quest only to discover that, indeed, a plot has crept up on them, quickly and inevitably enveloping them in a mystery that will alter the course of their lives.
That, I think, is the key difference between Scott Smith and so many of today's thriller writers. He doesn't so much set a plot into motion and convey what the characters do. He creates characters, drops them into plots they don't expect and can't see coming and then lets us marvel at how it rips them to pieces.
"I really didn't outline much," Smith told me recently. "I had a very sketchy outline and a lot of the things that happen -- even major things -- I didn't know they were going to happen until I wrote them. Which is very much unlike A Simple Plan, where I had a very detailed, 30-page outline, chapter by chapter."
Since it had been over a decade since the publication of A Simple Plan, I asked Smith what he'd been up to in the meantime.
"I spent about five years working on a novel," he said. "It was overambitious, and it just kept getting longer and longer, and I knew it was probably never going to end. But I couldn't put it aside. I kept stopping and starting other stuff, and as soon as I hit a difficulty with something new, I would think: Well, I should be working on this other one. And finally, the movie version of A Simple Plan came out, and I got screenwriting offers. I kind of chose that, to do more screenwriting instinctively, to break from this thousand-page thing that I'd created."
Screenwriting and novel writing couldn't be more different. Writing a novel is all about the prose and the plot, and much of it happens inside characters' minds. Screenwriting is all about the scene, and all of it happens on the outside. They're not about thinking; they're about action.
When I've jumped back and forth between the two, I always miss one when I'm doing the other -- the grass is always greener -- but writing one always screws up my ability to write the other, at least for a while. Turns out Smith suffers from the same affliction.
"With The Ruins," he said, "I'd been away from prose writing long enough that I felt I really lacked confidence. Even starting the book, part of me was thinking this is just an exercise or a practice run or something. Which I think is part of the reason it wasn't outlined, like A Simple Plan. Every day I would write a little further into the story and allow what I had written to be the platform for what would come. Eventually I got far enough in that I sat down and plotted out the rest."
The rest, as it turns out, is pretty fantastic. If you don't want to take my word for it, ask author Stephen King, who has called The Ruins the book of the summer.
I'd be willing to bet that King's admiration is founded not in the novel's frightfest qualities, but in the way Smith has written the tale. It unfolds as one long story, almost as if he's telling it around a campfire, with a flashlight pointed up at his face. It's got a sense of quiet, and reads as though it's being whispered aloud. While there are breaks in the narrative, there are no real chapter delineations. Instead, short sections are offered, from one of the four main characters' point of view.
To me, that's one of the most admirable things about The Ruins: the varying viewpoints. Smith doesn't seem to do the round-robin as a gimmick, but because it seems necessary to tell the tale that way.
Smith told me how he fell into that. "Again, because of the way I started to write it, I wasn't so focused on how to create this novel. I was just playing with it. The first section is sort of floating, and then I shifted into Amy's point of view. At that point I didn't know whether it was going to be Amy's story or It was just instinctive, really. But again, it made it a lot more fun to write."
The effect is that there's a wonderful, and sometimes shocking, juxtaposition between the ridiculous and the truly horrific. Part of what stuns you as you read is that you're never quite sure what something will be until the moment it gets there: gut-busting or stomach-turning.
I suggested to him that one of the novel's primary drivers is the role of language. The four main characters are Americans vacationing in Cancun. They meet Mathias, a German, and Pablo, a Greek, so communication is sketchy at best. It's funny, watching these people try to work out how to make themselves understood across the language barrier.
When the plot sneaks up on them -- and I hesitate to reveal any of it here, except that there's this ... vine -- it's as if the malevolence they encounter is also a language away. The vine is certainly communicating, but just as the Greeks and the German don't get the Americans, none of them get the vine, either. When they all finally get the message, of course, it's far too late. Understanding is bitter, and it brings with it a most undesired resolution.
The Ruins moves slowly and deliberately. Indeed, the action here unfolds almost luxuriously, even when it leaves you breathless, unable to turn the pages fast enough.
"I think that's something I learned as I went into it," Smith said. "I'd write some scenes much more quickly and cover the same amount of ground with less words. And I realized that things became more suspenseful the more drawn out they were. And every time I was having problems with a scene, it seemed like it was better to slow it down, which I think did -- in a weird, inverse way -- create more suspense."
Stephen King nailed it. The Ruins really is the book of the summer. But not because it'll scare the bejesus out of you -- it will -- and not because it's crafted so perfectly -- it is -- and not even because it'll draw you in, page by page, closing tighter and tighter around you, until your mouth and eyes are all O-shaped and your mind is just about unable to conceive of the fact that you've made it out alive. The Ruins is the book of the summer because, put simply, it's so good that it'll ruin every other book's chances. | July 2006
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.