fil·a·ment noun \ˈfi-lə-mənt\ :
a single thread or thin flexible threadlike
object, attaching one thing to another.
I loved Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins. Probably because of the perfect clarity of the writing and the wonderful characters. But, there was something else I loved equally well. I’ll call this something else a “filament,” for want of a better word.
Beautiful Ruins is a threaded narrative, a common narrative structure I’ve seen in other novels. For example, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a threaded narrative. A threaded narrative presents the story through a series of intertwined “threads.” These intertwined threads may have a different set of characters or they may occur in differing time frames or in differing locales (and any combination of these things may be the case). Each thread is presented one following the other, switching back and forth between them. Egan, for example, switches between five main characters and ranges widely across many years. She even switches literary points-of-view (some chapters are first person, some second person, some third person, and some power-point presentations).
Walter’s book exhibits a similar structure, alternating between the present day story of Michael Deane, Shane Wheeler and Claire Silver (the Deane Party) set in Southern California and the story of Pasquale Tursi, Dee Moray and Richard Burton, set in the Cinqua Terre of 1950s Italy.
Unlike Egan’s book, the threads in Walter’s book are easy to follow. Each chapter begins with an epigraph showing the time and place of the thread. Some chapters are excerpts of novels or plays. For example the first chapter of Alvis Bender’s book, The Smile of Heaven, appears as its own chapter. These chapters are easily understood because the reader has previously encountered them. This previous introduction is an example of what I mean by “filament.” The fact that we’ve previously learned about Alvis Bender’s book before it appears makes it familiar.
Walter uses these filaments, as I’ve called them, frequently. (I found more than 100 examples.) With these filaments he weaves his narrative together.
For example, Pasquale, when he first appears at Michael Deane’s office, is carrying an “ancient, wrinkled and stained” business card with Michael’s signature (36). Previously, we are told that a “signed Michael Deane business card is a form of currency” (29). When Pasquale hands Claire the business card, it makes perfect sense. The business card thrusts us into the opposing thread. As Dee Moray disembarks the boat in Porto Vergagna, she hands Pasquale a piece of paper with “Michael Deane, special production assistant,” written on it (11). The difference (and the similarity) between the piece of paper and the newer business card leads the reader to surmise, without being told, that Michael Deane and Pasquale have had further involvement. The detail knits the two time frames together and informs each of them.
This happens all the time in this book.
More examples: Pat Bender’s cleft chin, which, when we first encounter it, reminds us he is Richard Burton’s son, who had been previously described as having a cleft chin (203); the baby announcement that Pasquale carries with him helps us remember that Dee Moray was pregnant, and in fact, informs us, 50 years later, that Dee did not have the abortion, a fact we had not yet learned in the other thread (149); Edinburgh’s “entire history… [as] an attempt to get better vantage, a piece of high ground” (165) reflects the ruins of the gun-turret at the top of the cliff at Porto Vergogna; Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier’s discussions about the pure art of acting in the theatre vs. the corruption of acting in the movies reflects Claire’s pending decision about her job (172, 176); the fact that Alvis Bender owns a car dealership is horribly reflected when he dies in a car crash (271).
There are so many examples of interconnecting filaments that I lost track.
If the events in the narrative are the warp of the story, these interconnecting filaments are the weft. These filaments, these tiny, seemingly inconsequential details, appear in both threads. They inform the opposing thread as much as they inform the current thread.
For me, as a reader, these connections between the two threads serve not only as a source of information and a source of meaning as to what is going on, they also serve as a constant source of entertainment.
Before I finish my paper I want to more clearly define what I mean by filament. A filament, for me, in this paper, is any object or idea, introduced in one thread of a threaded narrative that appears later in another thread, and, in that other thread, helps the reader understand the story more deeply.
Other examples of these filaments are: the Deane Party / Donner Party equation (289); Lugo the Hero, who turns out to be a real life hero in the Battle of Porto Vergogna (281); Pasquale lowering his head to his chest in resignation, reflecting the way Pat does the same thing in the play (309); the sterility of the art museum vs. the messiness of real life and how it reflects on Claire’s decision to quit working for Michael (331). There are many more.
The funniest example, however, is Michael Deane’s Viagra® induced “rising flag of Iwo Jima.” While trying to be amorous with his wife, Michael is interrupted and called to his office to meet Claire, Shane and Pasquale (91). He throws his coat over his silk pajamas and rushes to the office. Fifty nine pages later Walter writes a single, perfect sentence: “Michael adjusts his heavy coat over his pajama pants. ‘Now, I’ve got to get home to Mrs. Deane’ ” (150). Walter reminds us, with a slim, tenuous filament, of Michael Deane’s state of affairs prior to being interrupted.
It is this attention to detail, this tidying up of every loose thread, that I find so satisfying about this book.
Dictionary.com Definition for Filament. http://www.dictionary.com (accessed 10 15, 2012).
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Walter, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. New York, NY: HaperCollins, 2012.