Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter


This story, of lost love and missed chances and lives that turn out pretty good nonetheless, is rather absorbing. The narrative jumps from Italy to Hollywood to Seattle to London, decade to decade, covering a lot of ground, but one passage that I found particularly compelling was an anecdote from a character who, though important to the story, is not a central player. Alvis's passage relates to the sense of futility one sometimes feels as an artist:

[He] went for a walk, looking for the clearing where his old unit had gotten into the firefight. There, he came across a landscape painter doing a sketch of an old barn. But the young man was drawing the barn upside down. Alvis thought maybe there was something wrong with the man, some sort of brain damage, and yet there was a quality to his work that drew Alvis in, a disorientation that seemed familiar.

'The eye sees everything upside down,' the artist explained, 'and then the brain automatically reverses it. I'm just trying to put it back the way the mind sees it.'

Alvis stared into the drawing for a long time. He even thought about buying it, but he realized that if he hung it this way, upside down, people would just turn it over. This, he decided, was also the problem with the book he hoped to write. He could never write a standard war book; what he had to say about the war could only be told upside down, and then people would probably just miss the point and try to turn it right side up again.

Well, yes, I suppose they may -- but what about the one person who marvels at your upended masterpiece?