Mat Osman's mystery, The Ruins, turns excess into artistry.
In discussing The Blue Hour, the 2018 release from the pioneering Britpop band Suede, I jokingly describe the album as being "Most". The Ruins, the debut novel by the aforementioned band's bassist and co-founder Mat Osman, could be described in a similar fashion.
Packed into its 390 pages are a model of an imaginary city, complete with its own lore; the schemes of a dead man intimated through Soundcloud links and message board trollings; pop stars with digital voice boxes; an attempt to forge one of the most famous unreleased records of all time; and a hotel so obscure and exclusive that I suspected my bank account was draining by simply reading about it. Homages, from the Cramps to the Kray Twins, abound. If this sounds overly ambitious, it is. It also happens to be very good.
The Ruins' plot is straightforward enough: the reclusive Adam receives word that his estranged identical twin, Brandon, was murdered en route to his flat in Notting Hill, London. The caddish Brandon had run out on his girlfriend Rae and ten-year-old son while vacationing at Lake Tahoe, California.
Brandon also happened to be the former frontman of an unknown indie band called Remote / Control. How unknown? The papers didn't even report his murder. In an attempt to help Rae gain some clarity on Brandon's death, Adam poses as his brother, a choice that leads him into a decadent and debauched world of deception very far removed from Adam's solitary, model-building life. All in all, it's a pretty standard plot for a noirish crime novel, but particular themes and the sheer quality of the writing restrain it from becoming too imitative or tropey.
The Ruins' use of new media is one of the more obvious examples of this. Despite its almost overpowering presence in our lives, incorporating the web and its effect on our lives into fiction is a challenge that only a small amount of writers have accepted. In a 2017 article for The Telegraph, "What will 'the great internet novel' Be Like?", Orlando Bird writes, "While fictional characters are squinting at a screen, they can't be doing many of the things that might make a novel interesting. And does the internet itself – a fully formed alternative world, with its own pre-emptively metaphorical language – leave much for the novelist to do?"
When the internet appears in contemporary fiction, it's often to signify unsavory characteristics such as short attention spans and shallowness. But in Osman's The Ruins, the internet gives him plenty to work with. For one, it's a crucial tool in exposing Brandon's motives and moves in the story. His digital footprint travels from SoundCloud to text files to posts on foreign social media sites and everywhere in between. This forms a multimedia puzzle that becomes more coherent as reader and characters follow the hyperlinks together. Although the discoveries are sometimes a little too neat (and chronological), it's a unique workaround to the fiction writer's internet dilemma.
The Ruins also uses the internet to support its themes of imitation and deception. Adam watches interviews of his late brother to help him imitate more convincingly. He also poses as his brother when Skyping with Brandon's son. The unreleased Beach Boys album, Smile, is painstakingly recreated to the point that even Brian Wilson's biographer can't tell that it's fake. Brandon's schemes unfold not only through SoundCloud uploads but through fake Youtube accounts and messageboard trollings. Osman consistently depicts the internet as a place where endless roles can be assumed and where all content risks carrying with it some level of falsity. He also has a wonderful way of pinning words to the invisible -- "The pulse of wi-fi networks and the spiralling tracer shells of mobile data" -- and describing its pockets of desolation and mania:
The use of various forms of media also provides crucial assistance in developing The Ruins' primary characters. As the narrative alternates between Adam and Brandon -- and Adam seems a bit boring and Brandon a bit of a jerk -- following them over nearly 400 pages may seem like an endurance test. Adam never completely gelled for me beyond his readings from The Book of Umbrage, the fictional history for his model city. Brandon writes more articulately than 98% of internet commenters, but his raging self-importance is all too familiar to anyone who has ever read a tweet. The character also embodies a strain of artistic resentment not entirely unknown to other hard working artists who have never gotten their due.
By the time the chapter "Some Monsterism" rolls around, I find myself delighting in this charming deadbeat's gleeful debauchery. While crashing at the LA home of Dillon Marksman, a significantly more famous musician with enough self-righteousness to rival Bono, Brandon sees Marksman on TV, "the VJ asking him if he might be the heir to Ridley Scott. The sheer fucking chutzpah of his wink to the camera was enough for me to order eight jeroboams of champagne from his account and distribute them to bums on the street."
What ensues is Brandon's "finest work", a party so apocalyptic that the pool water turns blood red. Sometimes the act of destruction can be as fulfilling and thrilling as the act of creating.
But what thrilled me most about The Ruins was Osman's ability to tell a multilayered tale and his way with describing just about anything -- web pages, making music, the sky over Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas croupiers. If I wasn't familiar with Osman's day job, I would have no problem believing he was solely a novelist. Although The Ruins sometimes risks collapsing under its own weight, it somehow turns its excess into artistry. It may be Most, but I'm left hoping there's more.