First and foremost, before any other introduction, it is important to know that Christopher Bernard's monstrous, sprawling, magnificent epic novel, A Spy in the Ruins, is difficult in the extreme. There are no free passes given, no easy routes allowed. The earliest parts of the novel are among the hardest, with harsh penalties handed out to those foolish readers who dare allow their attention to stray. For the diligent reader the rewards are great, for the scope of Bernard's work is as large as his talent with words. As with many difficult endeavors, the benefits are there for those who wish to plumb A Spy in the Ruins’ depths. Walk with trepidation, yes – but please, walk. This is a novel to be savored.
The work is split into ten parts. The first two parts show the mind of a child simmering in the culture and history and information of the world of the adults, where everything is said but nothing is known – at least, not by the child. Parts three and four coalesce into a narrative as though because the child is becoming a teenager – with the requisite sexual urges, supreme arrogance and incessant curiosity – it is not enough merely for sense impressions; sentences and stories are now required to make sense of the world. After these birthing sections of the work, A Spy in the Ruins settles into a more formal structure, allowing the breathing space of consistent and coherent scenes, and extended examinations of character and situations.
The concept of the outsider is one explored heavily throughout the text. Bernard has weaved together a number of mini-stories that serve to highlight the different ways in which loneliness has become the de facto standard of life in America's post-WWII. The inability to be understood by others is no longer just for the strange or timid, or for the faint of heart – no, it has become an aspect of existence for those who are simply unfortunate enough to possess a heart, those stalwart few who are willing to say No! to prevailing conditions and suffer because of it. Expectations are fostered in children and teenagers as the grandeur of an endless age of prosperity instills a sense that someday, somehow, the future that you wish will be the one you achieve. Bernard is relentless, and relentlessly sympathetic, in highlighting the tale of sadness that occurs when, as an adult, you realize that life does not, in fact, play by your rules. Happiness is not a given, and achievement is not always much of an achievement at all.
The writing style is challenging, though not without its beauty. A random sample of text, taken from page 33, when the novel itself has been chaotically exploded:
'Words clustered according to structures of grammar over which the speaker had no ultimate control. Association was free only to a point. Which was as frustrating as it was reassuring. Or will be. The roses on the trellis near the birdbath in the forgotten corner of the garden. Night light. I played a game of stones on a sort of frame of random parallels. We bared our bleeding wrists to the moon and the long sleep of the bees.' Bernard's style is dense, both in the layers of meaning he applies to his scenes as well as the construct of his sentences and the usage of grammar. Such a technique requires an acceptance of risk, which means that some parts of the text often feel flatter than the rest. Yet who can argue with a sentence like, 'Paper napkins in an origami of crushed animals'?
Throughout the novel, metaphors sprout legs and take over the story, running along with the text: 'A book ducked in a puddle bloating obscenely its pages open like a whore from her inner elbow a needle slips into the gutter near her hand. Tiny cake of blood. Oil on the surface of the water. Tangled hair and cigarette butts in the sewer drain.' Ideas birth ideas, which in turn create avenues of exploration for the author.
At times it seems as though the story of post-WWII American life itself is what is being dissected on the page. Disaffection permeates the text in almost every aspect, with each of the character possessing a certain level of disgruntled indignation toward the government, their parents, their girlfriends, themselves. Authority is questioned partly because it is authority, but also because it sometimes seems as if all the high-flown promises have turned into nothing but floating balloons, drifting away in the sky to we know not where - certainly not to here. What happened to the promise of the nation? What happened to the promise of intellect, study, hard work, love, grace, charm, vigor? Bernard's view is not wholly bleak, though he certainly respects (with an admittedly ironic wink) those who remain on the fringe despite all that is arrayed against them. And he does, emphatically, love books:
'To read was...to live through the dream of another to multiple one's life into a host of shadowy figures on a perpetually shifting stage to become everything one saw looking back at one like an audience in a theatre divided in half for each half the other was the stage for each half the other half was the audience they were forever fluctuating back and for between the dramatic pose and applause.'
A deep intelligence runs through A Spy in the Ruins. The effort a reader is willing to put in to the text is exactly matched by the rewards dispensed by the author. Many parts come across as chaotic and ill-formed, similar to a Surrealist painting – which means, of course, that there is form for those who look. Other sections are written in the style of a collection of film shots, and there are sections that are composed entirely of dialogue between disembodied characters. Plot, in an overall sense, is made coherent through the character of the reader, not the characters themselves. The last paragraph of Bernard's work is an exhortation to the reader that it is time for them to pick up the torch and actively engage themselves in what they hold dear. It is a cry for assistance, yes, but also for independence, for freedom, for the willingness to say no to what has gone before and yes to what can come in the future if only we'd let it. So: Your turn.