Close quarters: ‘Blue Ruin,’ by Hari Kunzru

Olivia Kane

Coming out of the pandemic, one could be forgiven for not wanting to dive into a novel set during that not-so distant past. Hari Kunzru’s Blue Ruin, however, vividly captures the anxiety of a world in quarantine while simultaneously offering a riveting glimpse into the lives of artists struggling to survive.

Jay, the protagonist of Blue Ruin (Knopf; $28), is a former artist who finds himself delivering groceries to the wealthy in upstate New York. After contracting COVID-19, his hard-hearted New York City landlord casts him out of his apartment. It is under these circumstances that he makes a delivery to a house where he comes face to face with Alice, his long-ago ex from art school. Both are wearing masks. Naturally, Alice and Jay are shocked by this chance encounter. After some hesitation, Jay accepts Alice’s request that he stay in a small barn house on the expansive property where Alice and her husband Rob are quarantining. To complicate matters, Rob is Jay’s former friend and art school compatriot.

Jay, not completely recovered from COVID-19, spends weeks recuperating in the barn. Alice occasionally visits, but otherwise he seems to lie undisturbed in a dream-like trance during which memories of his banishment from New York City, his years working menial jobs, and his art school days come back to him vividly. Kunzru doesn’t romanticize the memories, instead accurately depicting the desire of young artists who want to be successful without selling out.

Kunzru looks back at their lives as aspiring artists in a decaying factory in London where “the windows were filled with scuffed glass bricks, murky with decades of city grime, and the daylight that filtered through was no more than an anemic glow.” Yet the apartment where Jay and Alice live is hardly better. “The empty rooms smelled moldy. The walls spawned stains and discolorations that might or might not have been tricks of the mind.” The dirty rooms that Jay, Alice, and Rob find themselves in as students show just how devoted the characters are to the art community. The sheer size and scale of the estate where Jay, Rob, Alice and the other houseguests, Marshal and Nicole, find themselves twenty years later stands in direct contrast with the claustrophobic spaces that the characters once inhabited. Not only has Rob become famous for his large-scale paintings, but the property is extensive enough to house multiple outdoor art installations, allowing him greater artistic freedom.

Kunzru subverts and complicates this reading by setting the novel during the pandemic. The isolation in which Rob and Alice find themselves implies that an artist’s life might in fact be limited to a series of isolated spaces. Perhaps the whole point of art is trying to find a way through these spaces. Blue Ruin suggests that space and wealth mean nothing if an artist’s mind is confined by outside forces, be they a pandemic or the return of a scorned friend.

Kunzru is good at exploring the life of an artist—as he did in his previous novel, Red Pill—but he devotes less attention to other characters. Marshal and Nicole’s personalities are little explored. Jay has decided to tell these characters the story of where he spent the last twenty years of life—a mystery that has confounded the art community—but what about Marshal and Nicole make them worthy of hearing his account? Marshal is largely defined by a tendency for vulgar outbursts and a proclivity to believe in conspiracy theories. Nicole has many tense phone calls home and, unlike Marshal, is hyper-fixated on actual news. Although Jay apparently views Marshal and Nicole through their interactions with Alice and Rob, he ultimately draws conclusions about them that seem to suggest he has a deeper understanding of them—an understanding the reader is left out of. Nonetheless, Blue Ruin ultimately succeeds as a portrait of the pandemic, a time when so many of us were confined to close quarters, forced to get along with one another, much like the characters who come into conflict in this bracing and disquieting novel.

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