Jim Crace 1946-
English novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Crace's career through 2001.
Acclaimed as one of the most original voices in contemporary British literature, Crace writes vividly imagined stories that explore themes of community and change. Taking inspiration from magic realist writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Crace has eschewed trends in British literature toward realistic social commentary, choosing instead to set his stories either in completely imaginary worlds or in highly fictionalized renderings of historical periods, such as Stone Age Britain in The Gift of Stones (1988) and biblical Jerusalem in Quarantine (1997). Crace peoples his richly textured tales with well-defined groups of characters; in some cases each character represents a different culture, in others each represents a different strata of the same culture. The groups Crace depicts—whether entire societies or loosely formed conglomerations—are typically on the brink of watershed events, such as irrevocable economic, technological, and political changes in his early novels, or deeply personal crises and metamorphoses in later works. Though Crace's settings are often fanciful, his fiction examines serious cultural and political issues and retains a genuine social relevance.
Crace was born in Lemsford, England, to Charles and Edith Crace. Crace's father was a self-educated laborer and avowed socialist and atheist who believed that the arts belonged as much to the working class as to the upper class. Crace credits his father with inspiring his own strong work ethic, love of books, and left-wing political views. Crace attended the Birmingham College of Commerce (now the University of Central England), which, at the time, offered external degrees from the University of London. After earning a bachelor's degree with honors from the University of London in 1968, Crace joined the Voluntary Services Overseas program, the British equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corps. For the next two years, Crace wrote and produced programs for Sudanese Educational Television in Khartoum, and then taught English to secondary school students in Botswana. The impact of this cross-cultural experience would later be reflected in Crace's fiction. After returning to England, Crace began a career in journalism, soon taking foreign assignments for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. In the early 1970s, Crace met Pamela Ann Turton, an English teacher, whom he married in January 1975. The couple settled in Birmingham, where they had two children. Around the time of his marriage, Crace began writing short stories, publishing three in the literary magazine New Review. He continued to work as a journalist while gradually building a solid critical reputation as a fiction writer and, in the mid-1980s, signed a book contract. His debut book, Continent (1986), was well received and won several British literary awards, including the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the David Higham Prize for fiction, and an award from the Arts Council of Britain. At that point, Crace began writing fiction full-time and, two years later, published The Gift of Stones, which won the GAP International Award for Literature. His subsequent publications also won several awards: Quarantine received the Whitbread Novel of the Year award in 1997 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize; Being Dead (1999) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the Whitbread Novel of the Year award. Throughout his career as a novelist, Crace has retained the political fervor of his youth, taking active roles in numerous liberal causes, including the anti-apartheid and nuclear disarmament movements. He has also served on various arts committees and panels, and has continued to write occasional nonfiction pieces for journals such as the Sunday Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Conde Nast Traveller.
In terms of structure, tone, and particularly setting, each of Crace's books is markedly different from his other works. Yet, despite their contrasting literary styles, each work typically centers around a meditation on change, whether technological, political, personal, or natural. Continent is set on an imaginary third-world landmass, inhabited by a culture completely of Crace's own invention. This fictional continent is a technologically undeveloped region, where ancient customs are still largely intact. In the book—which some classify as a novel and others classify as a short story collection—Crace presents seven loosely interrelated stories, each depicting the impact of a particular element of Western culture or technology on the continent's inhabitants. The tone ranges from the ironic—a scribe is reduced to selling forgeries of his own work to meet demands of antiquities collectors—to the tragic—a man cools his house with an electric airplane propeller with gruesome results. Though the stories are sometimes narrated by the characters as they experience changes, Crace resists passing judgment on their situations, preferring to allow the characters and events to speak for themselves. In The Gift of Stones, Crace focuses on the cultural upheaval wrought by a single technological innovation—the introduction of bronze. Set at the end of the Stone Age, the novel features two narrators, a one-armed father and his stepdaughter, both storytellers who are members of a tribe that builds and sells stone tools. The surrounding tribes in the area depend on the insular stone-workers and keep them safe from marauders. However, as bronze begins to emerge as a preferred material for tools, the stone-workers, with their technology rendered obsolete, are severely jeopardized. In the end, only the father, who has some knowledge of the outside world, is equipped to help the stone-workers adapt, though he knows that as the stone-worker culture vanishes so will the need for his stories. Crace's next novel, Arcadia (1991), is more detached and its structure more schematic. Likewise, the novel's driving cultural change comes not as the result of evolution, but rather by the decree of an individual. Set in the present in a nameless European city, the novel follows Victor, a bitter eighty-nine-year-old millionaire who wishes to replace the old Soap Market—the city's vital but ramshackle economic heart—with Arcadia, a sterile shopping mall of his own devising. Victor's mall is a commercial success, but at the expense of the community of colorful characters who used to work at the old Soap Market. Eventually, the spiritual descendants of the displaced merchants develop an underground market that rivals Victor's. Arcadia features a deliberately complex structure, including many flashbacks and an omniscient central narrator, all devices that facilitate the exploration of equally complex themes surrounding economic change and growth. In contrast, Signals of Distress (1995) is a more light-hearted novel in which Crace relates a tragicomic tale of a community in upheaval. Set in 1836, the story unwinds over the period of weeks following the wreck of an American sailing ship near a poverty-stricken English port. The large cast of characters includes members of the American crew, a slave who cooks for them, a liberal-minded envoy from a soap factory, and a young woman who makes a meager living harvesting kelp. Each character has his or her own interests, but each is also the voice of a group: the New World, the old world, capitalists, workers, slaves, or free persons. As the story opens, the interests of these disparate groups are poised in delicate balance, which by the end is completely upset. Crace's next novel, Quarantine, is set in the biblical era and follows five troubled souls who have gathered at a spot in the Judean desert for forty days of purifying fasting and meditation. Among this group is Jesus—portrayed as a confused, religiously obsessed teenager—who quickly heals a wounded merchant who has taken refuge at the meditation ground. The merchant, Crace's representation of the devil, spends the rest of the forty days tormenting the pilgrims. In the end, most of the pilgrims are healed, seemingly by faith in Jesus's divinity, and the merchant is busy plotting to make a profit by selling tales of Jesus's works. Though Crace once again focuses on a group at the point of transition, the emphasis in Quarantine is on the personal nature of transformation rather than the political or economic mechanisms of change. Being Dead opens with the murder of a married couple on a beach, an event from which Crace runs three narrative threads: a graphic and poetic description of their decomposition; a flashback that recounts their lives together; and a flash-forward describing the effect that their deaths have on their daughter. Crace confronts the transition from life to death with vivid depictions of physical decay and a rigorous investigation of the types of “meaning” individual lives have in an indifferent universe. The Devil's Larder (2001) presents a series of sixty-four episodic stories about food—its preparation, consumption, defilement, and lethality—in which Crace explores the far reaches of human desire and curiosity.
Despite beginning his literary career fairly late in life, and having produced a relatively small body of work, Crace has been widely regarded as a fine prose writer worthy of serious critical attention. He is recognized for both the philosophical and political depth of his subject matter and for the technical sophistication of his literary style. Much of the critical debate surrounding Crace's work has focused on his style, particularly his prose technique and the narrative structures he employs. Several reviewers have described his writing as poetic. Crace often writes in two-beat iambs, a device that many critics have described as having an enchanting and hypnotic effect. Critics have found his use of iambs particularly effective in The Gift of Stones, in which Crace uses the poetic rhythms only during the father's public speeches, thus distinguishing them from the terse monosyllabic prose he uses in the rest of the book. In his other works, however, some critics have found Crace's iambs to be distracting, noting that his self-consciously stylized prose occasionally serves only to trivialize the seriousness of his subject matter. Critical opinion has been similarly divided on the subject of Crace's narrative techniques. Reviewers have agreed that Crace is a novelist of ideas and that his plots are always at the service of his dominant themes. Some commentators have faulted Crace for using narrative contrivances—such as omniscient narrators, flashbacks and flash-forwards, and overly neat symmetries—while other critics have described Crace's use of such devices as masterful. The complexly ordered plot of Being Dead, for instance, served his lyrical meditations on life and death to such an effective degree that some reviewers have ranked it as one of his most moving novels. However, Crace's use of similar devices elsewhere, particularly in Arcadia, has prompted critics to label him as a distant, clinical, and manipulative author. Overall, critical response to Crace's body of work has been marked by respect for his stylistic imagination, with some commentators having rather marked reservations about his tendency to let his technical prowess dominate his work.
Continent (short stories) 1986
The Gift of Stones (novel) 1988
Arcadia (novel) 1991
Signals of Distress (novel) 1995
The Slow Digestions of the Night (novella) 1995
Quarantine (novel) 1997
Being Dead (novel) 1999
The Devil's Larder (short stories) 2001
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SOURCE: Blades, John. “Blurbists Credited with Discovery of Continent.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 April 1987): 3.
[In the following review, Blades offers a positive assessment of Continent.]
As any critic will tell you, some of today's most imaginative fiction writing appears not in books but on book jackets. Because these testimonials (aka blurbs) come from the author's friends and fellow writers, who may just happen to share a publisher, agent or accountant, they usually have all the credibility of nutrition ratings on cereal boxes. But some blurbs prove too seductive to ignore.
When a book arrives with endorsements from writers such as John Fowles (“a remarkable first novel”) and John Hawkes (“gifted beyond belief”), you can be sure that a critic (this one, anyway) is going to wake up and take notice. Without all the fanfare, I would probably have missed Jim Crace's Continent, despite its having won three prestigious awards and “taken England by storm.”
For Crace, or any other beneficiary of advance raves, these blessings can be mixed. If the book doesn't live up to the lavish promises, it's sure to lead to hard feelings, complaints about deceptive packaging, even nasty reviews. Well, Crace has little to worry about. The only serious complaint he's likely to get about his “first novel” is that it's not a novel at all but a collection...
(The entire section is 658 words.)
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SOURCE: Stonehill, Brian. Review of Continent, by Jim Crace. Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 April 1987): 4.
[In the following review, Stonehill offers a positive assessment of Continent.]
Here are seven related short stories that arrive on our shores already wreathed in praise. Jim Crace's Continent won England's Whitbread Prize for the best first “novel” of 1986, and the David Higham Prize for the year's best first work of fiction. Continent seems more strangely native to our New World, though, than to the Old.
The stories take place, for one thing, in an exotic locale that seems to be Latin American, although the fanciful names suggest some generic Third World. And Crace dips his pen in an unstable mixture of fiction and fact, a blend made popular south of the border by the “magical realists” of the Latin American “boom.”
In “Cross Country,” for instance, a visiting Canadian schoolteacher, who amuses the villagers by his jogging, is suddenly pitted in a dramatic footrace against a native on horseback. Government soldiers in another story whisk an innocent man off the street into prison—where he succeeds in taking ingenious revenge. History and fantasy intertwine playfully here, and frighteningly. Like the mythical village of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fiction, this Continent is another “intricate stew of...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
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SOURCE: Pei, Lowry. Review of Continent, by Jim Crace. Boston Review 12, no. 4 (August 1987): 30–31.
[In the following review, Pei offers a positive assessment of Continent.]
Jim Crace's Continent is an artful bulletin from a part of the world, and a state of human awareness, that we cannot afford to ignore. It is a thin book, originally published in England, that comes with enough praise written on its back to sink a larger one. The writers quoted on its dust jacket seem to have a hard time defining what they obviously admire; Crace is compared to no less than five different authors in an effort to capture the essence of his fiction.
The book's epigraph reads, “There and beyond is a seventh continent. … And its business is trade and superstition”; seven pieces of fiction taking place on this nonexistent land mass make up the book. These short narratives, four in the first person and three in the third, have no characters or events in common. What nevertheless holds the book together and gives satisfaction is, as the title suggests, a place, not so much geographical as historical and psychic—the extracted essence of a part of the world. It is situation, rather than characters or plot, that we become involved with as we read.
The time is the present; the rest of the world is apparently the world we know. Crace's nameless continent communicates...
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SOURCE: Kearns, George. “Post-Colonial Fiction: Our Custom is Different.” Hudson Review 40, no. 3 (autumn 1987): 487–94.
[In the following excerpt, Kearns offers a positive assessment of Continent, though objects to its dubious classification as a novel.]
The empire strikes back. We hear of a threatening entity, the “Pacific rim,” whose principal market we have become. The Japanese have rescued the Treasury from embarrassment. What will it be like, what is it like, to be a “debtor nation”? Dour heads on television warn that in our own immense way we are following Britain toward an age of humbled decline. May it be genteel, so gradual that we hardly notice, on any particular morning, what we can no longer afford. Meanwhile, there remains, at every point of the compass, the expensive, untidy, dangerous heritage of Western imperialism, which we can neither wind up nor wind down. Such is the potential for drama in memories of the colonial scene and in its aftermath—for nostalgia and guilt, bravery and aggression, ironies of manners, morals and language—that inevitably some of the most compelling modern fiction is a post-colonial pondering. Four of the more interesting books that have come my way for this review, all quite unlike each other, unite a fineness of art with post-imperial themes. …
In Jim Crace's Continent, an old Siddilic calligrapher, supreme...
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SOURCE: Deveson, Richard. “The Prehistoric Future.” Times Literary Supplement (2–8 September 1988): 952.
[In the following review, Deveson offers a generally positive assessment of The Gift of Stones, comparing the novel to William Golding's The Inheritors.]
How did Stone Age people speak, how did they tell stories, and—if, like Jim Crace, you are a writer independent-minded enough to set a novel in the Stone Age—should you try to imitate them? In The Inheritors, William Golding's narrative idiom was surprisingly simple, enabling his reconstruction of a Neanderthal thought-world to seem correspondingly far-reaching and credible. On the face of it, Crace's method in The Gift of Stones (which follows his first, widely acclaimed book, Continent) is more dramatic in a purely stylistic sense. He avoids as many Latinate words as he can, and crams the book instead with Germanic monosyllables thick with fricatives and stops: hoof, wrack, scalp, knap, rind, tump, knot, sloth, cluck. When characters speak, they don't waste words: “Why not me?” “They pay. That's why.” “I'll pay.” “Come in. We'll talk.” When they tell stories, on the other hand, they become bardic and alliterative.
I could invent for you a sea and wind and sky that flung saltweed in my face and emptied water from the pools and cast a light so dark and...
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SOURCE: Kamine, Mark. “A Prehistoric Tale.” New Leader (20 March 1989): 20–21.
[In the following review, Kamine offers a positive assessment of The Gift of Stones.]
Jim Crace has written a short novel about growing up in a prehistoric village—a Stone Age Bildungsroman. This is less odd than it sounds given the settings of the stories in his first book, an award-winner in his native England, entitled Continent. Equal parts mock anthropology, V. S. Naipaul and Jorge Luis Borges, it pitted primitive societies against modern ones with good ironic effect.
The Gift of Stones drops the modern as well as most of the irony. While the contrast is missed, the author demonstrates that a vividly imagined, artfully rendered primitiveness is enough. The novel's hero is the village storyteller, its narrator his adoptive daughter (who has adopted him and his role.) She quotes from and paraphrases her father, and occasionally fills in what he misses or cautions the reader not to trust too completely in what he is saying.
Crace has been careful to keep this double narration from getting out of hand. We have ample opportunity to mull over questions of art versus life, fact versus fiction. More crucially, we are told a compelling tale of primitive life in a suitably hard and surprisingly poetic prose.
The villagers are stone knappers,...
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SOURCE: Glasser, Perry. “A Stone Age Storyteller Speaks from the Dawn of Narrative Art.” Chicago Tribune Books (16 April 1989): 6.
[In the following review, Glasser offers a positive assessment of The Gift of Stones.]
If you share Jim Crace's concerns for language and ideas, The Gift of Stones will seem rich broth. This novel is wonderfully lucid, often musical and always thought-provoking.
In a pre-metal age, in a village by the sea, the members of a community work flint. They are impervious to attack from the horsemen who need their weapons; they prosper because merchants prize their tools for trade. When a young boy loses half his arm to a gratuitous act of violence and is incapable of working stone, he grows to manhood as a storyteller. The earnest artisans of the village grudgingly value him and his stories because his imagination enables even the dullest among them to transcend time and place, the reality that mires them in the drudgery of work.
The storyteller ranges not very far and not very wide of the village, though his horizons are farther than any in his audience. During his travels he meets and befriends an unfortunate woman and her daughter, and all three eventually return to the village, now fallen on hard times. Mysteriously, the woman is slain by an arrow whose head is bronze, and so her death foretells the village's demise. The artisans in...
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SOURCE: Pei, Lowry. Review of The Gift of Stones, by Jim Crace. Boston Review 14, no. 4 (August 1989): 23–24.
[In the following review, Pei offers a negative assessment of The Gift of Stones.]
Jim Crace's first book, Continent, was a group of stories taking place in the present on a fictitious continent at the world's margin; his present book, The Gift of Stones, takes place on a nameless coast on the outskirts of time—at the juncture between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The subject of Continent was the Third World, oppression, colonialism—extreme situations, tragic and comic turns; the subject of The Gift of Stones is bleakness and storytelling, and its tone never varies.
The world of this book is even more marginal than that of Continent; it is a prehistoric village of stone-workers who find themselves, at book's end, made superfluous by the coming of bronze tools. The novel's unnamed protagonist is a man who cannot work stone because he has lost an arm and instead becomes a storyteller, the entertainer of penurious “stoneys” that instinctively mistrust the imagination. The narrator is his daughter—not by blood but by virtue of the protagonist's long and generally bitter association with her mother, Doe, who lives mainly by bartering sex for food. The protagonist is already a “stew of idleness and insolence.” As a boy he...
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SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Serendipity.” Hudson Review 42, no. 4 (winter 1990): 659–66.
[In the following excerpt, Krist offers a positive assessment of The Gift of Stones.]
I first came upon the word “serendipitous” serendipitously. I was looking up the spelling of “sequoia” in my dictionary—for a junior high school paper, if I remember correctly—and, well, I got distracted. The words in sequoia's vicinity were fascinating: Seraglio, the place in a Mohammedan palace where the wives and concubines are secluded. Serein, a very fine rain falling from a clear sky after sunset. And serendipitous, defined as good, beneficial, favorable; come upon by accident; of or pertaining to the making of desirable but unsought discoveries. The fact that I unearthed this last word in such a self-referential way seemed almost incredibly auspicious. So I adopted the word, used it three times and it was mine. That evening, I referred to my older brother's unexpected absence from the dinner table as “a serendipitous development.”
The idea of serendipity has been with me ever since, informing my travels, my movie-going, and especially my reading habits. Some of my favorite books have been those I've plucked almost at random off the bookstore shelves, or found under piles of sandy newspapers in beach houses, or been sent accidentally by somewhat disorganized book clubs. Hence the particular...
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SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Hurrying Back to Nature.” Times Literary Supplement (13 March 1992): 22.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones offers a positive assessment of Arcadia.]
Joseph, the youngest of the three main characters in Jim Crace's fascinating new novel [Arcadia], a country boy newly arrived in the metropolis, sees in his new surroundings the opposite of a logic of place:
Some fool, in fact, had built this city on the worst of sites. Where was the fish-stocked estuary, the river bridge, the sheltered harbour, the pass between two hills, the natural crossroads in the land where ancient settlements were meant to be? Where was the seam of coal to make the city rich? Where were the hummocks and escarpments to make the city safe? Where was the panoramic view to make the city spiritual, a holy place? What made this thirsty, ill-positioned city—too southerly to benefit from hops, too northerly for grapes—so rich and large? The answer crowded him at every step. It caught his shins. It bustled him from side to side. The market place! A city with no natural virtues is reduced to trade. …
Typical of the book is this passage's register—the fullness of expression, irrespective of its source (country boy, no education), the stream of rhetorical questions, the nagging presence of blank-verse rhythms. Much less...
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SOURCE: Dyer, Geoff. “Word Salad.” New Statesman & Society (20 March 1992): 45.
[In the following review of Arcadia, Dyer cites shortcomings in the novel's linguistic excesses and corresponding lack of character development.]
Arcadia is the story of a city or, more precisely, the story of the market at the heart of the city, its produce and traders. The market is controlled by Victor who began life as a waif, surviving on kindness, guile and stall-holders' unwanted waste. Now a lonely 80-year-old millionaire, he rarely leaves the air-conditioned sanctuary of Big Vic, the office block where he plans to transform the teeming bustle of the market into the ambient efficiency of a vast arcade-cum-mall. If Victor's first years, as Jim Crace's garrulous narrator claims, “stand for all our city's woes,” then the woes latent in the scheme of his last years are represented by the traders whose lives will be swept away, like unwanted waste, by his plans.
Such a summary prepares you for a novel far less strange than the one actually encountered in these mossy pages. The style surprises from the start: a sort of cockney baroque, moving to within a beat or two of a constantly thwarted iambic tattoo; coming, at times, to the very brink of rhyme: “the garden was no place for him. He couldn't wait to reach Big Vic and his nebuliser's balsamed mist.” Rhetorical, shot through...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Nostalgia for the Mud.” Spectator (21 March 1992): 34.
[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of Arcadia.]
Jim Crace's first novel, Continent—recipient of the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the David Higham Prize, the Chianti-Ruffino/Antico Fattore Prize—was set in an imaginary country. Arcadia, his third novel, is set in an imaginary city, an amalgam, as it were, of Birmingham, Lyons and Milan.
From his eyrie, a private roof garden on the 28th floor of the headquarters of his business empire, 80-year-old Vic gazes down on this city, which, a remote yet sharp-eyed observer, he ‘knows as a hawk knows fields.’ What chiefly interests him is the market-place, full of noise, rubbish, inefficiency and waste, in which he once worked as a humble greengrocer's assistant and from which he started his slow, ruthless ascent to affluence and power. In that market-place his widowed mother, holding him, a four-year-old suckling, to her breast, would beg from passers-by; and in it, after she had been destroyed by a fire in the warren of slums in which they made their home, he himself, a weakly orphan, would peddle stolen eggs. His dream is to raze this market to the ground and to build another market, beautiful and elegant, to which he will give the name ‘Arcadia,’ since it will be a simulacrum of the...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Phantom of the Market.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 October 1992): 3, 12.
[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Arcadia.]
The true characters in the fiction of the British writer Jim Crace are not individuals but communities. In the superb and haunting The Gift of Stones, it was a late Stone Age clan of weapons-makers, uprooted and set to wandering by the advent of Bronze Age technology. In Arcadia, it is the barrow men and stall-holders of a fruit-and-vegetable market dating back to medieval times, who are displaced by the construction of a great glass arcade adorned with foliage and waterfalls, where food is sold in shiny packages.
Crace's writing is marked by a steely control, a sub-zero chilliness and a sense of impending explosion, as if cryonic conditions were necessary to set off some new kind of subatomic conflagration. His is the antiseptic order of an operating room where radical heart surgery is being performed.
He strips away particular references. He uses ages, not dates. Stones took place at any time during the fourth or fifth millennium before Christ; it took place on some nameless seacoast. Arcadia exists in a recognizable but unidentified near future. It is set in no particular country, though its climate seems to be subarctic and subtropical at the same time....
(The entire section is 1114 words.)
SOURCE: Olshan, Joseph. “Meet a Despotic Octogenarian and His Utopian Marketplace.” Chicago Tribune Books (15 November 1992): 3.
[In the following review, Olshan offers a positive assessment of Arcadia.]
Joining the literature of Utopia is this new entry from novelist Jim Crace, author of The Gift of Stones. Arcadia is a book that conjures up a marketplace so perfect that it dares to offer the experience of shopping as spiritual alternative:
Four spectacular glass ovals which seemed both like cakes and the domes of viscous mosques. … Nine tapering barrel-vaulted aisles—space-framed in wood and steel, space-glazed—radiated from the center without geometric logic but in the pleasing, balanced way that surface roots spread out from trees.
This description of a climate-controlled environment is the proposed architectural renovation for The Soap Market, a venerated fruit-and-vegetable bazaar that lies at the heart of Crace's offbeat yet masterly novel.
Located in an unnamed English city that rises monolithically out of a largely agrarian landscape, the market is owned by a despotic octogenarian named Victor, who, we are told, “lived on his mother's milk till he was six, and then he thrived on charity and trade.”
Victor's father dies before his birth and his mother, cast into...
(The entire section is 1039 words.)
SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “Cornering the Market.” New York Review of Books (3 December 1992): 14–16.
[In the following excerpt, Adams provides an overview of Continent and The Gift of Stones and offers a favorable review of Arcadia.]
Jim Crace is a British writer who has just published his third work of fiction without having made much impression in his first two. This seems likely to change soon. Born in London in 1946 but resident in Birmingham, Crace is apparently tied to no literary group of academic or political influence. Although our real business here is with his third work of fiction, Arcadia, a preliminary account of the first two, Continent and The Gift of Stones, may give some notion of where Jim Crace is coming from.
Continent contains seven short stories, all with a flavor of fantastic Africa. It doesn't have any big-game herds or very many naked jungle tribesmen. No geographical realities. Much of the African atmosphere is conveyed by names and titles, such as Corporal Beyat, 'Isra-kone, a district known as Ibela-hoy, a man called Warden Awni. Several of the stories describe the tragicomedies of semi-civilization, as when a minor official in an obscure village aspires to modernize his visitors' lodge, and installs a much too powerful electric fan. There is an almost clinical report on a tribe where all the women become...
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SOURCE: Wheeler, Edward T. “Modern Gardening.” Commonweal (18 June 1993): 26–27.
[In the following review of Arcadia, Wheeler praises Crace's prose style and powers of imagination, but finds technical flaws in the novel's omniscient narrator and inadequate conclusion.]
Jim Crace is of the same generation of British novelists as Martin Amis and Peter Ackroyd; and like them he is a chronicler of the city. Resemblances end quickly after that: where Amis (London Fields) is apocalyptic in theme and “postmodern” in form, Crace is generally affirmative and traditional. Unlike Ackroyd whose English Music seeks to tie London to the eternal English Imagination, Crace offers us a very earthy city, whose assurances are those of survival, of growth from decay. This is a carefully crafted book, one that seems as symmetrical and patterned as a globe artichoke. The prose runs continually to unmarked blank verse, so rhythmic and alive is it to incantation: “This is the sorcery of cities. We do not chase down country roads for fame or wealth or liberty. Or romance even. If we hanker for the fires and fevers of the world, we turn our backs on herds and hedgerows and seek out crowds.”
[Arcadia]'s focus is on the end times of Victor, the vegetable king, and his attempt to leave some sort of lasting monument to his life as a wholesale produce baron. Victor's position...
(The entire section is 1120 words.)
SOURCE: Binyon, T. J. “All Hands on Deck.” Times Literary Supplement (2 September 1994): 12.
[In the following review, Binyon offers a positive assessment of Signals of Distress.]
During a storm in November 1836 an American barque, the Belle of Wilmington, is driven on to a sandbank near Wherrytown, in the west of England. The Canadian cattle which are its cargo—to be replaced, on the return voyage, by emigrants to Canada—swim to the shore. Later, the crew are rescued by fishermen; they take up residence in Wherrytown's one inn, while their vessel is salvaged and repaired. Another resident of the inn is Aymer Smith, who has just arrived on a steam-packet, the Ha'porth of Tar. A man of high moral principles (which he demonstrates by setting free the Belle's black slave, Otto), he is “a Sceptic, a Radical and an active Amender,” and is particularly zealous in educating his inferiors. He has come to the town in order to inform the local kelp-gatherers personally that, due to recent developments in the chemical industry, their services in providing raw material for his family firm of soap-manufacturers will no longer be required.
At first sight, Signals of Distress seems very different from Crace's earlier novels. It is set in a definite place, at a definite time, and begins, indeed, as a historical novel might. But, as the work progresses, this impression changes. There...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
SOURCE: Burnett, Paula. “Ocean Views.” New Statesman & Society (2 September 1994): 36–37.
[In the following excerpt, Burnett offers a negative assessment of Signals of Distress.]
Two years on from the 1492 quincentenary, the Euro-American past still haunts British minds. Not only has the infant 23rd in line for the throne improbably been named Columbus, but London publishing has delivered four new novels addressing the shared transatlantic experience. Three of them have voyages at their heart. All revisit the guilt and suffering of the past, and all hold up to the light the racial encounters and moral conflicts of Atlantic history. …
But Jim Crace's new novel, Signals of Distress, includes a figure absent from both: the African American. His book shows the American world set in motion by Europe coming back to roost in Britain. Otto, a slave shipwrecked on the south-west coast of England in the period between Britain's abolition of slavery and America's, is locked up by his American fellow sailors but set loose by a Dissenter, Aymer Smith.
Like Thornley's Gay, Aymer is an ambiguous innocent; the book centres on his liberalism only to expose his guilt. The acutely marginal coastal community is a victim of capitalism, of which Aymer is a beneficiary. Otto, also its victim, continues to haunt the text as his demonised myth takes root in the community. A...
(The entire section is 386 words.)
SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “On the Rocks.” Spectator (3 September 1994): 36–37.
[In the following review, Parks offers a negative assessment of Signals of Distress.]
Literary novelists seem obsessed with history these days—Byatt, Ackroyd, Amis, Phillips, McEwan, Ondaatje, De Bernières—so many books about the last century, the last war. No doubt somebody is studying the phenomenon. Inevitably the blurbs tell us that the themes are as pertinent today as they have ever been. In the case of Crace's Signals of Distress this means the vexed question of our attitude to other people's poverty, the gap between holding the ‘right’ views and doing the ‘right’ things. Urgent matters.
It all starts so well. A storm off the south-west English coast surprises two ships. We are in the 1830s. The modern steampacket makes it unscathed into Wherrytown harbour, bringing with it Aymer Smith, brother of a soap magnate, come to this remote region on a mission of mercy: he will explain and apologise for his company's decision to stop buying the seaweed the locals have been supplying. A new chemical process has made it, and them, redundant.
The other ship is older, but ironically manned by Americans and bound for the New World. It is grounded on a sand-bank and as a result the crew will have to spend a cramped ten days in Wherrytown's only hotel, along with their one black...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
SOURCE: Field, Michele. “Jim Crace: Moral Activist, Conservative Romantic.” Publishers Weekly (2 October 1995): 49–50.
[In the following essay, Field provides an overview of Crace's literary career and publishing history, and reports Crace's comments on his life, editorial associations, and writings.]
One wonders how a writer as successful as Jim Crace can remain so boy-next-doorish. He has almost made an art of talking himself down, making an extraordinarily levelheaded appraisal of his work while remaining flushed with enthusiasm for everything he has written and wants to write. Signals of Distress is his fourth novel. He published his first nine years ago.
Crace admits that while writing is a wonderful career, books are not the be-all and end-all they once were for him. “When I was a teenager, I would go out and buy books which caught my imagination and then borrow the same books from the library because I couldn't bear to read the edition I bought; it had to stay absolutely pristine. Eventually there came a realization that I could mistreat books, I could turn the corner of the page over and no one would be injured, and I could give it away when I finished it.”
Crace deeply loved his father, a self-educated laborer with a big conscience. “My father had osteomyelitis, which is a disease of the bone marrow, and if you read my second book, The...
(The entire section is 2069 words.)
SOURCE: Hamilton-Paterson, James. “Voyages Out.” New Republic (6 May 1996): 38–41.
[In the following review, Hamilton-Peterson provides a generally favorable assessment of Signals of Distress, citing shortcomings in the novel's flat characters and lack of emotional energy.]
I must come clean. I have read only two of this much-praised writer's novels: his first, Continent, published in 1986 and Signals of Distress, his latest. I am not equipped to provide one of those overviews expected of critics when they deal with a writer who has a “track record.” That awful expression points up the idiocy of equating a writer with an athlete. Not only are expectations geared to the breasting of some winning tape (literary prizes, presumably), but by implication the race is always the same event, the same distance; the same book, in fact, written and rewritten with more or less address. Woe betide the writer who deserts the track for the field.
When Signals of Distress was published in England some critics did indeed see it as a rogue performance. Reviewing it in the Sunday Times, Nick Hornby hailed it as “Jim Crace's fourth novel, but it is the first that he has set in a world we can recognize. In Continent, his award-winning debut, and Arcadia he created his own worlds, and The Gift of Stones was narrated by a girl living in a...
(The entire section is 2907 words.)
SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “The Galilean.” Times Literary Supplement (13 June 1997): 25.
[In the following review, Korn offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
Roughing it in Ruristan is a fine thing, but one of the keenest pleasures of dependent travel is the trusting sense of infantile repose that comes from a guide (or guidebook), whose first words give assurance that you are going to be shown the most important and impressive sites in suitable logical order, and with adequate commentary; that you will not be mislaid, delayed, deluded, hijacked, persecuted by thirst or heat or postcard-sellers; and that there will be cold drinks and comfort at the end.
All readers of fiction are dependent travellers, and Jim Crace's masterful narratology sets one musing on the nature of the authoritative. When he speaks, you listen, where he leads, you try to follow. This has nothing to do with the mandarin, the high-falutin, the condescending, the knowing, the self-righteous, the boastful, the pompous, the preachy, the sententious, the hieratic, the vatic, or the aristocratic. (And Quarantine is evidence that it is not simply a matter of wanting to know what happens next. Since the subject is Jesus in the desert, most readers could hazard a guess at how it is going to come out. They would, possibly, be wrong.)
Consider, or simply rejoice in, his opening. The uncompromising...
(The entire section is 980 words.)
SOURCE: Jones, Tobias. “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness.” Spectator (14 June 1997): 39–40.
[In the following review, Jones offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
It's hard to imagine who will dislike Jim Crace's startling, beguiling novel more: atheists who resent his thick symbolism and deific narration, or Christians offended by his arm's-length, cynical rendering of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness, his ‘quarantine.’ Using a simple plot and the barest characterisation, it is a primitive and jocular book of big themes: about suspect saviours, the possible pointlessness of spirituality, and so the constant nag of evil.
With Quarantine, Crace has returned to the vaguely historicised writing which makes him such a sure story-teller. After the sparsity of Arcadia and Continent, it seems even broader in ambition, a parable for our anno domini. Miri and her trader-husband Musa have been left in the desert by the caravan because the latter is thought feverous. He revives at the hand of a passing Galilean, one of five now in the wilderness for their own reasons; there's the manic Badu, the proud Shim, a withdrawn Aphas, and the infertile Marta, praying for a child. Jesus (‘Gally’ is the grating nickname given him by the healed Musa), meanwhile, has descended into the caves under a precipice, renouncing clothing, sanity, the water and food proffered...
(The entire section is 767 words.)
SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “Hiveward-Winging.” London Review of Books (3 July 1997): 21.
[In the following review of Quarantine, Irwin commends Crace's literary skill and ingenuous imagination, but finds faults in the novel's self-contained and enigmatic significance.]
‘I'll just explain the central situation. Six people are trapped in a lift between two floors of a skyscraper—a musician, a surgeon, a char-woman, a conjuror and his female assistant, and a hunchback carrying a small suitcase.’
‘Containing some sandwiches, I hope,’ chuckled the local curate. ‘They're bound to get hungry before long.’
‘You can fill in the details for yourself,’ said Froulish, not realising that the man imagined himself to be joking. ‘Where was I? Yes there are six in the lift. Part of the book consists of a series of flashbacks … over the previous life of each of them. Not their physical lives, just the psychic currents that flowed through them. It's chiefly expressed through patterns of imagery.’
‘God help us,’ said Gunning-Forbes loudly.
Reading Jim Crace's Quarantine, I was powerfully reminded of Froulish's projected stuck-in-a-lift novel. A lugubriously...
(The entire section is 2249 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Cavedweller.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 April 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
A cool metaphysician, the British writer Jim Crace sets his novels in a prehistoric past (The Gift of Stones) or hypothetical future (Arcadia) to test out the pulse of our present-day spirits.
This gives him the equivalent of a dust-free laboratory, free of the distractions, fads and obsessions of the world around us. Uncrowded and perhaps excessively bare, it allows space for the large sorts of inquiry that our contemporary minds might find uncomfortable in a contemporary setting.
Quarantine subjects the figure of Jesus to the fictional Cracean process, bolting together a skeptical armature out of sound, realistic components. Crace's realism, though, attracts uncertainty as a picnic attracts ants; mystery is the penumbra it casts, and the more solid the elements, the deeper the shadows.
Not just solid but engaging. The allegory may be either magical or ironic—we have the uncomfortable freedom to decide—but never portentous or grandiloquent. There is wit and meat in every detail: The features of Crace's haunted world are picked out in lively morning light.
Quarantine uses a dry tone verging on condescension, as if narrated by one of...
(The entire section is 1192 words.)
SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Temptation in the Wilderness.” Washington Post Book World (3 May 1998): 5.
[In the following review, Bawer offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
Though the biblical account of Jesus's 40 days in the desert and his temptation there by the devil takes up only a few lines in the gospels, the story—which follows his baptism and precedes his public ministry—has always been seen as pivotal. Now, in the novel Quarantine, the English writer Jim Crace asks the question: If Jesus did in fact go into the desert after his baptism, what might really have happened there?
In this dry, precise, often hypnotic narrative—which won last year's Whitbread Prize and was short-listed for the Booker—Jesus is only one of several sojourners whose paths cross in the wilderness. Musa, a bully, and his pregnant, put-upon wife, Mira, are members of a caravan left behind to fend for themselves when Musa grows deathly ill. Others have traveled to the desert to fast and seek divine favor: The tall, barren Marta hopes to be made fertile; Aphas, old and sick, prays for health; Shim, an unusually handsome young gentile widely respected for his wisdom and godliness, is continuing a lifelong spiritual quest. Rounding out the dramatis personae is a nameless, uncommunicative little desert nomad—a badu—whom the others consider a savage.
(The entire section is 853 words.)
SOURCE: Johnson, Luke Timothy. “Jesus in the Desert.” Commonweal (8 May 1998): 18–19.
[In the following review, Johnson offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
Jim Crace has pulled off the literary equivalent of a perfect triple-triple jump in ice-skating. He has written a novel that has Jesus as its main character yet avoids reminding the reader of the Bible. Unlike all those lives of Jesus and historical Jesus reconstructions that end up making Jesus seem like a cardboard figure compared to the compelling and mysterious portrayals of him in the Gospels, [Quarantine] draws the reader into an imaginative rendering that is so daring, so compelling, and so original, that in it Jesus really does seem human. The story has moments of pure beauty and ones of dreadful cruelty. But it never loses hold of the reader. Crace has constructed a story about Jesus that is at once utterly different from that in the Gospels yet utterly believable, that on the surface recasts everything yet at its depth somehow retains everything.
Like all good apocryphal authors, Crace seeks a gap or seam in the biblical narrative to exploit. He finds it in Jesus' fasting in the wilderness. Although Matthew and Luke narrate the encounters between Jesus and the tempter after his time of fasting, neither they nor Mark do more than report that Jesus fasted for forty days (Mark 1:12–13; Matt. 4:1–11;...
(The entire section is 1021 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Jesus Lives.” New Leader (1–15 June 1998): 15–16.
[In the following review, Allen offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
One hundred and thirty years after T. H. Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” in an attempt to reconcile religious feeling with Charles Darwin's new theories, the dispute between science and religion is very much alive. In American schools—70 years after the Scopes trial in Tennessee—Christian groups still challenge the teaching of evolution. On the opposing side, hard-core scientific rationalists argue that geological evidence of the earth's age proves the Bible is fiction, and that religious faith is more akin to superstition than to any spiritual truth.
Yet throughout such controversies the power of the Christian narrative and its symbolism have proved resistant to the scientific revolution. The well-educated upper and middle classes in Europe and North America tend to be skeptical, but a significant and vocal portion of the population adamantly adheres to one or another Christian sect. In Europe violent conflict continues to take place along ancient religious fault lines, pitting Christians against Muslims—and each other. All this is true, too, outside what was once considered “Christendom.” In Africa, to cite one example, a new wave of martyrs is being created as many lose their lives rather than submit to...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Quarantine, by Jim Crace. Christian Century (10 March 1999): 292.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
This novel about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness—and the six people who spend more than a month in close proximity to him—is both fascinating and puzzling. [Quarantine] is fascinating because Crace is a wonderful writer whose characters and setting draw one in and remain in one's mind. It is puzzling because his portrait of Jesus and of people's response to Jesus is so ambivalent—a portrait drawn by an agnostic who poses profound questions and gives no answers. Like four other people—two mad, one sick, one infertile—Jesus comes to the wilderness for quarantine—40 days of living in a cave in the scrublands, fasting, praying and meditating by day in order to be purified, blessed, cured. Driven into quarantine by pride or desperation, the others make themselves as comfortable as possible in their caves and break their fasts at sunset. But Jesus, a God-haunted teenager, will not compromise. He is determined to go for 40 days without food or water; he chooses an almost inaccessible cave; he throws his clothes over the precipice. Few people can live for more than 30 days—or be conscious for more than 25—without food and water, according to a source cited at the opening of the book. No one can survive 40 days of...
(The entire section is 307 words.)
SOURCE: Arnold, Kenneth. “The Emptiness Is All.” Cross Currents 49, no. 1 (spring 1999): 140–43.
[In the following excerpt, Arnold offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.]
The desire for solitude seems to be strong in us, even though we humans are gregarious. There are many reasons to want to be alone; tradition suggests that seeking the divine is one of the strongest ones. Being alone is not enough, however. The word solitude brings with it a stronger meaning—isolation, separation, empty spaces. Real solitude, it seems, is to be found in deserts, where God (and the devil) are always waiting. Both of these books, one nonfiction and one fiction, fiercely engage the real in solitude. …
Jim Crace's novel is a harrowing, although beautifully written, retelling of Jesus' forty days of fasting in the desert. It vivifies the interior experience of solitary search that [Doris] Grumbach chronicles [in The Presence of Absence]. Fasting and solitude can lead to a kind of madness, not always divine. Part of the problem for the solitary is sorting out the realities.
[Quarantine] focuses on five solitaries in the Judean desert, one of them Jesus. The others are a barren woman, an old Jew, a blond foreigner, and a madman. She has come to find fertility; they have come looking for god. Each has chosen to spend forty days living in caves, fasting during the...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
SOURCE: Baker, Phil. “Going Gracefully.” Times Literary Supplement (17 September 1999): 22.
[In the following review of Being Dead, Baker commends Crace's ambitious project, but concludes that the novel's macabre anti-humanism and “playful fabulation” fail to match the book's solemn subject.]
Like a schoolboy chemist, Jim Crace is keen on stinks. Quarantine (1997) gave us “the devil's eggy dinner” on a dying man's breath, and his new book ferments the “pungent details of mortality,” until they make policemen cough and gag. Being Dead traces the decomposition of two middle-aged science teachers after they have been murdered on a beach, and in it Crace both indulges a talent for visceral nastiness and conducts a more tender commemorative post-mortem on their thirty-year relationship.
Doctors of zoology, Joseph and Celice are an idiosyncratic couple whose love has somewhat cooled, at least on Celice's side. Neither is attractive, physically or as a character. Joseph is a bore who wears a T-shirt blazoned with “Dolbear's formula (for estimating air temperature by the frequency of insect stridulations),” and he is known for his coldness at the Institute where he directs research. Celice is feistier, and likes to remind her students that natural science is concerned with “death and violence,” before banging a book shut for emphasis at her...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
SOURCE: Whitaker, Phil. “The Absolute End.” New Statesman (20 September 1999): 57-58.
[In the following review, Whitaker offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
Jim Crace's sixth novel begins with the two central characters lying murdered on an isolated beach. Joseph and Celice, both zoologists, had met as postgraduates on a field trip to Baritone Bay, their relationship being consummated among its dunes. When, after three decades of marriage, they discover that the area is about to be bulldozed to build luxury houses and a marina, the idea of a nostalgic return takes hold. Without informing anyone of their destination, they set off. It is to be their last journey—their presence on the beach provokes an act of random violence that leaves them mutilated and dying on a bed of lissom grass.
From here the narrative moves forward and back in time, exploring the biological and cultural consequences of death—in every way, Being Dead is the successors to Crace's previous study of mortality and belief, Quarantine, his fictional account of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness of the Judean desert. The bodies lie undiscovered for six days (a wry reference to Genesis), during which time we follow the ongoing putrefaction of the corpses. It is powerful writing, both in its remorseless detail and in the mordant irony of the two zoologists becoming substrates for the food...
(The entire section is 829 words.)
SOURCE: France, Miranda. “Supping Full on Horrors.” Spectator (2 October 1999): 46.
[In the following review, France offers a positive assessment of Being Dead, but notes that the novel's virtuosity and intellectual challenge lacks emotional intensity.]
Jim Crace's new novel features two zoologists who are, literally, consumed by their subject. Celice and Joseph, a married couple in their fifties, are dead. [Being Dead] discovers them shortly after their murder among sand dunes and records their deterioration over six days, until the bodies are discovered by police. By then only fragments remain, thanks to the endeavour and hunger of various species inhabiting Baritone Bay. Crace spares us few details of the couple's decomposition: there is a toughening of skin, a congealing of blood, horrid suppurations and worse. On the fourth day swag-fly maggots emerge, generated by the heat in Joseph and Celice's innards. ‘Long dead—but still producing energy!’ is the narrator's triumphant remark.
If this makes for unpalatable reading, one can take comfort that Joseph and Celice at least would not be shocked. In life, these academics took a pragmatic view: we are all flesh, and then we are all meat. Celice used to start her teaching year with a warning to new students that ‘anyone who studies nature must get used to violence.’
Joseph, in turn, remarked...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
SOURCE: Banville, John. “A Rare Species.” New York Review of Books (13 April 2000): 30, 32.
[In the following review, Banville praises Crace's literary talent and experimentation, but criticizes the “dulling” prose style of Being Dead.]
Of the two limiting phenomena of life, that of our coming into the world and that of our going out, it is hard to say which is the more mysterious; certainly we know which is the least acceptable. How can it be that a human being, this extraordinary congeries of affects and emotions, desires and fears, wickedness and good, should at a certain point in time simply cease to be? Even those who believe in the afterlife are baffled and in some cases shocked out of their faith by the fact of death. At any moment we may look about at the world in the certain knowledge that a hundred years hence every animal now living will, with the exception of a few turtles, be dead. As Nietzsche puts it, with his usual insight and devastating candor, “The living are only a species of the dead, and a rare species at that.”
Jim Crace's new novel, Being Dead, is in its small-scale way a sort of reverse-Darwinian epic, an End of Species. At the close of the book he sets his two central characters. Joseph and Celice, firmly among the democratic orders of the dead:
And still, today and every day, the dunes are lifted, stacked...
(The entire section is 3081 words.)
SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “The Origin of Species.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 April 2000): 19.
[In the following review, Levi offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
“These are the instruments of sex outdoors. You need good weather, somewhere dry to stretch out far from dogs and wasps, and no sense of the ridiculous.” No matter that they were a pair of homely zoologists at the uglier end of their 50s, Joseph and Celice had the good fortune of a sunny Tuesday with no classes to teach and a stretch of dune above Baritone Bay, empty of canine and insect witness to their middle-aged pleasure. Lucky enough not to see their murderer, Joseph and Celice were unaware of the petty thief armed with a handful of granite, and so died within the lissom grass and sand, Joseph's hand grasping Celice's ankle, with no sense of the ridiculous.
These are the instruments of Jim Crace's latest novel, Being Dead. And although the matter-of-fact delivery smacks of Patricia Highsmith and the zoo-philosophical detail smells like Samuel Beckett, Crace (whose last novel, Quarantine, was short-listed for the Booker Prize) has crafted an original—an exquisitely gentle and unsentimental tale on the evolution of love.
Crace's lovers, stumbling over the dunes, eating careless sandwiches after equally sloppy sex, are certainly not matinée models destined to give Jude...
(The entire section is 945 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Meditations, Good and Bad.” New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 63–68.
[In the following excerpt, Allen offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
The name of Jim Crace is not famous in this country, but he has long been considered, and deservedly so, one of Britain's better novelists: every sentence that he writes is original and closely observed, worth reading and reading again.
It is hardly enough to say that Crace is an atheist. “I'm not even a relaxed atheist, I'm a post-Dawkins scientific atheist,” he once said in an interview with the Manchester Guardian. His 1998 novel, Quarantine, an imagined version of the historical Jesus and his forty days in the wilderness, was certainly meant to debunk religion and the religious impulse, but Crace turned out to be too imaginative an artist to stick to anything quite that simple, and the book developed into a near masterpiece of poetic ambiguity that reflects not so much the absurdity but the sadness of our often pathetic gropings toward the immortal. Crace's new novel, Being Dead, can be seen as carrying on his project of scientific atheism, yet it has none of the dryness the term suggests: instead it gilds bare, bleak mortality with a beauty and redemption that can stand on their own, without the questionable aid of creed or dogma.
Joseph and Celice are professors...
(The entire section is 1242 words.)
SOURCE: González-Crussi, F. “Approaching the Unknowable.” Commonweal (14 July 2000): 27–28.
[In the following review, González-Crussi offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
Among book titles, surely Being Dead ranks with the most intriguing. The visitor to the bookstore or the public library, ambulating through the stacks and catching a fleeting sight of the title, cannot but stop and wonder. Is this one addition to the dauntingly prolific race of “How To” books, if books they be called? What folly! Who can teach us that which no one has ever experienced and come back to tell about? Who, indeed, can expound on being dead? This is the one condition for which no instructors, no teachers exist. The one role that all of us, without exception, will one day be called to enact, but to which we shall come as ignorant neophytes. Always, and all of us, without exception, must face this reality. No theoretical foreknowledge here, and no empirical savvy, either.
For death is not empirical, but “meta-empirical,” as philosophers have remarked with their pretentious language. They mean that death is not an experience, properly so called, but they find themselves at a loss for words to say what it is, this thing that transcends all possible experience. They must invent new terms that are themselves unsatisfactory, since no language can have words for what is...
(The entire section is 983 words.)
SOURCE: Balée, Susan. “Maximalist Fiction.” Hudson Review 53, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 513–20.
[In the following excerpt, Balée offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
The novel, like the rest of America, has put on weight.
A good thing, I think, for the former. The best books of the last year were meaty, sensory-soaked reads. Full-bodied characters rose up from the page, multiple plots shouldered each other for chapter space, and history—almost all the best books of the last year were historical novels—provided a feast of curious facts for discriminating readers to chew on and digest. Unfortunately, one of the most disappointing books of the year, from my point of view, also happened to be a historical novel. …
… [Jim Crace's] latest, Being Dead, is a tour-de-force of originality. Crace bowled me over by scrutinizing mortality from a perspective we rarely consider—not, at least, since high school when most of us were forced to read William Cullen Bryant's “Thanatopsis.” But Crace's work is far more entertaining than Bryant's poem. Indeed, it is obscenely “lively,” considering it is a book about death.
The tale begins with murder most foul: a middle-aged pair of zoologists are savagely killed while in a compromising position among some sand dunes. The story then moves in both directions—backward, through their...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
SOURCE: Maliszewski, Paul. Review of Being Dead, by Jim Crace. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 145.
[In the following review, Maliszewski offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.]
After Celice and Joseph, the married zoologists at the center of Jim Crace's novel [Being Dead], die in the first paragraph, their bodies spend the rest of the book concealed by the tall grass and sand dunes along Baritone Bay. Crabs, flies, ants, and gulls locate the bodies and treat the pair as any other object in the natural world; they are potential food, possible shelter, a good place to leave eggs. Six days pass, and Joseph's hand never lets go of Celice's ankle. In the work of another writer, this would indicate his unending devotion to her, a sign of a love that survives through the torrential rains, periodic tides, and early stages of decomposition—survives even death. Crace's novel, however, begins with the less sentimental premise that for the zoologists there is death and nothing after it. The book discourages every easy eulogy for the couple. Their love is not without trouble. They're difficult, sleep in separate beds, think frequently of being alone. Writing against the comforts of condolence cards and pop music, Crace investigates death with what-if premises and Socratic questions. He blocks every convenient exit, discouraging escapes out the door of “everything happens...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
SOURCE: Williamson, Eric Miles. “Beyond Postmodernism.” Southern Review 37, no. 1 (winter 2001): 174–81.
[In the following excerpt, Williamson offers a positive assessment of Being Dead, though notes that Crace is somewhat “overinsistent” in presenting his “Darwinian” thesis.]
It's been a while since didactic fiction has garnered serious consideration. For the past thirty years John Steinbeck, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and others have suffered neglect if not outright contempt. Their works have been ignored or disdained primarily because their rhetorical messages are all too clear, and “postmodern” writers and critics have espoused an aesthetic that has little use for those who believe that art should both delight and instruct, who eschew the stance if irony.
These days seem to be passing. Even arch-postmodernist Ronald Sukenick, in his new book, Narralogues, avows that “[F]iction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation,” and we seem to be entering an age of reaction against the chilly aestheticism of much postmodern fiction, whether that work is marked by the stylistic innovations of Sukenick, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, William Gaddis, and the Fiction Collective writers (Raymond Federman, Mark Leyner, Steve Katz, et al.) or by the weary affectlessness of the...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)
SOURCE: Gilbert, Francis. “The Devil's Larder.” New Statesman (3 September 2001): 41.
[In the following review, Gilbert offers a positive assessment of The Devil's Larder.]
Although The Devil's Larder is a novel about food, I wouldn't read it anywhere near the kitchen: some of the most striking of these interlinked stories include the description of a master chef cooking old leather in order to prove that man will eat anything; the tale of a fisherman dying a horrible death from food poisoning; the thoughts of a supermarket cash register and a recollection of an evening of “strip fondue” that results in much scorched flesh. As you might expect from one of Britain's most experimental mainstream novelists, this writing docs not hurry after the saccharine comforts of Joanne Harris's “foodie” fiction. While just as interested as Harris in describing the tastes and textures of eating, Crace is also intrigued by the by-products and even demonic uses of food. It can make for some very uncomfortable, if fascinating, reading.
A far better place to read the book would be on the toilet: its devilish, episodic chapters lend themselves to brief spurts of reading. Most chapters are not more than a few pages long and demand careful consideration. It is not advisable to read the book from cover to cover in one sitting. The stories are much more convincing when read at...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
SOURCE: Peck, Dale. “The Devil You Know.” New Republic (31 December 2001): 38–41.
[In the following review, Peck offers a negative assessment of The Devil's Larder as well as an extended negative critique of Crace's entire oeuvre.]
The difference between curiosity and promiscuity is much the same for writers as it is for lovers. The first is a good thing, the second bad, the line between the two rather blurry. At what point is inquisitiveness revealed to be a wandering eye, an inability to focus or to commit?
Over the past fifteen years, the British novelist Jim Crace has wooed an international audience with six clever tales about a fictitious continent, a Stone Age society, a fruit market, a shipwreck, an adolescent Jesus, and dead people. Yet each new book has had the effect of reducing rather than enlarging his oeuvre. Awards have been given, comparisons made to J. M. Coetzee, Jeanette Winterson, even Borges. Those comparisons strike me as oddly apt, for Crace amplifies the worst traits of each of those great but problematic writers. Crace is a Coetzee for those fascinated by the pornography of perverse behavior rather than perverse thought, a Winterson for those who pray that such thoughts can be explained away on the psychotherapist's couch, a Borges for readers who want to believe that paradoxes and labyrinths and infinity are nothing more than literary concepts....
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Crowley, John. “Wandering Minstrel.” Washington Post Book World (28 May 2000): 6.
Crowley lauds Being Dead, asserting that the book is emotionally touching and filled with inventiveness and surprises.
Eder, Richard. “Food Stories that Aren't Really about Food at All.” New York Times (27 September 2001): E8.
Eder offers a generally favorable assessment of The Devil's Larder.
———. “The Life after Death of a Pair Not Yet Gone.” New York Times (13 April 2000): E11.
Eder offers a positive assessment of Being Dead.
Kermode, Frank. “Into the Wilderness.” New York Times Book Review (12 April 1998): 8.
Kermode offers a positive assessment of Quarantine.
Leithauser, Brad. “Not Written in Stone.” Washington Post Book World (21 May 1989): 3.
Leithauser offers a positive assessment of The Gift of Stones, though he notes shortcomings in the novel's occasional syntactic gaffes, heavy-handed intellectual concerns, and unconvincing female narrator.
Phillips, Adam. “Eat This Book.” New York Times Book Review (21 October 2001): 7.
Phillips offers a positive assessment of The Devil's Larder in which he lauds the...
(The entire section is 289 words.)