Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
Being Dead, a 1999 novel by Jim Crace, tells the story of married zoologists Joseph and Celice who are approaching their thirtieth wedding anniversary when they return to the dunes of Baritone Bay where they first met as students in the 1970s. As they get lost in a moment of intimacy, a stranger encounters them, beats them to death with a hefty piece of granite, robs them, and leaves their dead, naked bodies on the dunes. For six days, the corpses remain undiscovered, exposed to the elements and beachside wildlife—rotting and eroding in descriptions that are both disgustingly graphic and beautifully poetic.
The novel is not a mystery novel; we learn from page one that Joseph and Celice are dead. Instead, it is a novel that explores the growth of a relationship and the intricacies of marriage.
Crace accomplishes this breadth by establishing three separate narratives, each taking place at a different time. The first is the "present moment," in which Joseph and Celice are dead and rotting on the dunes. This narrative moves slowly and carefully through the post-mortem of the bodies. The second narrative moves backward, tracing how Joseph and Celice came to Baritone Bay in the first place: Joseph woke Celice at sunrise to tell her that the day would be wasted if spent indoors. Lastly, the third narrative goes the furthest back in time, to when Joseph and Celice met as graduate students and eventually fell in love. The interweaving of these narratives—and the meeting point at which they all must inevitably arrive—allows us to see Joseph and Celice as living, breathing people, even as their bodies are "surrendered to the weather and the earth."
Joseph and Celice have a daughter, Syl, and she could be considered the "fourth narrative," as she is the driving force behind the effort to find her parents. When they are found, the tenderness of their final position—Joseph’s hand "curved round [Celice's shin]"—helps the novel arrive at its ultimate message: death isn't really an ending, but rather a transformation into a different state of being. Though death is the ultimate ending, and the physical flesh of our bodies will decay and rot, something of us might be left. As Crace writes:
Anyone who found them there, so wickedly disfigured, would nevertheless be bound to see that something of their love had survived the death of cells. The corpses were surrendered to the weather and the earth, but they were still a man and wife, quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet.
In the end, we are left wondering what "being dead" really means.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2025
Joseph, fifty-three, and his wife, Celice, fifty-five, are doctors of zoology living quiet, successful academic lives. The couple met as graduate students and spent a summer at a beach retreat with four other students doing research. The novel opens with their return to the seaside location of their first tryst, where their plans for romance are cut short by a predator who beats them to death and steals their car and a few belongings.
The novel then forks off onto three narrative threads, the first of which concerns the six days during which their bodies remain undiscovered on the beach. Crace systematically and thoroughly details the process of decomposition. A second thread traces the couple’s meeting, Celice’s initial dismissal of Joseph until she hears him singing one night, and her determination to seduce him. On the morning of their lovemaking, the study house in which they have been residing burns down and the other female student, Festa, dies. Celice’s marriage is haunted by the memory of this lost girl. The last and briefest narrative is that of Syl, the couple’s waitress daughter, whose aimless life has long disappointed her parents. Once alerted that they have not appeared for their lectures, the girl begins a search for them and later identifies their rotting bodies and arrives at a life-altering perception.
As the title suggests, the novel is devoted to the phenomenon of death and can, in fact, be seen as a modern memento mori, a sustained meditation on death and mortality. In the most fundamental way, the novel asks the enduring questions that no one can finally answer: What is death, and what is its significance? As the narrator remarks, death is “an ill-lit corridor with all its greater rooms beyond.” There is, however, no sentimental speculation. Life is too brief, death is too long, and the universe is utterly unsympathetic; it carries on regardless of the course of human affairs. As the narrator quite bluntly states, “This was not death as it was advertised: a fine translation to a better place; a journey through the calm of afterlife into the realms of instinct and desire. The persons had not gone elsewhere, to blink and wake, to sleep and salivate in some place distinctly other than this world, in No-reality.”
The narrative takes the reader into intimately close proximity with the death experience itself. As Celice is beaten, the narrator calmly describes the sensation:
Her heart collided with her ribs. Her body shook and arched. Her head was loose and hurtling through rimless chambers. Some conjuror had vaporized the earth and emblazoned all the space through which she fell with pixilated, pulsing lights. Her final moments were kinetic, abstract, pointillist.
Likewise, the descriptions of decomposition are sharply and specifically rendered, and, not surprisingly in a book about a pair of zoologists, the forces of nature are most conspicuous.
The swag flies found it easiest to feast on the blood in her hair or to settle in the swampy bruises on her neck and gums or at the damage to her hands. They fed in clinging multitudes. Loose knots of flies. They made black balls of wings and antennae amongst the clots, as weightless and as dry as tumbleweed. . . . Some flies strayed round the bare flesh of her lower body, settled in the hair between her legs or at the tuck of her anus, but found few pickings.
In an interview, Crace, a confirmed atheist, revealed the inspiration for such scrutiny when he described his dissatisfaction with his father’s unceremonious cremation:
After that, I didn’t want to abandon my atheism, but I wanted to find a kind of atheism in which there were some of the things that religions had always held to be their own, and which I think that, emotionally, most atheist people are open to: things like transcendence and mysticism and spiritualism. Those things are in the world and, even though I don’t believe in God, my feeling is that the things that make people believe in God are really there. . . . What I wanted to do was to provide a narrative of comfort for atheists.
This consolation comes in the novel’s detailed tracing of the natural end of all life, its inevitability and purely democratic process.
Crace constructs his own mythology to explain the phenomenon unsentimentally. Mondazy, a local writer, posits an explanation in a memoir that contributes to the seaside community’s resident folklore. Death, as he describes it, is Fish, a predator that comes at any time to everyone and accounts for the distinctive look and smell of corpses. This, like all myths, provides a fanciful yet palpable explanation for that which eludes or threatens humans, and references to Mondazy form one of the book’s persistent leitmotifs.
In one sense the novel is also a eulogy, which none of the characters offers for these departed. Early in the fiction, the narrator presents a description of the forgotten practice of “quivering” (another of Crace’s unique inventions), whose closest equivalent is an old-fashioned Irish wake. These “resurrections of the dead” involve dramatic gestures of remorse—copious weeping, tapping on the floors with shoes and sticks, and even a vigorous shaking of the corpses. The culmination of the ceremony is a group reminiscence of the departed, beginning with the most recent events and working back over the span of the life. As the narrator says of that bygone era, “Death was cultivated, watered like a plant,” and people squarely and patiently fixed their gaze on the phenomenon. Later, once Joseph and Celice are discovered, the difference between that ceremony and the present is illustrated by the squeamishness of the authorities who are so disgusted by the corpses that they can barely bring themselves to lift them for removal. The novel as a whole replaces that discarded ceremony in which all the pertinent details of the deaths and lives are recalled and examined.
A prominent theme is the intimate correlation between death and sex, a connection that is asserted over and over again. Joseph and Celice’s initial lovemaking occurs simultaneously with Festa’s death, and in Celice’s mind the death may actually have been caused by her rush to their assignation. The French description of orgasm as a “little death” is alluded to, and sex with Joseph initiates the death of Celice’s adventurous promiscuity, a death she mourns throughout her marriage. Sex on the beach indirectly causes the couple’s death, and their daughter’s dalliance with a cab driver is ultimately connected with her discovery of her parents’ deaths. Celice’s lecture to uneasy students about the workings of nature bears directly on this theme. She warns that “Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. . . .’ She meant that fear of death is fear of life . . . life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence.” Single-celled creatures such as amoebas can live throughout time, but creatures that reproduce with one another are mortal: “Death is the price we pay for being multi-celled,” Felice tells the students.
In his review of the novel, Irish writer John Banville discounts Crace’s reputation as an experimental novelist and claims that his prose rests firmly in the mainstream of English fiction. One of the clearest indications of Crace’s central position in this tradition can be seen in the narrator itself, no mere disembodied intelligence but as palpable a presence as any of the characters. A common practice in the eighteenth century British novel—Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) stands as a fitting example—is the presence of a voice that comments on its own narrative and acts as a solicitous guide through the fictional world. Crace’s narrator is squarely in the foreground, as for example in the early chapter on “quiverings” and the late comment that “this has been a quivering of sorts for Joseph and Celice.” In another instance the narrator makes a pair of parallel remarks that frame the story when commenting on the posture of the bodies on the beach. Before he passes, Joseph reaches over to Celice, grasps her ankle, and dies with her leg in his grip, eliciting from the narrator, “This is our only prayer: May no one come to lift his hand from her leg.” The narrator frequently reminds the reader of this gesture, and it is the sight of this tenderness that moves Syl from her icy alienation to a genuine tenderness for her parents. Later, when the police disturb the pose, the narrator questions, “What happened to our only prayer, May no one come to lift his hand from her? The power of a prayer is only brief at best.”
Narratorial interjection is, in fact, frequent, with the voice even entering to contradict characters’ thoughts or words, as it does when Celice concludes her lecture on death by reassuring her audience that she has never killed a student, to which the narrator bluntly answers, “Not true, Celice.” The narrator’s omniscience is ultimately complete and far-reaching, extending to the motives, thoughts, personalities, and, in the largest sense, the workings of this world. The narrator’s use of language is often even Shakespearean, which signals even more clearly the novel’s place in a hallowed tradition.
However, Crace’s reputation as an experimentalist is deserved, and in interviews he has spoken of his desire to “dislocate” his audience. Perhaps the clearest indication of Being Dead’s modernity can be seen in the intricate tripartite structure. Crace modulates the narrative strands from chapter to chapter, and in so doing varies the temporal settings throughout. The story of Syl and her discovery of her parents’ demise is situated in the novel’s present, a few days after the murders, whereas the two sections devoted to Joseph and Celice are retrospective, as befits the practice described as a “quivering.” The tale of the courtship and catastrophic fire begins in the past and gradually works up to the climactic tragedy. The descriptions of the dying and decay are the most disorienting, unfolding backward in time from the moment of mayhem. The novel actually begins with its conclusion, with the central characters’ fates made alarmingly inevitable: “They were the oddest pair, these dead, spreadeagled lovers on the coast: Joseph and Celice. . . . How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions.” Such an instant revelation would seem to preclude suspense, but the story holds readers as they ponder the deaths and wonder what more there is to say about such fates.
This is also a novel of multilayered ironies. Nothing is entirely what it appears to be, and everything contains its opposites. On the surface such a title might suggest a thriller, but the novel is anything but that: The murderer is finally incidental to the plot, his identity never revealed and his crime unpunished. The couple’s first sex in years is the last of their lives, and their marriage, which should inaugurate a new life, marks the end of Celice’s life of adventure. The police are disgusted by the couple’s fate, believing they have brought on their own demise, while Syl sees her parents with a sense of compassion she has never felt before.
Jim Crace is writer of remarkable versatility and rare vision. He never writes the same book twice, and each is a foray into a wondrous, disorienting world. Twice a winner of the Whitbread Award (for Continent in 1987 and Quarantine in 1998) and short-listed for 1998’s Booker Prize, Crace remains largely unknown in the United States. Whether Being Dead changes his American reputation remains to be seen, but the novel is a tour de force.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (April 1, 2000): 1435.
The Economist 353 (October, 1999): 14.
The Irish Times, September 18, 1999, p. 69.
Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 195.
New Statesman 128 (September, 1999): 57.
The New York Review of Books 47 (April, 2000): 30.
The New York Times April, 13, 2000, p. E11.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February, 2000): 63.
The Times, September, 18, 1999, p. 45.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1999, p. 22.
The Wall Street Journal, May, 19, 2000, p. W8.
The Washington Post Book World, May, 28, 2000, p. 6.
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