Being Dead Summary
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,465 words.)