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.