John Blades (review date 5 April 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of stories.

The seven stories in the book are linked by geography, by Crace's holistic creation of a “seventh and shabby continent,” which not only serves as the locale for the book but as an archetype of Third World enigmas and contradictions. Physically, it's a serene and beautiful place, pastoral and mountainous. But in almost every other respect—socially, politically, culturally—it's a wasteland, a continental backwater, with its people insulated from the contemporary world by their dependence on superstition, myth, black magic, by their primitive collective mentality.

Without forcing his connections, Crace lets each of the stories illustrate a different aspect of the residents' estrangement from civilization, of the epochal conflict between the primal and the modern. In one, a student who attends an urban university on another continent returns to his mountain village, where he is scorned by his father for his sophisticated ways because he's become a “talking skull.” In another, a teacher from Canada who likes to run on the mountain trails is challenged to a race with a villager on horseback. The last story in the book traces the disintegration of an agent for a mineral company, who goes mad with the physical and spiritual isolation of the continent.

One story in particular, “Electricity,” invites comparison with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's opening chapter of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” in which the residents of Macondo discover the wonders of ice. Here Crace tells how electricity is introduced to a backward town, with tragicomic results. The warden of a remote hostel is so carried away by the magic charm of electricity that he strings the place with colored glass lanterns, “mangoes of light,” and converts an airplane propeller into a ceiling fan. When the switch is thrown, there is a predictable catastrophe, in the aftermath of which, the author notes, the “only light is the occasional flash of a pressman's camera”—presumably recording the deaths and dismemberments.

As that should indicate, Crace's prose is elliptical rather than explicit. Instead of fully mapping out his continent, he leaves readers' imaginations to explore its deeper mountain clefts, its shadowy valleys, its hidden psychological recesses. While the technique works in suggesting the complexity of the continent, it's still unlikely to convince many readers that Continent is a...

(This entire section contains 658 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

novel and not a grab-bag of tenuously connected stories. However impressive individually, these stories don't quite add up to “a coherent, powerful, detailed vision of a world that makes us see our own invisible world with frightening clarity,” as Russell Banks insists. Even so, this is one of these rare instances where an overly generous jacket blurbist deserves our gratitude.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Brian Stonehill (review date 12 April 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 truths and mirages,” and similarly captivating.

Crace writes gracefully: “A fistful of grit he scattered in the grass so that it fell among the leaf joints like sleet.” And he tells a good story. An aged calligrapher of the dying language Siddilic discovers that his work, pried loose from storefronts by visiting foreigners, is selling for high prices in America, especially in Chicago. A government minister orders the calligrapher to produce a vast amount of new work, to be sold abroad by the government. So the poor man, exhausted, is compelled to buy local forgeries of his work and pass them on as his own.

Crace's language is alive, a distinctive voice, an engaging character in itself. Life not only is the subject of, but is subject to, his artful words. We welcome his new-found Continent to our maps.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

George Kearns (review date autumn 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 master of his art, under assault by an irresistible combination of politics and commercialism, comes to think, “The quest for meaning in form belongs to an age long past.” In the best of these tales Crace's writing belies this; he achieves that combination of ease and finish that merits the term classicism, a classicism shaded with Virgilian melancholy. Unfortunately, Crace's publisher, claiming too much for him, is in danger of claiming too little. To arrive at these stories we pass a distracting barrier of publicity hoping to convince us that Continent is a novel (it is not, nor is there any reason why it should be, except, I suppose, that novels receive attention short stories or tales don't); that it is some sort of post-modern favor to compare Crace to writers like Borges and Calvino (it is not); and that his continent is an “invented” place, which “refers as well to the underlands of the human psyche, to the collective unconscious of the human race” (the continent is clearly modern Africa, and it bears the same relation to Crace's stories as does New Mexico to Willa Cather's, Barchester to Trollope's, the classical world to Guy Davenport's—that is, the writer has felt something deeply about it, and has transformed it). “And after reading Continent,” writes a poet manqué at Harper & Row, “we gaze at our imaginations in the same way we gaze into a fire.” Now, now.

The best of these seven stories are about the passing of ancient ways as they became “inconveniences” in the neocolonialized eyes of natives on the make. In “Talking Skull” a student tries to disguise the source of the money that pays for his scientific education, Rome-cut trousers and Spanish-leather shoes: his father sells freemartin's milk (they don't give milk) to country people who believe in its powers of sexual potency and fertility. The student's embarrassment decreases rapidly when a modern businessman shows him how to rationalize his potential inheritance through understanding the continuity between superstition and trade. In “Sins and Virtues” the old calligrapher, whose forgotten art is suddenly fashionable in Paris and Chicago, is forced into elaborate deceptions by government officials wishing to line their Swiss bank accounts. In a wonderfully sad-funny tale, my favorite, electricity comes to a rural village, and with it the wonders of blenders, “table lamps with New York skylines as a friezed motif,” and a catastrophic ceiling fan. You know that as soon as the first switch is pulled, the little town is doomed as surely as the one on Keats's urn. Crace's stories are delicately inventive elegies for the local, the odd, the inefficient, the native, as they give way before international junk and its economic and ideological bases.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 teasing and intelligent nature of the stories in the collection.

Pratt, Carin. “A Storyteller's Splendid Tale of the Stone Age in Transition.” Christian Science Monitor (20 June 1989): 13.

Pratt offers a positive assessment of The Gift of Stones.

Sheppard, R. Z. “A Bit of Gospel Shtick.” Time (20 April 1998): 77.

Sheppard praises Quarantine for its blending of research into the narrative, smooth writing, and touches of humor.

Taylor, D. J. “A Light Collation.” Spectator (15 September 2001): 39.

Taylor offers a mixed assessment of The Devil's Larder, noting that Crace's originality and “arresting prose” mitigates against the collection's lack of substance.

Additional coverage of Crace's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 128, 135; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 55, 70; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 231; and Literature Resource Center.

Richard Deveson (review date 2–8 September 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 feeble that even lugworms took the day for night, mistook the wind for tide. …

This idiosyncratic but very striking linguistic achievement is, however, at first rather distracting, as it gets us wrongly preoccupied with questions of historical authenticity. Even if the novel is set in Britain (though, as in Continent, no country is ever actually indicated), does a stylized Dark Ages diction give us anything more than a spurious sense of contact with the Neolithic mentality? And, more generally, although Crace writes some masterful passages on food gathering and fire, on stone-knapping and the craftsman's eye for the landscape of a piece of flint, why does he not write more about his Stone Age society's rituals, its myths or its beliefs about the afterlife? The questions are wrong because the narrative is not fundamentally about Stone Age society at all.

One of the things it is about is narrative itself. There are two narrators: a father and a daughter. The father, with his artist's wound of a stump for an arm, is the story-teller of the stone craftsmen's village. While the others stay put in their orderly community, thinking of nothing but the work that makes them prosperous and—they assume—safe, he explores the world beyond, where there is sea and strangeness and violence. He comes back full of stories—but, as the to-and-fro between narrators makes clear, the lines between story-telling and lying, between imagination and escapism, are not sharp. Does a workaday society want truth, or fantasy? Will it treat truth as fantasy anyway? More radically, is truth within the reach of story-telling at all? The truth about the climactic event of the novel, the death of the woman whom the father has brought back with him from the outside world, remains unknown and, perhaps, unknowable.

As The Inheritors culminates in the conquest of Neanderthal man by Homo sapiens, so The Gift of Stones ends with the supersession of stone by bronze. But whereas Golding's allegory is really about the ambition and destructiveness of the new men, Crace's main concern in describing the transition from one world to another is with the role of art and the imagination. The father, the traveller, the artist, has seen the future and he knows it is going to work. The village is not safe; but he, unlike the men of stone, can lead the way out of it. Although Crace's own highly-wrought, self-conscious craftsmanship sometimes seems an expression of pessimistic conservatism—a defence, albeit a very twentieth-century one, of the old way of doing things—he suggests at the end of this unusual book that the artist may, nevertheless, be the true progressive, and that it is the imagination, rather than economics, that will teach a society how to regenerate itself.

Mark Kamine (review date 20 March 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, their product stone tools—ax- and arrow-heads, knives, scrapers, wrist guards. There are mines, shops and a marketplace. “This is how it worked,” the narrator states early on. “There were two breeds existing side by side, the stoneys and the mongers, the villagers who dug and worked the flint, the traders who hawked and peddled it with the world beyond.”

They are industrious, prosperous, dull. The gift of stones has kept them free from harm: “If all the outside world needed was to pound and crush and hammer like savages then any rock would do. But once they wanted more, to pierce and slice, to cut and scrape, to remove the flesh from the inner side of pelts … then they … could not be free of us and we were safe.”

Not entirely safe, however. A marauding horseman wounds the father providing the villagers with a rare cause for excitement and disruption. They decide an arm must be amputated. Crace gives two versions of the operation, father's and daughter's. In fact the father has numerous versions of this and every other incident in his life, and he brings one or another forth depending on what he gauges will entertain his audience. His tales tend to the fantastical or the comic.

His daughter, on the other hand, wants more than entertainment from stories—she wants truth. It is an ongoing debate. The daughter warns: “Watch out. He's chopping and knapping at the truth. He's shaping to make a tale.” (Crace never reaches for his metaphors, instead drawing from what is already at hand—a good measure of his sureness.) Or she cuts him short: “We do not need to hear my father's other variations.” The father's typical response: “Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh—and cough—and roll her eyes?”

The narrative moves forward between them, with the daughter ceding to the father only to check him, correct him, take over from him. Following a brief description of his childhood, the father recalls his discovery of his talent for storytelling.

He explains that one-armed, he became useless to the stoneys, so he was left to wander the village and its outskirts. One day, running along the shore after a distant ship, he happened upon a woman and her daughter (our narrator) who made their home on a heath, the woman trading herself for food and protection from the roving horsemen. He spent the night—his first away from the village—and when he returned he was asked where he had been. He begins to speak of the ship that led him astray:

This is my moment of betrayal, both of the woman and the truth. Hear how it comes to life. See my cousins, sitting there, their chins aglow with grease, their eyes on fire, their expectations high, their dreams and nightmares on display.

‘I caught the ship,’ I said. ‘It came ashore.’

The daughter, of course, doesn't believe it. No one becomes a storyteller in an instant. “The truth for what it's worth is this … and now I'm guessing, so can you see the value of my truth? … my father's talent for inflating and for telling lies was already there, from birth. But no one guessed its power—until, that is, my father transformed his defect into craft.”

The narrative tug-of-war is a seductive and mostly successful device, bringing an added tension to bear on events and keeping us attuned to the author's manipulations. At times, though, it causes confusion (the absence of quotation marks at the start of inter-narrated paragraphs does not help) and gives rise to a few small disappointments. The greatest of these involves the narrator herself. Two-thirds of the way through the book she declares, “I should show my face,” then inexplicably steps out again, and we do not get to know her the way we do her father.

Even so, Crace wisely never gives the impression he is taking sides. He works steadily through the incidents of the novel, shaping it as carefully as his stoneworkers do their knives, the uncomplicated rhythms and hard sounds of his sentences echoing the lives of his characters. Here is the father's description of the death of the narrator's mother:

I found her flat upon her back. Her head was on its side. The gulls had had her eyes. One leg was twisted, one arm was turned. Her hands were weighing down her smock. Her fingers were as straight and cold and blue as razor shells. At her side a dozen scallops lay, sticky with her blood. I could not see the wound until I knelt to straighten out her arm and leg. And then I saw the wound deep in the shallow waist-dell of her back. I saw the arrow, too. And pulled it out. And wiped it clean. And wondered at its weight and shape and shine.

The arrow is of bronze. It signals the end of safety for the village, the withdrawal of the gift. The market for stone tools dries up; the mongers leave. The narrator, her father and the stoneys must also leave or face hunger and horsemen armed with weapons of bronze. The father—sole wanderer among them—leads them to the limit of the world he has known, the heath where he discovered the narrator and her mother.

Novels about growing up traditionally end when the hero is about to head out into the world beyond. This one is no exception. “The stories he'd told were of our past,” the narrator says of her father. “His new task was to invent a future for us all.”

Perry Glasser (review date 16 April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stone are made obsolete by technological innovation. Some adjust, some do not. The community disperses, led by the storyteller.

By convention, reviewers never reveal entire plots, but I've betrayed nothing not already mentioned on the dust-jacket. Plot isn't what Crace wants us to care about. The reader in search of a pre-historic epic in the manner of Jean M. Auel is advised to look elsewhere.

Crace writes allegory. Every carefully shaped event advances an idea and illuminates one more facet of the argument. The Gift of Stones is not about people, but about imaginative art, storytelling in particular, and the complicated relationship between art and the realm of commerce that at once supports and despises its artists.

What Crace sets to do he does well. Speaking of his craft, the storyteller asks, “Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh—and cough—and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells.”

During the course of the novel, many now-familiar esthetic issues are discovered by the primordial storyteller. The artisan can never soar to the spiritual heights accessible to the imaginative artist because the artisan strives for “beauty, symmetry, and utility,” while the true artist seeks purer beauty and wonder. The true artist has suffered a wound, and as such is always something of an alien in his own world, comfortable among outcasts, yet longing for acceptance by his audience.

History and change will erase the effort of those who work in commerce and industry; the true artist's effort stands immutable, transcending the forces of time. The storyteller, trapped by his facility for pretty lies, will be shunned by his audience if he dares to tell a discomforting truth. Imaginative art may be thought to be a luxury, but is in fact necessary to the spirit. And finally, paradoxically, lies known to be lies can nevertheless require us to see the truth anew. “Salute the liars—they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.”

Crace's language, crackling with sensory detail and intensely imagined, achieves the kind of effortless ease that comes only with extraordinary work and care. Two alternating voices, the storyteller's and his daughter's, are similar yet distinct enough to bring to the tale the resonance its serious ideas warrant. Poetry lurks in this prose, language that slows the reader when a sentence demands to be savored. “And every death was fuel for that odd and deadly stew of temper which, in young men, is called exuberance and which in wolves is known as brutishness.”

When Jim Crace's first novel, Continent, appeared in 1986 in England, it received the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the Guardian Prize for Fiction and the David Higham Prize. The Gift of Stones should find a discriminating audience.

Lowry Pei (review date August 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 loses his arm to a raiding horseman's poisoned arrow and is thrust into a lifetime as the village's maverick and outsider. By wandering a few hours from the settlement (where he encounters Doe), he becomes more of an explorer than anyone around him. His embroidered tales of ships landing with cargoes of perfume, and of a crew of “girls with one thing on their minds” become the villagers' entertainment; once they have accepted his stories as part of their lives, they lose interest when he begins to tell the truth. In the end, forced to abandon their village because they can no longer live by trading stone tools, the stoneys leave it to the protagonist “to invent or find a route for them,” unaware that his knowledge of the world scarcely exceeds their own.

The protagonist's tale of his life, woven together with his daughter's version and the “bespoke stories he told to tease and stimulate,” gives rise to reflections on storytelling itself, which we are clearly invited to apply to our own reading. The daughter's essay on fiction (and on her father) is essentially this: “We do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.” If someone were to tell simply the truth, “It would be flat … he'd have [his audience] witness all the tedium of work, each word of his would be a hammer blow.” Therefore, “Salute the liars—they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” In counterpoint to her view, her storytelling (i.e., lying) father comes to the point of wanting to tell “a story made by life … true in every way,” but finds that the villagers, no longer entertained but threatened, don't want to hear it.

The Gift of Stones does invent a world that takes the place of our own; but the world it chooses to invent, rather than being “fresh,” is consistently, aggressively sour. “‘The secret of the storyteller,’ father said, ‘is Never Smile.’” Jim Crace has taken this advice to heart. An excerpt from the opening paragraph captures the novel's imagery and its tone:

The indented scar [on the stump of his arm] was like those made in the ice by boys with stones—a small uneven puncture, wet with brackish pus … As he grew older it would seem (he said) that his wasted and unsummoned semen had found less rewarding outlets from his body than he would have wished. He picked it rolled and spongy from the corners of his eyes after sleep. It gathered on his tongue and stretched into stringy tresses when he laughed or spoke.

Crace is as stingy as the traders of stone he writes about; he gives us a choice between the protagonist's lies about ships sailed by seductresses and the author's truth, a world in which “The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh.” The seashore, in Crace's world, is “where the water runs to phlegm.” Man is the measure of all things here, remarkable mainly for his wretchedness. “What is liberty anyway? Not much more than self-deceit, a fantasy.”

At the end of The Gift of Stones, the protagonist finds himself without either lies or truth that can help the villagers on their way as they venture out into the world. To say the same for Jim Crace's relationship with his readers would actually be generous; in fact, he uses his liberty as an artist to impose on us a gratuitous burden. The novel is exactly what its title implies.

Gary Krist (review date winter 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 joy of the Hudson Review fiction chronicle. Books begin turning up miraculously in my mailbox. Most of them I've heard about; some I've even been intending to read. But my final selection of books to review is determined largely by whim. I examine typefaces. I look deep within myself and decide whether the world really needs another discussion of E. L. Doctorow's latest. And I read lots of page ones. The results of this rather arbitrary selection process—whether serendipitous or not—are reported here.

Reviewing books in this way can be an exhilarating experience. By ignoring what “They” tell me is a worthwhile book to read (“They” being my friends, editors, The New York Times Book Review, and all other sources of literary gospel), I can turn reading into an expression of independence, or even defiance. After all, reading, like writing, should always be a little subversive.

My first encounter with the work of British writer Jim Crace was a textbook illustration of serendipity. I chanced upon his debut book, Continent, in the library and decided that it looked interesting (OK, I liked the jacket art). The book turned out to be one of the most adventurous, intellectually provocative fictions I had read in a long time. So when The Gift of Stones, Crace's second book, turned up in my mailbox, I grabbed it immediately (despite the fact that I hated the jacket art). The verdict? One of the most adventurous, intellectually provocative fictions I've read since Continent. If he continues producing books like these, Crace may turn out to be one of the most original writers in our language, and the fact that he remains so little known in this country strikes me as profoundly unfair.

To describe The Gift of Stones as a parable about the act of storytelling might make the novel sound a bit precious, but the characterization is accurate. Crace begins with a germ idea suggested by his epigraph—an account of archeologists discovering the skeletal lower arm of a child in a pile of flints—and spins his tale from there, “inventing reasons why the arm was there, and what the fate had been of that child's other bones.” The result is a story set in an imaginary prehistoric village of stonecutters, where a boy struck by an arrow loses his infected arm to an amputator's stone knife. Finding himself one-armed in a community where two arms are necessary for the ordinary work of life, the boy is useless—until his idle wanderings beyond the confines of his village yield up an unexpected calling for him. He returns with wild tales of the outside world, storyteller's lies that ease the monotony of the stonecutters' mundane labors. He performs the same role, the author implies, that Crace himself does, providing his fellows with imaginative fictions through which and by which they can live a fuller existence.

All of this is told with great economy and charm, in the naive yet evocative language of parable. Crace's paragraphs read almost like poetic stanzas; his lines are cleanly imagistic, rife with approximate rhyme, and occasionally even metrical. As it turns out, this stylized prose proves necessary to carry the full weight of the author's allegorical intentions, which become increasingly ambitious as the novel unfolds. Crace wants to grant storytelling a much larger function than that of merely providing entertainment or even emotional fulfillment. When the arrival of bronze implements puts the skilled but unadaptable stonecutters out of business, they turn to the talkative amputee for nothing less than the reinvention of their lives. The novel ends with the storyteller leading the population out of the now defunct village to parts unknown, heavy with his new responsibility of imagining their future. Of course, this rather inflated portrait of the role played by imagination in pushing civilization forward is probably just another storyteller's lie, but it's a lie we can enjoy believing in, at least for a moment.

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 13 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 typical, in fact virtually unique in a book so much given over to sophisticated urban recastings of natural imagery, is the criticism of the essence of cities, their bossy dependence on what lies outside them.

The city of the book offers a grudging untrustworthy hospitality. We learn, in flashback, that Victor, now the octogenarian patriarch of the fruit market, arrived there as a babe in arms, and was immediately put to work at his mother's breast. She begged, and soon learned that a woman breastfeeding offers passers-by a matchless icon of chaste sensuality, an image of repletion that paradoxically compels charity.

In later life, Victor inhabits a purpose-built office block overlooking the market, and on his eightieth birthday resolves to re-imagine and rebuild the commercial centre below. The main story of the novel, then, is of a man made by the marketplace (where by definition the country comes to town) who makes the marketplace anew: the design project that wins his approval, a hi-tech enclosure that mimics tropical conditions, is called Arcadia.

What is pleasure and substance in Arcadia, though, is the way Jim Crace's prose obsessively, page by page, tackles the same task as Victor's, of reconstituting pastoral imagery in a new context. There is a plot, and human interaction (Victor fires his right-hand man, Rook, who plots against Arcadia and hires down-and-out Joseph to sabotage it), but it is not in those departments that the novel is so rewarding. Arcadia is the most intense dream of a city since Edmund White's Caracole, as luxuriant in style but perhaps more decorous—pollarded, you might say—when it comes to character and incident.

Crace's narrative takes on the burden and the joy of expressing what the characters feel. The narrator, lightly characterized, is nominally a gossip columnist, but lyricism is hardly a professional necessity in that sphere, and Crace has lyricism to burn. When a middle-aged couple, the morning after becoming lovers, walk through the street, the prose doesn't so much describe their emotions as become flooded with them, made generous and celebrant: “The hastening single people in the street, tooth-paste and coffee on their gums, a day of labour summoning, a desk, a loom, a till, gave way to them, as if a couple so engrossed and casual had passage rights, like yachts, to an unhindered channel at the pavement's crown. We all defer to couples, do we not? A man and woman hand-in-hand can make the toughest of us step aside, can stop a tram.”

The strangest aspect of Arcadia is undoubtedly its reliance on verse rhythms. Not since Moby-Dick has blank verse thrummed so relentlessly beneath the surface of prose. In passage after passage, Crace's style is as iambic as a migraine. The effect is thrilling in short bursts, in quantity maddening.

Prose and verse are nothing so simple as opposites, but it's as if Crace tries to reconcile them without acknowledging the fact of their estrangement. The same drive, on a larger aesthetic scale, gives Arcadia its distinction and its force, but also a strangeness perhaps beyond what is intended. The novel describes a harsh utopia, neither quite a fable nor a parallel world, an imaginary city that disavows the problems of real ones but has its own glint of unwelcome.

The city in the book is not explicitly the capital of a country, but it defers to no larger entity. The produce that floods into the city comes not from abroad but from an undamaged and undepleted countryside. There is plastic, but barely a trace of the industry which must have made it. There is blight and there are suburbs, but Victor from his skyscraper can see the end of the town and comprehend its layout at a glance—which makes it, by modern standards, a small city. There is no sense in the book of the deconstructive drive of progress, of the way that technology, having made a city possible, denatures the countryside to supply it and then, becoming less bound to place, unravels the city itself. Victor's empire is connected up by fibre-optics, but he still deals essentially in fruit, and the book contains no criticism of urbanism more informed or trenchant than Joseph's.

If Victor is almost a fetishist in his attachment to vegetables and to fruit, so too is his author. When he isn't describing greengrocery—and the book is full of hymns to produce—then he is comparing other things to it. A woman's hair is “lifeless as the leaf tuft of a pulled beetroot.” People laugh themselves “as wet as cress.” An injury is “a fleshy pit like those left by the beaks of jays in pears.” Often what is being savoured is properly the fruit of language, in technical terms like blet or strig or reasty. Sometimes the conceits are laboriously cultivated, as when two people are described as “too sleepy” for public love, and then the adjective is glossed: “‘Sleepy’ is the word growers use to specify a pear, and other soft-fleshed fruits, which have matured but, though they have their colour and their shape, will soon begin to brown and rot and lose their flavour and their bloom.”

Crace resists the suggestion, even when his material invites it, that his cornucopia might be more like a glut of alienation. Victor, after all, received from his mother's breast a nourishing substance that was already a symbolic commodity being dispensed for cash. The city, conversely, should in theory be a generator and sustainer of culture, but is barren. The only art we come across is folk art, the only wisdom folk wisdom, in the form of quaint country rhymes.

On Victor's birthday, he wants a recreated country festival. Fish are brought, live, to town and cooked. A breeze is synthesized. Cats are recruited to loll and play in an air-conditioned suite. But the air is polluted and heavy, and the celebration an ordeal. The three accordionists' instruments are “strapped on their chests like oxygen machines.” Then Victor, choking, suggests an adjournment to the roof, where he has created a garden and a greenhouse, and this artificial island of nature works its magic on the guests and the occasion. Even the musicians are revived, and the oxygen-machine image applied to the accordionists recurs in a naturalized transformation: “It is the only instrument strapped to the player's heart. Its pleated bellows stretch and smile.” From oxygen machine to heart, from estranged culture back rapidly to nature. It's a classic Arcadia moment, dazzling, evasive, a characteristic episode in a novel that poses as a meditation on cities but is actually a perverse idiosyncratic reconstitution, in a prose supersaturated with metre, of the pastoral.

Geoff Dyer (review date 20 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 with archaisms (diadem, necrotic) and gobbets of jaunty suss (“men have shallow, porous bladders which nag and leak. A shaking train is torture when they want to piss”), Arcadia reads as if translated from some earthy register of yore into a mordant modernism. “Two fighting men … So far as one could tell from the stream of threats and imprecations they exchanged, their differences would not be solved without the death of one.”

Like the market itself, Crace's prose is “steeped in root, and leaf, and fruit.” The modern urban world and its inhabitants are rendered vegetative by the vocabulary of the market garden. People become a species of fruit and veg: two lovers lie “curve-wrapped on their mattress like two bananas on one bunch.” After a riot where the traders hurl not bottles but cabbages, tomatoes and peaches, one of which hits a TV cameraman—“his blood was peach juice, and his juice was blood”—a body lies “discarded like a bruised courgette … stripped naked to the waist, softened, bruised and split like an old banana by the beating he received.”

Arcadia, Crace's city of words, sprouts, photosynthesises, ripens, rots. But to what end? Our narrator notes that it was “a strange and—finally—tiresome game to bend words in a way that was confusing and not funny.” Our sense of the lives and dreams of the characters who inhabit this imaginative world is in no way enhanced by Crace's insistent vegetablisation. The human cost of the enterprise becomes apparent when we see that Crace's intentions are strangely similar to those of the architect (depicted with some derision) who wins the contract to transform the market.

“Let's give the people a country walk right at the city's heart,” he says. To “bring the outdoors indoors” he constructs “hills and plains and ridges made from curving sheets of glass.” Crace does it with words. The great flaw of the architect's design is that it suffocates the natural life of the people it claims to shelter. The author's rhetorical greengrocery does something similar, turning them into cabbages, composed of successive layers of metaphor. Rather than being nourished by the tangle of verbal overgrowth, the people whose lives he seeks to celebrate serve primarily to fertilise it.

Francis King (review date 21 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 country life, the natural state of mankind, which his mother knew but he himself never did.

Victor, a man incapable of any love except for this mother long since dead, is both the least satisfactory and the least sympathetic character in this novel. Far more vivid are his right-hand man, Rook, himself a child of the market-place, who over the years has made himself rich by cheating his master, just as his master has made himself rich by cheating the poor; Joseph, a muscular labourer from the country, who beats a path to the city in the vain hope of bettering himself; and Anna, Victor's secretary, who is also Rook's mistress. Writing about these people, Crace is writing about cunning, egotism, betrayal, and the willingness even to murder to make a profit. But he is also, on a profounder level, writing about that atavistic yearning of even the most hardened of city-dwellers to retreat to the idyll of a cottage in the remote, slow-beating heart of the countryside.

To satisfy that yearning, the city-dweller creates an Arcadia similar to Victor's: a ludicrous mock-up of the country, with innumerable birds fluttering in a vast cage of netting and glass; with shoppers buying now a batik scarf and now lab-grown lettuces and glasshouse broccoli ‘with flower-heads as big and tight as cobblestones’; with restaurants called the Picnic Basket, the Texas Pantry and the Hunger Monger; with official buskers, Courtesy Wheelchairs and a Jungle Creche. But life, dirty, disorderly and spontaneous, can never be wholly eradicated by artifice. Beyond Arcadia (a fiction not unlike our own Covent Garden) arises a successor to the old market which Victor has been instrumental in destroying.

The first thing that impresses one in this novel is the author's descriptive ability. This is seen at its most masterly in the chapter, near the close, when, as the result of an act of arson procured by Rook and committed by Joseph, the old market-place, about to be closed so that the new Arcadia can be built, goes up in flames. A riot follows, with the traders (or ‘soapies,’ as they are here called) battling with the URCU (Urban Rapid Control Unit). But throughout, in evoking now the market-place crammed with its stalls and teeming with its beggars, crooks and winos, and now the sanitised, chilly splendours of Victor's tower-block, Crace is a writer who, with almost every sentence, provides one with a shock of surprise or a frisson of delight at his audacious deployment of simile, metaphor and language.

It is easy to see why his first book was heaped so high with laurels. How could any judge of a literary award, himself or herself a writer, not at once be captivated by the manner in which an image expands, becomes nebulous and solidifies into another, which then in turn undergoes the same process; by the abrupt, dislocating but almost always impressive transitions from one scene to another; by the virtuosity with which the realistically particular keeps acquiring the looming generality of myth?

The book begins laboriously, as though the engine of a powerful racing-car, long undriven, were coughing and spluttering into life. But after the first 30 or so pages there follows an exhilarating and eventually triumphant journey. Crace, now in his mid-forties, is a late-comer to the novel; but he is already up there near the front with the literary Sennas and Mansells.

Richard Eder (review date 4 October 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

These are attributes. They characterize Crace's power, but the power itself is of a more conventional kind: a burst of heroism or despair, an unexpected human wonder, the sadness that wonder does not endure. They burn in the fate of the group, not the protagonist. By analogy, we may sense more of character and a particular quality of soul in an Italian hill town than in the faces and bearing of its individual inhabitants.

The crippled bard in Stones, who told the story of his clan and invented a story for its future, was beautifully drawn, but what he conveyed was not so much himself as his communal history. In Arcadia, the nonagenarian billionaire, Victor, who buries the green-market in glass and steel, and Rook, the former barrow boy who is his factotum and antagonist, are abstract figures in a social parable.

The son of a market beggarwoman, Victor started as a barrow boy himself, flourished, took over the whole market, bought into shipping lines, real estate and foreign holdings. The story begins as he is about to celebrate his 90th birthday at the top of the sealed skyscraper that he rarely leaves. Sometimes he visits his greenhouse on the roof; it provides him a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the countryside his mother came from.

The celebration will feature a rustic lunch, a few cats to suggest a farmyard—chickens were thought of, but ruled out for health reasons—a wreath of laurel for Victor's chair. The air conditioning is turned up to simulate a country breeze. The five oldest market men are invited—Victor's one-time colleagues.

Steamed fish is served. “As he had scaled and silvered with old age,” Crace writes, “so his taste for fish had grown.” There will be no speeches. “What old men want is peace and informality and the chance to talk among themselves like smutty boys.”

The arrangements are made by Rook, lean, mercurial and a traitor. Years before, as a market stall-holder, he had led a strike against Victor's rents; he then sold out in exchange for a job as the old man's personal assistant. He goes on being a traitor and it makes him rich; supervising the market for Victor, he extorts kick-backs from his one-time friends.

At the party, one of them denounces him. Rook is fired, and takes poisonous refuge among the roots he has poisoned. He haunts the market; learning of Victor's plans to raze it, he manages to incite another protest, but it fizzles. He arranges to set the market on fire; in the subsequent riot he is beaten to death by the police. Years later, after the gleaming and hermetic new market is in place, a few shabby barrows of damaged fruit make their appearance in a back alley. Razed or poisoned, roots come back, Crace suggests, and undermine whatever is built over them.

If Arcadia, despite a compelling tone and vision, lacks the strength of Stones, it is because its communal story is less moving and more constricted. The passing of a millennial age whose faces, names and ways are lost in pre-history has a grander mystery to it than the withering of a postmodern city's earthy roots. The modern story feels claustrophobic in its allegorical abstractness; it needs human specifics.

Rook, perhaps because he has denied himself so many times, is an elliptic figure, often to the point of invisibility. His affair with Anna, Victor's secretary, is faintly sketched, and so is she. The bloodless, spider-like Victor is more compelling, as indeed, he must be, since he is the parable's controlling figure.

His drive to amass power has leached out all but a ghost of human substance, but the ghost makes itself heard. The most striking section of the book—apart from the hellish market fire that Crace actually manages to make burn cold—is the account of who Victor was, and where his arid, self-consuming passion came from.

His mother, suddenly widowed, brought him in from the country as a nurseling. All she could do was beg, and her baby helped. Crace is darkly acute as he writes that a successful beggar needs to present a reassuring image. A male beggar can be jaunty or a clown; a woman must offer some equivalent reassurance. Naked suffering is too scary and people avoid it. As a howling baby, Victor would disconcert; a peacefully nursing Victor encourages the proffered coin. So until he is 5, hungry or not, he is kept firmly squashed to his mother's breast. It is, as an aunt remarks, his lathe; he must put in his eight hours at it; he is the bread-winner.

From there on, of course, it is cold greed for 90 years. The natural world of farms, markets and human impulse all but finished Victor and his mother; he dedicates the rest of his life to finishing it off in his turn. Only the grubby barrows at the end betray him; those and a pawky statue, embarrassing to the architects, which he places at the entrance to the gleaming arcade. It shows a beggar nursing her child.

The elusive image of Victor and his desolating need snaps into focus. Those odd bits of childishness we had noted here and there find their place, even as we read of his uncompromising schemes. He is the blind mouth at the nipple.

Joseph Olshan (review date 15 November 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 poverty, ends up begging for a living in the very Soap Market that will one day belong to her son. Until the death of his mother in a rooming house fire, Victor passes his first six years living under an umbrella and nursing at his mother's breast long after it ceases lactating.

He is forced to endure this grotesque psychological tyranny for the sole reason that the sight of suckling child is the most effective means to inspire charitable contributions. And indeed, once Victor and his mother meet up with his mother's indigent sister, his malnourished mouth is traded off between the two women:

Why should they not take care to put him to good use, and love him still, and love him all the more? They liked the independence that he gave. They did not know—he did not know—that they had robbed him of his liberty, that their rib cages were for him two sets of prison bars, their arms his warders, their breasts his sedatives.

Crace's beautifully written account of Victor's erratic childhood is the most magical and compelling section of the novel. As we witness Victor's dire childhood circumstances, we are able to understand why he distrusts people and has spent his life at a great distance from them.

He dissipates his best years in a high-rise apartment building nicknamed “Old Vic,” from where he runs his grocery empire. Never once has Victor been touched by romantic love; the only love he seems to cultivate is for the plants in his greenhouse. Yet his presence looms like his high-rise over Crace's entire novel: “The tallest buildings throw the longest shadows, it is said, by those who spend their lives in contemplation of their monuments, and those for whom the shadow life is better than the real.”

Despite the distance he maintains, Victor seems to be constantly on the minds of his employees, from whom he exacts an unbreachable loyalty. He is a man attempting to control the “climate” of his adult life in attempt to compensate for his early years of material uncertainty and physical privation. And any hint of tampering with Victor's drive to control by his support staff is met with immediate severance and expulsion.

That is what happens to Victor's right-hand man, the devoted Rook. Taking great pains to arrange Victor's 80th birthday party, Rook scours the Soap Market for the best in vegetables and sweets, arranges for live perch to be transported from Victor's country pond and ferried to Old Vic by taxi from the train station, and invites guests, largely Soap Market merchants, into the home of his friendless millionaire employer.

But much to Rook's chagrin, some of the guests mention to Victor that his preeminent employee had been collecting kickbacks from the other merchants. Without even giving Rook a chance to answer the allegations, the paranoid Victor sacks him; the decision is passed along by Anna, another high-level employee with whom Rook happens to be having an affair. Mortified, infuriated, Rook is thrown out into the street and spends the rest of the novel hanging around and stewing for revenge.

Arcadia is perfectly realized in every facet of its weird introspection. Its characters and its unnamed though vividly evoked city are curiously archetypal. One feels that the book could be set in any urban metropolis and in any time frame within 100 years and never seem outdated or diminished by historical hindsight. The author eschews outright social commentary or any discussion of politics. Although the immediate environment of the novel is graphically well-defined, beyond its borders the reader senses a sociological and geographical blur as profound and mysterious as a forest. Ultimately, the novel itself is Arcadian in concept.

Yet it is the approved vision of a refurbished marketplace, called “Arcadia” by the architects—the glass and chrome facsimile of a halcyon country setting—that ends up threatening to subvert Victor's efforts to maintain his corporate status quo. On the eve of the renovation's commencement, Rook bribes a vagrant to set fire to the merchant stalls. Victor, from the 27th floor of his building, witnesses the fire and, almost against his will, is forced to remember the blaze in which his mother perished:

There was an old straw hat. The smell of bread and urine. The disconcerted snufflings of sleepers on bare boards. The sirens were his mother's screams, the screams of Princesses on fire, of people separated from their homes, the scream of rain-soaked timbers made dry and hot too swiftly by the fire.

The second fire cracks the wall of Victor's self-defenses, and as he tours the damaged Soap Market we grow aware of an emerging tenderness and compassion. One comes to realize that although Arcadia has, for the most part, crystallized outside of Victor's point of view, its overall vision actually resembles his own blinkered view of the world. Victor's spiritual opening suggests that in the end, human life, though divergent in its circumstances, is brought to a par by a common recognition of human suffering.

Robert M. Adams (review date 3 December 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 pregnant, and therefore give birth, simultaneously. There is a family that specializes in rearing a mutant version of the cattle called Belted Aurochs; the freemartins (neutrals) of this species are particularly prized because their milk, though scanty, is reputed to be powerfully aphrodisiac. The owner of the herd, who has used his splendid wealth to study some elementary biology, is embarrassed at the source of his money, but adjusts to it.

Other stories are simply episodes: a race is arranged and run between a horseman and a foot runner; the agent for a mining company, between solitude and frustration, goes quietly mad; They are deft stories, taut but not contrived. Commentators have proposed parallels with Borges and Coetzee, to whom I would add an overtone from V. S. Naipaul. Crace's narratives don't exploit current headlines, but slide into and out of fantasies in a way that leaves the imagination exercised and invigorated.

A second book but first novel, The Gift of Stones, is set in familiar British surroundings, but toward the end of the Stone Age, among prehistoric and preliterate people. The setting is by the seashore in a community of stone huts whose residents specialize in shaping flints into knives, axes, and arrowheads. Being single-minded in their pursuit of their occupation—not unlike the later inhabitants of Birmingham, one might think—they are very successful commercially. But an accident has separated the hero (who is nameless, like practically everyone else in his village) from the community of “stoneys.” During the visit of marauding traders, he is struck on the right elbow by a bowman of the enemy gang, and, because the arrow is poisoned, has to have that forearm amputated. Nowhere in the world is there a better supply of stone knives for the operation, but the supplies of anesthesia are limited, and the operation, described in gruesome detail, is as horrible as one could want. But when the young man starts to recover, what place can be found for him in a society wholly devoted to chipping flints? At seven years old, the little cripple becomes an outcast in his own village, a scavenger, a collector and inventor of stories. He is a liar, he is an artist; he knows how to string out a story and tickle the libidinous fancies of the flint-chippers. But that's about it. While wandering aimlessly in another district, he comes across a woman named Doe who comforts his body and stimulates his imagination, without much improving his social condition.

She is in fact a scrawny, derelict, widowed prostitute, but she and her daughter (who partially succeeds her crippled stepfather as narrator) settle down and form a kind of tiny alliance against the brutal world outside. There is plenty to be wary of in the world of men no less than of animals. The little family survives by Doe's daily prostitution, while keeping out of sight of clubmen and spear-wielders—until at last they and their entire district find the market for flint implements has suddenly dried up. The age of copper and bronze is upon the flint-chippers, and the tale ends with the demoralized village straggling away under the uncertain leadership of the story-teller toward a dim future. Indeed, he does not know where to lead them, but he has been, at least occasionally, outside the native village and has glimpsed, as from Pisgah, the chance of a better world.

The last years of the Stone Age, as Crace imagines them, were gritty and nasty for everyone, particularly for an outcast cripple. We know of course nothing first-hand of those hard-bitten survivors. But modern times as he renders them in his latest and largest novel, Arcadia, are far from idyllic or arcadian. Though it has plenty of thoroughly knowable characters, some with pronounceable names, Arcadia is centrally about a vegetable market in a composite midlands city similar to Birmingham. The time is the present, thought the book's memory extends a full eighty years into the past. But the market itself is unchanging, or nearly so; and what a market it is! Mr. Crace can only have learned what he knows about the wholesale greengrocery business by getting his feet in the mud and his fingers in the leafage. His senses are tuned to the snap of a good bean, the fingernail tests for the ripeness of a peach. The market with its piles of vegetables is a very old one, not much less than medieval in its origins and wrinkled with ancient tradition. It is called the “Soap Market” because years ago the market workers used to wash their hands after work at the public pumps—now, years later, inevitably and forever residents of the district are still known as “soapies.” The “boss” of the market, though his title is unofficial and mostly tacit, is an eighty-year-old celibate named simply Victor. His entire existence has been passed in, around, and ultimately as possessor of the market. An emblem of his control is the twenty-seven-story “modernistic” skyscraper in the market square, of which he occupies the top stories. As owner of the project, Victor has been collecting rents from the two hundred-odd tenants, protecting them from architects, municipal authorities, and rival bosses who might, for instance, want to modernize the market and (inevitable consequence) raise the rents.

Victor's indispensable and in his own way unscrupulous assistant is a younger and much tougher orphan of the market, named simply Rook. He acts as Victor's eyes and ears, legs and hands; he is also valuable to the tenants of the market, whose special interests and concerns he communicates to the almost invisible and motionless old man who sits at the center of things. It is by no means an unsavory relationship but it is a dangerous one. Rook serves the tenants, and he serves their boss. Unfortunately for everybody. Rook has an itchy palm; he collects, on his own initiative and for his own advantage, a silent second rent, which the more truculent and hard-headed tenants naturally resent.

Into this unstable situation intrudes a muscular, aggressive, semi-literate bumpkin from the farm country that supplies Victor's market; his name, minimal like most of Mr. Crace's names, is Joseph, and he hopes to atone with muscle for a plentiful lack of brains and other advantages. His adventures are consistently unfortunate. While picking the pocket of Con, a burly vegetable dealer, he is caught in the act, and allowed by way of atonement to hold up Rook, who has been out that morning collecting his own private rents. Rook is a much older man, but he has the street smarts, and he smashes Joseph's face, kicks him into flight, and recovers his own ill-gotten money along with evidence that Joseph had been incited to attack him.

Meanwhile Victor, having attained his eightieth birthday, resolves to reconstruct the market so that it will be a more presentable and profitable memorial to his career. But while he is preparing to announce the transformation, one of his old tenants, overcome by champagne and senility, lets fall a word about Rook's system of secondary, extortionate rentals. The old man is furious, and abruptly fires Rook, whose downfall opens the way to an interpolated story of how Victor became the person he now is—or more specifically, how the market made him the person it wanted him to be. The Old Soap Market as Crace depicts it was by no means a collection of Zolaesque or Gorkyesque horrors—a basic difference is that the soapies did not look on themselves as unredeemable degenerates. A much more cheerful category, which many accepted, was that of the Undeserving Poor. In this murky milieu Victor put down his first roots. He was fatherless from the start, and shortly motherless as well; he had no home other than the streets; by accident he fell into the care of a tough, careless slattern known simply as “Aunt.” She may have been Victor's actual aunt, but the bond uniting them was economic; Victor, being small and pathetic, provided an ideal prop for a beggar girl, and not only Aunt but a number of her friends took turns playing his mother. Starting with Aunt, Mr. Crace describes the tawdry freedoms of their society:

There were a dozen country girls like her who worked the same neighborhood of the city and who shared a two-room attic in a tenement near the Soap Market, in the Woodgate district. The Princesses they were called, sardonically, by the poor families and the laborers who inhabited the lower floors. They'd all lost jobs as maids or kitchen girls and had finished on the streets. Some stole. Some sold themselves to men. Some earned a little from the sale of matches or doing fetch-and-carry for the posh, frail ladies who took strong waters in the smart salons. Aunt stuck to begging. She was good at it. And soon she had enough each day to pay the pittance rent for a small corner in the Princesses' attic rooms. There was no proper light or water there, or any stove for cooking. But there was camaraderie and candles. We know that poverty's not fun, but if you are young and poor in company then shame, and lack of hope, and loneliness do not increase the burdens on your back. Sharing nothing or not much is easier than sharing wealth.

So Aunt was happy with her life. There was no washing up. No slops. No punctilious, grumpy cook. No silver breakfast forks. They shared—like only women will—their daily gains, their city spoils, their swag. The only privacy they had—if, say, they wished to sit unnoticed on the pot—was to hide behind the lines of washing, strung across the rooms, or to wait for darkness. But why hide away to pee, when peeing in full view of all your friends can cause such mirth and raucous joviality? “Hats off,” they used to say to Aunt, whose cloche would rarely leave her head. “It's impolite to pee like that in the presence of Princesses.” They'd wait until they heard the spurt of urine in the bowl and then they'd say, “Hats off. Stand up … and take a bow!” Or “Sing, sing! And show your ring.” The communal laughter of these Princesses was laughter with no victim and no spite.

Aunt learned the tricks of begging from their attic talk at night, as each described the day they'd had; how men's brains were unfastened with their braces; how careless waiters were with tips; which restaurant chefs would give a back-step meal to any girl who'd volunteer to mop the floor. You'd eat the meal—then run; what places were the worst and best for palming cash from strangers. She learned how just a dab of zinc and vinegar could make a girl look feverish. It didn't work with men, but women—older ones—would pay to make you go away. She learned a gallery of beggars' faces, how to slide her tongue between her teeth and lips to look the simpleton, how to fake the single floating eye of the insane, how picking noses is just as good as picking pockets for getting cash if it is done on restaurant terraces and in a childish, not a vulgar way.

So she did well on city streets. She begged and importuned enough to count herself—by country standards—well set up. She was much plumper than the girl who'd skivvied in the kitchen. She had her hat as talisman and her Princesses for family. She did not think about the coming day—or much about the day just passed. She liked to place her hat upon her head and wander streets as if they were country lanes and she was simply searching for free fruit. She never tired of putting out her hand or challenging—this was her favorite trick—the drinking men in bars to toss and land a coin in the canyon brim of her straw hat.

Despite the drama of the hat, she was an ill-built, scruffy girl. The pits and craters on her face were blessings in disguise. They kept the men at bay. She did not have her sister's looks. But what she had was something better, rarer in those days than mere good looks. She had a sense of unembarrassed self-esteem. She liked the way she was.

It's a tough, petty, snatch-and-grab world around the old Soap Market—as much so at the end of Victor's long life as at the beginning. Jim Crace has loaded it with details and incidents: There is a cab driver who adjusts his rear-view mirror so he can glimpse in the back seat a politician feeling up the leg of a woman who is not his wife. For the cabbie it's a few shillings of blackmail; for the novel it's a morsel of life—savory and disgusting. The novelist must strike a delicate balance to keep the disgust poised against the lyricism, the solidity of his town against the fields and flowers that permeate it. Mr. Crace writes in a grainy prose that is a pleasure to read; and he brings the story of his market to a remorselessly logical conclusion in which people are scattered and the market itself destroyed in a wild riot and a deadly fire. Crace has observed his town in all its petty meannesses, and at the end, reckoned up its values to the last scruple. His next novel should be eagerly anticipated.

Edward T. Wheeler (review date 18 June 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 is anomalous: he has grown great through produce, through feeding the country to the city, yet he lives in a “misanthropic building,” occupying a greenhouse roof garden, plagued by aphids. This same garden was once a restaurant but now abandoned because the building's sway sickened the patrons. The occasion of his eightieth birthday has Victor ruminating on a project, a high-rise structure to be called Arcadia which will replace the open-air Soap Market. Victor wishes to transform, to idealize his roots, for it was in the Soap Market that Victor got his start as a hawker so many years before. His architect promises Victor “Outside, the city; countryside within.” That same birthday, however, also sees the unexpected and bitter split with Rook, Victor's chief of staff. The action of the novel is to a large extent the tracing of Rook's schemes to be the bird of ill omen for Arcadia. The auguries he performs convey the futility of the Arcadian scheme.

At the same time, Crace asks us to be burghers and to revel in the city, mostly the smell of its bowels. The organic metaphor won't be suppressed: “our city” is alive and the hero of the novel. The antagonist is the country and the conflict one of ingestion and growth; the place at which city mouth meets country morsel is the Soap Market where produce is sold. To city and country must be added a third, the urban developer, whose architects and planners would make artificial the city's relationship with the country. The major action moves through metaphor to myth: what is vital grows and will return. Waiting also, darkly, in this novel is a shadow. The epigraph warns us that the greatest men, like the tallest buildings, make their marks by blocking out the sun. Such threat to life provokes a recollection of “Et in Arcadia Ego,” words which Crace never lets Death speak outright. In the most fundamental way, this novel places at its center the struggle between life and death.

Crace's imaginative energy—at least as far as characterization is concerned—is not in the present but in the past with Victor's mother, Em, and her struggles to survive with infant Vic. Em's history, told in flashback, is Georgian and the urban world Crace constructs is brilliantly alive, almost Dickensian in its grotesques, its sharpers, and in the symbolic use of the conflagration which ends Em's life. The contemporary thugs, street people, professionals, and managers seem to act more as necessary adjuncts to the theme—the city's survival as organism. This leads to the technical wrinkle in the novel which is puzzling. The narrator announces himself as The Burgher, a onetime newspaper columnist who published under that by-line. But he also has impossible omniscience; his access to the histories and minds of the characters is never explained, just winked at with a phrase: “I raise my head above the parapet again.” The Burgher is, however, necessary for the book's structure: The City needs a City-Dweller to offer closure. In his final monologue the retired Burgher says “yes” to life where life seems most threatened—in the slums of the city he loves. His is a rhapsody on a fruit, a pear about to spoil. The Burgher eats in celebration of the market which has sprung again from detritus, from the refuse of the sanitized Arcadia.

Crace catches so the rhythms of growth, of organic life, in the city that a reader can forget the technical problem and scent the wind: “My tongue's kept busy by the scrap of pear skin lodged between my teeth. That's all that stops me sucking in our city air, and whistling.”

And this almost scans. There is menace conveyed in the description of the riot and fire which destroy the old Soap Market, much chest-tightening pain over Rook's asthmatic defeat, but the real power of the novel lies in the poetic language and not with an individualized human drama. The narration gets increasingly distant as the climactic scenes unfold: we flit about, watch, overhear, and get mashed in words: “He tossed [the grape] in his mouth. It popped between his teeth. He poked his tongue out at the children. Squashed green flesh lay in the ladle of his tongue.”

Jim Crace has found a form which celebrates the cycle of life in the city. His achievement is pungent but almost too self-regarding, too easily satisfied with the smell of mortality. As he escapes from the shadow cast by the towering Arcadia and faces the shadow of his own death, The Burgher's affirmations transform the city's tragedies, gobble them up in a rush to rebirth. But this won't do. Arcadia simply lets us off too easily. Death, which is always “also in Arcadia,” has its roots in evil, which, God knows, is real enough in all our cities today. The story of another fruit eaten in celebration of the self slips outside the coils of this narrative. But that metaphysical premise must be excluded if The Burgher is to have omniscience, for he speaks the myth by which the novelist as his own god redeems the world. The technical problem, finally, comes around to a thematic statement: we can rub shoulders with Death in Arcadia when we speak beyond our own limitations. In this City of Man the source of such speaking is left unfound.

T. J. Binyon (review date 2 September 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 are no references, such as the historical novel delights in, to contemporary events or personages. The author treats detail—especially nautical detail—with an insouciance worthy of Ouida. A suspicion that everything is not quite kosher aboard the Belle begins when Captain Comstock orders “a double-barrelled cannon” to be fired as a signal of distress, increases when “fore and mizzen topmasts … fell away into the sea,” as if a ship's masts had no more secure tenure on the hull than a hat on the head, and reaches certainty with a parodic description of the repairs (which might have come from The Hunting of the Snark), when every hand is on deck “tarring timbers, knotting canvas, dislodging barnacles.” Wherrytown itself, first given verisimilitude as the Belle's first port of call before Fowey and Cork, gradually floats off into symbolic abstraction, so that one is more and more inclined to read its name as Wheretown. And the discovery that that little-known philosopher, Emile dell'Ova, who provided the epigraph for Crace's previous novel, Arcadia, also supplies Aymer with reading-matter in the shape of his Truismes (Paris, 1774), brings the novel into line with its predecessors. Crace's prose, too, marches to the same rhythm as earlier: the insistent, often infuriating, background iambic beat of blank verse, occasionally reinforced by a half-rhyme, or an echo of one. While this gave a bardic lilt to The Gift of Stones, it worked less well in Arcadia, and in Signals of Distress, it gives the impression that the inhabitants of Wherrytown are out-of-work Shakespearean actors:

“I'll let the dogs inside to get you up. We've three dogs now. Our two have found a bitch to chase around.”

“Whose bitch is that?”

“She's ours, to keep or sell. She's sleeping in our hut, and that's the law. Or ought to be. Miggy! I'm warning you. It won't be dogs'll get you up, but me.”

Unlike the earlier novels, however, there is much in Signals of Distress that is comic, even farcical. Aymer's peregrinations along the seashore with a young sailor or a newly married couple, during which he discourses at interminable length on natural history, and is met with incomprehension, boredom and even anger, are richly humorous, as are his cut-and-thrust philosophical bouts—in which he is invariably worsted—with George, the servant at the inn. While Aymer, a relation of Mrs Jellyby, displays his abstract philanthropy by allowing the black slave to escape into a winter's night without food or warm clothing, it is George who keeps him hidden and fed when the locals, who have never seen a black man and believe him to be an ogre, would hunt him down and kill him.

Crace has set previous novels at transitional points of society: the change from the Stone to the Bronze Age, from rural to urban life. In Signals of Distress, the Wendepunkt is the replacement of one technology by another: the Belle of Wilmington by the Ha'porth of Tar, feminine sail by masculine steam; soda ash from burnt kelp by sodium carbonate extracted from common salt by the Leblanc process. Aymer defines his “Amendism” as “the scientific view that every offence … should be settled only by reparations of an equal force”: the drunken American sailors should make amends, when sober, by “imbibing some unpleasing liquid, or buying but not drinking beers of equal value to those that have intoxicated them.” Like his philanthropy, this is impractical comic rubbish, but, like it, a distortion of a natural law: action and reaction, deed and consequence, or, as George iambically puts it, “You stick your bum in fire and you must sit on blisters”—a fact Aymer has to acknowledge when he is beaten up by two bruisers for setting Otto free.

The symbol of natural equilibrium is the Cradle Rock on the cliffs outside Wherrytown; delicately poised, it sways in the wind, until the American sailors, drunk on the captain's brandy, push it from its pedestal to rock no more. The old order is over; the Belle, on its return voyage, goes down in the Cabot Strait; crew and emigrants are drowned; Aymer's vision of a king of a pantisocratic idyll in the Americas, peopled by the two couples he had befriended, will never be realized.

Signals of Distress is an intriguing work; more approachable, being less schematic, than Crace's three earlier books: balancing, like the Cradle Rock itself, between the realistic and the experimental novel.

Paula Burnett (review date 2 September 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 symbolic black pugilist avenges his race in the end, flooring his white opponent as Aymer, in a parallel narration, is given a savage beating by hired assailants. Crace cleverly makes the rain of blows seem both just and appalling.

This is a bleak book, its emblem the Fall, as enacted in the Americans' toppling of the Cradle Rock, which nature had balanced so that two were needed to make it move. There is a chill to the loneliness-driven sexuality that Crace achingly describes. Although he leaves us with Aymer's child, borne by a resilient mother-survivor, all other hopes are destroyed as the laboriously repaired American ship, bearing so many dreams, founders on a Newfoundland iceberg. Yet Crace's parable of post-lapsarian repression and isolation, misguided goodness and vengeful harm, is wan and cold rather than clear-eyed and taut like his earlier work. His characters have insufficient spark, the dialogue is unconvincing, and the hypnotic iambic rhythm often undermines his purpose, lulling when some edge is needed.

Tim Parks (review date 3 September 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 slave, Otto, the philanthropical Smith, various would-be emigrants and a gallery of colourful locals. Crace handles all of this masterfully. His blend of period pastiche and terse modern prose is excellent and engaging, with the set piece descriptions—the shipwreck, the night fishing, the snowstorm—particularly strong. And the plot surges ahead: criss-cross love interests between newcomers and locals, shady business deals and then Smith's crass attempts to make the world a better place, all collide to prepare us for a delightful, perhaps even revealing read.

Jim Crace made his name, of course, with the curious book Continent, a collection of seven stories which very ambitiously sought to savour the complex relationship between the old and the new in an imaginary Third World, and to explore our own ambiguous relationship with that world. If a little short on intensity for my taste, there was something so purposeful and achieved about these stories that one couldn't help feeling satisfied, provoked, full of admiration. You kept turning them round and round and inside out in your head, examining the ironies, enjoying. Which is about as much as you can usually ask of a narrative.

So why doesn't it work in Signals of Distress, despite the similar themes, the similarly accomplished prose? Perhaps the schematic approach Crace deployed so effectively in shorter pieces just isn't enough for a novel. The various representatives of the period roles—the asinine philanthropist, the bigoted preacher, the unscrupulous commercial agent, the lazy, libidinous captain, the poor, inarticulate girl, the ingenuous deckhand—are too flatly and predictably drawn to convince us that the author is engaging in any serious contemplation of the powers at play. Aymer Smith is the only fully and satisfyingly created character, but far too foolish and minor to constitute any comment on the whole obsession with holding liberal points of view. When he renounces, at the first hurdle, his aberrant pursuit of a local girl as his wife, the only real narrative tension the book had offered, the only monstrous and truly gripping eventuality is lost and what promised to be an excellent plot crumbles away in a series of costume sideshows, beautifully written, but somehow inconsequential, even when lives are at stake. In short, the book fails to focus.

Presumably the intention of the historical novel is to measure ourselves against the past, discover our own orthodoxies in contrast to theirs, understand how much love and dilemma and consciousness have shifted, how much remained the same. Which would be fascinating. But all too often, an author can be swept away by his own research, until he finds himself adrift amid a flotsam of period detail and poetic pastiche, going nowhere. Certainly this book's late announcement of a shipwreck might be its own obituary: lost with all hands. Or one could quote the charming poem it opens with:

This stranger's footprints are engrav'd in frost,
                                                            But soon forgot.
                              The sun bedazzles. They are lost.
                                                            And he has not
                    Impress'd his passage on this spot …

Michele Field (essay date 2 October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Gift of Stones, the reason that man's injury is convincing is that I was brought up with a father who hadn't lost an arm but had a useless, narrowed upper arm. He was a trade-union kind of guy whose attitude was that opera and literature were not only for the toffs. ‘That should be for us too,’ he'd say. The books he brought into the house—just 40 or 50 books—would be revered. I inherited that kind of possessiveness about literature.”

The biggest liberation, says Crace, who is 50, came very recently, “when I learned the secret about books is that you don't have to read them. I've a big garden, my son is 13 and my daughter nine, and they take up a lot of time. I am a tennis fanatic, I'm politically active, and we've a dog that's got to go out twice a day. I think that idea that to become a writer you have to read a lot of books is kind of crap, really, because books don't come out of other books. They come out of experience. I haven't even read any Thomas Hardy, though my last novel, Arcadia, was compared to his books.”

He hastily qualifies this point: “I think I am a slow reader as well, which means that when I do take on a novel it is quite a commitment.”

Crace can hardly believe that his fiction can be enjoyed simply as a “good read.” He has, he says, the kind of puritanism which puts everything in a story for a purpose. On one level, Signals of Distress is a tale about dislocated lives: how a small fishing village in the west of England in 1836 is disrupted when an American boat flounders and its crew comes ashore. But Crace is writing very symbolically about the clash of culture and commerce, about moralists and immoral entrepreneurs, and about a dozen other big themes. “People who don't like my books don't because they're schematic. My view is: What's wrong with schematic?”

Signals of Distress is a short book (276 pages) with a huge cast of characters, and in this respect it is a change from his previous books, in which he has stayed with two or three characters. Crace laughs when asked how he kept track of so many people. “I am not like some writers who have a flowchart on their walls before they start writing. I definitely fly by the seat of my pants.”


He has, however, an admirable, working-class view of his working schedule. He lives in a Birmingham suburb and, after taking the children to school, he writes from 10 to 3:15, sitting in a glass-roofed study. He never breaks for lunch or feels tempted to work weekends or evenings. He has a faint red “burn” on his forehead, about a three-inch circle, which his doctor says is “screen rash,” from getting too close to the screen of his word processor. “As an ex-journalist I don't believe in writer's block, so I've never had any problem about getting on with it. I also have this sense of what I have to achieve by the end of the week—5000 words. If I have written only 4600 I can't enjoy my weekend in good conscience.

“It doesn't mean I am not passionate about my writing, but I am very measured about it. Of course I don't do that 52 weeks of the year because if I did I would he writing massively huge novels.” He agrees that for this amount of work he is paid extremely well. “People keep demonstrating great faith in me and offer me substantial advances.” Maybe his publishers make it up on other books, he suggests, with a laugh. “I may not sell a single copy anywhere.”

Crace's break came with a short story called “Annie, California Plates,” about a car that travels across America entirely by itself, constantly picking up hitchhikers. First published in the British journal The New Review in 1974, it later appeared in several anthologies. “So then people contacted me, asked me to write a novel and I came down to London and they were all stuck-up upper-class types who took me out for a drink but never looked me in the eye. Then one editor, David Godwin, came up to Birmingham. He held my son and said ‘What a sweet baby,’ so I took a contract with that man.”

Godwin was then at Routledge, Kegan & Paul; he moved to Heinemann, and Crace followed; then to Secker & Warburg and then to Jonathan Cape. Each time, Crace followed Godwin and let his editor look after all his interests rather than engage an agent. American publishers dealt with David Godwin. Last year, Godwin left Random House and set up as an agent—so although Crace does not “believe” in agents, he became Godwin's first client.

When Ted Solotaroff at Harper & Row paid $40,000 for Crace's first novel, Continent, in 1987, Crace was especially grateful. That figure changed Heinemann's attitude about the book: they had given him a 15,000 pounds advance and suddenly they had a $40,000 sale. Then, within a period of 10 days, Continent won three big British book prizes. “It became a roman candle of a first book. It seemed like the resolution of a lot of unspoken dreams. My father, who was dead by then, had always wanted me to be a writer. When I was 11 he gave me this copy of Roget's Thesaurus for Christmas, and I remember being disappointed then, but I still use that same thesaurus now. So the success was full of all kinds of emotions.”

But in the States something extraordinary happened—about which, Crace confesses, he may not know the whole story. “Harper & Row by mistake pulped the hardback of Continent soon after delivering the subscribed copies. It was a case of getting a computer number wrong. So they rushed the paperback out, and it came out too soon. So though the reviews were transcendental, sales of that book were a bit of a disaster.”

Since Harper & Row had forfeited most of its big first-book investment on Crace, for his second, The Gift of Stones (1989), they offered him only $7000. “John Glusman, who was at Scribners, went crazy for The Gift of Stones; he published it wonderfully well. However, John left Scribners just as the book was appearing in paperback.”

Lee Goerner at Atheneum acquired Crace's third book, Arcadia (1992). “He published it very, very well,” Crace says. When Atheneum folded, Goerner lost his job (he died earlier this year), again Crace's hopes for editorial continuity evaporated. “For Signals of Distress we were most impressed by the bid from Farrar, Straus, where John Glusman is now working. He wanted to buy three books [as Penguin has done in the UK], but Penguin UK were loathe to sell the three books for anything but a lot of money. In the end we made a decision to sell just one book to them. However, they are treating me as a long-term prospect.”

Crace's new 400,000-pound contract with Penguin UK (with Godwin acting as his agent) made newspaper headlines. Of that, 136,000 pounds went to buy Crace out of his next-novel contract with Random House UK (leftover from the days when Godwin was still an editorial director there). Crace still prefers to sell his British publisher world rights, so the remaining 264,000 pounds represents all the upfront money he expects to see for Signals of Distress and for his next two novels.

One of the next two books is The Devil's Larder, a collection of 100 short stories about food. That will be published in three years, but five pieces collectively called The Slow Digestions of the Night were printed in Britain as one of those tiny volumes Penguin issued to celebrate its 60th anniversary.


The novel before that and after Signals of Distress is called Quarantine, and it is set in the Judean desert at the time of Christ. Crace says, “The idea occurred to me that when Christ went to the desert for 40 days, for his temptations, what if the desert were full of people who for one reason or other were going there for their 40 days? What if it was a cultural activity which people with problems did? So I imagined that while Christ was there, there were 30 or 40 other people there too, all on the edge of their lives. As an atheist—which is what I am—it seemed to me that Christ's trials would be the huis cios, the other people—it wouldn't be the devil at all. The tension is: Who lasts the 40 days? And who exploits the people who come to the desert?

“So last February I went to the Judean desert with a Bedouin guide. I went to the Greek Orthodox monastery which stands where Christ was supposed to have stayed, and next to the cave where he was supposed to have spent his 40 days, there were about 60 other caves. So the precept that I thought I had invented was true to real life.”

Some journalists carp that Crace is hypocritical, earning generous money while supporting left-wing causes. This accusation is the only one which seems to rile him. “I am very puritanical with my money,” he assures PW. “There is no way my children are going to go to anything but the comprehensive school. I don't have any investments. It is all dealt with morally. We live in a small semi-detached house, and I drive a three-year-old car, but I don't want to be trapped into sounding like Mother Teresa. My wife teaches English to refugees; her job is socially important and her income is very small, and I do something which is useless and get paid well.”

What Crace's books are, sublimely, is moral. He argues, for instance, that “the preacherly point that Signals of Distress is making is that optimism is difficult. The triumph of life is not that we admire characters who look like Hollywood good guys—because that would be no triumph at all. The triumph is that, despite all their worst blemishes, people are lovable. What this book is doing is asking you to take a really blemished, hard-to-like person [an obtuse moral prig] and find something in him to love.”

On the other hand, Crace says, he plays fast and loose with historical details. “I warn you, all the history in my books is bogus. There are at least 40 pages about pilchards in this book and I wouldn't know a pilchard if it fell in my lap. I do not write books which carry any information.”

Though Crace is known in England as a political activist, he claims his politics never intrude on his stories. Indeed, he says that the stories invariably contradict his politics. “All my novels deal with a community that is undergoing change, and I always take the side of tradition against modernity. In my political self I am very much a modernist, very much in favor of technology and improvement. But in my fiction, yes, I am a conservative romantic.”

James Hamilton-Paterson (review date 6 May 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stone-age village.” Why Hornby should find it easier to recognize the year 1836, in which the new novel is set, than the modern (but geographically unspecified) setting of Continent is not clear. Actually, it is baffling; and groping for an answer might reveal something about contemporary readers, even about contemporary novelists.

In the first, British, edition of Continent, the word “novel” appears nowhere on the jacket or as a subtitle. It is a brief book in seven parts, each of which is a self-contained short story. Its epigraph refers to a “seventh continent” whose business is trade and superstition. Hornby's remark implies that he could not recognize the world the stories share. To anybody who has ever lived in a hot, developing country this continent is instantly familiar, no matter that Crace splendidly imagines its fine details and does not bother to give it a name. Some of the tales have a plant species or language script in common; it is not clear if all the stories are set in this imagined place and neither does it matter. In any case we are not in a country, but on a continent whose boundaries the epigraph draws with all the required precision. We are in that borderland where Tradition confronts Progress, where an old and often tribal world meets the modern, largely Western one. The stories juxtapose such things as poverty with wealth, shamanistic power with commercial power, corrupt military regimes with the differently corrupting art salerooms of New York and Paris. That this seventh continent is strictly contemporary is emphasized by constant references to the imported furniture of the developed world: Peugeot cars, helicopters, electrification, volunteer foreign teachers who jog in sneakers, visiting mining geologists. Reading Continent, I found that I had lived much of my life there and had met most of its characters in one form or another. Crace, who himself worked for a while in the Sudan, might well have given his seventh continent private reference points, but it unmistakably covers a fair slice of this planet we all occupy.

Is it a novel? Of course it is. Unity of setting, unity of tone, unity of theme: in postmodern times one could hardly ask for more. If Julian Barnes's ten and a half chapters constitute a novel, so do Crace's seven. There may be no unity of characters in Crace's novel, but the setting itself constitutes a character: that of the non-West, the non-developed, the immemorial. It is true that this character appears to us as undifferentiated, just as to it the West appears homogenized. Within this trope certain individuals in the stories take on the aspect of distressed representatives: the homesick geologist going mad in alien territory, the professional calligrapher with a local reputation for pious penmanship driven cynical in old age by the forging of his work for sale abroad. One of the best stories concerns an elderly Western woman remembering helping her biologist father in the 1920s, acting as his research assistant as he documented the simultaneous mating of a crab species that led him to speculate about the local forest tribes' ovulation being similarly synchronized. His conclusion was very much of its time: that nature is patterned and orderly, and “natural man” as exemplified by the forest folk is closer to this order than is metropolitan man, whose sexual life functions “in a state of disorder, ‘outside of nature.’” He then performs experiments on the forest people, measuring their testes with calipers and wishing to autopsy the cadavers of those who had died in childbirth to ascertain such things as vaginal acidity levels. Stymied, he virtually kidnaps a pre-pubertal girl to become the family's servant while at the same time he continues to take intimate measurements of her approach to oestrus. The story is a wonderfully truthful account of the intersection of private pathology with Western natural science, and Crace's strength is that he knows not to moralize. There is no need to contrive denunciations. From the best as well as the worst of motives, that is how scientific practice often was, and arguably sometimes still is, especially in some corner of the seventh continent. Within my own lifetime Nazi Germany was intent on experiments and ethnic theories which did not come from nowhere, but had long antecedents. More recently the American government performed radiation experiments on its own unwitting population, the British exposed their own troops to atomic tests in Australia and the Australian government attempted a form of ethnic cleansing by kidnapping thousands of Aboriginal children in order to fragment tribes and to hasten their “assimilation.” Nobody need embroider further. Continent is a very modern novel indeed.

Signals of Distress, on the other hand, is not. In form, at least, it is a wholly conventional historical novel. Set in 1836, it is the story of an American sailing vessel, the Belle of Wilmington, semi-wrecked in a storm and obliged to lay up for repairs near the small English port of Wherrytown. The Belle is bringing 400 head of cattle from Canada to be exchanged for a shipload of emigrants on her return journey. The same storm mildly inconveniences a coastal steam packet bringing Aymer Smith to Wherrytown, where he puts up at the inn. His family owns a successful soap-making business and his task in Wherrytown is to contact their agent, who buys kelp from the locals at cutthroat prices, to tell him that a French chemist has recently discovered a cheaper and more efficient way of producing the soda needed for soap manufacture. Kelp-burning is yesterday's technology, and people are going to lose their livelihoods as a result. This is particularly painful for Smith since he is a man of high philanthropic principle, being “a Sceptic, a Radical and an active Amender” who reads Tom Paine. The ensuing novel is an account of the impact of the wrecked American crew and this difficult and compromised Englishman on an isolated community more than a century and a half ago.

The Americans' main impact is twofold. Firstly, their forthcoming voyage to Canada represents the promise of the New World and generates unrest in a little town sunk heavily into unending Old World poverty. Secondly, the ship's cook, Otto, is a black slave who escapes. He is never seen again; but an injury and the snowy weather imply he can't have gone far and he continues to lurk in the story's background just as the locals suspect him of haunting the outskirts of their town. Otto is a disquieting unseen presence, quickly identified with the devil and superstitiously blamed for misfortunes no mortal could conceivably have authored. In his turn, Aymer Smith has an even greater effect on the town since with his peculiar personality he manages to put nearly everyone's nose out of joint. He is, in fact, the book's main character. In a sense he is its only character, for we are privy to more of his inner wrestlings than we are to those of the others, who are defined but not especially fleshed out. Smith is largely unlikable, which makes Crace courageous if his novel is viewed as conventional historical fiction, a genre which depends heavily on sympathetic protagonists for readers' identification across the unnerving gulf of years.

It is not easy for a late-twentieth-century reader to identify with Aymer Smith, who is absolutely a creature of his time. His rationalist principles occupy his head, leaving his heart a muddled and atrophied organ. In his 40s, still unmarried and sexually diffident, he viewed his trip to Wherrytown as a potentially liberating experience despite his uncongenial mission. He had never before traveled far from home and might even find for himself

what more than Justice and Reform he had desired for all his adult life, a loving country wife. … He was surprised how travel unleashed him, how he could talk to sailors on the boat with a freedom absent from his home and city life. He was encountering, also, that other liberation which is the gift of travel and unfamiliar places. He—the virgin and the masturbator—was poised, engorged and shallow-breathed with expectations and desires.

Predictably, it all goes wrong. The sailors, like everyone else he speaks to, are bored and contemptuous of his pathetic and heavy-handed attempts to be likable. His future country wife elopes with one of the returning Americans. He is blamed for freeing Otto and preached against by the town's minister as an unbeliever. He is even beaten up as the result of a misunderstanding. He and the minister are equally described as “prisoners of priggishness, and dogma, and vocabulary.” Aymer Smith would prefer to think of himself as “a Radical, an aesthete and a bachelor”; unlike the minister he does have the makings of a heart, even though it is more sentimental than profound. He befriends Whip, the Belle's dog, somewhat mawkishly; he yearns to be equally befriended by Otto; he is moved almost to tears by the least sign of affection in others. He is, as another character discovered, “too vulnerable and headlong in his dealings to be disliked entirely.” Eventually the repaired Belle sails, Aymer Smith returns home unwived, and the story ends on a downbeat note.

Why does a novelist decide to set a novel in 1836? More to the point, why does Jim Crace? In the case of a writer such as Patrick O'Brian, who sets his Aubrey/Maturin series of sea novels some thirty years earlier, it is clear that his imagination is most at home in the Napoleonic era. It has grown on him, and he into it. I suspect that no matter how painstakingly researched his details are, Crace's interest in his world of 1836 is of a different order and for different ends. Unlikely as it seems, the settings of Continent and Signals have much in common. This makes sense if one remembers L. P. Hartley's dictum that “the past is a foreign country,” because it is evident that Crace's imagination is mobilized by confrontations between various kinds of foreignness, and that 1836 is quite as foreign as his seventh continent.

At an obvious level, everyone beached in Wherrytown is foreign. The wrecked Americans are foreigners, Otto is an alien, Aymer Smith an outsider. This subdivides further into the kinds of opposition between tradition and progress which marked Continent. Kelp-burning is made obsolete by the new industrial chemistry; the backward and time-locked fishing village is obliged to confront a world of dreams and opportunities on offer 3,000 miles to the west; even the locals' demonizing of blacks comes up against enlightenment in the form of Wilberforcean, Clapham Sect disgust for slavery. And what happens? Nobody comes well out of these confrontations, of course. In one way or another, everyone in Signals is compromised. This seems to me another of Crace's great strengths. Just as he doesn't moralize, neither does he pretend that there can ever be any satisfactory resolution in such head-on collisions. We know entirely too much for happy-ending idealisms to be possible. We know kelp-burners are thrown out of work by chemists, just as Rustbelt industries become casualties of technology and economics. We know it is not enough to free a slave if he then has to hide, starved and frozen, from supposedly Christian locals. We certainly know that finally achieving sexual intercourse in middle age (as Aymer Smith does with the mother of the girl whom he had hoped to marry) is not necessarily a grand epiphany. The scene in which the aesthete and reformer loses his virginity in a kelp-burner's hut is masterly. “There was no trance. This was sober. He'd never felt so wide awake, and stripped.” The mood is that of the ending of Larkin's poem “Deceptions”: “For you would hardly care / That you were less deceived, out on that bed, / Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair / To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.”

Jim Crace writes beautifully. He has evidently taken a lot of trouble to get his local color and his period feel. His descriptions of poverty-stricken shore life accord most faithfully with contemporary accounts. The world of the seaweed collectors had become, by 1836, something of a stock-in-trade of littoral writing, whether via Walter Scott or natural historians such as Audouin and Milne-Edwards. And by and large his characters' language seems authentic, too, except for moments like the already-quoted description of Aymer Smith. Amid the nineteenth-century vocabulary and outlook the word “masturbator” jars (Crace uses it more than once) as belonging brutally to a twentieth-century clinical tradition. To support our intuition that it is misplaced, Webster's has it coined in 1855–60.

This is not nit-picking. I cite it to show that Crace's pull is modern in a way which O'Brian's never is. His authorial voice is ineluctably of our time, and the effect is to reduce his historical setting to a construct: brilliantly executed, no doubt, but a construct nevertheless. Another way of putting it might be to say that his book is plot-led rather than character-led. The characters, even Aymer Smith, are less people than plausible devices. Their chief purpose is to engineer more of Crace's cultural collisions, the ironic fractures which so clearly interest him. To this extent I have to say that even in such an accomplished version of 1836 I found my attention wandering in a way I never once did in Continent. We don't deeply care what happens to anyone in Signals, which may be seen as a fault by those who like gusty identifications in their novels. The book is interesting chiefly for its propositions and intelligence rather than for its emotional power, and no doubt this is intentional. (“Here's postmodernism for you,” say the disenchanted. “All head and no heart.”) Some of the energy that Crace might have expended on characterization he channels into exploring the nature of irony and undermining the reader's easy assumptions about where the moral high ground lies. In this work of undercutting, in revealing the true complexities of cultural clashes, he is outstandingly good. The American crew of the Belle may represent the New World, for example, but they are no better behaved (and why should they be?) than the denizens of the backward English community. Wherrytown's attitude to blacks is indeed abysmally superstitious and ignorant (and how mightn't it be?), yet we recall that in Britain slavery has already been abolished while the American Constitution will not outlaw it until 1865. We also note that it is the New Worlders who are washed up in their old technology under sail—whereas the native Aymer Smith arrives in Wherrytown unscathed in a steam packet.

So the 1836 of Signals represents a terrain for events just as the present-day land of Continent did. Crace's purpose in his essay in time-travel seems part of his interest in travel generally as a way of throwing up anguished confrontations. If I have a criticism of Signals, it is that its pretext is perhaps more an intellectual invention than the inspiration of a novelist. This does not mean that I think Crace an indifferent novelist. He has technique in abundance and Signals is in some respects an almost too perfect simulacrum of the well-made novel. Still, there is about the narrative a curious lack of the energy which made Continent so compelling, almost as if he himself had felt betrayed in the act of writing it, when the idea which had seemed so promising turned out to lack grip even as the elaborate sets were going up all around him. And this, I think, is the answer to why the critic Nick Hornby found Crace's 1836 easier to recognize than his seventh continent: he thought he knew it from television. It is a sign of our virtual times when a critic finds himself more at home in a costume drama than in the sort of Third World realities that don't get televised. In any case, whether or not Jim Crace's new novel represents the faintest miscalculation, it is still made valuable for the integrity of his underlying purpose which shines through to shed a clear, bleak light over his tableaux of pain like a desperate succession of flares.

Eric Korn (review date 13 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 brilliance of phrasing involves the reader straightaway. Miri is woken by Musa's groaning:

his tongue was black: scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil's eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil's kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp, and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.

(But Musa will not die, not yet, and by one reading, not ever.)

Five people come to the desert of Judaea, for a quarantine, a fast of forty days. For four of them, the standard daytime fast will be enough. Crace crisply enumerates their reasons: “madness, madness, cancer, sterility.” They are Shim, part-Jew, part-Greek, sophisticate, religious dilettante, sceptic; Aphas, an old man with a new growth, looking for a simple miracle; Marti, the childless wife of a barren marriage, about to be cast off by her philoprogenitive husband; a nameless, perhaps Tourettic nomad, whose hopes remain unintelligible. And Jesus, a callow young man from Galilee with Messianic ambitions. He intends a total fast. Crace's epigraph, from a physiological treatise, The Limits of Mortality, is inexorable: “the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable—except with divine help of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it.” If this be so, what is left to tell? Plenty, as it happens. Crace loves what he calls “the truth, bleak and comforting.” But the hard-edged and unredeemable is shadowed by the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the unexpectedly consolatory.

There are already two people by the caves and the cliff, when the pilgrims arrive. The merchant, Musa, a man of unlimited and merciless violence, greed and craftiness, the almost irredeemable genius of commerce, is sick and has been left to die by the caravan of his no more tender-hearted comrades. Miri, the abused, pregnant, long-suffering wife, has no reason to be thankful for his unexpected recovery, after Jesus blunders into his tent to beg or steal some water (before the commencement of the forty days), presses the sick man's chest, moistens his lips, gives him a casual blessing: “‘So here, be well again,’ he said, a common greeting for the sick.” The merchant recovers but is not reformed by the apparent miracle. The pilgrims are his prey; he bullies and harasses them, charges for the use of his caves, for the water in his waterhole, for the wild honey that the nomad collects. He fantasizes and plots violent lecheries against Marti. But he is the one most exercised, obsessed by Jesus, trapped by Grace, if your theology will stomach that. The dim possibility of redemption for this man is one incontrovertible miracle, and the one place where my belief was strained. Crace hates what Pound calls usura and other monetarism, the dead hand of profit. The agent Howells in Crace's previous novel Signals of Distress, the crafty craftless dealer in a town of sailors, whose sleazy tar-saving sinks ships, is a philanthropist compared to Musa.

There are seven living human characters, and as many devils and gods and angels as you should wish for. And the desert is a character, the bitter scrub, the stony ground, harsh but not merciless. Crace designs a dozen absorbing small dramas to entertain us, while the theological struggle rumbles on. Miri sets up a loom to weave a birth mat. The tribesman traps a bird. Physical sufferings, the aches of muscles and bowels and bladders are described with vivacity and zest. Trying to pray, Jesus “woke with a falling shudder after just a moment's sleep”: the most vivid and concise description of fatigue narcolepsy that I have encountered. Few since St Teresa have had such a vivid and intimate perception of the corporeal Christ.

An actor once spoke of the three unactable parts: Shakespeare, Christ and Jeeves. Two of the three are likewise awkward characters in realist novels. But Crace escapes all pitfalls. He can write about whatever he wants, as long as every page crackles with new-baked images, with felicities of perception and phrases. He loves hard and evocative words, not the elegant or scholarly or jargonical, but the language of trades and crafts, words obscure (and possibly invented): heddles and shed sticks, (familiar to weavers), fret (= devour), bem, tarbony, aggry (“a word of unknown origin and meaning,” says OED). These tricks of diction always please. Entranced by such diversions, we are led cunningly through the most rugged terrain to astonishing vistas and huge speculations.

Tobias Jones (review date 14 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 by those above. As he expires, the remaining six—the touchstones for any society—play out an adult Lord of the Flies.

Crace's references are often arresting. The caves where the quarantiners dwell, charged rent by Musa, are invested with all the sexuality of Forster's Marabar equivalents:

She watched the shadow, and, yes, it swelled and reached into her cave as she dreamed. It came into her empty spaces. This was no boyish skin and bones. This man was large, and getting larger too. He held her wrists. He cupped her head inside his giant palms.

Characters mutate into recognisable equivalents: Martha and Mary of the gospels are hinted at in the female names. Reverberations occur even linguistically, the ‘gingery’ balm of Marta linked in Musa's lecherous mind with a longing for water ‘with a touch of ginger to its taste.’

Simple incidents are rendered at length; the digging of a grave, a face-down burial for one without offspring so he can copulate with the earth; the hunt for honey in the desert scrub, letting out one captured bee at a time as a lead; the trapping of a wheatear for sacrifice, using a tick and a thread. Musa controls and bullies those he claims as his tenants, forever calculating his returns, as he keeps them enraptured with tales of crossing the desert with only camels and monkeys: ‘a clever merchant never walks.’ His pregnant wife Miri silently weaves the garish burial mat for her child.

Whilst the story is deliberately orchestrated, and graced with a climactic denouement (with sex, storm and death) plot is never quite the point. It is somehow too meditative to be a page-turner. Snobs will probably moan that Crace isn't a stylist, that his themes are too large for his learning. But his cultivated naivety underpins an agnosticism, and admits doubts about not only God but also the notion of authorship:

He wasn't sure where his tale was leading him. He had no end for it, not yet. There was no point to it, except to charm. But Aphas and Marta didn't seem to care. They nodded to the story-teller to urge him on. This was better than any parable. It didn't matter that it had no point, except to make them wonder at the world …

The stern prose makes the wilderness, the exertion and fasting thirsty reading; and there seems to be little quenching without a deus ex machina. Only the opening of the clouds at the end cleanses the characters somehow, as they return to Judea, Sawiya and beyond. Marta hopes to bear a child, though it is uncertain whether through the agency of Musa or Jesus (‘he touched my stomach afterwards like a priest … just his fingers’).

The Galilean has already foresworn temptation, and been disappointed by divinity:

He sat in darkness, his ankles crossed, just his toes amputated by the hard edge of the sun, and listened to the frantic beating of its wings. He waited for the pigeon to liberate itself, and fly down with its narcotic ookuroos to hunt for chaff at his feet. There was no chaff.

Jesus's ineffectuality makes his appearance in the novel almost incidental, the resurrection a mirage. ‘As flies to wanton boys,’ Lear said, ‘are we to th’ gods; they kiss us for their sport.’

Robert Irwin (review date 3 July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 entertaining secondary character in John Wain's wonderful picaresque fiction, Hurry on Down (1953), Froulish went on to present his restive audience with the main topics of his austerely untitled novel, including hunger, thirst, boredom and thoughts of suicide, as well as the quest for the mysterious (and surely allegorical) ‘Chief Electrician.’ In the end, Froulish's novel turns out to be an unreadable book, though only because it was never written.

Quarantine is about a handful of misfits brought together in a prolonged ordeal in the Judean desert. Shim is a blond-haired Gentile travelling in search of enlightenment, an ostentatious amateur ascetic and also ‘a touch sinister.’ Aphas is an old Jew who has entered the desert to fast, as a remedy for his cancer. Marta, a beautiful, barren woman, hopes that penance in the desert will allow her to conceive. There is also a crazed and speechless—therefore nameless—badu (that is, a nomadic Arab). Since he does not speak, his reason for being in this particular patch of wilderness is never revealed. Though mute and mad, the badu is resourceful—and a little reminiscent of Froulish's mute hunchback. We learn about the past of the other misfits in flashback and follow their wary interactions, as they squat hungrily in the desert and, having nothing much else to think about, brood on hunger, thirst, boredom and God. Musa, however, is different. A cruel and mendacious merchant, he has not entered the desert for enlightenment. He was passing through with a trading mission when fever overtook him and he was dumped and left to die by his companions. Miri, his put-upon wife, is the sixth misfit.

In the distance, there is a seventh. ‘A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples diluted it.’ Crace's insubstantial Jesus is barely glimpsed by the others. It is hard not to think of another place of rock and no water.

                    Who is the third who walks always beside
When I count, there are only you and I together
                    But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside
          Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded …

At the beginning of the story Musa is infested with the demon of sickness. Having been abandoned by the trading caravan, he is then deserted by his wife, Miri, who leaves him for dead. He is cured by Jesus who, having taken a sip from Musa's waterskin, utters a conventional blessing: ‘So, here, be well again.’ After leaving Musa, Jesus begins his 40 days of solitary fasting. His status as a miracle-worker in the desert in swiftly promoted by Musa, and in the rest of the novel the misfits' muddled attempts to make contact with Jesus are the counterpoint to his single-minded fast unto death and enlightenment.

Quarantine does not obviously resemble any of Crace's earlier fictions which, for that matter, do not obviously resemble one another. In Continent (1986) he created an imaginary seventh continent as the setting for a series of strange short stories about Third World issues. The Gift of Stones (1988) was set in a community of stone-carvers at the end of the Stone Age; despite Crace's unmistakably genuine interest in the details of the technology of working in stone, this prehistoric yarn was invaded by more modern concerns about the social consequences of depending on an obsolete technology. The Gift of Stones was also a story about the nature of storytelling. Arcadia (1992), set in a nowhere city, was largely the story of a millionaire's struggle to impose an architectural order on the teeming slum in which he grew up and from which he escaped. Signals of Distress (1994) was a social comedy set in the last century which related the impact on a small West Country port of the prolonged residence of a shipwrecked crew. It was and is his most human as well as his funniest book.

These books do, however, have features in common. Crace employs a polished and dictatorial literary style which obliges all his characters to speak in artistic prose. The effect of the carefully judged cadences in somewhat claustrophobic. At the same time, the author's own voice is effaced. He is chary of commenting on his creations, or of revealing anything of himself. The social tragedy of obsolescent crafts is a feature of the first four books. Crace enjoys inventing imaginary landscapes, whether they are small towns or small continents. In Quarantine the desert is practically a character. ‘The empty lands—these very caves, these paths, these desert pavements made of rock, these pebbled flats, these badlands, and these unwatered river beds—were siblings to the empty spaces in the heart. Why else would scrubs have any visitors at all?’ Though vividly realised, Crace's landscapes do not relate easily to the real world. While it is certainly possible that The Gift of Stones and Arcadia are about Birmingham, its declining motor industry and its redeveloped suburbs, this is by no means obvious. In the case of Quarantine the wilderness of temptation is set in the mind rather than in any historical Judea. Crace does not proceed by turning reality into fiction and then commenting authorially on it. He seems to prefer invention to research, making things look right to factual accuracy—and quite right too. It is more fun that way. Quarantine is full of cod proverbs and bogus Oriental superstitions and Shim speaks Siddilic, the language of the imaginary continent of Crace's first book.

Similarly, when dealing with hunger and with hunting in Quarantine, Crace seems to have chosen not to get these things right. Jesus sets out to endure in the desert without food and water for 40 days and nights. He has not anticipated

how cruelly his body would begin to eat itself as his muscles and his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid, desert boys battling for a piece of wood; how his legs would swell with pus; how his skin would tear and how the wounds would be too weak to dress themselves with scabs. No one had said, there will be stomach pains and cramps, demanding to be rubbed and soothed like dogs.

Finally, after 30 days, Jesus dies and is transformed into something strange and superhuman. Crace's evocations of his sufferings and physical deterioration prior to death and transfiguration are detailed and persuasive, but not strictly accurate.

A person who refuses food but who takes water can survive for quite a long time. The Irish hunger-strikers of 1980-1 ceased to feel hunger pangs after the third or fourth day. Their metabolic rates dropped and their pulses slowed. Heart-beats became irregular. Their bodies began to devour themselves very much in the way described in Quarantine. From about the fortieth day (the end of the Biblical quarantine) they experienced constant nausea and could not hold down water. Blindness and deafness set in after about fifty days. As many as seventy days' fasting are possible before death. But the Irish hunger-strikers were taking water and, according to the SAS Survival Handbook (which is always beside me on my desk as I write), a person who refuses water as well as food can last only two or three days and only that long if he or she does nothing at all. Ah well, this is the Son of God, whose fast is more believable than those of his rivals, Kafka's Hunger Artist and the protagonist of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. Kafka and Hamsun's hungry performers both seem to be involved in some kind of literary protest, making a metaphorical statement about the plight of the artist, whereas Crace's Jesus has no interest in literature and, I think, no message for those who do not inhabit the novel.

The misleading case of badu hunting techniques is also instructive. These are wonderfully elaborate. In order to catch a bird in the desert, you must first find a tethered goat and then rub salt in its ear in order to extract a blood-filled tick and then tie a thread round the tick's abdomen. Leave the tick with its thread weighted down on an exposed rock and wait for a bird to swallow the proffered bait. Then, just as the bird has finished swallowing the tick, jerk on the thread to bring the bird low. Once the bird is in hand, it is a good idea to break one of its wings in order to prevent its flying away. We are similarly instructed on how to find honey in the desert. Take a stick. Hollow the stick out with a sharpened stone. Plug the hollowed end of the stick with rotting apricot. Wait for bees to find the apricot. Wait till ten or so of them are inside the hollow stick, before stopping it with your hand. Let one bee go and follow it until, inevitably, you lose sight of it. Release another bee and follow that. And so on until a final hiveward-winging bee brings you to the honey you are seeking.

I have spent time in the Sahara and in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, and, for that matter, wandered around Judea, but I have never heard of these ingenious procedures. Forays through the pages of Violet Dickson's The Arab of the Desert, Jibrail Jabbur's The Bedouins and the Desert and K. E. M. Melville's Stay Alive in the Desert failed to shed light on these matters. (The desert survival techniques narrated by Crace invite comparison with those adopted by G. L. Gurdjieff's travelling party in order to cross the Gobi desert. According to Meetings with Remarkable Men, these included the use of edible sand as fodder and of stilts to keep the party's heads above sandstorms.) Crace's account of the badu's hive-finding technique is a device which introduces the reader to Musa's manner of constructing his stories, for the unscrupulous merchant likes to peddle fictions as well as merchandise to the gullible and many of these fictions are plagiarised. Musa steals the badu's device and invents a story in which he, Musa, is the hero and saves a caravan in the desert by releasing a sequence of monkeys, one after another, and using them to locate a hidden cistern of water.

The badu's mode of proceeding had been stark and business-like, but Musa's reworking of the core idea is a florid tale of self-redemption. Crace isn't offering his readers tips about how to stay alive in a Biblical wilderness, but a parable about the novelist's relation to reality. It seems that storytelling is one craft about which he feels ambivalent, for Musa, the proto-novelist working in the wilderness, is an evil man. Towards the end of his passage through the desert, he is working out how he can use his fancifully elaborated story of an encounter with a miraculous healer in order to win money and respect. Jesus has identified Musa as the incarnation of Satanic temptation: ‘Here was a devil then, sent to the wilderness, with death and fever as his friends, attended by four mad, unbelonging souls, to be adversaries to god.’ The trouble is that Musa, despite being a miser, swindler and wife-beater, does not seem so very evil. I have encountered more intimidating villains in James Bond novels.

Surely the Son of God deserved a mightier and more sinister adversary than a vainglorious old merchant who has lost most of his trading capital and who will eventually be ditched by his wife? But Crace's Jesus is hardly a figure of power either. The Jesus who commences the fast of 40 days is half-formed, naive and uncertain. At the end of it, risen from death, he re-enters the world of men, ‘a thin halting figure tacking the scree, almost a mirage—ankleless, no arms—in the lifting light. If there is spiritual warfare in the Judean desert, it is a strangely quiet war and it is unclear, too, what message the six misfits can take back with them after their ordeal in the wilderness. Quarantine is a beautifully crafted enigmatic parable which is about nothing except itself. ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven’ (Mark, 4:11–12).

Richard Eder (review date 12 April 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 those archangels who have seen everything and learned to put up with God's excesses such as, for example, squeezing his Divine Self into a ramshackle human body. Incarnation has been something of a scandal over the millenniums and not only to archangels. One of the characters in Quarantine, a snooty Greek, simply cannot abide the idea, and certainly the Jesus whom Crace presents him with makes a hard test.

The novel is set in AD 33 in the bone-white hills above Jericho, a cave-pierced desert where it was the custom to spend 40 fasting days (“quarantine” originally meant 40) as an extraordinary penance or to pray for an extraordinary boon.

As the story begins, three pilgrims arrive: Shim, a Greek who aspires to success in the holy hermit business; Apha, an old Jew with a cancer as big as an orange; and Marta, a barren wife whose husband will divorce her if she does not conceive. Attending them comes an odd, airy sprite: a mute desert nomad whose purpose remains elusive.

A fourth pilgrim arrives a little later. He is a gawky, awkward young man, thin to transparency. He turns out to be Jesus beginning his 40 desert days.

A tent stands below the caves; it belongs not to a pilgrim but to Musa, a merchant who has fallen deathly ill on his way to the markets farther north. His partners have abandoned him, leaving him food, water and gold; his wife, Miri—pregnant, abused and seething—tends him.

“Miri”—for a specimen of Crace's sentient writing—“smelled the devil's eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil's kindling in his cough. She put her hand onto his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.”

Miri goes off to dig a grave; it fills with water, a lucky thing for her and the pilgrims, though she would rather it contained Musa. Meanwhile Jesus, seeking something to eat and drink before beginning his fast, visits the tent, asks the nearly unconscious man for water and dates and when Musa twitches a boorish refusal, takes them anyway. Then, in a traditional courtesy, he touches a wet finger to Musa's lips, saying, “Be well.”

Musa falls into a sound sleep and awakes recovered. He is as mean as ever—his meanness, conceit, self-indulgence and odd charm make him the book's most entrancing as well as its pivotal character—but he is convinced that “the water-thief” has performed a miracle. It will be a tiny splinter of light in his dark soul; like a splinter, it will fester and corrupt, only in this case what it corrupts is corruption.

Restored and energetic as ever (poor Miri finds herself “unwidowed and unfreed, the mistress of unwelcome lips, the keeper of a wasted grave”), Musa sets himself to organizing a profit off the pilgrims in the caves above.

The desert is his, he asserts, and extorts rent for the caves and any food they manage to gather. When the nomad—whose desert arts are themselves close to magic—traps some bees and follows them to their hive, Musa claims the result: “My land. My bees. My honey.” He puts Shim and the nomad to work and makes plans to rape Marta. Yet—that corrupting splinter—he insists that they all go up to Jesus' cave each day and entreat him to come out.

Crace's portrait of Jesus is audacious and disconcerting. A spoiled, high-strung boy, he dismayed his parents by praying all the time; the priest recommended carpentry to cool him down. His 40 days in the desert will be as much to impress the world as God.

After his stop-off at Musa's, he launches himself into fasting and penance with prideful thoroughness, choosing the most remote and uncomfortable cave, and refusing food and water not only by day, like the others, but at night as well. Triumphantly he observes his urine darkening and then drying up altogether. He had brought no supplies or equipment; it is up to God to feed him.

Crace gives everything a double sense; he never shows his hand. Ostensibly his Jesus is somewhere between a holy brat and a holy fool. Yet as the days pass something else appears. His body disintegrates, but that is not the worst. “If you go into the wilderness to fast, not just your body but your spirit will, against all faith, begin to bleed.” Crace writes; a shivering gloss on the dark night of the soul.

“Fortunately,” he adds—and we do not know how to take the word—Jesus' spirit is so shattered that it is unable to impose moderation, as every religious and reasonable precept would presumably have him do.

Before the 40 days are up, he will stagger out of the cave and die. Musa and the pilgrims disperse. Have there been miracles? Musa recovered, but he might have anyway. Apha's tumor seems diminished, and Marta is pregnant. True, Musa raped her; still, she insists that Jesus appeared and touched her. Of course that will be a suspiciously convenient story to take back to her husband. Shim, the only one who refused to pray to Jesus, is also the only one unchanged.

Ostensibly Crace is anti-miracle. On the other hand, what is a miracle? Can these presumably natural causes be looked at as an extension—admittedly nervy and no doubt heretical—of the much nervier miracle of incarnation?

If the author clobbers belief with irony, he subverts—more delicately—irony with belief, a belief in mystery, if not necessarily the Christian mystery. At the end, Musa is off to Jericho to set up as a healer and teller of Jesus stories. For a profit, to be sure; yet the last we see of him, he is being followed at a distance by the elusive, almost transparent figure of Jesus himself—a hallucination perhaps, and perhaps not.

Bruce Bawer (review date 3 May 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Jesus is introduced with an irony. He happens along just as Musa is about to die and cures him, and everyone suffers as a result: Not only does Miri end up back under Musa's thumb, but Musa torments the other pilgrims as well, telling them he owns the land they're on and demanding rent. That Jesus's miracle ends up benefiting a tyrant and harming innocents is typical of this novel, which, while making the Nazarene an authentic worker of miracles, refuses to imagine the circumstances of these miracles in any other than the most harshly realistic terms.

Indeed, to read Quarantine is to be struck by its bracingly unsentimental picture of the human animal—for though Satan as such never appears, evil is palpably present in this company. The mastery with which Crace sustains an extreme austerity of tone, tautness of style, and strangeness and intensity of vision—all the while vividly capturing the desert setting and credibly imagining the thought processes of ancient tribal folk—is, moreover, immensely impressive. This novel is a high-wire act, a tour de force, a garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality—though it is, perhaps, more the sort of garment that a keen-eyed observer quietly admires for its craftsmanship than the sort that turns heads with its dazzling colors or daring cut.

Yet in many ways this sober, meticulous novel is daring. Not only does Crace have the audacity to make Jesus a virtual secondary character; he serves up a Jesus whose personal imperfections—he's shy, fearful, petulant, self-absorbed, physically weak, uncertain in his beliefs, and even “a clumsy carpenter” (“he would have built a leaking ark”)—might induce many a conservative Christian to denounce this book as sacrilegious. As if that weren't enough, Crace gives us in Shim a Hellenist conspicuous not only for his physical attractiveness but also for a theology that secular and liberal Christian readers may find more sophisticated and palatable than that of Crace's Jesus. “My god,” declares the cosmopolitan, multilingual Shim, “is not a holy king, an emperor in heaven. He's immanent in everything.” To be sure, Crace's Jesus, too, lives in a world “where everything was touched with holiness”—but he is also a superstitious, illiterate legalist with “a village view of god,” whom he envisions as a “hard and muscular” father. For Crace's Jesus, only Jews are God's children; he pities gentiles, who (he believes) live outside of divine grace and salvation.

One peculiarity of this novel is that much of it consists of long unbroken stretches of iambs; many sentences, in fact, read like perfect iambic pentameter lines. Such sentences abound most noticeably in the chapter introducing Jesus. We're told he's devout: “He'd put his trust in god, as young men do.” He's had experience walking barefoot: “He'd learnt the single lesson of the thorn.” And why has he come to the desert? “This was where the world was not complete. What better place to find his god at work?” Iambs also proliferate in the later passages on Jesus: “He did not need to move his lips to pray. He'd reached the stage where every breath was prayer. …” Many of these five-foot sentences are arresting, even epigrammatic. (“When fear and shame are comrades, tongues lie still.”) But the odd alternation between strict iambic meter and looser, prosier rhythms ultimately proves distracting. Did Crace, one finds oneself wondering, initially write this book (or part of it) as a blank-verse narrative? Whatever the case, and whatever one's misgivings about the book's rhythms or its interpretation of Jesus, the fact remains that Crace has carried off a daunting task with an artistry and imaginative power that many others—one thinks particularly of Norman Mailer, author of last year's hollow Gospel According to the Son—might well envy.

Luke Timothy Johnson (review date 8 May 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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; Luke 4:1–13). This time of “quarantine” provides the occasion for Crace's invention. Here are his fictional premises: First, the Judean desert is a place where people would spend a forty-day period of quarantine for religious purposes fasting in the ordinary manner—abstaining from food in the day but eating in the evening; second, Jesus is a young man barely past adolescence who is eager to be free of his village life and who embraces his fast in an extravagant and absolute fashion; third, Jesus and a collection of seekers (two women and four men) find themselves accidentally caught up in each other's lives.

Well, not entirely by accident. At the start of the quarantine, Jesus trails far behind the troupe of pilgrims heading toward the desert caves: Shim, the well-traveled religious adept seeking to add one more ordeal to his list of accomplishments; Marta, the voluptuous yet barren and scorned wife who seeks God's gift of fertility; Badu, the half-wild villager whose reasons for being there are never entirely clear since he cannot make himself understood; Aphas, the elderly Jew with cancer who desperately seeks a cure. Needing a final drink of water before his total fast, Jesus enters the tent of Musa the trader, who has been abandoned to die of a fever by his caravan, tended only by his pregnant and abused wife Miri. Miri wants Musa dead, and is out digging a grave when Jesus enters the tent. Sipping from the water bag, Jesus hears the dying groans of Musa and, almost casually, blesses him. This changes everything.

Jesus enters the highest and most remote cave to test his faith in God. He eats nothing, drinks nothing, will not leave the cave. Musa rises from his death-bed determined to use this wonder-worker as the means of recovering his fortune, directing all his guile to this end. Readers are drawn into the ensuing struggle by viewing the actions and sharing the fantasies spun by the minor male characters, the more prominent female characters, and above all by the agonists Musa and Jesus, the tempter and the tempted—they also have fantasies.

Musa is monstrous in size and appetite, driven by the passions of craven fear and murderous rage, a beater and raper of women, whose cunning captivates his companions and manipulates them in service to his fantasies: Jesus will be his ultimate product, his most spectacular traveling-salesman story! There is some small part of Musa in awe of the one who healed him, but it is swallowed (as are all his fears) by the rage to dominate and control.

Jesus, however, defines uncontrollability. As Jesus breaks from his boyhood, he is the exact opposite of Musa: totally lacking in calculation, heedless of consequences, stripping himself of food, water, clothing, testing his experience against his fantasies, forging possible ways of being a prophet like those of old, and finally releasing reason itself as his wasted body drains juice also from his soul. Though he never leaves the cave, never accepts the invitations of the other pilgrims, Jesus is the still point around which all the plot's movements revolve.

Crace's portrayal of Jesus is the novel's most intriguing aspect. In contrast to all those fictional renderings of Jesus (for example, by Kazantzakis) that try to make him human by making him sexual, and only succeed in making him dull, Crace portrays Jesus as a youthful mystic whose intoxication with God in prayer draws him ever deeper into a divine addiction. He describes Jesus in prayer: “There were occasions, more mystifying, feverish, and blissful, when the language was unknown, a tripping, spittle-basted tongue, plosive and percussive and high pitched … he might feel his spirit soften and solidify at once. He was an egg immersed in boiling water, a fusing and dividing trinity of yoke and white and shell. In that respect, he was transformed by God like other boys his age were changed by girls.” Jesus grows bored in his fast and plays board games with pebbles; he writes in the cave floor all the words he knows. In the extremity of starvation, he is afraid of what his heedless love has done.

The novel's epigraph quotes the opinion of two doctors concerning the possibility of a human surviving such an absolute fast without supernatural assistance. What happens to Jesus, and what happens to those whose lives for a period of quarantine hovered around his singular grasp for God, I leave to your reading. But I can say that the grave dug for the dying Musa—that served also as a surprising cistern to sustain the pilgrims—ends up serving still another function. And that everyone gets changed. It is, I assure you, different from anything you have yet imagined. And in its own way, is gospel.

Brooke Allen (review date 1–15 June 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 forcible conversion to Islam.

This tenacious quality of the Christian religion is what makes Jim Crace's new novel, Quarantine, fail in its original purpose. It is also what makes the work succeed on another, and certainly more interesting, level.

“I'm not even a relaxed atheist, I'm a post-Dawkins scientific atheist,” said Crace in an interview with the Manchester Guardian shortly after Quarantine was published in England last year (he was referring to British scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene). “On those rare occasions I do encounter the Christian religion I'm struck by how simpleminded it is.” Crace had intended to write a novel that would expose that simplemindedness; what he found himself writing, however, was something quite different.

The setting is the Judean desert, some 2,000 years ago. Musa, a Jewish merchant, is unconscious with fever and has been left by his trading caravan to die. His pregnant wife, Miri, has been left behind as well, to see him into the next world. The caravan leaders have promised to return for her in the spring, but Miri, a realist toughened by a lifetime of bad treatment, knows they will not bother. “The plain, commercial truth,” she thinks to herself, is that she is “not worth the trip.”

Looking at her dying husband, his mouth blackened and his breath sulfurous, Miri decides to walk away and return that afternoon to bury the corpse. As she wanders into the desert, she finds her spirits rising with hope for the future. When the sadistic Musa dies she will be free, and she feels equal to practically any hardship so long as he will not be there to beat and harangue her.

While she is gone a group of pilgrims pass by on their way to spend the traditional “quarantine,” a 40-day period of solitude, daylight fasting and prayer, in the nearby caves.

There were five of them—not in a group, but strung out along the road. … Three men, a woman and, too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth. And this fifth one was barefooted, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat.

We soon learn that he is a young Galilean named Jesus.

Footsore from his trip and nervous about his approaching fast, Jesus comes upon Musa's tent. Seeing that the dying man is not in a position to stop him, he helps himself to water and food and then, in a careless gesture of thanks, gives the automatic, traditional blessing: “So, here, be well again.” Musa, startlingly, recovers. Remembering the Galilean through his fever, he decides the young pilgrim has healed him. “It was a miracle,” he knew.

Revived, Musa sets out to harass the pilgrims. A ruthless man of business, he believes money can be made anywhere. Aside from their guide, a half-mad Bedouin, each of the travelers seems to be fairly easy prey. There is Marta, a barren wife desperately hoping for a child; Shim, a Hellenized Jew, vain and cynical; and Aphas, an old man seeking a cure for the cancer that is killing him. The three are lukewarm in their religious fervor; their quarantine is to be not a test for soul and spirit but a break from their normal lives, almost a holiday. They will fast during the day, eat and drink after the sun goes down.

“But Jesus had a harsher challenge for himself. Quite what it was he didn't know. He only understood that he should choose a way that was more punishing.” An ignorant adolescent motivated by a wish to prove both his superiority to the folks back home and his desire for revelation, Jesus decides that his fast will be total. For 40 days and nights neither food nor drink will pass his lips.

As envisioned by Crace, Jesus is not so much inspired as deluded; he is an innocent and foolish person with a naïve village outlook. “Here was a man who was in the mood to divine grand meanings in the simplest acts. There'd be no god without such men, prepared to make the little cause responsible for large effects, quick to find the lesson in the most everyday events.”

Crace implicitly contrasts Jesus with Miri, who “knew that life did not improve through prayer or miracles. The opposite, in fact.” The merciless, beautiful desert, a character in its own right with a will and a power of its own, seems to welcome and bless Miri while destroying the presumptuous Galilean. The novel's epigraph, from Ellis Winward and Michael Soule's The Limits of Mortality, gives a clue of what is to come:

An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast—that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink—could not expect to live for more than 30 days, nor to be conscious for more than 25. For him the 40 days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable—except with divine help, of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it.

As one might expect, Jesus suffers a precipitate decline and is dead before 30 days have passed. His suffering brings neither wisdom nor exaltation. He “had become a creature of the dark, a fugitive from pleasure, comfort, beauty, light,” and he had no one to blame for his miserable end. He was a victim of his own vanity.

Nevertheless, we create our gods out of our own needs, as Crace reminds us. Musa, out of both a real belief in Jesus' healing powers and greedy contemplation of the money to be made with a tame faith healer, persuades the others that the Galilean is the real thing. Each of them needs hope and belief, and each, for his own reasons, accepts Musa's assertion. Then, just as they are leaving their quarantine site, they actually see—or do they?—the risen Jesus, disappearing across the desert. As Crace himself put it in the same Guardian interview, his book “ends up with an ambiguity that would not embarrass many Christians.”

Almost against Crace's will, Quarantine is less a debunking of Jesus than a meditation on the human race's irrational, indestructible religious impulse. Jesus is presented as silly and ineffectual. Even if you believe, with Musa, that Jesus miraculously cured him, the cure was a bad deed, for Musa, an exploitative wife-beater and rapist, is evil. Despite having undercut Jesus, though, Crace emphasizes his strong effect on the others. He further complicates matters by describing in concrete terms the vision, real or imagined, of the Galilean risen from the dead:

Musa looked toward the distant scree again. He told himself this was no merchant fantasy. His Gally [Galilean] was no longer thin and watery, diluted by the mirage heat, distorted by the ripples in the air. He made his slow, painstaking way, naked and barefooted, down the scree, his feet blood-red from wounds, and as he came closer his outline hardened and his body put on flesh.

The New Testament story has inspired a lot of schlock and several fine novels. Among the schlock is Norman Mailer's execrable The Gospel According to the Son, published last year to shockingly respectful reviews. Far better are Michel Tournier's The Four Wise Men and Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, made into an interesting if imperfect film by Martin Scorsese. There is also D. H. Lawrence's The Man Who Died, which might be put in either category, depending on your taste for Lawrence's wilder flights of fancy. Quarantine itself is of a very high quality indeed. Crace writes with a fluid, almost poetic grace, and displays a firm hold on language and imagery:

[Miri] had been told, when she was small, that the sky was a hard dish. She might bruise her fists on it if only she could fly. It was a gently rounded dish, blue when not obscured by clouds or night or shuddered into pinks and grays and whites by the caprices of the sun. But now she raised her hands into the unresisting air above the open grave and wondered if the dish were soft. And she could fly right through it, only slowly and coddled by its softness, like passing through the tough and cushioned alleys of the flesh, to take a place in heaven if she wanted, or to find that place on earth where she'd be undisturbed.

Over the years, more than one critic has likened Crace to William Golding. Like Golding, he tends to place his characters in narrow, closed communities where moral dramas are played out. Like Golding, too, he is brilliant at creating symbolic landscapes. Crace's desert, and his masterful evocation of a bygone culture that is ruthless, superstitious and aspiring, makes Quarantine a memorable piece of work.

Christian Century (review date 10 March 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 complete fasting. Crace's Jesus does indeed die, but he is resurrected. A merchant, Musa, and his abused wife, Miri, are stranded in the desert near those in quarantine. Musa is the first person Jesus heals (inadvertently), but Musa is also the tempter who tries to lure him from his mission—and the first witness to Jesus' first resurrection. The devil in this novel is such a complex, intriguing character that he nearly steals the show.

Kenneth Arnold (review date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 daylight hours, and praying. Only Jesus has entered a total fast—no food or water for forty days (the period of quarantine). His cave is separate from the others, virtually inaccessible.

These five hermits are viewed through the story of an abusive merchant named Musa and his pregnant wife, Miri. In the beginning, Musa is dying in a desert camp. Miri goes out to dig his grave, but while she is gone Jesus comes to their tent seeking a last drop of water before starting his fast. He touches and heals Musa, who returns to life with all of his former malevolence intact. He beats his wife. He cheats his customers. When the hermits arrive, he insists that he owns this part of the desert, charges cave rent, and sets up a commissary with which to tempt the solitaries. Musa enforces a corrupt community.

We think of the story of Jesus in the wilderness as one involving only him, the devil, and wild beasts. In this novel, the devil is Musa, and his goal is to roust Jesus out of his cave and force him back into the world of commodities and trade. Crace conveys Musa's evil effectively. He organizes food and water deliveries for Jesus, who refuses to accept them. He wages economic terrorism. He rapes Marta, the barren woman. He reigns, it seems, like an implacable tyrant over the part of the world he has claimed as his own.

Meanwhile, out of sight of this tightly focused vision of the world's evil, Jesus is dying for lack of food and water. He rejects Musa's goods and services for what they are—and what we see them to be in the lives of the other hermits: an infection that corrupts solitude, the space opened for God, with things and beasts that perish. Jesus does die, and the community of hermits buries him in the grave originally dug for Musa, opening a spring that nourished all of them. When the grave is filled in, they have to move on.

Marta and Miri set off with Musa, but the two women form a bond that allows them to walk away from the merchant, to set off on their own, set free by the dead man who has, in some way, touched them all. Marta recounts a dream in which Jesus

touched my cuts and bruises. And then he kissed my feet. … He touched my stomach afterwards, like a priest. He said, This is a son for Thaniel. How could he know my husband's name? He said he'd given me a child, with just his fingertips.


The community of the women is born of the desert, from solitude. Musa hitches a ride with a caravan to Jericho, where he plans to start over, but as before, wielding his tyranny. And it is Musa who, at the end of the book, sees “somebody climbing down towards his hiding place, half hidden in the shade … a thin and halting figure tacking the scree, almost a mirage—ankleless, no arms—in the lifting light” (241). But as the figure “came closer to the valley floor his outline hardened and his body put on flesh” (243). Musa announces that the man has risen from the grave to begin his ministry. He awaits him in the valley, where they will resume the struggle of life and death with which the story began.

Jesus dies to himself and returns in new strength. Musa settles in permanently to the gross flesh that is all commodity. Purveyors of corruption and social excess, Musa and his descendants will have none of the fecund nothingness that Jesus struggles with in his desert or that Doris Grumbach struggles with in hers.

Phil Baker (review date 17 September 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 “practised, closing joke”: “I don't believe that any student's perished at my hands. Yet.” She finds Joseph irritating, but it wasn't always so. Although Joseph is well under average height, leading to his self-deprecating catchphrase “I'm far too short to—” (dance, flirt, or whatever), he has a surprisingly deep singing voice. This is what first attracted Celice to him, and on a coastal field trip he added to it by showing her his trick (“My only trick”). His research speciality, the sprayhopper, Pseudogryllicus pelagicus, will not jump when you blow on it, or even touch it, but if it is blown on wetly, it will jump at once.

It is this stretch of beach, the scene of his triumph with the sprayhopper, that Joseph wants them to revisit thirty years later. He hopes they might make love there, although Celice is less keen. Unfortunately, they are not alone on the sands. Their killer is there too, envying their middle-class existence just as he hates all “the rich, the old, the educated and the loved, the fed, the wordy and the well laced.” Celice dies quickly, her head smashed with a rock, but Joseph suffers. With vomit in his throat and a broken rib puncturing his gut, he is fully aware that there is worse to come, and come it does, with more blows to the head and a kick to the testicles. Later, he partially recovers consciousness, stretching out a hand to Celice's leg before dying.

As usual, Crace shows his skills as a fabulist and call-my-bluff counterfeiter. The book is set in an unnamed country, with its own regional dishes and odd fauna, and Crace takes as his epigraph a twelve-line poem by Sherwin Stephens, “The Biologist's Valediction to his Wife” from Offcuts. “Eternity awaits? Oh, sure! / It's Putrefaction and Manure / And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot, / As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot.” It is a plausible poem from a plausible poet. Only its extreme “fit” to the book might lead us to doubt its authenticity, along with the poet's name: an amalgam of Wallace Stevens and Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die.

Not the least of Crace's inventions is the nineteenth-century mourning ritual known as a quivering. Had Joseph and Celice died a hundred years earlier, they would have been laid out in their best clothes, and at midnight a procession of mourners, women first, would come and weep for them noisily, tapping on the floor-boards and perhaps even using quiver sticks, made of metal rods with clacking wooden rings. The mourners would recall the dead couple's lives, working backwards until the quivering ends at daybreak with their births. Being Dead, Crace tells us, is a sort of quivering.

On the beach, meanwhile, “the bodies were discovered straight away.” By a beetle, that is. Then come “swag flies” and crabs, and a gull. Crace goes into considerable detail for anti-humanist effect, as the couple discolour and blacken, while their hair and nails still grow. Celice's body makes “good pickings for glucose-hungry flies.” A gull lifts Joseph's underpants, “misled by what it took to be the smell of fish,” and flies pick at the “semen lacquer on his inner thigh.” Growing ranker and ranker, the loving couple attract progressively smaller and more primitive life forms, taking their place in the ecology of the beach. “Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves,” Joseph once told a student, “humankind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We'll not be missed.” When the last of mankind has perished, there will still be sprayhoppers.

Crace extracts a kind of post-humanist poetry from their decay, and the book as a whole is written with what sometimes seems to be an excessive finesse, as the writing is pushed into barely appropriate registers that can seem callous. The rock that breaks their heads is “an untender joint of veal, with gristle silica.” A girl who dies in a fire is “kippered and cremated.” Their poetic final legacy is: “A rectangle of faded grass and, where the bodies had decayed for their six days of grace, a crushed and formless smudge of almost white where time and night had robbed the lissom of its green.”

Being Dead is an ambitious work Crace's attempt to reconcile a manifestly indifferent universe with a personal memorialization or “quivering” is important, but its awkward mix of anti-humanism and implicit sentimentality doesn't quite gel. The claim that Joseph and Celice somehow “enjoy” “a loving and unconscious end, beyond experience” seems tenuous to say the least. Being Dead is not an entirely satisfying novel, and perhaps even a distasteful one. Neither the self-consciously fine writing nor the playful fabulation really complements the gravity of the theme; if anything, Crace's all too obvious virtuosity risks trivializing the sad and horrible events he describes.

Phil Whitaker (review date 20 September 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 chain they once studied. Woven into this account of progressive decomposition are retrospective strands that build a picture of Joseph and Celice's lives. This is Crace's version of a wake, or “quivering,” whereby the deceased are “reclaimed” from death by the reminiscences of the living. It is this aspect of the narrative that allows him to develop his fundamental theme: the human hunger for meaning.

Crace affords us a ringside seat from which to view the harsh realities of the natural world. In Being Dead this is an arbitrary, godless place. Throughout the novel we are presented with the pitiless cycle of life and death—creature preys upon creature; whole species die out as habitats change; Baritone Bay itself will ultimately succumb to the bulldozers and construction workers. Nothing leaves its mark; one generation is erased by the next and “the universe could not care less.” There is nothing to refute Celice's assertion to her students that life has no meaning, “other than to replicate and decompose.”

While Celice and Joseph preach rational science they are also human beings, compelled to read significance into the events of their lives. It's an uncomfortable situation. Their histories—from the first somewhat ambivalent flowering of youthful attraction, through to the gradual senescence and reverses of their later years—mirror the natural cycle they observe in the world around them. Yet always they are tempted by meanings beyond the starkly biophysical. In rendering his zoologists as flawed, and in giving them such credible passions and regrets, Crace develops an almost unbearable sense of pathos. The only release for his characters, and for the reader, is in their being dead—free at last from breath and memory.

Even this is not the end. Crace highlights their six days of “grace” during which their deaths are unknown and their stories are their own. Once the bodies are discovered, the quest for meaning and interpretation is taken up by the living. Police, townspeople, newspapers and their estranged daughter all impose their own significance on the circumstances of the murders. The facts appear clear: Joseph and Celice were revisiting the scene of their courtship, their bodies were naked, Joseph's dying act was to reach out and touch his wife's leg. To some it is a testament to their love, something beautiful amid the blackness of the crime that killed them. Others find it shameful that a middle-aged couple should so degrade themselves by making love in public. The reader alone is privy to the messy but infinitely more human reality; we understand that even after death the storytelling goes on.

Being Dead is a stunning novel, ambitious and full of haunting imagery. The prose is hypnotic. There is the odd discordant note: the scene in which Joseph and Celice's daughter searches the mortuary for her missing parents is too obviously a device for Crace to introduce more death-related material, and the murderer, as a character, is a cypher.

As readers, we, too, try to find meaning in the story presented to us. Joseph and Celice's lives don't amount to much: brief passion; a stagnant marriage; the odd glimmer of love and fidelity; an alienated child; a group of acquaintances sending hollow cards of condolence. Within ten days of their dying, all trace of their existence has gone. There must, we feel, be more to life than that. But if we free ourselves from the hunger for meaning, the craving for stories, then the tenderness at the heart of Being Dead emerges. Joseph and Celice's lives may not have amounted to much, but in the end they did the best they could do.

Miranda France (review date 2 October 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 to one of his students, ‘We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We'll not be missed.’ Except by all the things that can eat them, that is. But Celice was right about the violence. The couple are bludgeoned to death on a stretch of coast where they first met while studying for doctorates on, respectively, marine crickets (or sprayhoppers) and seaweed. They have returned nearly 30 years later to find that a projected luxury development has chased away the sprayhoppers, but the dunes are still enticing. It is there that the murderous thief catches them about to make love for old time's sake. So begin their deaths and this novel.

Crace calls it a ‘quivering,’ a traditional rite of mourning which celebrates the deceased's life. As he charts their being dead, so he recalls aspects of their life together. As you would expect, out of the rotting mess he lifts something good. The message is that lives end, but love keeps handing itself on. ‘There is no remedy for death—or birth—except to hug the spaces in between.’

It isn't a strong message—Crace's vision is not so neat. If the novel had simply set mess and gore against life and love, one might expect to see the latter two romping to a clear win. As it is, Joseph and Celice's death is not the only horror here—there is also the memory of a fire in which their student colleague was ‘barbecued.’ There is their unpleasant, alcoholic daughter and an awful scene in the morgue where she browses among the unclaimed dead bodies as an attendant tries to chat her up. Crace has a detective's fascination with the detritus left behind in an abandoned house or at the scene of a crime. At times he seems to binge on different kinds of dreadfulness.

I don't begrudge him the bingeing. He is a skilled and very original writer. His last novel, Quarantine—a remarkable interpretation of Christ's 40 days in the desert—won him a Whitbread award and a nomination for the Booker. Here, too, the working of each sentence is interesting and sometimes very poetic. Yet I found this novel got to the mind bypassing the heart. It was more brilliant than affecting.

Being Dead provides the reader with as complex and absorbing a meal as poor Joseph and Celice make for the flies, gulls and crabs of Baritone Bay. It's powerful, innovative and philosophical. You don't come away liking Crace for it, but then it isn't a writer's business to be liked.

John Banville (review date 13 April 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 and undermined. Their crests migrate and reassemble with the wind. They do their best to raise their backs against the weather and the sea and block the wind-borne sorrows of the world. All along the shores of Baritone Bay and all the coast beyond, tide after tide, time after time, the corpses and the broken, thinned remains of fish and birds, of barnacles and rats, of molluscs, mammals, mussels, crabs are lifted, washed and sorted by the waves. And Joseph and Celice enjoy a loving and unconscious end, beyond experience.

Crace employs marine imagery throughout—the couple have died by the seashore—pointing the irony that the sea is where all life originated: not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the sub-narrative intones, but water to water, salt to salt. The book is a stony-faced threnody for ordinary deaths. Joseph and Celice are a middle-class couple, whose lives have been touched with no more and no less drama than the lives of most of us, and their random and exceedingly bloody deaths are treated with what might be called clinical sympathy.

The couple are both biologists, “doctors of zoology,” whom the author introduces to us with what seems the shadow of an arch though not unsympathetic smile. Joseph is “director of the Tidal Institute,” Celice is a “part-time tutor at the university.” The location of the novel is vague, deliberately so, it seems: a coastal region of wetlands and shifting shorelines, and a languishing town that was known to the tourists who used to come there—we are not told why they now stay away—as Rusty City, or Wetropolis. Although Crace is unmistakably English, the book feels as if it is set elsewhere than in England, perhaps one of those imitation Englands somewhere in the Antipodes, or in North America. This creates an alienation effect that hazes over the narrative, as a sea mist will haze over a summer day. The author does not want us to feel secure anywhere in these pages.

The story is told in two directions. As it opens, Joseph and Celice are recently dead, victims of a senseless murder. Subsequent chapters alternate between a counterclockwise retracing of the route they took to meet their bloody fate, and studiedly impassive descriptions of their physical decomposition as the wildlife and the weather go to work on them over the days following their murder: these latter passages read like the detailed report of a poetically minded pathologist.

Had the couple died a hundred years ago. Crace tells us, in their part of the world their family and their neighbors would have held a “quivering” for them.

At midnight … all the guests would stand to form a circle round the bed. They'd grip the mattress and the bedboards, a shoal of hands, to quiver the murdered couple, winnowing and shaking out their wrongdoings so that they'd enter heaven unopposed. The ashy chaff of all their errors and misdeeds would drift like cigar motes in the candlelight. Their tallowed sins would smudge the men's clean shirts.

There may really have been such a funeral rite in Crace's England—none of the dictionaries I have consulted gives this meaning for the word—but if not, it is a fine conceit. The intention of the book, its author tells us, is to make a quivering of sorts for the murdered couple, to reclaim them from death:

To start their journey as they disembark but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning breath. And all their lives ahead of them.

The place where they “disembark” is Baritone Bay, so called because of the strange, deep-throated music the wind in certain weathers plays among the moving dunes. The area is to be “developed” by a consortium of business people from the town, and will disappear under a housing complex, and so one Tuesday afternoon in summer the two doctors of zoology cut their classes and travel back there “to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes …” and “to lay a ghost.” Joseph also has another kind of lay in mind, for it was at Baritone Bay nearly thirty years before that he first made love to Celice, or was made love to by her, when they went there as students on a field trip, and he is determined to try to recapture something of the life-changing passion and force of that encounter.

They are, we are told, “the oddest pair, these dead, spreadeagled lovers on the coast. …” Celice is eighteen months older than Joseph, and is much the taller of the two. “I'm not tall enough” has been Joseph's “once-amusing” excuse for everything from an inability to reach a high shelf to being bad at love. In one respect, however, Joseph's reach is greater than his wife's: when he sings, “he could be astounding. He had the voice of someone twice his size.” It is this gift that helped him, on that student field trip, to seduce the far more worldly and impatient Celice. One night when he left the beach house where they and four of their colleagues were lodging, Celice followed him, and down at the bay, among the dunes, or, a bed of lissom grass, they celebrated the carnal union that for both of them would be at a certain, deep level the defining event of their lives. While they were making love, however, another defining, and final, event engulfed one of their colleagues, the flirtatious and ungifted Festa, who burned to death in her sleeping bag when a fire broke out at the house. Celice, in her hurry to follow Joseph, had left an oil lamp burning, and for thirty years she has not ceased from blaming herself for Festa's death.

Festa's is one of a number of violent or tragic deaths that punctuate the narrative. Two cousins of Joseph's have died recently, one in a traffic accident, and a neighbor's son has succumbed to a heart attack while out cycling. More significantly, at least for Celice, is the recent suicide, for reasons unknown, of one of her colleagues at the university, a man with the sonorous and mysteriously suggestive title of Academic Mentor. Celice tries to take a coldly scientific view of his death, but finds it hard. “He'd died with all his futures still in place. His will. His might. His could. There were still concert tickets on his mantelshelf. His winter holiday was booked. He still had debts. The Mentor's suicide, she could persuade herself, was neo-Darwinist.” Or it could be that the Mentor was just another of Fish's victims. Fish is the town's folkloric name for Death, according to a local scholar, the late Mondazy, who “wrote in his final memoir, published more than thirty years ago”:

We call it Fish. It swims, we say, a silent, unforgiving predator that comes at night out of the sea and speeds into the shallow, less resistant moisture of the streets. Fish comes and takes your father and your mother from their bed. All that you'll hear, as souls depart, and make their spirals of displacement in the clammy air, is the shivering of fins.

Fish comes for Joseph and Celice in the form of a wandering psychopath with a lump of granite in his hand. We learn little about him, except his rage, resentment, and murderous desperation. He follows the couple through the dunes, loses them, then finds them again as they sit on their bed of grass, still undressed after an unsuccessful but forgiving attempt at lovemaking, and unceremoniously bashes in their heads. Celice dies at once. Joseph a little later. The murderer takes their money, rings, wristwatches, car keys, and makes off. Then they are left to nature.

The bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudatus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull. No one, except the newspapers, could say that “There was only Death amongst the dunes, that summer's afternoon.”

Since they had told no one where they were going that day, it is a long time before the human world begins to miss them. Their only child, their daughter, Syl, is working as a waitress in a town hundreds of miles away from Baritone Bay. Contacted by her father's secretary, she makes her way home, and sets out on a grim search for her parents. Although her entry into the narrative somewhat disrupts the shape of the book, Syl is a fine feat of characterization, a dissatisfied young woman who knows she has been a disappointment to her scholarly parents, and whose strongest desire is for freedom. And freedom she finds, out in the dunes, when the police take her to identify the bodies of Joseph and Celice. She has already unknowingly defiled the house of the dead by taking into the bedroom where she slept as a child a young man met casually at the station, whom she sleeps with partly from lust and partly to repay him for agreeing to act as her chauffeur in the search. Now comes the darker reality of death's own defilement. “She'd walked to see mortality that Sunday afternoon and found her parents irredeemable. Her gene suppliers had closed shop.” Her reaction to the loss is a kind of existentialist recognition of the nothingness at the heart of life:

There is no remedy for death—or birth—except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall. … Their deaths were her beginning.

Yet it is Syl who injects a rare moment of warmth into this decidedly chilly book. After the initial shock of seeing the mutilated and partly decomposed bodies of her parents, she forces herself to take a “second, edited glimpse of them,” and notes in mild wonderment that despite all the damage that has been inflicted on them, they strike her as seeming to have been made oddly young again; their skin has been stretched by sun and wind and rain, and her father's forehead is newly unlined, her mother's underchin firm; death, their daughter understands, has not depersonalized them. There is something else, too, that makes them seem suddenly youthful, and that is the manner of their going. “For violent death is usually the province of the young.” And with rueful admiration the daughter recognizes that even in these terrible, last straits her parents had managed to surprise her, not just by being murdered, these most unlikely victims, and not even by their nakedness, but by showing that “they had the power, on their deaths, to flush her heart—too late—with love.” What moves her to this recognition is the sight of one of her father's hands still lying where in death it had fallen, lightly encircling her mother's ankle. Here Crace surely intends us to recall Philip Larkin's great poem, “An Arundel Tomb,” in which the poet, contemplating the stone statues of an earl and his countess lying on their tomb, notices “with a sharp tender shock” that the husband is holding the wife's hand.

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

One of the toughest problems that faces the fiction writer is that of finding a means of transfiguring quotidian reality into art, in the seemingly straightforward but highly stylized form of the novel. Even in the most “experimental” of fictions the reader stubbornly insists on finding a plot, a story, characters, human interest … To many novelists this is a burden that sorely chafes. The problem has been most successfully and most often solved, usually by the simple expedient of ignoring it, within the great tradition of the English novel. Jim Crace is firmly of that tradition, a fact not always recognized or, acknowledged by his fellow countrymen. Although his previous novel, Quarantine, a strange, dreamlike account of five misfits astray and starving in the desert, one of whom happens to be Jesus, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Novel Prize, his work generally is not held in the high regard that it merits. Probably this is because each of his novels—he has written six—is entirely different from its predecessors, thus making it difficult for readers, not to mention hard-pressed reviewers, to fit him into this or that handy category.

Yet for all the “experimental” feel that he imparts to his work, the fact is that, to say it again, Crace is working firmly within the mainstream of English fiction, and a good thing that is, for English fiction, at least. A solid yet always adventurous writer, he has done much to revitalize a tradition in danger of becoming moribund. English life at the turn of the millennium—indeed, European life in general—is highly resistant to the novelist's art. The contemporary European malaise, so reminiscent of the spiritual decay and loss of nerve suffered in the “decadent” 1890s, has led to a turning inward on the part of bourgeois society. To unpack this inwardness would require a Balzac or a Henry James de nos jours.

About halfway through Being Dead, the alert reader will realize that what he has in his hands is a traditional novel of English manners sprinkled with some of the props and themes of the campus novel à la David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, though without the laughs. Joseph and Celice are stock fictional characters—although at times they can seem more contrivances than characters—living the wholly unremarkable lives of middle-class English academics. This is not intended as a condemnation—unremarkable lives are the very stuff of fiction. The trouble is, however, that Crace's ambitions are disproportionate to the material he has worked up; to fulfill those ambitions, he must resort to something other than plot, action, character, and what he looks to mainly is style. When the book was published in England last year, a number of reviewers there spoke of Crace's language as “eerie,” and “hypnotic,” and so it frequently is. Here is a random example. Celice is lecturing her students:

Life's only, say, up to ninety years for creatures such as you and I. We're less than turtles. We have to die before they do. We must. It's programmed that we will. Our births are just the gateway to our deaths. That's why a baby screams when it is born. Don't write that in your notes. They who begin to live begin to die. It's downhill from the womb, from when the sperm locates the egg and latches on.

What is striking in this passage—and the phenomenon reoccurs throughout the book—is that it is written in a kind of broken blank verse, and indeed could be successfully laid out in verse form. Crace is particularly fond of iambic pentameter, especially at the close of paragraphs. Dipping in randomly again, one comes up with these three closing sentences occurring on two consecutive pages: “What had they made of those appalling girls?” “These men had spent themselves on prostitutes.” “Cash fornicates with any open purse.” What is there in these observations and sentiments—the youthful Celice is brooding resentfully on the fact that three of her colleagues on the field trip have probably visited a brothel in the town—that makes them require the fixed and sonorous rhythms in which they are set?

Constantly in these pages one is brought up short by prosaic figures cast, arbitrarily, it would seem, in poetic form. The cumulative effect is not so much “hypnotic,” pace the reviewers, as dulling: what is intended as poetry often succeeds only in sounding like doggerel. At other points, the ecstatic tone descends into portentousness and bathos: “Where there is sex, then there is death. They are the dark coordinates of one straight line. Grief is death eroticized. And sex is only shuffling off this mortal coil before its time to plummet to the post-coital afterlife.” Fiction turns to fancy devices at its peril. There are passages of haunting beauty in Being Dead, but there are moments, too, when the poetry overwhelms the sense, as for instance in the fine closing passage quoted above: “And Joseph and Celice enjoy a loving and unconscious end, beyond experience” is, literally, nonsense, no matter how fine it sounds.

These are not so much criticisms of a brave and in many respects highly successful attempt to divert and broaden a tradition, as indications of the pitfalls that await the novelist who dares to experiment. One would not wish to discourage any artist from embarking on new ventures, taking new risks, and one will watch with eagerness, and bated breath, the progress of this strong, inventive, and above all courageous novelist.

Jonathan Levi (review date 16 April 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Law and Gwyneth Palthrow cinematic inspiration. Eighteen months older than Joseph, Celice is also more aggressive and taller than her husband, small-breasted, thin-waisted and large-thighed, with “the figure of a pigeon or a pear.” Joseph's attraction is hidden away in his larynx.

Singing was his greatest eloquence. It went through walls. How could the other men compete with such a voice? What was the benefit in being tall and handsome if they couldn't be admired through wooden panels, or at night?

It had been 30 years since the night when Joseph's voice first penetrated a wall and found Celice. They had been thrown together, all those years ago, with four other young biologists and oceanographers into a tiny study house, for a vacation of research and adventure. Celice and the flirty Festa slept, or tried to sleep, in sleeping bags on the veranda, that first night in the house, while Joseph's three beery comrades joked and belched in the bunkroom. Unable to sleep, Celice had reached the heights of annoyance when Joseph banged in from the beach. But slowly something within her loosened.

Someone, not drunk, was crooning a sugar ballad, the kind her uncle used to sing when she was small enough to be rocked to sleep. This someone had a voice as grandly sentimental as the song. It dipped and peaked as Celice herself dipped and peaked in her warm bag.

Between these two fleeting acts of half-realized sex. Crace weaves a story that ebbs and flows with a suggestion that, somewhere within the 30 years, between the original encounter and the final death, lies an explanation for the lives of these two students of animal behavior. There are careers, half-formed. He rises from his student days studying sprayhoppers—tiny sea-crickets that bounce on the waves until they are drowned or devoured—to direct the Tidal Institute. She never moves above part-time tutor at the university. They make few friends, share few interests. There is a daughter, half-cared for and half-caring, who has debunked to a career of waitressing and avoiding the disappointment of her parents. There is even an early death—one of their fellow students is destined never to have career, children or disappointments.

And there are the elemental forces—the rain, the sun, the beasts of the field and the beasts of the air—that work upon the dead bodies of the couple during the five days they lie undiscovered within the sound of Baritone Bay. At first beetles, crabs, a gull. “The flies lined up like fishermen along the banks of the bodies' open wounds.” And slowly, the two human animals evolve into much.

Joseph, like most zoologists, had been a faculty snob and hated botany. He thought the ‘plant men’ lived a lesser life. He was the huntsman to their gatherers. Their only weapons were the plastic bag and trowel. But he was closer now to botany than he had ever been. His greater, living predators had gone, but the longer blades of lissom grass, gasping for the light, were bending over him like nurses. His body was a vegetable, skin and pulp and fibre. His bones were wood. Soon, if no one came to help, the maggots would dismantle him. Then his body could only be gathered up by trowels and put in plastic bags.

It is entirely to Crace's credit that he narrates the evolution of Joseph and Celice with a tidal reluctance to move in any one direction for too long. None of the forces explain their final moments. Not even their chance return on a sunny day to the site of their first love provides a satisfying evolutionary link to the necessary chain of their lives. Their lives, it seems, are as simple and inexplicable as their deaths. And yet there is that signal image preserved in death: “… his hand was touching her, the grainy pastels of her skin, one fingertip among her baby ankle hairs. Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell—just look at them—that Joseph and Celice were still devoted.”

“Ah, yes,” Joseph pondered in the halcyon days of their early courtship, blowing warm mist onto one of his beloved sprayhoppers, “That's what evolution has been for, to keep the zoologists happy.” These thoughts and observations are the instruments of a highly-evolved novelist, an active, living anatomist of love.

Brooke Allen (review date May 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of zoology: personally unremarkable, even unattractive, conventional, deeply sunk in middle age. Their lives, in the eyes of more flamboyant characters like their daughter Syl, are “dull and geometric.” They live and work in an English coastal town, and keep low profiles: “Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch.”

At the beginning of the book this unlikely pair has been murdered, their heads bashed in by a psychopath who killed them for their car and the contents of their pockets. The first image the novel provides is of their recently expired bodies, spreadeagled on the grass by the little cove, the site of their first romance, that they have unluckily decided to revisit on this day after some thirty years of marriage.

Out of this beginning grow three parallel narratives: the story of Joseph's and Celice's past, their courtship and married life; the story of the six days between their death and their discovery, a time in which their absence is noticed, and their daughter reluctantly returns home to search for them and finally, aided by the police, finds the truth; and the story, not the least interesting in the book nor the least meaningful, of the slow disintegration and breakdown of their corpses on the beach.

As zoologists Joseph and Celice calmly understand the fact that has driven so many people to seek solace in God: life has no point, “other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.”

Here in the dunes—with Celice's spread body, her rustling hair, her husband hanging from her leg, as centrepiece—was a fine display to illustrate the annual fieldwork lecture she gave, normally with slides of putrefying seals or tide-abandoned fish, to the faculty's new and squeamish students: “Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You'll have to make yourself companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.” She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché, among scientists, and preachers too.

The first to discover the still-intact bodies is a beetle, Claudatus maximi, attracted by blood and the smell of urine; then swag flies and crabs; then a gull. The scavengers and the elements do their work; the earth has begun its task.

The earth is practised in the craft of burial. It gathers round. It embraces and adopts the dead. Joseph and Celice would have turned to landscape, given time. Their dead bodies would have been just something extra dead in a landscape already sculpted out of death.

Crace creates what is in effect a spiritual vision out of the most earthbound ingredients, details we are usually accustomed to perceive as disgusting. In a similar fashion he creates an odd aura of romance around a couple whom no one, even in their youth, ever saw as romantic.

Celice and Joseph met as students while staying at a university study house located near the cove where they later meet their deaths. Celice was a gawky girl, not at all pretty, but she had discovered that when it comes to one-night stands men are really not all that choosy, and she had therefore acquired a certain breezy sexual confidence. Of the four young men at the study house she found Joseph by far the least promising:

She'd already marked him down as what she called a castaway, someone who'd lost or never knew the trick of being sociable, a single set of footprints in the sand. She didn't care for him at all. She'd been a castaway herself.

But Joseph had already recognized her as his own. “He was surprised how much this woman had enthralled him. … She wasn't beautiful. She was provoking, though. She was, he knew instinctively, his only chance.” In the strange way that such stories work out—life's plan, as it were—Joseph's barely revealed interest attracts Celice to him, and they have a heated sexual encounter on the secluded beach near the study house. Another lesson of biology, though, is that where there is sex there is also death: while they were so heedlessly having their way with each other, the study house had caught fire and one of their colleagues had died in the flames. The likelihood is that it was either Joseph or Celice who had caused the fire as they hurried out that morning.

In their mid-fifties now on the day of their death, sex has lost its urgency, as of course is only natural. Joseph still yearns after his wife more than she does for him: “her greatest fantasy was a night of unbroken sleep,” and she is more apt to feel irritation than lust toward her husband. “Besides, her Joseph was a conquest she'd already made and didn't need to make again. At least, not frequently.” It is Joseph, ever hopeful, who has insisted on this trip to the beach to revisit the scene of their first passion; he wants to make love there once again, and she decides to humor him, hard though it is for her to drum up much enthusiasm.

“Yet there still was love, the placid love that only time can cultivate, a love preserved by habit and by memory.” And when their bodies are found by the police, Joseph's hand is still cupped around Celice's foot in a gesture that Syl, a hard girl who has never felt anything but scorn for her boring parents, recognizes as love, and envies, and admires. Her grief is limited, but she is more moved than she had ever expected to be.

Syl had to allow them this at least: her parents had surprised her this one time. Not just their murder. Nor their nakedness. But that they had the power, on their deaths, to flush her heart—too late—with love.

Being Dead is a remarkable piece of work, utterly unsentimental yet beautiful, faintly comical yet full of measured gravity, and quite unlike any novel I have read before. It is also as consoling a meditation on death as an atheist is ever likely to encounter.

F. González-Crussi (review 14 July 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 fundamentally ineffable, undescribable, and beyond possible comparison with objects or phenomena of the empirical realm.

The curious reader takes the book in his hands and glances at the jacket: Being Dead, by Jim Crace. Is the author perhaps a metaphysician, since it belongs to that species to discourse on things that are not known, cannot be known, and which, in any case, if they were known, would probably make no difference to most of us? Or is he perhaps a theologian? Mystics and ascetics have been telling us for ages that the goal of life is to learn how to die. But we know, of course, that this is just a manner of speaking, since there is no possible learning here. The reader is therefore prepared to hear solemn speeches on resignation or sober exhortations to fortitude, when, surprise!, the lowermost line on the front of the jacket makes it all clear. The full title reads: Being Dead: A Novel.

A novel: not a technical, biomedical work, not a philosophical treatise, and not an anthology of religious meditations. Instead, a work of fiction. But is it not true that any work setting forth propositions on being dead, whether philosophical, theological, or scientific, is necessarily a work of fiction? And the converse is also true: any novel taking as its central theme the condition of being dead, will inevitably foray into the arid plains of metaphysics, the lofty realm of religion, or the unforgiving, pitiless spotlight of biomedical science.

Being Dead is all of this, as compounded by the craft and the imagination of a masterful novelist. The style is agile, precise, and vigorous. Words hit their target directly and unerringly. Images are colorful, evocative, forceful. Jim Crace, who has already won many literary awards, reasserts himself this time as supremely skilled in the difficult art of the novel. Technique is not the least of his accomplishments, and this novel displays it to the point of virtuosity. The story, which forms the sustaining framework, and the very raison d'être of the traditional novel, takes on a more modest function here. It seems wrong to judge Being Dead by its storytelling. A critic would be misguided who concentrated his attention on the plot, the pace of its development, its climax and denouement, or the expectations or surprises that it may afford the reader.

Story there is, nonetheless: two middle-aged zoologists, husband and wife, on a sentimental trip to the beach where they had their first erotic encounter, are surprised by a robber, who murders them. The dead couple are left lying in the dunes. There, the cadavers slowly rot and deliquesce, incongruously frozen in a gesture of caress that cannot fail to evoke the somber links between eroticism and death. Then, the reader is presented with a series of gripping still-lifes, all rendered with exquisite art, in which the inanimate bodies are gradually dissolved, returned to dust, devoured by crabs and seagulls, tunnelled by insects, reclaimed by the life forms of the seashore, in a spectacle that is at once grandiose, fascinating, and frightening. And against this awe-inspiring background, there are flashbacks to the earlier life of the protagonists, without much regard for a linear chronological sequence. The novel thus acquires not merely a visual quality, but a distinctly cinematographic tone reminiscent of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the roman du regard. But even this comparison seems out of place: Crace is not classed with any literary school; he creates a school of his own; one that, in my view, is going to continue deserving praise for a long time. His novel does what only the highest form of literature can do: it mesmerizes the reader by the deployment of powerful images, which in turn force reflection long after the book has been put down.

Crace cannot tell us what being dead means. No one can. This is one of the infinite contradictions of the human condition: to be by nature curious, and to be condemned never to know. Never. We cannot even imagine, let alone see, this “beyond.” But the novelist comes by and sets about collating a criminal act, two victims, their decomposing corpses, a few disjoined memories of their lives, and the desperate attempt of the victims' daughter to drown her existential anguish in sex. And by artfully arranging all this, the novelist seems to tell us that, if we pay close attention to the surroundings of death, we shall perceive absolutely nothing of death itself, but our vision of life—that other mystery—will be wondrously enhanced.

Susan Balée (review date autumn 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 lives, and forward, through their deaths. It's an extremely clever trick on chronology in a book filled with delightful little ironies. For example, after a minute description of the crabs and flies having their way with the corpses, Crace resurrects a moment from the female professor's life.

Here in the dunes—with Celice's spread body, her rustling hair, her husband hanging from her leg, as centre-piece—was a fine display to illustrate the annual fieldwork lecture that she gave, normally with slides of putrefying seals or tide-abandoned fish, to the faculty's new and squeamish students: “Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You'll have to make yourself companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.” She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché among scientists, and preachers too. Both know that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning because it clearly has none, other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.

The novel itself operates like a double helix. While one strand composes the narrative of the protagonists' lives, the other decomposes the narrative of their deaths. By the time the tale of their living is fully assembled, their bodies have almost completely come apart. The one strand is balanced by the other, inextricably entwined. Again, Crace loves the irony of this duet.

Joseph, like most zoologists, had been a faculty snob and hated botany. He thought the “plant men” lived a lesser life. He was the huntsman to their gatherers. Their only weapons were the plastic bag and trowel. But he was closer now to botany than he had ever been. His greater, living predators had gone, but the longer blades of lissom grass, gasping for the light, were bending over him like nurses. His body was a vegetable, skin and pulp and fibre. His bones were wood. Soon, if no one came to help, the maggots would dismantle him. Then his body could only be gathered up by trowels and put in plastic bags.

Black humor this, but scorchingly well done. Crace's novel is certainly the most original book of the year among the two dozen that I read for this fiction chronicle. He will probably be the writer who defines this era for a future generation.

Paul Maliszewski (review date fall 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 for a reason” or “at least they're going someplace better now.” Crace's language is as meticulous as his methods. All the metaphors for their injured bodies point not toward romantic mystery, but the natural world. Joseph's brain is “a honeycomb … exposed below the thin bark of a log by someone with a trenching spade.” His heart beats not as the seat of emotion but like a “hatching sopbug.” The care Crace takes does not result in lives of little mystery determined solely by chemistry. Rather an unsparing eye to what remains or can be remembered without embellishment offers the only consolation and grace.

Eric Miles Williamson (review date winter 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 now labeled and filed Minimalists, writers such as Raymond Carver, Mary and James Robison, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Bobbie Ann Mason whose characters haunt the solipsistic coffee shop of inertia. Both poles have in common a defeatism, a sense that we—and the enterprise of literature, as it used to be defined—are doomed, and there's little we can do about it. How big is the difference, finally, between having nothing to say and having nothing to say but the unsayable?

A new generation of writers is now emerging, many of whom seem to believe that instruction can and should be one of the purposes of fiction. This is especially the case among women and minority writers, for whom didacticism and outspoken politics—sometimes loud and angry—can be a powerful tool: They have complaints to lodge, and they refuse to mask what they have to say behind a stylistic glaze. These post-postmodern writers believe that there are still vital stories to tell, and they've incorporated what they've learned from the linguistic and formal structures of their predecessors into a new realism that emphasizes social and psychological critique. In some cases these novelists dramatize their theses, letting the fictional situation speak for itself; others among them adopt a bluntly rhetorical strategy, deliberately showing their persuasive hands at every opportunity.

The four novels under review, Richard Burgin's Ghost Quartet, Susan Richards Shreve's Plum & Jaggers, Victor Pelevin's Buddha's Little Finger, and Jim Crace's Being Dead, give some indication of the various ways in which fiction is being employed as a mode of argument. …

At the opposite end of the scale from Shreve's use of almost sheer dramatization to convey her ideas is the strategy adopted by the celebrated English novelist Jim Crace in Being Dead. The plot is simple, and quickly dispatched: An elderly couple has been found on a beach, murdered brutally. The rest of the book traces the victims' life together, from their initial meeting and courtship to their death. Multiple points of view are used to fill out the picture: We see things from the vantage of Joseph and Celice, of their daughter, of their murderer, and of a nameless “philosopher” who narrates the novel.

There's no mistaking Crace's intentions. With the narrator functioning mainly as a mouthpiece, he presents his thesis again and again, in a variety of forms. His idea: when we die, we rot. That's it. If there's anything spiritual about the condition of humanity, it only happens while we're alive, and is to be found in love between two human beings, no matter how tainted or soured or tired that love may be. Death—its true ugliness—and the meaninglessness of life are the primary subjects of Being Dead, and love is the one temporary solace available. Crace writes, “Love songs transcend, transport, because there's such a thing as love. But hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are not gods.”

Joseph is presented as a rather neglectful and nerdy husband, a professor obsessed with his calling to the exclusion of attentions he should pay his wife and daughter. Celice, also a career-minded academic, is described as being pear-shaped and homely when young, even less attractive when aged. Neither exhibits the passion and devotion a more conventional novelist would try to build between fictional lovers who are to be separated by a brutal double murder. Rather, Crace portrays them more like many married couples unfortunately are—going through the paces with mutual tolerance and occasional flashes of compassion and affection.

The ways that Crace presents his thesis are many, and always delivered in impeccable prose. Both Celice and Joseph are scientists, and we hear them talking to each other, to colleagues, and to their university students about the grim and absolute biological certitude of death. Celice, for instance, tells her students, “Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You'll have to make yourselves companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.” The narrator then finishes the thought:

She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché amongst scientists, and preachers too. Both know that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning only because it clearly has none, other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.

Joseph, lecturing, echoes these views: “Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves, humankind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We'll not be missed.”

These clearly didactic markers run throughout Being Dead. In the third chapter we find in reference to Joseph and Celice's death the following line: “The universe could not care less.” Then: “The plain and unforgiving facts were these. Celice and Joseph were soft fruit. They lived in tender bodies. They were vulnerable. They did not have the power not to die. They were, we are, all flesh, and then we are all meat.” The entire sixth chapter is an account of the corpses' decomposition, replete with all the repulsive details—the maggots, the crabs, the stink.

If there's a flaw here, it is that Crace goes overboard, not content merely to posit his Darwinian philosophy but determined to hammer it home what may prove to be a few too many times. But Being Dead is the work of a highly skilled writer, a deft stylist and a resourceful (if perhaps overinsistent) investigator of his subject matter.

In recent years “literary fiction” has largely been defined by heightened attention to matters of style, and the fancier the prose, the more literary the work has been considered. For the most part the writers under review seem devoted to an older, more substantive definition in which style, though crucial, takes a backseat to content. There are still stories to tell, lessons to be taught and learned, causes to be taken up. If we're going to be turned into nuclear vapor, so be it, but in the meantime we must live, must persist in chasing after meaning. We must, as Beckett famously wrote, “go on.” Writers like Burgin, Shreve, Pelevin, and Crace are reclaiming the dignified burden of recommending just how to do so.

Francis Gilbert (review date 3 September 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 intervals. Even a two-page story, which invites the reader to ask their dinner guests to speculate whether they would drink urine or brine if marooned on a raft without water, demands a few minutes of reflection after it has been read. Other stories such as a son's recollection of how his mother would bake her children “blind pie” for their birthdays—a pie that hides gifts such as jewellery—intrigue with their plausible structures.

Crace constructs modern riddles, fables, fantasies, jokes, tragedies and comedies out of food. As with his other work—and as is implicit in the title—paradoxes abound; food provides pleasure but causes pain—there are two food poisoning stories and a couple of allergy anecdotes. Items such as pies and apples appear to be without emotional content, yet evoke the strongest, unspoken feelings. Tasting food is a unique experience and yet food is nearly always eaten within strained social contexts; the collection ends with a description of how a daughter tries to share the taste of pasta with her mother.

Crace established his reputation with his last two books, Being Dead, which won the US National Book Critics Circle award earlier this year, and Quarantine, named Whitbread Novel of the Year and nominated for the Booker in 1997. Being Dead cleverly evoked the lives of a murdered couple by describing their decaying corpses, while Quarantine took an oblique look at the life of Jesus Christ. Both novels were sombre tales characterised by masterfully precise prose. The prose remains as lucid as ever here, but the humour and earthiness that permeate The Devil's Larder make the novel seem more human and less ethereal than its garlanded predecessors.

A doctor who discovers polyps growing in an old man's bowels narrates the best story. He retrieves the polyps after a rectal examination, but his patient dies soon afterwards. When the doctor discovers that the polyps are vegetable matter, he decides to grow them in his surgery. The tubers flourish and the doctor decides to make a soup out of them, which he offers to his interfering sister-in-law. Not only is it a hilarious and disturbing story, but it also provides a perfect metaphor for this collection: these stories are polyps grown in the dark, fetid passageways of Crace's imagination.


Crace, Jim (Short Story Criticism)