Jim Crace is hardly a household name; however, his eight previous novels have received sterling reviews, and his reputation may be greater in America than in his native Great Britain. In each of his fictions, he defamiliarizes the familiar, creating worlds that parallel, but never duplicate, those most readers would recognize. His works span extraordinary historical ranges, from the pre-Bronze Age of The Gift of Stones (1988) to Christ’s sojourn in the desert in Quarantine (1997) to his most recent novel, which imagines a future unthinkable to most Americans. His landscapes are frequently bizarre or unfamiliar, such as a seventh continent in Continent (1986), and he continually examines the implacable forces of nature, as in Being Dead (2000).
The Pesthouse partakes of all these features and more as it imagines a postapocalyptic America some time in the future. The reader is never certain what exactly has happened, but the United States as a political and cultural entity is gone, replaced by a diseased landscape in which a few intrepid travelers trek eastward in hopes of boarding ships bound for Europe or beyond.
The novel begins nightmarishly, “Everybody died at night,” and the air of mystery and foreboding is never entirely dispelled. Young Franklin Lopez and his brother, Jackson, have arrived in a burg called Ferrytown, hoping soon to make it to the ocean; however, Franklin has injured his knee and is left behind to allow his brother swift passage. During a torrential downpour, he laboriously climbs a hill outside town and takes refuge in an old shack, inhabited by Margaret, suffering from the “flux,” some type of plague, and left for dead. During the night, toxic fumes from the nearby lake are stirred up, and the entire town expires, while Franklin slowly nurses Margaret back to health.
Franklin pushes Margaret and their few possessions miles in a handcart, until a band of marauders take him captive as a slave but shun Margaret because of her shorn head, a potent sign of her illness. Through a series of further peregrinations and misadventures, Margaret falls in with a fundamentalist sect known as the Finger Baptists, who live in an establishment they call the Ark, where metal is forbidden as an element of diabolical purposes. When the same marauders attack the fortification and kill the elders, Margaret escapes and inspires Franklin to do the same.
As they attempt to elude his captors, Franklin suddenly becomes homesick for his mother and the family farm and abruptly decides against embarkation in favor of a second odyssey back to his homestead. By now the couple are guardians of a little girl, Jackie, and although they are not lovers, it is clear that they have pledged their lives to each other. The novel ends on an entirely different note than its beginning, “Going westward, they would go free,” and such a dire narrative suddenly seems almost sentimental.
One of the novel’s most striking features is its vision of postapocalyptic America. This is a place with no electricity, machines, industry, money, employment, culture, books, learning. Few animals can be found anywhere, and crops have been almost entirely annihilated by some unexplained, meteorological disaster. Life is cheap and human relations are almost thoroughly exploitative or predatory. These are the new dark ages, or as Crace described it on his Web page, “The novel provides America not with a science fiction future but with something that it has always wanted and lackeda medieval ‘past,’ an ancient European experience.”
Disease is rampant; what they call the “Great Contagion” has claimed countless lives, and in the place of medicine superstition prevails. (Franklin and others believe a fever can be broken by tying a pigeon to the afflicted’s feet.) Religion, or what passes for it, amounts to more superstition, as revealed by the Finger Baptists who disdain metal and bury any they find in large pits outside their compound. Their elders refrain from using their hands for labor, pleasure, or eating, to the point that they wither and become inoperable. Their destruction at the hands of the invaders suggests the relative ineffectuality of their beliefs and lifestyle.
By means of an episodic plot, Crace suggests that most human actions are chaotic and often purposeless. Characters wander ceaselessly, chasing rumors and half-formed dreams, and ultimately they are at home nowhere. America has devolved into a location of overwhelming failure and defeat, and rather than...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)