The Pesthouse

by Jim Crace

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The Pesthouse

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

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 cast this vison in the stereotypes of rotting architecture and blasted surfaces, Crace constructs an alternate vison. America has become a vacuum. The landscape remains, but infertile and completely uninviting. Domiciles are intact but uninhabitable; sentimentality is a luxury few can afford. All are lost who journey here, and the impression is one of utter vacancy. Franklin’s determination to turn back to his origins speaks to an overpowering need for orientation and positioning at a center. Suddenly, all their experience changes: “It was as if the country that had once been hostile to them was regretful for it and was now providing recompensefewer dangers, warmer nights, softer going in a season that was opening up rather than closing down. It even decorated the way with early flowers.”

This is hardly the America of early Puritan writing or that of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, all of whom emphasized abundance, fertility, and freedom. America’s utopian promise has been replaced by a dystopian nightmare, and it is through his manipulations of the conventions of the dystopian novel that one can appreciate Crace’s invention. The dystopian novel was primarily a twentieth century response to nineteenth century optimism. Novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1927; We, 1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) center on the idea of a monolithic, oppressive political state. Certain conventions remain fairly consistent: Individuality and originality are harshly controlled or punished; conformity becomes the highest virtue; and social mobility is impossible and social strata are inflexibly defined. Later in the century, economic and religious dystopias replaced political ones, as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

However, with The Pesthouse a new concern for a new century is evident. Most dystopian fictions begin with some explanation for the work’s state of affairs; however, in The Pesthouse no such explanation ever appears. Indeed, there is a plague, but that alone cannot explain the lack of all social and political institutions and a complete loss of collective memory. Only some dire cataclysm, much larger than the one that decimates Ferrytown, could produce such monumental results. In this respect, Crace’s novel stands in the company of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Thus, the book reminds readers of science fiction, the origin of most modern dystopian novels, while at the same time avoiding the usual sci-fi obsessions and clichés.

Unlike most science-fiction dystopias, which emphasize a soulless yet technologically advanced world, The Pesthouse is positively primitive. People are not overwhelmed by a sophisticated system; instead, this is a vision of lost humanity crudely destroying itself. Where most dystopias feature protagonists who boldly resist the dominant forces in their worlds, Franklin and Margaret are rather ineffectual. They do not so much oppose as evade or quietly assimilate themselves into the circumstances and forces they confront. Their ultimate decision to return west is not so much an escape as an embrace of hardship, although that embrace is motivated by a curious sense of hope and obligation. Franklin, in particular, knows how desperate that return will be, yet he yearns to make the attempt regardless.

Typically, dystopias arise out of a writer’s attempt to link current situations to less desirable, and in some cases less predictable, results. In an interview with Suzi Feay of The Independent, Crace admits that the book began as a critique of American optimism and world domination: “[The book would] deal a blow to America at a time when I think it needs to have a blow dealt to it. It will take America from the top of the pile and put it at the bottom of the pile, politically and culturally. It will defer to Europe, instead of Europe having to defer to it. This is what I would do: I would reduce America in this work of fiction, and I would show it as an entirely failed nation.” One way to read the novel, then, is to see it as the culmination of political hubris and technological rapaciousness. Here, in effect, is what happens when a nation has too much of everything and still grasps for more. However, the seemingly melodramatic ending reveals Crace’s later attitude to his creation: “There’s a moment when, if a book has any power of its own, it abandons you and takes over. And it became clear to me that what the book was doing was resisting the failure of America. It didn’t want me to write this political novel that reflected my anger at America. It was too fond of the American dream, all those narratives we’ve been told of hope and getting your own acre . The American dream doesn’t always deliver, but there’s something powerful about it.”

Given the novel’s dystopian features and Crace’s comments, it is certainly inevitable that readers will be mindful of the American Dream. The notion of a civilized society that encourages the pursuit of happiness is radically called into question here. The fertile plains have dried up, there is no economic opportunity, Horatio Alger is long dead, there is certainly no wealth to be had for anyone, and the great belief in mobility and progress is found wanting. Somethe strong, able-bodied, or those endowed with bootycan journey east, but women, except for the few who are young and physically alluring, cannot book passage. Furthermore, the great dictum of heading west and finding fortune is invertedeveryone wants to travel east. In Crace’s hands, America is no longer synonymous with opportunity.

Crace writes with a mesmerizing grace, a style that eschews verbal pyrotechnics yet delights at every turn. The narrator moves among pointed observations, clear descriptions of place and action, and arresting rhetorical questions (“how could anyone not know by now how mischievous the world could be?”). In all of his books, Crace reveals his fascination with natural history and natural processes to the point that he anthropomorphizes nature, yet never sentimentally. Instead, the inevitable workings of natural elements are given full play to the extent that they are characters integral to the text. Thus, the ocean becomes “one great weeping eye,” illness is “a weak and passing visitor,” and “death ususally expressed itself more forcibly.”

Crace’s imagination is remarkably fecund; he never writes the same book twice, and The Pesthouse is testament to the range of his vision and interests. He is at once an elegant stylist and incisive thinker, and when he experiments with genre fiction, as in this case with the dystopian novel, his creation is thoroughly his own and original. This novel will certainly not please ideologues and jingoists, but it is an important contribution to European assessments of the American experience.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 2 (January 15, 2007): 6.

Library Journal 132 (March 1, 2007): 69.

New Criterion 25, no. 9 (May, 2007): 33-37.

New Statesman 136 (March 5, 2007): 59.

The New York Times 156 (May 15, 2007): E9.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 29, 2007): 8.

The New Yorker 83, no. 10 (April 30, 2007): 84-85.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 5 (January 29, 2007): 38.

The Spectator 305 (November 24, 2007): 49.

The Washington Post, May 13, 2007, p. BW05.

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