A Pilgrim in Craceland
by Adam Begley
from The Southwest Review, volume 87, numbers 2 & 3.
Though he claims to be very private, even secretive, Jim Crace doesn’t avoid contact with journalists and critics. When I first called him a couple of years ago, he agreed readily to an interview. (This wasn’t wholly out of the blue: I live in England and we had met once before, briefly; we have acquaintances in common; and I had written a review of Being Dead, his fifth novel, which in America won The National Book Critics Circle Award.) He was friendly over the phone, surprisingly chatty, no sign of British reserve. He joked about the city where he lives, Birmingham, being a backwater: Because he’s not in London, he’s invisible, no one visits, no one calls; he sits alone waiting for the doorbell or the phone to ring, then gets bored and writes a novel. It was cheerful patter, a little social routine.
Crace’s biographer will have a hell of a time. It’s not just that he leads a quiet life, that the most fascinating thing he does is to sit alone in a room and write – you could have said the same, despite their busy lives, about Samuel Johnson or Edna St. Vincent Millay or Ernest Hemingway. No – the real problem for the would-be biographer is that on the pages of Jim Crace’s novels there are very few clues as to what he himself, the man outside that lonely room, is like; and only an especially gymnastic critic could show how the life accounts for the work. This pleases Crace, he’s proud of it: He likes to be invisible, a writer who erases himself. “I am not my own subject matter,” he says.
What kind of link with an author does a reader require? Is a name enough? Would “Anonymous” do the trick? Or is it important to be able to identify the writer’s fingerprints, a smudged whorl of ego? If you knew Jim Crace well and you knew his work, you could possibly pick out here and there a connection between the fiction and autobiographical fact – but even in England, few people know the work and fewer know the man. That will change over time: The books will be discovered, the author celebrated in newspaper and magazine profiles, on literary talk shows. For now, I suppose, if his fans were loyally respectful of his aversion to literary self-exposure, they – we – would spurn even meager book-jacket revelations. Take a look at the author photo for The Devil’s Larder, his latest; you see a middle-aged white man with a high forehead, an intense, almost fierce stare, and a hint of humor around the mouth; below this enigmatic image, the opaque news that he’s the prizewinning author of Quarantine (1998) and Being Dead (2000), and that he lives in Birmingham, England. What does this tell you? The Devil’s Larder is sly and elliptical and mostly about food; Quarantine is a majestically self-assured re-imagining of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert; Being Dead is shocking in parts (a couple brutally murdered at the beach, their corpses rotting in the dunes). Each of these books is remarkably beautiful, the language rich and tightly controlled; each in its way is cruel. The city in which the author lives, once a mighty manufacturing capital, is struggling to redefine itself. But who is Jim Crace?
Perhaps we ought to do what he would do: Make it up. A string of bold lies, like this: Jim Crace divides his time between an abandoned monastery in Montenegro and a fishing village in Nova Scotia. Though he trained as an entomologist, he spent many years working as a short-order cook. His cat’s name is Metronome.
Alas, we’re not Crace, we’re just curious readers wondering about a man whose extraordinary imagination has stirred us up. Precisely because we lack his imaginative powers, we want to meet him, to shake his hand and peer into his eyes; because we can’t invent him, we grasp for a few facts. It’s superstitious, maybe, like hoarding a saint’s relics.
Crace can’t cling to anonymity (Pynchon and Salinger are hounded precisely because they demand to be left alone), and anyway he doesn’t want it. So I’m ready to introduce you, to cast aside the curtain and show you the wizard as unassuming citizen (“I’m not particularly interested in literature,” he insists); I’ll take you right into his ordinary suburban house where he and his working wife raised their two children; I’ll even let you pat his dog, a scruffy mongrel with a graying muzzle (whose name is Shandy, not Metronome).
But first, the books. Crace’s talent is hard to pin down because he seems always to be straddling a divide. His fiction is full of meticulous lies that sound like sober scientific fact, and routine facts dressed up in fairy-tale costume. He’s brilliant at exploiting the tension between the highly specific and the generic, between an historical moment and timelessness, between an imaginary topography and the invented landscape’s familiar features, which feel as real as your backyard. The cruelty in his books does a little dance with tenderness; humor and sadness do the same. Crace can show you a world in which god and the devil duke it out, or a world ruled by implacable natural laws – and he’s just as convincing either way. The supernatural seems perfectly plausible in his work, but so does the idea of a godless universe, an accidental venue for blind biology and purposeless physics. In a Crace novel, nearly everything is equivocal, even the rhythm of the writing. A few critics claim that he writes in iambic pentameter; they’re wrong, but the error points in the right direction: Crace’s prose flirts shamelessly with poetry.
When he talks about his writing, Crace makes a distinction between the “traditional” and the “conventional.” He explains: “If you look at the old traditional stories, the character of the storyteller is completely absent – but the invention is entire.” This is what he’s trying to achieve in his fiction; he takes as his model the impersonal narratives in folktales, fables, legends and myths. “I lose myself,” he says, “in the realms of pure invention.” By “conventional” writing he means the mainstream realist novel, Stendhal’s famous strolling mirror. “Realist fiction locates you,” he says. “Imaginative fiction dislocates. What traditional writing does – what I do – is to dislocate the issues of the real world and place them elsewhere." (Of his seven books, only two are anchored by a “real” geography – an English harbor town in Signals of Distress and the Judean desert in Quarantine. The rest, as one waggish critic has suggested, are set in Craceland.)
And yet it would be misleading to say that Crace is purely a “traditional” writer, a modern-day maker of myth and legend; it would be untrue to the experience of reading his books. Crace claims that he “lacks realist skills,” but nonetheless he has an uncanny talent for making invented places and events feel here-and-now real, a talent helped along by the reader’s ingrained habit of reconstructing a recognizable reality even in a wholly imaginary landscape. In his way, Crace locates the reader as surely as Jane Austen does; the fact that he puts you in a place that can’t be found on a map doesn’t matter much from page to page. Crace’s “elsewhere” hardly ever feels disorienting; on the contrary – the reader is reassured by an impressive verisimilitude. In short, Crace convinces. His trick is to zigzag between the “traditional” and “conventional” modes, sometimes in the space of a single sentence; and the closer you look at his writing, the more obvious it becomes that he plays the one off the other. He can make an anatomy lesson sound like a fable, or dissect a demon with a coroner’s skeptical eye.
Though I plan to say a quick word about each of the books, I’m going to concentrate on Quarantine and Being Dead. I think of those two novels as a matched pair, not because they’re similar but because they compliment each other. Quarantine retells a New Testament story, and so one might expect it to be an utterly “traditional” tale; Being Dead monitors the biological processes of death and decomposition, and so one might expect it to be “conventional,” an exercise in steely realism. These expectations are met – and confounded. Quarantine tests religious faith against the limiting facts of human anatomy; Being Dead tests strict materialism against the demands of spirituality. In both books, Crace weighs the secular and the sacred, the natural and the supernatural, and the teetering of the balance generates a weirdly powerful current.
But wait – it’s time to loop back to the beginning. What happens when you meet Jim Crace and learn that he enjoys walking his dog in suburban parks, likes to birdwatch, takes his summer vacation in the Isles of Scilly, and snorkels there, and strolls along the shore (he loves the intertidal zones, that magically fecund strip alternately washed and aired by the tides)? What happens when you discover that he’s a committed atheist? At times he even plays the part of the “evangelical atheist” – a very Cracian phrase. Is this more or less important than his political convictions? He’s an unreconstructed leftist; he jokes about his “North Korean” inflexibility. Does the knowledge that he strenuously denies the existence of both god and an afterlife color the way we read Quarantine and Being Dead? It seems at first that it must. As I’ll argue later, it does – though in unexpected ways.
Crace points out that his first four books are about communities in transition. In Continent (1986), which he calls a “patchwork novel” (seven separate stories all cut from the same cloth), he invented a part of the world pressured by progress – the where and the when are hazy, but the place and its emergent crises are unforgettable. This is pure Craceland: the geography just of reach, like a buried memory or a troubled dream, the moment in time at once specific and curiously elastic. The Gift of Stones (1988) is set at a precise historical moment (in the split second before bronze made stone-age weaponry obsolete) but the seaside village he describes could be simply out of time. Change comes suddenly, irrevocably, and the human response to it is captured with wonderfully uncluttered intensity. Arcadia (1992), Crace’s only urban book, seems to span the ages, from the pre-industrial to the postmodern, in the space of a 20th-century lifetime. Victor was born in a country village (his father was a harness-maker) and grew up a beggar in the city. Now, 80 years old and fabulously rich, he aims to replace the city’s open-air market with a giant mall. The marketplace vendors are “an awkward bunch, opposed to any change on principle”; the novel charts their struggle with Victor (the inevitable victor) and their stubborn persistence, even in defeat. Signals of Distress (1994), set in England in 1836, is about the advent of the industrial age. In the first few pages, two ships, one powered by steam, the other by sail, are buffeted by a storm. The action takes place in and around Wherrytown, a name that points in two apt directions: The community, sustained by its fishing fleet, is “wary” of strangers, novelty and change; and the wherry, a sailing barge, is doomed to obsolescence. Critics praised the book’s “period precision,” and certain rustic details are particularly striking, like a tilled field at dusk smothered with the town’s surplus of herring: “a shoal of pilchards staring at the moon, their eyes as dead as flint, their scales like beaten tin, their fraying fins and tails like frost, their flesh composting for the next year’s crop.” Crace delights in announcing to interviewers that this detail is wholly invented – fake folklore: As far as he knows, no 19th-century farmer every fertilized fields with unwanted fish. (Think of it as the author’s intertidal fantasy.)
Though not specifically about communities in transition, the next two books, Quarantine and Being Dead, extend Crace’s inquiry into transitional moments. In Quarantine, Jesus apparently makes the mystic’s leap from body to spirit, a local tremor destined to shake the world – the birth of Christianity will mark the beginning of vast cultural transformations. In Being Dead, Joseph and Celice are attacked in the dunes and in a matter of minutes pass from life to death – though death, in this account, is simply non-being, extinction without sequel. You might say that Being Dead butts up against the end of transition. Like an echo of our six-year-old-selves, Crace keeps asking, “What happens when we die?” He returns again and again to those last seconds, as if by representing mortality, by exposing it from many angles, he might diminish the dread or mitigate the finality of extinction. Quarantine begins and ends with incomplete death: Musa, left for dead in the first chapter, recovers miraculously from his fever, casually, accidentally resurrected by Jesus. And Jesus himself, though quite dead by the end of chapter 23 (“So this was death. So this was pain made powerless”), is up and around before the end of chapter 25 – he’s walking the land, “glowing blue and yellow, like a coal,” alive at least to others. Musa is a worldly man, fat, cynical, brutal and bad; Jesus is a holy fool, a “god-struck, visionary boy.” They are sinner and saint, devil and deity, as different as two men can be; and so is the way Crace handles the death – or near-death – of each.
Musa’s mortal illness is of supernatural origin: “A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs.” Miri, his wife, “smelled the devil’s eggy dinner on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil’s kindling in his cough” – he’s doomed. Then Jesus happens along, utters a simple phrase (“ ‘So, here, be well again,’ he said, a common greeting for the sick”), and Musa is cured; Jesus has presumably cast out the devil – unintentionally. Calling the fever a devil is not just Miri’s animist shorthand, nor is it the author’s metaphor for viral or bacterial infection. This devil is Crace’s invention, an element of the narrative as real as Miri’s goats or the “angry” desert wind that destroys Musa’s tent. Near the end of the novel, Musa sets fire to the tattered remnants of his shelter, then turns and walks away as quickly as he can; the “fever devil,” we’re told, stays behind, “its feet in the flames, its body shrouded in the yellow smoke.” This is not Musa’s flight of fancy, it’s Crace’s. The author adds a coda, as to insist on the fever devil’s independent reality: “It curled above the scrub, shivering and abandoned, insubstantial and attached to no one, biding its time.”
Jesus dies of starvation: entirely natural causes. After 30 days without food or water, 30 days of waiting in vain for supernatural intervention, his body fails him:
No one has said how painful it would be, how first there would be headaches and bad breath, weakness, fainting; or how the coating on the upper surface of his tongue would soon become stuck to the upper part of his mouth, held in place by gluey strings of hunger ... or how his gums would bleed and his teeth become loose as date stones....
No one had warned him ... 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.
This passage, crowded with bold metaphor, makes a clinical diagnosis uncomfortably vivid. Starvation and dehydration can be dressed up with colorful images, but they are not demons; they are biological facts, and cannot be cast out or appeased by prayer. On the contrary. As Jesus discovers, “if you go into the wilderness to fast, not just your body but your spirit will, against all faith, begin to bleed. Your spirit will shed its weight, its frame will ache, its eyes will dim. You’d be a fool to think that your spirit is beyond the reach of thirst and hunger. Nothing is.”
Faith is physically weak, as vulnerable as the body, and the
Quarantine kills it. Jesus had
set out to “encounter god or die,” and in his last moments of consciousness, “He felt the cold of nothing there.
He heard the cold of no one
there. No god, no gardens, just the wind.” If Quarantine were only about Jesus, one man alone in the desert,
a dreamer who “put his trust in
god” and find his faith defeated, it might be a bitter skeptic’s novel.
But we also have Musa, the corrupt merchant, the consummate salesman whose special skill – the secret of his salesmanship – is a talent for storytelling: “He had been blessed with this one gift. He could tell tales.” Musa makes a story out of his deathbed encounter with Jesus; he elaborates, he invents. He tells his audience how Jesus “pressed his fingers on my face. He held a conversation with the fever in my chest.... He plucked the devil out as easily as you or I might take the stone out of an olive. He pinched death between his fingertips. He flicked it onto the ground, like that ... as if it were an olive stone....” There’s a pair of storytellers at work here, Musa and Crace; between the two of them, they bring Jesus back from the dead.
Towards the end of the novel, Musa nearly meets again the man who “pinched death between his fingertips.” He spots a figure in the distance – “it was Jesus, walking in the mud, bare-footed, naked, thin and brittle as a thorn.” Jesus passes by on a lower path, “walking away from Musa with the confidence of someone who was full of god at last.” It’s an eerie moment: “The air became much colder than it ought to have been. Musa barely dared to breathe. He could have sworn the man was glowing blue and yellow, like a coal.” At this point in the story – though Musa doesn’t know it yet – Jesus has already died.
Confronted with the fact of Jesus’ wasted, lifeless body, Musa begins to doubt (“He tried to recollect the figure, gliding on the mud. Had he really seen a living face?”), but a fleeting moment of doubt will hardly deter Musa from telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the story of “a man who had defeated death.” The merchant has found new goods to barter: “He’d trade the word.... He’d preach the good news.” The merchandise Musa will sell is the potent narrative of life after death, the greatest story ever told.
In Crace’s story, Jesus’ resurrection spreads some hope almost at once (for full-blown rejoicing we have to wait for the New Testament and the establishment of a Christian church). Curiously enough, the resurrection of the odious Musa also brings about a tangible good. The grave Miri dug for him--unnecessarily, it turns out – becomes the cistern where the “temporary hermits” on their Quarantine drink: “it made the forty days ahead seem almost comfortable.” The grave sustains life. “The water tasted rich and soupy, earth-warm.... It tasted fertile.” And then, though he lives on in spirit, Jesus’ body is buried in that same fertile cistern – it’s once again a grave. The story, both in outline and in detail, points to a repeated cycle of death and regeneration.
Jim Crace is not given to gnomic utterances, but when he was
talking to me about Quarantine, he did come out with one tantalizingly obscure remark: “Even if the book misrepresents
me,” he said, “it represents narrative fully.”
Part of what he means is that as a writer, he allows the narrative to take control, to follow its own
path. “If a book is going well it will abandon
me,” Crace explained. “I’m a very, very abandoned writer.” Quarantine is the story of how a religious faith was
born--who would be surprised, in
a good story of that kind, to find a miracle or two? Crace the abandoned writer allows the narrative to misrepresent
Crace the avowed atheist.
But maybe when Crace insists that Quarantine “represents narrative fully,” he’s pointing out a very basic feature of storytelling: It thrives on what’s next. Once upon a time triggers a sequence which carries on after the conclusion of the tale. They lived happily ever after is supposed to wrap things up, to make the story whole, to provide “closure,” but it also opens up a tantalizing realm beyond the boundary of the narrative. Because every story is made up of a string of consequence, every story, no matter how tidy, suggests a sequel. The limiting pattern of beginning, middle and end has been repeated since ... well, since the beginning, and by now it’s no longer limiting. It’s a soothing cycle: Comes the end, comes a new beginning. The rhythm of night and day, winter and spring gives us hope for death and life. Narrative and regeneration go hand in hand. This is part of what Crace acknowledged when he allowed Quarantine to abandon and misrepresent him: Every story is in transition, its beginning tending towards an end which blurs into a new beginning.
Which leads us (now there’s a slick transition) to the challenge Crace posed for himself in Being Dead. In interviews he has explained that what prompted him to write the novel was the lingering pain of his father’s death in 1979. He wanted to find "a narrative of comfort" that could substitute for the Christian notion of afterlife--and he wanted this comforting narrative to fit with his blanket rejection of religious faith. He wanted to take on mortality from the atheist’s end-stop perspective, and yet provide consolation. In other words, he wanted to tell a hopeful story that ends.
Being Dead begins with a horrific scene, a deadly assault on a middle-aged couple, Joseph and Celice, who had planned a nostalgic picnic in the dunes where they first made love 30 years earlier. The unlucky couple are bludgeoned to death by a man who intends to rob them. The shock of this obscenely violent beginning serves an important purpose: The hammering of the murderer’s jagged chunk of granite on Celice’s skull, her face, her throat (“Seven piston blows in scarcely more than seven seconds”), the even uglier, lengthier attack on Joseph, capped off with a cruel kick to the naked testicles – all this is meant to push death straight at the reader, to make it as inescapable for us as it was for them. Crace forces us to confront the “plain and unforgiving facts.” He tells us: “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.”
It could be argued that this sermon on “soft fruit” is merely Crace’s blunt restatement of the great lines from King Lear: “Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all.” But Shakespeare’s ripeness could be construed as a good thing, a timely death--death with dignity. Moreover, "going hence" and "coming hither" suggest at least the possibility of a point of origin and a destination, something, somehow, on either end of our lifespan. Crace’s version – first soft fruit, then “all flesh,” then “all meat”--plainly refutes the idea that a part of us lives on. There is no dignity here; more like the reverse: Crace announces that Joseph and Celice “were dishonored by the sudden vileness of their deaths.”
Let me loop back briefly to Quarantine, to another murder, a donkey battered to death with a pestle: Musa rested, watching while the blood-flow to the donkey’s brain was blocked by the breakages and swellings. The nerves, first in her ears and throat, then in her flank ... shook and trembled as if the donkey felt nothing more than unexpected cold. Musa hit her once again. Her face was fruit. It bruised and split and wept. This gruesome scene establishes Musa’s cruelty; after this, it’s easy to believe, for example, that he could beat or rape his wife or any available woman. But the battering of the donkey does more; it’s death in the raw --unequivocal, end-stop death--a corpse to balance against the resurrection first of Musa and then of Jesus. The dead animal is made of the same stuff as Joseph and Celice (“Her face was fruit”). And the donkey’s only afterlife is painful irony: Musa orders that the carcass be dropped off the edge of a precipice, and Jesus, whose cave is just below, sees it fall. “A donkey seemed to come out of mid-air, falling through the sky at him.” In the eyes of the “god-struck” Jesus, this is a perplexing “vision” — “Its meaning was obscure and dark and troubling.” For the reader, the dead donkey’s meaning is dark and troubling but not in the least obscure: It is, we are, all flesh, and then we are all meat. The rest of Quarantine contradicts this meaning; Being Dead insists on it.
What happens to Joseph and Celice once life is extinguished? It starts as slapstick. Chapter 6 of Being Dead begins like so: “The bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first.” A day later, ugly biological facts still make for painterly effects: “The skin was piebald. Pallid on the upper parts. Livid on the undersides.... Celice, her nose still pressed against the grass, was purple-faced. Her downward flexing knees and upper thighs were black as grapes. Her buttocks were as colorless as lard.” Later on, Crace does some battering of his own, punishing us with putrefying flesh, “the pus and debris of exploded tissue, the ruptured membranes leaking lymph” – where’s the comfort in this?
Being Dead does more than monitor rot. Crace sets up a playful narrative exploration of time, mortality’s smoldering fuse. Three clocks are ticking. First there’s what you might call the necrometer, which starts ticking at the instant of death and takes us through the discovery of the bodies by police dogs six days later; it charts decay and the necrophagous activity of beetles, birds, crabs and rodents; and it monitors, also, the half-hearted search conducted by Syl, the dead couple’s disaffected daughter. A second clock is antique by contrast: It takes us back 30 years, to the clumsy courtship that led to the marriage of Joseph and Celice. The first clock tells of time’s terminal consequence, the second shows the gradual and inexorable obliteration of the past (the double whammy of dead and forgotten.) Chance can make any clock face seem like a spinning roulette wheel, bringing us absurd accidents of good or bad timing: Two people meet at the seashore and fall in love; three decades later the same two people plan a picnic at the same spot and die violently. A clock’s hands chase round and round, promising time without end. But despite the tricks time plays, for each of us the game is drearily predictable: We will die.
Comfort comes from the third clock, which runs backwards, measuring the day of the murder in reverse. Crace resets this third clock earlier and earlier until it’s morning again (the dial now reads 6:10), and the couple is safe in bed, still asleep as light breaks--"The dead are resurrected and they lie in bed at backward-running dawn." (Crace told me that this alternate time scheme allows the story to "enfold as opposed to unfold." The idea came to him suddenly--"It hit me, on the screen, in a moment of abandonment.") Though they have been murdered in an episode of brutal random violence that shoves the fact of death in our faces, the unlucky couple, at the novel’s end, are tucked back into the comfort of their daily life, their unremarkable ease padded by routine and habit--and ignorance of their doom.
Just before this almost happy ending, Crace shares with us the thoughts of the couple’s daughter, the newly-orphaned Syl: “No one transcends,” she thinks. “There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death – or birth – except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.” Carpe diem is a standard-issue secular consolation worn thin with repeated use, and not at all the sum of Crace’s message. He’s just as interested, I’d say, in living narrow but deep, with memory and imagination coursing through the channel. With his third clock, Crace is trying to lead us to a kind of comfort that may be hard to achieve but brings with it rich rewards. Being Dead accomplishes a resurrection of sorts: Joseph and Celice are “rescued from the dunes by memory” (or, more accurately, by the novelist’s imagination). But perhaps it’s not necessary to be bludgeoned to death in order to balance time on either side of the moment, with the past open both to the play of fancy and to more reverent contemplation. To live fully in both the past and the present is to guarantee a fully lived future. And all this without supernatural assistance.
Being Dead reminds me of the epitaph Yeats asked for in “Under Ben Bulben”:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
But there are no horsemen in Crace’s novel, and "a cold eye" is just a little too chilly for the mood he’s orchestrating. The story of Joseph and Celice is a rotting-corpse comedy that begins with death, encompasses a 30-year love story and ends happily (sort of), with the banal morning innocence of a (doomed) middle-aged couple. Being Dead is at once macabre and light-hearted, violent and tender, witty and profound, irreverent and moving--and perfectly calibrated, so that all these crosscurrents seem to ebb and flow in harmony.
Is the narrative of comfort in Being Dead as powerful as the promise, held out by the narrative in Quarantine, Christianity’s promise of life after death? Maybe not; maybe it’s impossible to say without calculating, somehow, the reader’s resistance to one story or the other--which would largely depend on whether the reader is inclined to accept the grand Christian narrative or the various narratives proposed by science. Either way, the pairing of these two books reminds us that our convictions (and our fears and consolations) come from tales we’re told. Time to meet the teller.
Several weeks after I first called him, I pushed the buzzer at Crace’s door and waited, looking up at a modest, semi-detached row house in a pleasant, unremarkable suburb of Birmingham (it’s the kind of house, Crace confided, his working-class parents aspired to). The sound of footsteps and there he was, looking a whole lot like the photos on the book jackets, but in motion, welcoming, affable, eager to talk. The first impression is of vigor, of well-managed energy. Crace is neither tall nor broad, and he doesn’t swagger, but he’s fit and trim; he seems strong, physically capable. He likes to bicycle and to play tennis; it’s easy to imagine him, at 56, leading a pack of cyclists or dominating a tennis match with an efficient, powerful serve.
He took me through his agreeably cluttered house, pausing on the way to let me peek into his narrow, crowded office. We sat in the garden, which is long and private and lovingly tended (“I’d give up writing,” he said, “before I’d give up gardening”). We talked plants and birds. I mentioned his habit of inventing for his novels creatures like the swag fly and the sprayhopper; manac beans show up in several of his books. He takes evident delight in the game of making things up, of compelling belief. Eventually we started to talk about specific novels--something he claims he just wouldn’t do if it weren’t for journalists who ask him questions. “I’m not introspective about the things that I write,” he said, and added that his friends aren’t especially literary. I asked about his latest book, The Devil’s Larder, and he explained that Quarantine and Being Dead were “hard companions,” and that the writing of them, over the course of four years, had shaken him. “I needed a break.” He called The Devil’s Larder a jeu d’esprit – a chance, he said, to think through his ideas about food. His next book, he promised, will be about love, sex and family. I thought: Here comes another hard companion.
Needless to say, this next book won’t be about Jim Crace. “I can’t see myself in my novels,” he told me. It was at this point that he talked about how his books "abandon" him: "You can read them," he insists, "and learn nothing about me." Crace subscribes to neo-Darwinian theories about storytelling. He believes that spreading pleasing lies is an adaptive strategy, that there’s a storytelling gene. (If there is, he’s clearly got it.) I’m generally receptive to the claims of evolutionary psychology – but I’m not convinced that natural selection helps us to understand where Quarantine came from. My guess is that the Darwin angle, in this instance, is smoke and mirrors, though there’s something appropriate about Crace the compulsive storyteller earnestly peddling the evolution narrative. I trotted out my favorite dictum about authors: Wanting to know a writer because you like his work is like wanting to know a duck because you like paté. He was quick to agree: “What’s interesting is how books are unlike their writers. The deep subject is how narrative and the narrator are so unengaged with each other.”
Jim Crace is a man of strong political views, an egalitarian who’s uncomfortable with the idea of individual talent – particularly his own. As he sees it, his job is to invent, and then to shape invention. I remember asking him about how the death of his father, whom he loved, could have inspired Being Dead, in which death descends with exceptional brutality. Crace looked at me, a bit startled, and said “I wasn’t thinking about my father when I was writing, I was dealing with the prose on the page.” That sounds right; it returns Crace to his anonymity: The craftsman, immersed in his task, disappears.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The New York Observer.
© 2002 Adam Begley. With thanks to the editors of The Southwest Review.