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Thirty years have passed since Joseph and Celice met as zoology students on a field trip to Baritone Bay. Joseph, keen to find the site in the dunes of their first lovemaking, leads Celice on a nostalgic return visit to the Bay, but the couple are murdered by a passing thief. In the moment of death, Joseph lays his hand lightly on Celice’s leg. Undiscovered for days, the bodies become prey to sand-crabs, flies and gulls.

Being Dead is a ‘quivering’ – an attempt to relive, through stories and recollection, the lives of Joseph and Celice before consigning them completely to death. The novel’s structure is fourfold. One strand moves backwards from the point of the murder to describe the events that immediately led up to it. A second strand recounts how the beginnings of Joseph and Celice’s love for each other were clouded by a fire that took the life of a fellow-student. The third strand describes in scrupulous detail the effect of the elements and the processes of decay on their undiscovered bodies. The final strand follows the efforts of Joseph and Celice’s daughter Syl to find her missing parents. When they are eventually discovered, Joseph’s hand resting gently on Celice’s leg gives the otherwise gruesome scene a tender aspect.


Discussion: back to Nature

Being Dead is a short novel – at just over 200 generously spaced pages, it’s half the length of the other books shortlisted for the 1999 Whitbread Best Novel of the Year award. But brief as it is, Being Dead defies easy summary or analysis. The story of Joseph and Celice’s early love, compromised happiness and messy end is more powerful than at first seems possible, given the challenges Crace has imposed on himself. The basic situation – two dead bodies on a beach – is unpromising. None of the characters is especially sympathetic. The four narrative strands are constantly interrupting each other. Yet the novel as a whole is extremely effective. The steady reversion to nature of Joseph and Celice turns out to be full of dramatic incident, on a scale that we are not used to observing. The characters have many traits that are uncomfortably close to our own, and the story’s various strands are woven together with the skill of a story-teller at the height of his powers. As with Quarantine, Crace’s previous novel, the writing is supremely accomplished.

Maggie Gee, writing in the Telegraph (30 November 1999), compared Crace with J.M. Coetzee, whose 1999 novel Disgrace won the Booker Prize. ‘Both deal frankly but unsensationally with human violence, with our animal natures, with the ageing and death of our physical bodies and the passing of what we value. Both writers find a harsh beauty in knowledge and acceptance of the void; but Crace, unlike Coetzee, also consoles us with the play of language and the possibility of love.’

One of the most thought-provoking comments about the novel comes from Crace himself. In a profile in the Times he told Jason Cowley: ‘Being Dead is the novel of the material I couldn’t include in Quarantine’. The suggestion is that Being Dead addresses issues of ‘belief, death and the search for transcendence’ in a more direct way than was possible in Quarantine, given the tight realist focus of the preceding novel. Both novels have at their heart dead, decomposing human bodies. However, in Quarantine the death of Jesus is the point; Crace has said that he intended to use the novel to ‘kill Christ’ and thereby help ‘erase two thousand years of Christianity’. (For an introduction to Quarantine by Jim Crace, click here.) In Being Dead, the bodies of Joseph and Celice are the starting-point (and also, because of the looping structure of the book, its climax).

Structurally Being Dead suggests a kind of race between natural and human agents working, on the one hand, literally to devour Joseph and Celice and reclaim them for the nature and, on the other, to find them and restore them to the world of human relationships and meaning. The back-and-forth structure also evokes the motion of the tides – Celice is director of something called the Tidal Institute. The strands that move forward from the murder alternate between the decay of the bodies and the search for them. In the human world, for example, corpses are brought to a morgue, and so it is to the local morgue that Syl, Joseph and Celice’s daughter, goes to look for her parents when the awful truth of their disappearance begins to dawn on her. In the natural world, however, Joseph and Celice have simply become food and fertiliser for their fellow-organisms. On this occasion the human world wins by a slight margin when the police finally discover the bodies and remove them from the beach, but ‘They almost didn't make it back at all,’ comments the narrator.

Many of the chapters of Being Dead are captioned with a date and precise time. At first this seems like an odd fetish, or a device for accentuating the ‘realism’ of the story. I was put in mind of the Biblical story of creation, which carefully logs each successive day and culminates with God’s decision to give Man ‘dominion over the fish of the sea…the fowl of the air…and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’. Being Dead charts the reverse process: crabs, gulls and insects claim the bodies of the descendants of Adam and Eve – still naked, still bent on stealing illicit pleasure – and, as in Genesis, the process takes six days.

One of the most moving scenes in the book is when Joseph’s daughter, hunting through her father’s study, discovers that he has kept a full set of her baby teeth as a souvenir of her childhood. The moment, which in a lesser writer could seem mawkish, in Crace’s hands delivers a powerful emotional and intellectual charge, as the novel challenges us to reflect on growth and decay, life and death, what it means to be a part of nature and what it means to be human.

Links to reviews

Being Dead contains ‘a universe of poetry and observation’, said Justin Cartwright in the Literary Review, and is ‘a work of near-genius’. To read his thoughts in full, click here.

Carol Birch, writing in The Guardian, found ‘great beauty and tenderness’ in Crace’s depictions of the ‘random nature of life and death’. To read her review, click here.

‘What ought to be grisly is strangely not. Reverent, if anything, and thanks to Mr. Crace’s ability to set up human habitation in taboo territory, almost beautiful. The Latin saying "Nothing human is alien to me," he extends to "Nothing human is dead to me, not even death." Click here for Richard Eder’s review in The New York Times (April 13, 2000) (it’s free, but you are required to register).

Being Dead is separately reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (April 23, 2000) by Jim Shepherd. "It’s not clear to me why Jim Crace isn’t world famous. Few novels are as unsparing as this one in presenting the ephemerality of love given the implacability of death, and few are as moving in depicting the undiminished achievement love nevertheless represents…" Click here to read the full review.

Jonathan Levi calls Crace "an active, living anatomist of love" in his review for the Los Angeles Times (April 16, 2000). Click here to go to the LA Times (there is a fee for archived stories).

John Banville's long review in The New York Review of Books (April 13, 2000) includes a discussion of the role of style in Crace's writing. Banville also suggests that one of the key images of the book – Joseph's hand resting on Celice's body – may be a reference to Philip Larkin's poem An Arundel Tomb. Click here to go to the NYRB archive for the review, and here to go to Larkin's poem.

For a collection of highlights from the US reviews of Being Dead, click here.

Crace’s characteristic, almost painterly attention to the physical with his invented animals, language and epigrams brings this play of backward and forward to fruition, investing the untimely death of fictional characters with indelibility. The sort of novel that suggests the universe through a grain of sand, Being Dead draws an insular, almost post-lapsarian world, where everything is known and so meaning and significance must be created anew.’ Click here for Minna Proctor’s superb interview with Jim Crace for the online magazine Bomb on the implications of atheism and the role of story-telling.

There are no less than three Jim Crace discussions at Readerville.com, including one focused on Being Dead. Click here to find out more.

In its issue for December 3 2000, the New York Times chose Being Dead as a ‘Book of the Year’. Describing it as a ‘brief, elegant’ and paradoxical novel, the editors declared, ‘Crace weaves together three strands of narrative to create a startlingly beautiful vision of life…a mesmerizing celebration of the infinite ingenuity of nature…What seemed at first to be a determination by Crace to show how ephemeral love is in the face of death turns out to be a splendid revelation that love is an achievement life does not erode or diminish. For the naturalist as for the believer, there is a peace that passes understanding.’

In March 2001, Being Dead was awarded the prestigious American National Book Critics’ Circle prize. Jim Crace’s remarks on receiving the award were read in his absence by his American editor:

"It is a rather ghostly experience, writing this note of gratitude for a literary prize which I will probably not receive and which is being announced in my absence, while I’m tucked up in bed three thousand miles away and John Glusman, my inspired editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is drinking my share of the wine.

"My feelings at the moment – that’s mid-afternoon on the Friday before last – are those of studied indifference. A major book award, in the gift of the nation’s leading critics, in the world’s most literary city, with the promise of some extra sales and possibly a fatter advance the next time round? Poof! Who’s needs it? No, I cannot allow myself to be hopeful. I have to force myself to be realistic. The fiction shortlist is immensely strong: 2 wonderfully achieved collections of short stories, 2 brilliantly entertaining novels – and then, an afterthought, my solemn, under-equipped volume, weighing in at rather less than a chocolate bar and sporting the photograph of an author who might benefit from being younger, prettier, better dressed, better educated…and American.

"But then , maybe, these handicaps might work to my advantage. Maybe, just maybe, this national circle of critics comprises "my people", similarly disadvantaged. I don’t know what it’s like on your side of the pond but here in Britain none of the critics I know are young or pretty or evidently well-educated either. They’re professional trend buckers, logic defiers, and champions of the undeserving underdog, thank heavens. There’s nothing they like better than making a winner out of a loser. There’s nothing they like better, too, than short books!

"So, fingers crossed, with the help of some clever and dedicated publishing from FSG and the combined visceral prejudices of America’s awkwarder book reviewers who have already shown on many occasions how generous they can be towards my novels, I might yet steal the prize. If I do – if I have- then look around the room and see if you can spot exactly who amongst the NBCC members deserves my startled, heart-felt and delighted thanks."

For BookMuse.com’s online discussion of Being Dead, click here.

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