Signals of Distress


From Jim Crace by Philip Tew (Manchester University Press, 2006)


Signals of Distress is a highly complex novel. As Field comments,

the novelist “has, he says, the kind of Puritanism which puts everything

in a story for a purpose.” (49) Hence the following analysis

charts key elements in the text’s development, juxtaposing the often

interdependent features of each chapter. According to Robert Wilson

in ‘History on the Rocks’ (1996) this is a “muscular novel” that vacillates

between nature and a demotic democracy of the ordinary person,

but finally is sympathetic towards its protagonist, Aymer Smith (x9).

For Lane, “the protagonist is a humanist, someone who thinks he

cares, but is revealed to be a pompous prig out of touch with the world

he wants to save.” (27) Aymer’s pomposity and apparent do-good

intentions can be interpreted radically differently, given his self-evident

vulnerability. He is acted upon and mocked. Crace implies that

an ethical judgment is required in facing the complex human interactions

of everyday situations, recognizing even in the mundane what

Ricoeur in The Symbolism of Evil (1969) calls the “possibility of evil.”

(3) Aymer is an unthinking thinker, for as Emmanuel Levinas says in

On Thinking of the Other: entre nous (1998 [1991]): “A particular being

can take itself for a totality only if it is unthinking. Not that it is wrong

or thinks badly or foolishly – it simply does not think.” (13) Aymer

significantly misinterprets agency in others, but importantly without

malice. This is Crace’s most conventional novel in terms of idiomatic

style, chronology, but also its specificity. However, although set in

November 1836 in Wherrytown, as Hamilton-Pearson comments,

“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.” (38)


Crace’s imaginary community by the sea, and Dry Manston, a tiny

hamlet further down the coast where two kelpers live, are both located

near Cradle Rock, a huge rocking stone set above the sea, whose balance

is a symbol of the ethical engagement of the text, representing a

wavering between different senses of the world. According to Begley

this setting is in part “anchored by a ‘real’ geography,” (184) but not

an urban one. If the new arrivals to the city in Arcadia manifest uncertainty,

they are nevertheless migrants drawn by the ‘sorcery’ of the

urban mass and its economic benefits. In contrast in Signals of Distress

the arrivals in Wherrytown are more numerous, and their reasons

contingent, and heterogeneous. Wherrytown seems microcosmically

small. Unlike Arcadia, its locations remain remote and rural, distant

from the violence that occurs in the brief glimpse of the town at the

novel’s end, a chthonic and threatening addendum. The novel’s chief

concern is the disturbed balance of a small community and the fate of

individuals literally in transit.


Seascape and landscape feature strongly. The sea delivers or

attracts a range of visitors who then explore both themselves and the

littoral nature and possibilities of the coastline, a theme present in

The Gift of Stones. Generally the characters represent traditional (recognizably

Shakespearean) archetypes: a radical male virginal puritan,

an unsympathetic ambitious brother, two young lovers brought

together by fate, a Rabelasian female innkeeper, and a grasping

merchant. Cracean elements persist, for as Crace says:


The critics who said it was a dismissal of my previously established style,

in almost every respect were wrong. Because it was set in a named place,

they presumed it was a realist novel, set in west Cornwall, near Penzance.

Actually the landscape is just as invented as the landscapes of the

other novels, something I’ve dreamt up in order to fool you that it’s real.


The use of stones and the use of landscape, as metaphor and as character,

are exactly part of my usual kind of plot. And it’s very much part of

my overall agenda to that point, which is concerned with communities

on the edge, undergoing change. However, there were significant differences

from other books. Undeniably it’s set in a named year and a

named country – even if you don’t want to specify whether it was exactly

Cornwall or not – and what this meant was for the first time I had an

idiom I could use, one I was almost obliged to use, because in the 1820s

and 1830s people spoke in a certain way, which is a matter of record.


The impulse for historical specificity, exploring social nuances, allows

the characters through idiomatic dialogue to experience a gamut of

emotions and epiphanies, often romantic. The shaping force of

nature is recurrent, partly conveyed in a further symbolic aspect of the

Cradle Rock, representing the delicate equilibrium of forces that constitute

the ontology or being of the world, a fragility reflecting the situation

of many of the characters. In disturbing the social balance,

small decisions and actions have unintended and yet substantial consequences.


The power of the sea and of the elements can mould

human lives. Crace choreographs the disparate events around a series

of repeated journeys along the coast. As he explains, “The main journey

is Wherrytown up to Cradle Rock, which is a place where you

would rest, and continue to where the women live and the boat was

wrecked, Dry Manston, and subsequently the walk back.” As

Meletinsky comments, “Modern mythification uses the cyclical

aspect of myths and rituals to express universal archetypes and to

structure the narrative.” (312) At the end Crace’s narrative is resituated,

first in imaginary dream locations, second in the city and finally

briefly in the ocean. The preceding pattern is displaced by fantasy, by

violence and death, a social and metaphysical disruption. Crace’s historical

impulse expresses a contemporary mythical consciousness.

The force and presence of nature is established early as a motif. The

opening chapter is tumultuous; ‘The “Belle” and the “Tar,”’ two ships,

battle a storm that is so strong that “A few miles down the coast from

Wherrytown, the Cradle Rock, which normally would take the efforts

of two strong men before it began to seesaw on its pivot stone,

teetered, fluctuated, rocked from just the muscle of the gale.” (1)


Having suffered seasickness, Aymer Smith is aboard the paddledriven

steam-packet, the Ha’porth of Tar. As a puritanical moralist he

had undertaken personally to represent his family soap business,

intent on explaining why the company’s new process based on developments

by Leblanc makes the local kelp collectors redundant,

although in reality this virgin seeks a country wife. Aymer is central,

and his rites of passage constitute much of the novel. Certainly

through him the novel becomes, in part, an ironic self-conscious

reflection by Crace on his particular brand of secular Puritanism. The

Belle of Wilmington, a sailing barque, crewed by Americans under

Shipmaster Comstock, with Otto, a slave, chained below with the four

hundred cattle loaded at Montreal, suffers from the storm’s violence,

and is beached on a sand-bar with the loss of four sailors. This is a crucial

event, significant in terms of the kinds of juxtaposition it creates,

and its origins lie in Crace’s own experiences of the West Country and

the Isles of Scilly:


There has been for many generations a family of photographers called

the Gibsons, who photographed shipwrecks in the Isles of Scilly and the

West Country, mostly the Penwith Peninsula of Cornwall which is the

far west part. Those photographs are immensely powerful black and

white pictures, all of wrecked ships, sometimes ships still in the sea and

being broken up, sometimes beached. They were my companions while

I was writing, providing stimulation for the book. The photographs represent

something about an isolated community at that time, way out of

contact. Suddenly one day wrecked on your beach is a boat; something

almost inexplicable and unprecedented is delivered on your shore. One

of the reasons for setting this book in the nineteenth century is that this

is the last time you can have such inexplicable, sudden interfaces

between things you haven’t heard of or things you haven’t encountered

before, in this case a black man and American sailors.


As the Belle is wrecked, the narrative juxtaposes the cautious packing

of Aymer with Otto’s injury aboard ship and the fate of the ship’s

bitch, Whip, cast into the sea with a ‘signal of distress’ that Ralph ties

around her neck. The dog’s name symbolizes the realities of slavery

and oppression, ironic since it is one of the few English words that

Otto can articulate. This ensign is found hours later by seventeen-year-

old Miggy Bowe, a kelper from Dry Manston, and the alarm is

raised by her mother, Rosie. The rescuers, local fishermen, are

amazed by the African, a result of their cultural isolation, their innocence.

Miggy’s desire for Palmer Dolly, a young fisherman, is displaced

when a young American, Ralph, playfully attempts to retrieve the

ensign from Miggy’s neck. As if through calamity and rescue, another

Shakespearean motif, the two are drawn together by fate. By this point

Crace has established the major locations, the inn without name

where they lodge being a focal point. As Crace says, “Most of the main

players are out of place. They’re either waiting to be dislocated entirely

they’re going to the New World as emigrants – or they are dislocated

because they are washed up on the shores of this place where their

culture, and their attitudes and their responses don’t really gel. The

American sailors, Aymer himself, certainly Otto, and even the cattle

themselves, are all dislocated.” The novel’s intricate plot maps the

nuances of characters’ encounters and their underlying responses,

replete with the minutiae of such interactions between this isolated

community and their visitors. Begley identifies the consequences of a

typically Cracean strategy of deceit:


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 nineteenth-century farmer ever

fertilized fields with unwanted fish. (Think of it as the author’s intertidal

fantasy.) (231)


Crace delights too in the poetic incongruities of these false images,

his uncanny symbol of fertilization and renewal. The generic landscape

and knowledge of local detail are synthesized through the

medium of Crace’s fabulist inclinations. 


© Philip Tew, 2006