Of the two limiting phenomena of life, that of our coming into the world and that of our going out, it is hard to say which is the more mysterious; certainly we know which is the least acceptable. How can it be that a human being, this extraordinary congeries of affects and emotions, desires and fears, wickedness and good, should at a certain point in time simply cease to be? Even those who believe in the afterlife are baffled and in some cases shocked out of their faith by the fact of death. At any moment we may look about at the world in the certain knowledge that a hundred years hence every animal now living will, with the exception of a few turtles, be dead. As Nietzsche puts it, with his usual insight and devastating candor, “The living are only a species of the dead, and a rare species at that.”
Jim Crace’s new novel, Being Dead, is in its small-scale way a sort of reverse-Darwinian epic, an End of Species. At the close of the book he sets his two central characters, Joseph and Celice, firmly among the democratic orders of the dead:
And still, today and every day, the dunes are lifted, stacked and undermined. Their crests migrate and reassemble with the wind. They do their best to raise their backs against the weather and the sea and block the wind-borne sorrows of the world. All along the shores of Baritone Bay and all the coast beyond, tide after tide, time after time, the corpses and the broken, thinned remains of fish and birds, of barnacles and rats, of molluscs, mammals, mussels, crabs are lifted, washed and sorted by the waves. And Joseph and Celice enjoy a loving and unconscious end, beyond experience.
Crace employs marine imagery throughout—the couple have died by the seashore—pointing the irony that the sea is where all life originated; not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the sub-narrative intones, but water to water, salt to salt. The book is a stony-faced threnody for ordinary deaths. Joseph and Celice are a middle-class couple, whose lives have been touched with no more and no less drama than the lives of most of us, and their random and exceedingly bloody deaths are treated with what might be called clinical sympathy.
The couple are both biologists, “doctors of zoology,” whom the author introduces to us with what seems the shadow of an arch though not unsympathetic smile. Joseph is “director of the Tidal Institute,” Celice is a “part-time tutor at the university.” The location of the novel is vague, deliberately so, it seems: a coastal region of wetlands and shifting shorelines, and a languishing town that was known to the tourists who used to come there—we are not told why they now stay away—as Rusty City, or Wetropolis. Although Crace is unmistakably English, the book feels as if it is set elsewhere than in England, perhaps one of those imitation Englands …