Human life is framed by two great mysteries. In Being Dead (1999), the British novelist Jim Crace gives a wholly secular answer to the question “What happens when we die?” Tightly organized, the novel centers on the elaborate conceit of a middle-aged married couple, brutally murdered on a beach, and lying there decomposing for the duration of the novel that is their only afterlife. Bleak as it is, it is not the book of a disenchanter; and in writing it Crace was not simply proclaiming his adherence to a scientifically informed world view or crudely demolishing the concept of an afterlife. In his fiction the rationalist’s delight in disabusing is always tempered by something more charming and imaginative. His dominant artistic intention is to preserve or restore to a godless universe as much wonderment at life’s mysteries as it will bear.
Being Dead brings to mind the Holy Sonnets, Divine Meditations of John Donne:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee….
A self-proclaimed evangelical atheist like Crace cannot help himself to such divine comforts, and so must find other strategies to deflate death’s pride. Humor is a resource, of course, sometimes in poor taste, as when a seagull lifts the dead man’s underpants “misled by what it took to be the smell of fish.” Much more important though is Crace’s delight in the intricate beauty of the natural world—its insects, animals, shifting sand dunes, coastlines, seascapes, weather, and so forth. His prose is distinctive, free-flowing, rhythmic (some say iambic). It succeeds by sweeping the reader into unreflective complicity: “No one, except the newspapers, could say that ‘There was only Death amongst the dunes, that summer’s afternoon.’” Certainly there is an affinity between the experiences (physical and psychological) that fascinate Crace and the hypnotic cadences of his prose. The reader is carried, sometimes high into moral seriousness, sometimes low through troughs of silliness, but always imaginatively further than seemed probable—or even desirable—at the novel’s outset.
“Trust the tale, not the teller,” Crace jauntily enjoins his readers. Habitually, he presents himself as a simple cipher who narrates strange stories, insisting very often that they have little or no grounding in his personal life, which, he emphasizes, is rather boringly straightforward. He lives in Birmingham in middle England, always takes his holidays in the Scilly Isles, and keeps a careful distance from literary London. It suits him to be ingenuous: an anti-establishment figure on the fringe of contemporary fiction. Politically he might prefer to be further out. Along with his atheism goes a proud commitment to unreconstructed left-wing values and, one senses, some disappointment that his books do not turn out to be more political:
I could, of course, be a political novelist, but I don’t have those skills, and you have to …