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 play the hand you’ve been dealt. I’ve been dealt a bourgeois literary hand that’s moralistic and very rhythmic in its prose. I’m not Steinbeck. I’m not Orwell. I would have liked to be when I was seventeen. My seventeen-year-old self would look at the kind of books I write now and sneer at them.
In his new novel, Genesis, Crace turns to the first of the two mysteries of life: being conceived. Early on comes the complaint, “Conceived‘s a charmless and misleading word, too immaculate and cerebral, too purposeful and too hygienic, to truly represent the headlong thoughtlessness, the selfishness… of making love.” And here already is the problem, the fault line on which the novel is constructed and falls apart. For while there is already ample fiction about the love (or just the sex) that leads to the conception of a new human life, it is remarkably difficult and somewhat odd to try to capture both cause and effect in the same narrative frame. “The sperm do not require sincerity before they can proceed. The eggs are not judgmental. They do not even favor love,” comments the narrator of Genesis, uncomfortably combining the perspectives of a natural scientist and a psychologist. “Whatever other noises might be made, the egg is punctured silently,” continues the narrator, sounding pious but relying on the clumsy contrast between an ovum and a balloon. Given the intrinsic challenge of depicting conception, Crace’s novel begins as a plucky exercise in luck-pushing.
The central character in Crace’s Genesis is Felix Dern, a celebrated actor, known as Lix to his friends and lovers. He carries the curse of fertility that is the novel’s central conceit: “Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child.” Lix is a nostalgic figure in contemporary times whose anachronistic lack of control over his own fertility is a throwback to a past in which belief in miracles and curses was widespread and babies were felt to be closer to divine gifts than to man-made artifacts. He repopulates the earth, knowingly or otherwise, in circumstances where God is no longer the author and giver of life and the time is fast approaching when those who desire children will also be able to design them. Over time the verb “to design” has mutated. In the seventeenth century it might mean simply the execution of a mental plan to have children—God willing. Today it carries the sense of an artistic plan: the procurement of a child, perhaps even a particularly desirable child with specified features—science permitting. Cursed as he is, Lix evokes the limits of human control over the mystery of conception for a secular age.
Lix’s fertility is complicated. It is not the case that every time he penetrates a woman she becomes pregnant. That would be ridiculous, requiring unprecedented levels of spontaneous ovulation or spectacular monthly timing in every act of heterosexual congress. Crace is not a straightforward realist nor is he committed to absurdism. His novels typically have imaginary settings that are also vaguely familiar. Lix lives in the City of Balconies—a generic European city with a medieval past intermittently reminiscent of Prague—and is firmly located in the second half of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Condoms, good, comfortable, convenient ones, are widely available and Lix is in the habit of using them, even if in his case they do not always work.
The curse must be read more accurately. Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child: conceives at once if the encounter is the only one she has, or eventually, but inevitably, in a more committed relationship—marriage, for example. Lix has slept with five women and fathered six children by Genesis‘s close. The book is tightly structured around these encounters, in chronological order. True to his fondness for schematic structure, however, Crace both begins and ends Genesis with the sixth and final conception.
Lix is charming because he becomes more, not less, reserved over the years:
For one so fertile and flamboyant, for one so arrogant in costume, Felix Dern, the showman, was—off- stage—surprisingly shy and timid. That was, in rising middle age, his major flaw, his main regret—and also his saving grace.
We encounter him first like this, feeling besieged and beleaguered by his professional success and accumulating wealth and fame, by his virility and growing number of children, ashamed to find that he has become a frivolous person, shy even of initiating sex with his wife, no longer adventurous, no longer really serious or committed to anything except the avoidance of risk. The trajectory of Lix’s emotional and sexual life follows the more general transformation of the City of Balconies from a time of repression, through a period of laxity and sexual liberation, into one of confusion and chaos where sex, violence, and repression seem inexplicable and more random than ever.
The conceptions of Lix’s first two children fall on either side of the twentieth century’s feminist revolution, with its challenge to the biblical notion that, for women, biology is destiny. “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception,” God menaced Eve in the Book of Genesis. “But now I can greatly reduce my conceptions,” she retorted, swallowing her pill thousands of years on. The changes in attitude that followed were as important as the medical reality. In 1979 Lix, aged twenty, loses his virginity to an older woman, representative of the pre-revolutionary generations. “[A] little shoeless woman from the sidewalk cafe”: shoeless because she is about to make love, not with the latest of her lying married lovers who has stood her up in the café, but with Lix instead. “Men always disappointed her,” and yet she is so eager to please them with special outfits and makeup, so accommodating, endlessly waiting in the café for a precious half-hour of attention. “She was the early half of a couple, waiting to be validated by her man—and that was satisfying.”
After her tactful one-night stand with Lix (who is naturally at his age preoccupied by the question “Am I okay in bed?”), this woman (we don’t know her name because Lix forgets to ask) surpasses her previous record for kindness and consideration by deciding not to inform him of her pregnancy: “It would not be fair or just to rock the life of someone who’d been little more than shy and innocent and careless.” Here is a mythological woman—a kind that no longer exists, and probably never did.
The second woman to conceive Lix’s child is a fellow student radical in 1981. The City of Balconies has been rechristened the City of Kisses and is going through its period of Laxity, a Big Melt in social repression, corresponding distantly to Russia’s glasnost or one of its prefigurations in Eastern Europe. “Freda always needed someone in her bed when the optimistic ghost of 1968 invaded her,” and she chooses Lix. “Today,” she announces, “the woman is in charge.” Her fiercely independent response to the inevitable unplanned pregnancy is no surprise: “The child is mine, not yours. My pregnancy. My body. My responsibility. My private life. My kid!” This is an asymmetric approach to reproduction and parenthood, apportioning all the power to women, but also all the responsibility, all the blame, if blame there is to be.
Crace’s clever conceit exposes and undermines the asymmetry by turning fertility into a specifically male problem. As such it is still very different from female fertility—potentially much less disruptive and frightening, but even so a semblance of balance is restored. The rights to autonomy that Freda claims so vehemently are humanly extremely sympathetic, but their foundation is uncertain. Her claim that ownership of her own body extends to ownership of her progeny flatly rejects the old Christian view that men and women are both merely occasions for the conception of a child, never the authors or givers of life. Nor are her rights grounded in science. They depend on a potent but fragile liberal ideology: the ghost of 1968.
Lix’s third and fourth children are conceived at the beginning and end of his marriage to Alicja Leså«niak. This name appears in Crace’s seventh novel, The Devil’s Larder (2001), where it is an unexplained pseudonym. Transposing it to Genesis is playful but meaningless, like so many of the jokes, pseudo-facts, red herrings, and loose ends for which he has such a boyish penchant. The newly married couple have a rooftop apartment with a view of the river and Navigation Island. During nine days of heavy rain they watch the river engorge and heave itself out of its bed to venture tentatively, then boldly, over the island and through the city. “No need to construct an ark or walk about with flotation jackets on. Or drag your mats and furniture upstairs. No call for goggles yet.” Crace evokes the young couple’s high-spirited silliness with gusto. There is a ludicrous scene in which Alicja’s father has come to rescue her in a borrowed launch and she leans over the balcony refusing to accompany him while Lix is hiding between her legs and trying to initiate sex:
For the moment Lix’s fingertips were restricted to her middle leg, the knee, the calf, the upper shin. Alicja welcomed this as just a simple intimacy, an unspoken symbol of support in the war amongst the Leså«niaks. But tender touching never lasts quite long enough with men. They seek possession. They want to occupy the land and harvest it. They want to plunder it. They have to stretch and reach—as Lix was doing now—out of the realms of charity, beyond the zones of tenderness.
He pushed a hand under her nightshirt and began caressing her behind, a tactic that had succeeded several times before.
Sometimes the silliness becomes infectious and Crace relaxes his grip on the prose:
Although the distant mocking clouds had finally dispersed, the widow had tossed off her shawl to reveal the sodden, sunbaked shoulders of the hills, Navigation Island was now invisible. Only the tops of tarbonies and pines bending in the flows and disrupted by the weight of squirrels, the green clay roof of the bandstand with half its tiles removed, streetlamps, still lit and sending orange streaks of light downstream, and sodden flags on three-quarters-submerged poles, revealed that this had once—a day ago—been land and home to weasels, rats, and foxes, all long since drowned because they’d never learned to swim or climb or fly.
Can a shoulder, even a figurative one, be simultaneously sodden and sun-baked? In reality, weasels, rats, and foxes are all good at swimming and climbing trees. Why bother reminding us that they can’t fly? And given that this novel is not set in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, why assume that a half-submerged lamppost reveals anything at all about the animals resident nearby? Here the line between deliberate disconcerting details and inadvertent inaccuracy has become distractingly thin. But even this is not Crace at his most self-indulgent. For that he needs the proximity of food: “Her heart was jumping like a pan-fried pea.”
The fifth conception is another one- night stand, on the first of January 2001, when Lix is over forty. By now he is a famous actor experiencing “an impromptu” sexual response to his co-star in the stage-play The Devotee:
His “rubbery zucchini” was ripe.
It stirred a little more each evening, a little earlier in the plot, a little more insistently. It could not help itself (the truest and the weakest excuse you’ll ever hear in life). It responded to his costar as unjudgmentally, it seemed, as mushrooms react to light.
Meanwhile, the costar is several moves ahead of Lix. She has realized it is only a matter of time before they have sex, so she starts to prepare for it, thinking bizarrely: “Let’s eat the porridge while it’s hot.” Occasionally Crace’s food imagery works, as when Lix’s old flame Freda looms up in the audience, her hair piled high with “careful randomness…as unignorable as a wedding cake. God help the man who’d sat behind her in the theater.” More typically here, it provokes the worst in his writing.
The sixth and final conception occurs three years into Lix’s second marriage, to Freda’s cousin, at a time in the near future when the City of Balconies (or Kisses) is rebelling once again against its repressive regime, and it is raining: “…wet weather doesn’t truly favour assassins and Molotovs, or fires, or leafleting. The revolution likes it dry.” At the behest of “Freedom Freda,” Lix and his wife try but fail to rescue a young student radical on the run from the police, then find themselves stranded on Navigation Island by a roadblock. When they make love, Lix still has traces of pink stage makeup in his hairline because he is currently appearing in Tartuffe, updated as a New Age satire:
These were the settings for this single conception, the only cast and scenery and props that could produce this child. Change anything and you change everything. Another place, another time, produces someone else.
Ultimately Genesis remains cerebral, echoing the complexities and abstractions of metaphysical poetry in its overall conceit and elsewhere: “Opposing poles attract when lovers magnetize.” Unsurprisingly it fails to capture the thoughtlessness of making love—the hardest of things to write in a novel. And in the struggle to survive the rigidities of the subject and the six-part structure he has set himself, much of Crace’s beguiling ingenuousness gets lost. He is thrown back on puerile humor, loose swirling prose, and vague political sentiment:
Three hundred million tempest-tossed sperm, the wretched refuse of his teeming shore—and no contraception to impede them. Three hundred million! More than the total population of the United States of America, as the Planned Parenthood posters with their Statue of Liberty photograph so often remind us. There has to be a god of mischief to overcater so dramatically. That’s why, of course, an ejaculation is known in this City of Kisses as “a huddled mass.” A tribute to America, the land of opportunity and sex. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” the torch-bearing lady says as she succumbs to suitors. Three hundred million. Oh, what a prospect, all those newcomers, each time a man dares lift his lamp beside her golden door.
Crace’s next project (working title, The Pest House) is about an American dystopia, beginning ominously, “This used to be America.” Perhaps the time has come for him to clarify his political ideas and the special place they have in his imagination and fiction. In the meantime, wonderment remains his strength, a strength only discontinuously present in Genesis. The best example here is when one of Lix’s children is briefly glimpsed far beyond the point of her conception. Five-year-old Rosa is playing with her dolls while her actress mother makes love in the next room. She has been bribed not to intrude. From the window she sees a mouse gnawing bread thrown out for the birds and thinks of bringing it inside to play with the dolls. Then an owl swoops and carries it off:
Rosa gathers up her dolls and puts them safely on the far side of the room. She knows she’s witnessed something memorable and frightening, much more important than the chocolate jar and its rewards. She doesn’t know the proper words. She only knows “a great big bird,” “a little animal.” Still, she hurries to the bedroom door, where her mother’s friend has dropped his vast black shoes, and goes in.
The passage works beautifully because it does not condescend. The child’s awe at natural violence, her care for her dolls, her confident assessment of the stature of elaborate feelings: all are sincerely shared by her creator. There is much to be said for Crace’s “bourgeois literary hand”—even at work on a human mystery that proves more elusive than death.