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 somewhere in the Antipodes, or in North America. This creates an alienation effect that hazes over the narrative, as a sea mist will haze over a summer day. The author does not want us to feel secure anywhere in these pages.
The story is told in two directions. As it opens, Joseph and Celice are recently dead, victims of a senseless murder. Subsequent chapters alternate between a counterclockwise retracing of the route they took to meet their bloody fate, and studiedly impassive descriptions of their physical decomposition as the wildlife and the weather go to work on them over the days following their murder; these latter passages read like the detailed report of a poetically minded pathologist.
Had the couple died a hundred years ago, Crace tells us, in their part of the world their family and their neighbors would have held a “quivering” for them.
At midnight…all the guests would stand to form a circle round the bed. They’d grip the mattress and the bedboards, a shoal of hands, to quiver the murdered couple, winnowing and shaking out their wrongdoings so that they’d enter heaven unopposed. The ashy chaff of all their errors and misdeeds would drift like cigar motes in the candlelight. Their tallowed sins would smudge the men’s clean shirts.
There may really have been such a funeral rite in Crace’s England—none of the dictionaries I have consulted gives this meaning for the word—but if not, it is a fine conceit. The intention of the book, its author tells us, is to make a quivering of sorts for the murdered couple, to reclaim them from death:
To start their journey as they disembark but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning breath. And all their lives ahead of them.
The place where they “disembark” is Baritone Bay, so called because of the strange, deep-throated music the wind in certain weathers plays among the moving dunes. The area is to be “developed” by a consortium of business people from the town, and will disappear under a housing complex, and so one Tuesday afternoon in summer the two doctors of zoology cut their classes and travel back there “to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes…” and “to lay a ghost.” Joseph also has another kind of lay in mind, for it was at Baritone Bay nearly thirty years before that he first made love to Celice, or was made love to by her, when they went there as students on a field trip, and he is determined to try to recapture something of the life-changing passion and force of that encounter.
They are, we are told, “the oddest pair, these dead, spreadeagled lovers on the coast….” Celice is eighteen months older than Joseph, and is much the taller of the two. “I’m not tall enough” has been Joseph’s “once-amusing” excuse for everything from an inability to reach a high shelf to being bad at love. In one respect, however, Joseph’s reach is greater than his wife’s: when he sings, “he could be astounding. He had the voice of someone twice his size.” It is this gift that helped him, on that student field trip, to seduce the far more worldly and impatient Celice. One night when he left the beach house where they and four of their colleagues were lodging, Celice followed him, and down at the bay, among the dunes, on a bed of lissom grass, they celebrated the carnal union that for both of them would be at a certain, deep level the defining event of their lives. While they were making love, however, another defining, and final, event engulfed one of their colleagues, the flirtatious and ungifted Festa, who burned to death in her sleeping bag when a fire broke out at the house. Celice, in her hurry to follow Joseph, had left an oil lamp burning, and for thirty years she has not ceased from blaming herself for Festa’s death.
Festa’s is one of a number of violent or tragic deaths that punctuate the narrative. Two cousins of Joseph’s have died recently, one in a traffic accident, and a neighbor’s son has succumbed to a heart attack while out cycling. More significantly, at least for Celice, is the recent suicide, for reasons unknown, of one of her colleagues at the university, a man with the sonorous and mysteriously suggestive title of Academic Mentor. Celice tries to take a coldly scientific view of his death, but finds it hard. “He’d died with all his futures still in place. His will. His might. His could. There were still concert tickets on his mantelshelf. His winter holiday was booked. He still had debts. The Mentor’s suicide, she could persuade herself, was neo-Darwinist.” Or it could be that the Mentor was just another of Fish’s victims. Fish is the town’s folkloric name for Death, according to a local scholar, the late Mondazy, who “wrote in his final memoir, published more than thirty years ago”:
We call it Fish. It swims, we say, a silent, unforgiving predator that comes at night out of the sea and speeds into the shallow, less resistant moisture of the streets. Fish comes and takes your father and your mother from their bed. All that you’ll hear, as souls depart, and make their spirals of displacement in the clammy air, is the shivering of fins.
Fish comes for Joseph and Felice in the form of a wandering psychopath with a lump of granite in his hand. We learn little about him, except his rage, resentment, and murderous desperation. He follows the couple through the dunes, loses them, then finds them again as they sit on their bed of grass, still undressed after an unsuccessful but forgiving attempt at lovemaking, and unceremoniously bashes in their heads. Celice dies at once, Joseph a little later. The murderer takes their money, rings, wristwatches, car keys, and makes off. Then they are left to nature.
The bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudatus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull. No one, except the newspapers, could say that “There was only Death amongst the dunes, that summer’s afternoon.”
Since they had told no one where they were going that day, it is a long time before the human world begins to miss them. Their only child, their daughter, Syl, is working as a waitress in a town hundreds of miles away from Baritone Bay. Contacted by her father’s secretary, she makes her way home, and sets out on a grim search for her parents. Although her entry into the narrative somewhat disrupts the shape of the book, Syl is a fine feat of characterization, a dissatisfied young woman who knows she has been a disappointment to her scholarly parents, and whose strongest desire is for freedom. And freedom she finds, out in the dunes, when the police take her to identify the bodies of Joseph and Celice. She has already unknowingly defiled the house of the dead by taking into the bedroom where she slept as a child a young man met casually at the station, whom she sleeps with partly from lust and partly to repay him for agreeing to act as her chauffeur in the search. Now comes the darker reality of death’s own defilement. “She’d walked to see mortality that Sunday afternoon and found her parents irredeemable. Her gene suppliers had closed shop.” Her reaction to the loss is a kind of existentialist recognition of the nothingness at the heart of life: “There is no remedy for death—or birth—except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall…. Their deaths were her beginning.”
Yet it is Syl who injects a rare moment of warmth into this decidedly chilly book. After the initial shock of seeing the mutilated and partly decomposed bodies of her parents, she forces herself to take a “second, edited glimpse of them,” and notes in mild wonderment that despite all the damage that has been inflicted on them, they strike her as seeming to have been made oddly young again; their skin has been stretched by sun and wind and rain, and her father’s forehead is newly unlined, her mother’s underchin firm; death, their daughter understands, has not depersonalized them. There is something else, too, that makes them seem suddenly youthful, and that is the manner of their going. “For violent death is usually the province of the young.” And with rueful admiration the daughter recognizes that even in these terrible, last straits her parents had managed to surprise her, not just by being murdered, these most unlikely victims, and not even by their nakedness, but by showing that “they had the power, on their deaths, to flush her heart—too late—with love.” What moves her to this recognition is the sight of one of her father’s hands still lying where in death it had fallen, lightly encircling her mother’s ankle. Here Crace surely intends us to recall Philip Larkin’s great poem, “An Arundel Tomb,” in which the poet, contemplating the stone statues of an earl and his countess lying on their tomb, notices “with a sharp tender shock” that the husband is holding the wife’s hand.
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
One of the toughest problems that faces the fiction writer is that of finding a means of transfiguring quotidian reality into art, in the seemingly straightforward but highly stylized form of the novel. Even in the most “experimental” of fictions the reader stubbornly insists on finding a plot, a story, characters, human interest… To many novelists this is a burden that sorely chafes.The problem has been most successfully and most often solved, usually by the simple expedient of ignoring it, within the great tradition of the English novel. Jim Crace is firmly of that tradition, a fact not always recognized or acknowledged by his fellow countrymen. Although his previous novel, Quarantine, a strange, dreamlike account of five misfits astray and starving in the desert, one of whom happens to be Jesus, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Novel Prize, his work generally is not held in the high regard that it merits. Probably this is because each of his novels—he has written six—is entirely different from its predecessors, thus making it difficult for readers, not to mention hard-pressed reviewers, to fit him into this or that handy category.
Yet for all the “experimental” feel that he imparts to his work, the fact is that, to say it again, Crace is working firmly within the mainstream of English fiction, and a good thing that is, for English fiction, at least. A solid yet always adventurous writer, he has done much to revitalize a tradition in danger of becoming moribund. English life at the turn of the millennium—indeed, European life in general—is highly resistant to the novelist’s art. The contemporary European malaise, so reminiscent of the spiritual decay and loss of nerve suffered in the “decadent” 1890s, has led to a turning inward on the part of bourgeois society. To unpack this inwardness would require a Balzac or a Henry James de nos jours.
About halfway through Being Dead, the alert reader will realize that what he has in his hands is a traditional novel of English manners sprinkled with some of the props and themes of the campus novel à la David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, though without the laughs. Joseph and Celice are stock fictional characters—although at times they can seem more contrivances than characters—living the wholly unremarkable lives of middle- class English academics. This is not intended as a condemnation—unremarkable lives are the very stuff of fiction. The trouble is, however, that Crace’s ambitions are disproportionate to the material he has worked up; to fulfill those ambitions, he must resort to something other than plot, action, character, and what he looks to mainly is style. When the book was published in England last year,a number of reviewers there spoke of Crace’s language as “eerie,” and “hypnotic,” and so it frequently is. Here is a random example. Celice is lecturing her students:
Life’s only, say, up to ninety years for creatures such as you and I. We’re less than turtles. We have to die before they do. We must. It’s programmed that we will. Our births are just the gateway to our deaths. That’s why a baby screams when it is born. Don’t write that in your notes. They who begin to live begin to die. It’s downhill from the womb, from when the sperm locates the egg and latches on.
What is striking in this passage—and the phenomenon reoccurs throughout the book—is that it is written in a kind of broken blank verse, and indeed could be successfully laid out in verse form. Crace is particularly fond of iambic pentameter, especially at the close of paragraphs. Dipping in randomly again, one comes up with these three closing sentences occurring on two consecutive pages: “What had they made of those appalling girls?” “These men had spent themselves on prostitutes.” “Cash fornicates with any open purse.” What is there in these observations and sentiments—the youthful Celice is brooding resentfully on the fact that three of her colleagues on the field trip have probably visited a brothel in the town—that makes them require the fixed and sonorous rhythms in which they are set?
Constantly in these pages one is brought up short by prosaic figures cast, arbitrarily, it would seem, in poetic form. The cumulative effect is not so much “hypnotic,” pace the reviewers, as dulling: what is intended as poetry often succeeds only in sounding like doggerel. At other points, the ecstatic tone descends into portentousness and bathos: “Where there is sex, then there is death. They are the dark co-ordinates of one straight line. Grief is death eroticized. And sex is only shuffling off this mortal coil before its time to plummet to the post-coital afterlife.” Fiction turns to fancy devices at its peril. There are passages of haunting beauty in Being Dead, but there are moments, too, when the poetry overwhelms the sense, as for instance in the fine closing passage quoted above: “And Joseph and Celice enjoy a loving and unconscious end, beyond experience” is, literally, nonsense, no matter how fine it sounds.
These are not so much criticisms of a brave and in many respects highly successful attempt to divert and broaden a tradition, as indications of the pitfalls that await the novelist who dares to experiment. One would not wish to discourage any artist from embarking on new ventures, taking new risks, and one will watch with eagerness, and bated breath, the progress of this strong, inventive, and above all courageous novelist.
April 13, 2000