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Orphaned at a young age, Victor grows up in the environs of the city’s open-air produce market, becoming a successful trader himself and gradually building up a huge fortune. Now eighty, he decides to tear down the market and erect a gigantic glass-and-concrete mall in its place, to stand as his tribute to the city. The mall will be named Arcadia. Victor is opposed by Rook, formerly his right-hand man, who like Victor has come a long way in the world from humble beginnings in the market place.
The middle section of the book describes Victor’s childhood and the old Soap Market where he grew up. Victor’s mother, a young widow, migrates to the city from her native village, hoping to make a new life for herself and her baby. Victor grows up listening to his mother’s idealised recollections of the countryside. When his mother dies in a fire, Victor learns to fend for himself, but he is never able to free himself from the ‘memories’ with which he has been imbued.
Despite Rook’s opposition and the protests of the market workers, who face eviction, Arcadia is built: Victor has left his mark on the city. The Soap Market is not, however, completely eradicated. The traders themselves decide to set up a new open-air market, and the city continues to evolve.
Discussion: the country and the city
Arcadia is a novel in the pastoral tradition that challenges and subverts but also extends this tradition. A novel of urban environments and urban achievements, Arcadia is sensitive to the relationships between country and city that Raymond Williams explored so thoroughly in his 1973 book of literary and social history, The Country and the City. As Williams points out, ‘In the long history of human settlements, the connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation.’ The classical pastoral tradition is predicated on the contrast between the city and the country. One way of reading Arcadia is as an attempt to dramatise the risks of ignoring the continuity between these two forms of civilisation.
In Arcadia, the country is a real place, but subject to powerful distortions of memory. Victor’s mother nourished him on fantasies of country ways. Rook knowingly plays to Victor’s own fantasies in planning his birthday lunch – and in doing so, indulges himself. The country is remade in imagination and becomes the stuff of pastoral. This is one way of disrupting the continuity of country and city. Even the actual produce of the country is given an aesthetic gloss: ‘Rook…stared in wonder at the wit and artistry for sale and on display – the plump, suggestive irony of roots, the painted, powdered vanity of peaches, the waxen probity of lettuce leaves…The fruiterer had made a passing masterpiece of oranges. He’d added, too, a fringe and diadem of lights, the colour and the shape of citruses. No matter how they shone they were eclipsed. No light was bright enough to glow more cheerfully than fruit…’ The Soap Market is in one sense a representation of the countryside; to mistake it for a piece of the country, transplanted into the heart of the city, is another distortion. For the market has developed its own customs, language, organisation. This perspective considerably heightens the ambiguity and irony of the battle for the Soap Market’s future that provides the narrative meat of Arcadia. The traders want to preserve the market because it is their own society, not because it ‘stands for’ something else. At the same time the market is an important link in the chain that binds country and city; it is a kind of agent of continuity.
Arcadia is a substantial book, Crace’s longest novel to date. It was somewhat more cautiously received than his first two books. Reviewers enjoyed the evocation of city life, the scenes of the fruit and vegetable market, the drama of the confrontation between Rook and Victor. However, some were uncomfortable with what they saw as schematic construction and felt that the characters lacked depth. My own view is that the characters, especially Victor, are intentionally enigmatic. In a city we can know a great deal about people (right down to the details of their birthday meal) without knowing them at all. Rook, too, having left one world without fully joining another, occupies a kind of moral space symbolised by the tunnel under the link road in which he first meets the hoodlum Johnny: he could go either way; his actions only really take on force after he has been sacked and chooses to side definitively with the traders.
One proof of the book’s power is the extent to which reviewers identified the unnamed city as their own. Victor’s city is recognisable as Birmingham; in New York, however, Victor’s Arcadia development was seen as a take on Trump Towers, while Toronto readers have compared the Soap Market to their own so-called farmers’ market in Kensington.
Please click here to read John Williams’ review of Arcadia from Birmingham 13 magazine.
The following essay by Dr Doris Teske from the University of Helsinki picks up the theme of the city in Crace’s work and the extension/disruption of the ‘pastoral’ tradition.
Jim Crace’s Arcadia - public culture in the postmodern city© Dr. Doris Teske 2000, permission requested
The distinct voice in contemporary fiction that Jim Crace has shown in all his novels is also apparent in his only city novel, Arcadia, which was first published in 1992. Here, a nineteenth-century type of journalist-flâneur, who by calling himself ‘the Burgher’ identifies himself with his journalistic persona, narrates the life-story of fruit market tycoon Victor. In the satirical tale about Victor and his creation of a postmodern shopping mall ‘Arcadia,’ Crace puts to new use the myth of Arcadia as a landscape in which an unspoilt rural community exists in untouched by any urban influence.
In the novel, Arcadia is meant to be many things, of which four define basic aspects of the novel. First of all, the Arcadian utopia is shown to be a form of mental escapism resulting from Victor’s deprived childhood: In the first six years of his life, the nostalgic tales about the countryside that his mother Em tells her child are shown as Victor’s only intellectual nourishment. In his later life, Victor combines the Arcadian ideal with a fundamental anti-urbanism which finds its symbolic expression in the building of a modernist office tower (‘Big Vic’). While they emphasise urban anonymity and the division of labour as central aspects of the modern metropolis, ‘Big Vic’ and the surrounding buildings also illustrate the rejection of urban diversity inherent in modern town planning. They represent individual isolation, conformity and work regulation under the slogans of functionalism and increased productivity. Their users are reduced to human machines in a system celebrated and feared in the diverging movements of modernism.
In contrast to this functional reduction of urban architecture, the anarchic fruit market ‘Soap Market’ represents another kind of Arcadia: It is seen as a home, a place of belonging in an unfriendly and anonymous city. The market connects migrants from the countryside with their agricultural background, but also shows a community of individuals resembling village life. Instead of mirroring the anonymity and transitoriness of a common urban experience, this place is defined by personal contact and tradition.
A fourth view of the Arcadian is presented with Victor’s plan to re-define the heart of the traditional city by building a postmodern shopping mall on the site of the old market. Victor wants his new building ‘Arcadia’ to become an effective counterpoint to an unruly urban society, a space in which urban anarchy can be changed into visual order and social hierarchy. In the successful ‘Arcadia’, the democratic ideal of the city in which everybody could participate in the exchange of money and goods has been replaced by a secluded building. The private space excludes as ‘undesirables’ most of the former inhabitants of the ‘Soap Market’: The former traders have been turned out, as they were unable to pay the rents in the new market, the regular shoppers are unable to pay the new prices, and other users of the market space such as the half-witted ‘Cellophane Man’ and the drug addicts who used the ‘Soap Market’ as their sleeping place are unwelcome in the secure and guarded space of the shopping mall. Instead, the new ‘Arcadia’ caters for a class of ‘Invulnerables’ who form an urban elite without participating in the street life of the city. Just as the new stall-holders have no connection with the locality of the market, the new shoppers are tourists or come directly from the suburbs in order to experience ‘Arcadia’ as a consumers’ theme-park, not in the daily routine of shopping. The new ‘Arcadia’ fulfills their wish for order and security, while it precludes individuality and creativity. In its defence against any unwanted intrusion by the traditional city, it remains a place outside the city, an area which because of its loss of local identity could be called ‘placeless’ or ‘virtual.’
As Jim Crace with his novel enters the debate about the essence of the urban, all the different versions of Arcadia combine with the distinct visions of urbanity presented in the text. Just as the fictional city created in the narrative is meant to be prototypical, its inhabitants as prototypes of citizens present different approaches to the city. Victor is the isolated urban ruler who defines the city by mapping or ‘reading’ it from above and by creating buildings that manifest his urban vision. Rook’s movement through the market shows a detached insider, a spy or detective who on his walks tries to uncover the power structures defining the city. The narrator ‘the Burgher’ represents the nineteenth-century flâneur who renders his individual urban experience in a satirical tone changing from humour to bitterness.
With his readoption and combination of literary and cultural concepts such as Arcadia, the City King, or the Flâneur, Crace is implementing a present-day agenda: He discusses the question what urbanism can mean in a postmodern world. All his descriptions centre in the imaginative appropriation of the public space of the city. This space is described as threatened by anti-urban trends both in modernist and postmodern architecture. In both the modernist and the postmodernist town developments, economic power is used in order to create buildings which define their surroundings and imprint a new understanding of the urban in the minds of the citizens. However, the public space of the city remains a contested area, as the anarchic power of the urban crowd will not be contained by these modern and postmodern spaces.
Crace takes up questions that have been looked at in detail in postmodern research on the city. The city contained, the city under surveillance, and the city defined by a new kind of segregation, is e.g. described by Mike Davis in his City of Quartz (1992), which combines the imaginative with a critical approach in an analysis of present-day Los Angeles. In an empirical and theoretical corroboration of this rather polemical text, Sharon Zukin’s The Cultures of Cities (1995) is concerned with the cultural importance of public space and its redefinition in the struggle around the imaginative appropriation of the (American) city.
Zukin sees the material culture, especially the urban design of cities, as the ‘symbolic language of exclusion and entitlement’ of ‘what should be visible and what not.’ The presentation of culture has become all the more important in a post-industrial society, since traditional institutions have lost their political influence and identity has become less clear-cut than in industrial or pre-industrial societies. Cuts in public expenditure have made private sponsorship essential for the maintenance of institutions of culture. This private sponsorship, however, is increasingly combined with the exertion of private power in formerly public spaces. Zukin analyses the public parks of central New York, especially Central Park and Bryant Park, as typical examples of this development. Here, the aesthetics of visual order have been used in order to exclude unwanted visitors, as the fear of the other has led to the exclusion of everything different. The new visual code has become a code for inclusion and exclusion in the city, and has meant a more decisive stratification of urban space than in former decades. Thus the power to determine the design of urban spaces has become a pervasive political power. The changes in the economic and cultural structure of New York have led to the redefinition of the urban image propagated by an urban elite: While the hegemonic urban culture already includes the commercial bias of New York elites, it now has to counter the challenge of a vernacular culture either by incorporating it or by opposing it with its own image of identity and desire.
Crace takes up this discussion of public culture and urban identity by showing various approaches to the city. However, all the visions presented in his novel are defined by the narrating power of ‘the Burgher.’ As this narrator develops his urban vision by drawing on the historical form of flânerie, his white, male, middle-class experience of the postmodern city can be expected to be incomplete if not faulty. ‘The Burgher’ sees himself as an outsider in the current political discussion, as the tone of distance, of bitterness and dejection towards the end of the novel shows. Crace’s flâneur is unable to give a final verdict on the new shopping mall ‘Arcadia’. His answer is to retrace his own steps and to accept his own powerlessness. However, while accepting his own powerlessness, ‘the Burgher’ puts himself into a Darwinian context that redeems the traditional city: In a city full of decay and death, of dirt and destruction, only the fittest survive, not because of their strength or their ‘power to throw the longest shadows,’ but because of their adaptability. Thus, while ‘the Burgher’ accepts his eventual death, he is convinced that an urban community defined by diversity and interaction will ultimately win against all urban management and strictly defined urban system as it is the more adaptable.
Zukin’s comment on a piece of (journalistic) writing about a landscape of decay in New York’s river area can be adapted to Crace’s novel: It is at the same time a ‘piece of irony on the part of the reporter,’ a ‘discursive representation’ which with the help of its tone defines the attitude to its content, and a ‘common mode of reorganising a vision of the city and then fighting to change it’(281 f.): ‘In this latter sense the aesthetics of vision becomes a moral language.’(282) In Crace’s novel, all these aspects are present. However, just as Zukin describes the urban cultures to be full of inconsistencies, which cannot and should not be reduced in an urban theory, Crace’s intervention in the discussion of the city does not offer an undisputed new image of the city. The ‘moral language’ of nineteenth-century urban aesthetics cannot be re-introduced as answering all the needs of postmodern urbanity. Instead, the return to positions of the late nineteenth century deliberately leaves the reader with a feeling of incompleteness. The celebratory tone of the ‘the Burgher’ in the final part of his narration does not convince the reader, as the flâneur himself has moved outside the political struggle. In the closing paragraph, ‘the Burgher’ renders his sensory and sensual experience of eating a pear and melting into the urban crowd as very solipsistic. This shows the presented ideal of a new kind of postmodern civic community to be rather vague and exclusive, and invites the reader to develop his/her own position with regard to civic identity.