Michael Farren has kindly allowed me to reproduce the following essay on Jim Crace, which he wrote as part of his MA studies at Sheffield Hallam University. The paper quotes from a number of sources (including this site). I have deleted the footnotes and some of the other critical apparatus as a precaution against internet term-paper opportunists. An excellent survey of Crace’s work to date. I would be delighted to hear from other students writing papers or theses about Crace.
Jim Crace: Invention, Commitment and Narratives of Comfort
1) Introduction *
a) Crace as a writer *
b) Crace and the Contemporary *
2) Invention *
a) Nature, real and invented *
b) The epigraph *
c) Narrative invention *
3) Political commitment *
a) Creating a society *
4) "A post-Dawkins scientific atheist" *
a) Quarantine: killing Christ and the book’s own agenda *
b) Being Dead: narratives of comfort *
5) Conclusion *
6) Bibliography *
a) Works by Jim Crace *
b) Reference sources *
i) Periodicals *
ii) Websites *
Jim Crace’s writing embodies several contradictions. He is a writer of stylishly cadenced prose and powerful descriptive skills, yet he regards his previous profession of journalism higher than he does fiction. He is a committed socialist and atheist, but his books are allusive and metaphorical. He is polymorphously inventive in the style of Borges or Calvino, while his work remains highly naturalistic.
These contradictions extend to ambivalence towards contemporary literary fiction, which Crace professes not to read widely in, or be much influenced by. He does not align himself with any literary movement (or vice versa); neither does he see significant kinship with other contemporary or recent authors. Crace says his greatest admiration among his contemporaries is for certain nature writers (such as E.O.Wilson) rather than any novelists. Novelists he cites when pressed, include Toni Morrison and Will Self. Neither seem to me to have the same sort of imagination: Morrison’s novels being explorations of Black American history; and Self – for example in Great Apes – having a more directly satirical purpose.
Crace’s citation of the achievement of Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities may prove more valid. However, even here, Crace’s fiction has been more grounded in recognisable economic reality than the air of fantasy attaching to Calvino’s work.
Crace is best considered ‘contemporary’ in three respects. Firstly, in his free use of narrative invention; secondly, in how he updates political writing, exploring whole societies’ dynamics; finally, in how he addresses contemporary philosophical issues. I believe that these traits – and contradictions – make Jim Crace the most interesting and intellectually satisfying living English fiction writer.
Crace’s inventive impulse takes several forms. He conjures up fictitious creatures, rendered wholly convincingly. He writes his own epigraphs – by invented authors – for each of his books. With Continent, and with Being Dead, he also experiments with form. Finally, I consider his ability to create a coherent, convincing and relevant society to be a major innovation. I deal with the last point in ‘Political Commitment’ below.
Although he describes one of the stories in his collection, Continent as ‘magic realist’, realism is always more prominent than magic. Crace’s fiction operates within a naturalistic – even rationalistic – framework. He clearly declares this rationalism in the epigraph to Quarantine, ostensibly taken from The Limits of Mortality (the book is, naturally, a Crace invention):
An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast – that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink – could not expect to live for more than thirty days, nor to be conscious for more than twenty-five. For him, the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable – except with divine help.
This passage sets the agenda for Quarantine, offering an alternative view of Christianity’s origins. However, behind this rationalism, Crace is also a naturalist in the scientific sense. He repeatedly describes his love of nature and his preference for natural history writing over fiction. His naturalist’s knowledge creates a convincing, evocative version of nature, to suit his narrative needs. For example, in Being Dead, he needs a suitable parasite to prey on the recently murdered bodies of the two principal characters.
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.
The swag fly is a Crace coinage, although its context – between common crabs and Latin-titled beetles – disguises this. He described its provenance:
They sound like a cross between swamp and bog, they swagger, and they rob dead bodies, like burglars’ swag.
While not on the same level as, say, Borges’s imaginary beings, such invention avoids restrictive literalism. The swag fly is a creature that sounds as though it should exist, and sounds more evocative than some similar, literally real, creature that might behave identically. The false insect brings home more vividly how the bodies are prone to natural depredations. Crace describes this approach:
If you hit the vein of storytelling right on the head, then you can come up with lies that are more powerful than any truth.
Crace frequently point out that all storytellers are ‘liars’. In The Gift of Stones, he says, of his storyteller main character:
Salute the liars – they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.
This willingness to lie – to invent, to create fiction – gives his storytelling its power.
Another playful, literary way in which Crace avoids literalism, is by creating all his own epigraphs. Continent’s epigraph is attributed to a fictitious Classical author, Pycletius. The current edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature includes an entry (written by Crace) for Pycletius, continuing the joke and enhancing its post-modern credentials.
Margaret Drabble says she included the reference "as a joke and to make sure people look closely at the text and pay attention." It’s doubtful whether Crace created Pycletius for the latter reason, but the impulse to create him is another indication of his fertile imagination, seeking out what should exist, as potentially more resonant than what actually does.
Crace usually employs a conventional narrative, with third- or consistent first-person narration, and sequential structure. He has, however, deviated from this template in two books, and may do so in his next. Continent, which consists of thematically linked short stories about an invented seventh continent, has been received as a novel, and won the Whitbread First Novel Prize. While Crace and his publishers did not describe the book as a novel themselves, they did not wholly reject the idea. Crace said:
We just avoided calling it a collection of short stories as we wanted readers to encounter the pieces in sequence and as a group. But some of the more post-modernist critics called the book a novel (it had all the unities save one!) and then, perversely, it began winning prizes as a novel.
Such playful acceptance seems of a piece with the whimsical creation of epigraphs, rather than a serious statement. More significant is the form of Being Dead. The novel has four separate narrative strands. One describes the start of the relationship between the two main characters, Joseph and Celice, thirty years earlier. A second describes their estranged daughter’s reaction to their initial disappearance and eventual discovery. The third is a graphic description of the decay of their murdered bodies. The last works backwards in time, from their murder, to the morning of the same day. Despite this complexity of structure, Gary Krist commented:
he pulls off a remarkable piece of legerdemain, combining various unappealing parts into a whole that… achieves a rough, uncompromising beauty.
The final strand, with its backwards movement, links Being Dead to other novels such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 and Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. In common with these, Crace attempts to place a moral construction on the structural device, looking for redemption by viewing the circumstances of an atrocity in reverse. Crace has explained his reasons for this, which I discuss below, in ‘Narratives of Comfort’.
Crace’s next work will also avoid a conventional narrative structure, this time invoking some of the 20th century’s great formal innovators. He describes the proposed work as follows:
My next book is called The Devil’s Larder and is a meditation on food. Sixty imaginative pieces of varying lengths, doing for food (fingers crossed) what Calvino did for towns in Invisible Cities and Primo Levi did for the elements in The Periodic Table.
Although not an innovator for its own sake, Crace shows familiarity with other recent and contemporary innovators, and a willingness (perhaps a need) to support his narrative aims with unconventional structures.
Until the publication of Continent, Crace had avoided fiction to pursue a career in journalism. The reason he adduces, is that he could infiltrate a left-wing political sensibility into articles for newspapers whose readership he assumed would be instinctively opposed to his own views.
I was setting new agendas for them, and I felt my integrity and political seriousness was being engaged in the stories. With my fiction I suspect everyone that reads me is a carbon copy of me.
He abandoned journalism after experiencing political interference from the editor of the Sunday Times. However, although fiction now gave him freedom, what he chose to write was more allusive and oblique than committed journalism or pamphleteering.
Crace’s politics are not foregrounded in his fiction: Frank Kermode commented, in relation to Quarantine:
it may seem remarkable that Crace’s chosen topics are so devoid of direct political reference.
Crace’s response to this remark was dismissive:
My books are full of politics and social commentary. They are all about our age and our concerns. What Kermode means, I guess, is that the books aren’t didactic in an Orwellian manner… My novels are more ambiguous – though surely there’s no mistaking the atheistic, libertarian, anti-trade sensibilities which lurk behind them. Come on, Frank. Do pay attention!
Where Crace and Kermode agree, however, is that the politics in the novels, direct or abstract, relates to the depiction of societies.
Contradicting the Thatcherite dictum that there is no such thing as society, Crace constantly locates his fiction within encompassing, integrated societies. In his first book, Continent, he creates an entire, imaginary continent, emblematic of third world issues of development, exploitation and relations with the developed, affluent world.
In ‘Talking Skull’, the first story of Continent, the narrator is the westernised son of a rural farmer who has grown rich tending a flock of hermaphrodite cattle, which are held in superstitious awe by the villagers, as their ‘milk’ is believed to possess quasi-magical properties. He is told:
All our business fortunes are based as much as yours on superstition. What is superstition but misdirected reverence? Your clients overvalue bogus milk. Ours overvalue transistors, motor cars, fashionable clothes, travel. This is the key to business. Unearth what is overvalued, amass it, and sell at inflated prices.
The narrator dreams of exchanging superstition for urban sophistication. His friends’ mercantile fathers show him he can resolve the contradiction by exploiting the superstition’s picturesque elements. From milking hermaphrodite cows, he can progress to ‘milking’ tourists.
My description reduces the story to polemical elements. A more sympathetic reading reveals greater subtlety and humanism around this kernel. The ‘old’ way was also exploitative, but was indicative of a stable, self-sufficient, dignified way of life. Different relationships between the city and the country also emerge – the villagers mocking the narrator as a ‘Talking Skull’; the pastoral myth which is a fantasy for the city dwellers.
The ultimate triumph is the imaginative feat that creates an integrated, believable society from nothing and reflects by analogy upon live political issues without simplifying them.
Crace achieves this imaginative feat repeatedly. An actual market is the centrepiece of Arcadia. Similarly, in Signals of Distress, the main character is drawn into the story’s environment by the fact that his family’s soap business, of which he considers himself to be the conscience, no longer needs the kelp ash formerly gathered by the inhabitants of Wherrytown. Although economics is the crucial factor in relations between Smith and the villagers – and a barrier he is unable and they are unwilling to cross – a convincing picture is nevertheless built up of the life of a fishing village, its relations and internal hierarchies.
However, the most strikingly depicted society occurs in The Gift of Stones. Here, the society is a stone-age village, observed by a physically handicapped (hence economically useless) villager. The village’s main economic activity – the production of flint tools – is being made unviable by the advent of bronze. The following passage occurs when the reality and the implications of bronze have just become clear to the ‘stoneys’:
The stoneys were a dying breed. This was the age of smiths. There was no trade for us at all. Who’d want to hoe their soil with stone when stone might splinter on the frost? Who’d go for flint when tools in flint would flake with too much use? Now flint was only good for walls and tombs. For implements and arms, the world demanded bronze.
The stoneys’ first sight of bronze occurs when a villager is killed by a bronze-headed arrow. This dramatically illustrates and personalises the imminent effect on the village, giving the novel a poignancy and impact far greater than a more overtly ‘political’ novel.
Yet although the narrative is complete in itself, there is also a metaphorical element: the economic decline of the village reflects that of heavy industry in contemporary Birmingham – Crace’s adopted city. Though tending towards analogy rather than direct political allegory, the picture of a community devastated by intractable market forces is powerfully resonant, and surely refutes Kermode’s assertion that Crace’s novels are devoid of political reference.
Even in Quarantine, where Crace’s concerns are more philosophical than political, a society is evoked in microcosm, and shown being acted upon by mercantile forces, even in the Judean wilderness of the first century AD. Subversively, Crace links the proto-capitalist character, Musa (who attracts diabolical imagery throughout) to the dissemination of a fabricated ‘Christian message’.
Crace describes himself as a "post-Dawkins scientific atheist", and with Quarantine and Being Dead, his main focus shifts from politics to religion. However, his stated aims for Quarantine are highly polemical:
Quarantine, with science as its sword would kill Christ after only thirty days in the wilderness. There’d be no Ministry or Crucifixion. The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity.
Hence the epigraph, quoted earlier: Crace wanted to use unflinching rationalism to show an all-too-human Christ, with a new religion arising from misunderstanding and manipulation, not miracles.
Certainly, Jesus in Quarantine is emphatically human, mocked as ‘Gally’ for his accent, and pestered by fellow pilgrims rather than tempted by the devil. Descriptions of him make him sound awkward and sanctimonious, not divinely inspired:
No wonder Jesus was a clumsy carpenter. He would have built a leaking ark. He concentrated on the large and inexplicable, and neglected what was on his bench. He cut or hit his fingers far too many times. God’s patterns on his fingertips were scarred. But he was happy to have wounds.
Even his unhandy carpentry seems to emphasise his lack of divinity, especially in the way Crace asserts he would have botched Noah’s Ark.
Jesus waits for divine signs and revelations, which do not come. The only apparent revelation mocks him as, instead of an angel, a dead donkey, disposed of by other pilgrims, falls past his cave’s mouth.
Ultimately, as the epigraph suggests it must, the physical reality of the fast catches up with Jesus. He dies, 50 pages before the end of the novel, having received no revelation, preached no sermon, and caused no miracle, with the ambiguous exception of restoring to health the feverish Musa.
Musa is a merchant, always with an eye to the main chance. Curiously, he is also a storyteller – one of Crace’s liars. He tells the pilgrims the story that he owns their caves, to extract rent from them. And following his ‘cure’, he concocts the story, whether from self-aggrandisement or inability to resist a good tale, that Jesus must truly be a holy man. At the end of the novel, as his wife Miri and his rape-victim, Marta go one way, to become the Mary and Martha of the Nativity story, Musa goes the other, to become the first, unacknowledged, evangelist:
this would be his merchandise, something finer and less burdensome than even colour, sound or smell. No need for camel panniers or porters or cousins. He’d trade the word. There was a man who had cheated death with just his fingertips. ‘I am the living proof’.
Jesus’ death and the elements of a fabricated religion seem to fulfil Crace’s intention to demolish Christianity – as far as a work of fiction can. However, extraordinarily, Crace’s polemic undermines itself, and courts ambiguity. Despite his possible ignoble motives for creating a Son of God, Musa actually encounters the resurrected Jesus:
the man approached, thinly as an egret, his body wasted to the bone, his too large hands and feet, his swollen joints. Only his genitals seemed unaffected by the fast. This was nothing. Musa was not shocked. He’d seen worse sights before than naked mystics… But he had never seen a man appear so weightless and invincible as Gally seemed to be.
Crace chooses to include this passage, which works directly against his stated agenda. Indeed, he has received messages from Christians, saying they found Quarantine a source of comfort, and felt it must have been divinely inspired. Crace’s response is remarkably laconic:
Correspondents, who have been bombarding me for months with their religious tracts, claim that Quarantine could not have been written by an atheist. ‘The Grace of God’, they say, ‘was standing at your shoulder as you wrote’. They’re wrong, of course. They do not understand that books have agendas of their own, no matter what the author may believe.
Although possessing strong beliefs, and a desire to express them, it nevertheless seems admirable that Crace should be sufficiently committed to his fiction to feel bound to go with its grain, and let it express its own agenda.
Perhaps the intrusion of Jesus’ character made it difficult for Quarantine to be as atheist as Crace intended – as atheist as Crace himself. Certainly, in moving from Quarantine to Being Dead, there is a sense of unfinished business. Crace acknowledges this:
Being Dead is the novel of the material I couldn’t include in Quarantine.
However, the main difference is that the approach to atheism in Quarantine was negative – making its case by undermining Christianity – whereas the approach in Being Dead is positive, attempting to build up a case for atheism.
Crace described how the death of his father caused him to re-assess his life-long atheism:
I was happy with this Stalinist, North Korean type atheism until I reached the first time in my life when I needed what religions would call an invisible means of support.
What he felt was lacking was all sense of transcendence. In the same interview, he commented:
we cannot afford to have a world in which there is no mechanism for fear and wonder and awe and transcendence, simply because atheism did not bother with that in the past… We have to come up with some other narrative of comfort that makes more sense than God.
This ‘narrative of comfort’ is what Being Dead sets out to provide.
It may seem strange that the attempt to make a persuasive case for atheism occurs alongside a disturbingly detailed description of the decay of two murdered corpses (Crace has been called a ‘poet of putrefaction’). However, this is a process of demystification, setting out the harsh reality that any narrative of comfort must be measured against:
When I hear perhaps the most repeated critique of the book – that the descriptions of death are cold-hearted – it demonstrates to me a common desire to distance humankind in death from nature.
If the descriptions of death are not cold-hearted, they are certainly detached and dispassionate, as in this passage, from near the end of the novel:
Their eyeballs were already liquefying and their faces were enlarged. Their skin was blistered on the undersides. Their innards were so bloated from the by-products of decomposition – methane and ethium – that their nostrils, ears and open wounds had been made frothy by exuding gas.
The stripping away of illusions about death is carried out remarkably thoroughly, leaving the way clear for a positive message which, when it comes, takes three forms.
Firstly, there is the effect that the murder of her parents has on their estranged, disaffected daughter, Syl. For all the evident lack of love between them in life, she is stimulated by their death to review her own life:
Her gene suppliers had closed shop. Their daughter was next in line. She could not duck out of the queue. So she should not waste her time in this black universe… No one transcends. There is no future and past. There is no remedy for death – or birth – except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.
This revelation was characterised by John Banville as an "existentialist recognition of the nothingness at the heart of life". Perhaps more straightforwardly, the message she takes to heart is ‘live for the day’ – a banal, but a poignant message.
Secondly, Crace strives to ensure that the abiding impression left by Joseph and Celice is one of love. All the time their bodies are decaying, they remain linked by Joseph’s hand on Celice’s ankle (Banville links this – I believe fancifully – to a similar image in Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’), and on the book’s final page, the harmony of nature in the scene where they died, is linked back to the characters themselves:
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.
The rhythms of Crace’s prose almost seduce, but ultimately it seems unworthy of his otherwise rigorous rationalism to suggest that that which is beyond experience can be enjoyed – by the dead, moreover.
The third method Crace employs also carries an air of authorial sleight of hand. The strand of the novel that works backwards in time from the murder has the effect, he claims, of ‘enfolding’ rather than ‘unfolding’ the story:
The characters are taken from their most exposed to their most protected, until they are sleeping comfortably in separate beds on the morning of their death without any sense of eternity or violence troubling them in the least. That, I suppose is the kind of sentimental comfort I took from this book. There is always the past to bask in.
Just as, in Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis can paint a Nazi doctor as a healer by reversing the flow of time, so here murder victims can move towards tranquillity. In both instances, it appears that the argument is flawed only by the fact that time does not move in that way – a blind spot in Crace, which seems at odds with his unflinching vision in so many other respects.
Commendably, Crace appears to be aware that he has not proven anything:
I wanted to create a false narrative which would provide some comfort in the presence of death in the same way that the Christian religion provides comfort, but I wanted my comfort to be a godless comfort – did I succeed? The truth is I don’t think I did.
Credit is due to Crace for this self-awareness, but more importantly for undertaking the huge, perhaps impossible, task of finding a narrative of comfort that addresses the philosophical issues raised by contemporary science.
Jim Crace writes in an inventive style, reflecting some of the formal innovators of modern literature, which enables him to adapt his technique to the requirements of his intellectual concerns. These concerns, ranging from the depiction of complex political and economic relations within society, to an engagement with the philosophical implications of science, are always powerfully contemporary.
Continent, London, Picador, 1987
The Gift of Stones, London, Picador, 1989
Arcadia, London, Picador, 1993
Signals of Distress, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1995
Quarantine, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1998
Being Dead, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 2000
The Independent, 25 September 1999
The Observer, 24 September 2000
Bomb Magazine, 2000, <http://www.bombsite.com/>
Jim Crace, Ed. Andrew Hewitt, June 2000, <http://hammer.prohosting.com/~jimcrace/>
New York Times, 2000, <http://www.nytimes.com/>
New York Times Review of Books, 2000, <http://www.nybooks.com/>
Reading Group Guides, 1998, <http://www.readinggroupguides.com/l>
salon.com, 2000, <http://www.salon.com/>
The Second Circle, 2000, <http://www.thesecondcircle.com/>