Sunday, July 27, 2008

Crace Craze

John, I'm looking back over the 459 Ward Six posts and am shocked that none of us have mentioned the work of Jim Crace. I am informed that it is pronounced as one syllable, although he is European, or at least British. I first heard about him from you, regarding Being Dead, whose protagonists are a dead couple in some sand dunes. It sounded like too much of a trick, at the time, and I avoided the book until after I found The Gift of Stones and read it on the train between El Paso and Charlottesville. The Gift of Stones is a pre-Bronze Age story about a family of stoneworkers and the sadness of progress. Or something. What grabbed me about the book was the dawning realization that it was written almost entirely in iambics. It scans.

The Devil's Larder is a book of short essays, mostly from fictional characters, about food and taste, written with a sort of sinister knowingness. I was surprised by this book, after reading a few novels. While still largely iambic, he allows in essays his sentences to play around more than in fiction, like Guy Davenport or Evan S. Connell. Like the best food writing, it's really about death.

Here's an excerpt. Scan it!

This afternoon, I thought I’d fill my time by making bread. My old wrists ache with tugging at the dough of what, I think, will have to be my final loaves. I tore a strip off for good luck, kissed it, put it on the window sill. I warmed the oven, greased the tins, and put the dough to cook on the highest shelf. Now I’m waiting at the window, with a smudge of flour on my lips and with the smell of baking bread rising through the house, for the yard to fill and darken with the shadows and the wings.

I haven't read Quarantine, because it's about Jesus, and I am wary of fiction that contains Jesus, having been raised around people who sneak a little Jesus or America into anything, like raisins in chocolate chip cookies, something they think is sweet and you would like, or perhaps need. Good sources inform me that I should put aside these assumptions and read Quarantine, and that it reads like Gift of Stones and The Pesthouse, all focused survival dramas in blasted zones.

The Pesthouse, Crace's most recent novel, is terrifying. I read this one on a train, too, the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Palm Springs in June. The Sunset Limited is a good train for reading, because it is mostly stationary, stuck behind freight.

Here's the first paragraph of The Pesthouse:

Everybody died at night. Most were sleeping at the time, the lucky ones who were too tired or drunk or deaf or wrapped too tightly in their spreads to hear the hillside, destabilized by rain, collapse and slip beneath the waters of the lake. So these sleepers (six or seven hundred, at a guess; no-one ever came to count or claim the dead) breathed their last in passive company, unwarned and unexpectedly, without experiencing the fear. Their final moments, dormant in America.

Scan that, man. It begins, as epics properly do, with a trochee: EVryBODy DIED at NIGHT. and then another trochee: MOST were SLEEPing AT the TIME, the LUCKy ONES and so on, broken up every ten syllables or so to interrupt the rhythm, to keep you from noticing.

It's mastery, simply.


Paul said...

I had the same concerns with the Jesus novel but having read and liked a few of his books I forged ahead and found it as rewarding as any of the others, so I add my voice to the read Quarantine bunch.

You did not mention one of my favorites Arcadia which I would also recommend. Genesis however is one I did not quite cotton to at all.

Good comments on the prose which I'll keep in mind when I read him next.

And I know what you mean about the tricks (re Being Dead)...felt that way about Amis' Time's Arrow which felt thin and obvious for the first bit and then gained power over the ensuing pages.

Anonymous said...

Skoog, are you serious? We really haven't posted about Crace? He's very good, and though I have The Pesthouse, I read like ten pages a year ago then got distracted. I'll restart.

I love "The Devil's Larder" (which I read as fiction), and "Quarantine" as well--Jesus is a sideline character in it, and is treated in a daring and wildly successful way. I read the whole thing on a transcontinental flight.

At first I thought Crace might be humorless, but "Devil's Larder" is like a skeleton key to his other stuff--it lets you see where he's being wry. And I'm with you on the prose.

Hope you don't mind, I adjusted your formatting a bit, to meet the terribly exacting W6 standards.

ed skoog said...

You're right, of course, about Devil's Larder, it is mostly fiction, but fictional essays more than stories, which is what put me in mind of Guy Davenport (or Calvino or Borges).

bigscarygiraffe said...

Holy. Bejesus. I need this author immediately: a trochee? Really? It's too bad that (1) I'm poor, and (2) I no longer have sweet, sweet access to Cornell's Library. I'm public librarying tomorrow...or smuggling some books out of some university whose name will now remain nameless..

AC said...

I don't mind a little Jesus in my fiction, but not as a character. Too much politics, plus it bothers me to be able to see all the array of scholarly opinions the author has decided to draw on for his or her personal "christology". I'd be kind of interested to read Anne Rice's Jesus novel, if only because it's such an about face.

Jim Crace sounds like someone worth looking up. The Gift of Stones is the one that's drawing me, just based on your description. Are there still passenger trains running? I thought they had all fallen apart by now.

ed skoog said...

AC, the passenger trains have fallen apart and they are still running.

I highly recommend Gift of Stones. It's a strange little book, a caveman Catcher in the Rye. Immediately I regret writing that, not the Catcher part, but "caveman." The book has enormous sympathy for Thag, and suggests that being a human is and was always difficult.

ed skoog said...

Please note that Thag is "The Far Side" automatic name preset for a caveman, and is not the name of the character in the book.