Jim Crace, Being dead
The old “so many books, so little time” mantra means that I very rarely read a book more than once (other than my Jane Austens of course), but I have read Jim Crace’s Being dead twice. I love this book. I know some find the subject matter unappealing but I find it not only fascinating but rather beautiful.
For those who haven’t heard of this novella (really), its plot centres on a murder. Joseph and Celice, a middle aged couple (and, significantly, zoologists), are bashed to death on a secluded part of a beach at the book’s beginning and, from this point, the story moves in multiple directions to explore a number of before and after scenarios relating to this event. In fact, one of the things I like about the book is its four-part structure, and its forwards-backwards movement in time as the different strands of the story are played out. Crace moves backward from the moment of their death to the beginning of that day, and alongside this he recounts forward the story of their relationship from the point of their meeting. The third strand concerns their daughter as she reacts to the news of their disappearance, and the final strand, which is the one that turns off some readers, chronicles the decomposition of their bodies as they lie undiscovered in the dunes. It’s not for nothing he makes them zoologists!
Near the end of the book is a clue to why Crace has chosen this structure. He writes that “Earth is not a visionary and can’t be blamed for what’s ahead. It is retrospective … It is the past that shapes the world, the future can’t be found in it”. It seems to me to be a pretty fatalistic – what will be, will be – view of the world, and one I rather like. I don’t think he’s quite saying we can’t change our world but he is saying that what we do, what is now, shapes it and our lives, that there’s no future mystery out there waiting to make something of us. Right near the end is this:
Nothing could be changed or amended, except by the sentiment of those who were not dead. That’s the only Judgement Day there is. The benefits of hindsight. The dead themselves are robbed of hindsight.
So what about the characters who are the focus of all this? Crace has in fact chosen pretty ordinary, fairly unlovable (except to themselves) not-particularly-admirable characters. By doing this he makes the point that we all have our lives, that the only really important thing is love, and that there is dignity in that. As he writes: “Love songs transcend, transport, because there is such a thing as love”.
And it is all told in language that is rhythmic and oddly beautiful despite the horror of the subject matter:
The corpses were surrendered to the weather and the earth, but they were still a man and wife, quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet.
Crace is a great stylist, I think, which is why he can tell such a story in four parts but in less than 200 pages. Take the title for example: the use of the present participle “being” is very telling. Present participles imply action, continuation, ongoingness, but death is usually seen as the end. In this book there are several continuations: the world, the natural world in particular, continues, and Joseph and Celice’s love continues. Oh, and they stay dead. Great title.
So, to labour the point, his message is that we and only we make our lives:
There is no remedy for death – or birth – except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.
Carpe diem I suppose – but an oh so eloquent evocation of it!