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.

Beach near Bermagui, New South Wales

Beach near Bermagui, New South Wales

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!

10 thoughts on “Jim Crace, Being dead

  1. LOL Lisa – I’ve been wanting to read that one too. But, what do I do but re-read Being dead. Silly really, but I do find it mesmerising. I’d like to read more of his.

  2. I wonder if Crace has heard the saying ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’? If someone is handed a sow’s ear of a life it is pretty hard to make a silk purse of it and only the very strongest characters can achieve that . All credit to any such but I hope he extends compassion to those who fall short.

    • Good point lithe lianas. Not sure that I’d say he’s compassionate particularly but I would say he’s not judgemental – humanist is probably the word.

  3. Quick question on that last quote WG, is there a didactic element to this book? Is it telling the reader how to live? It all sounds excellent, but the last quote possibly slightly preachy. Any thoughts?

    • Ah no, I don’t think it’s didactic – I just liked those lines and I like to look for “messages”. With the four strands going every which way, it’s not really simple at all. There’s more fatalism I think than didacticism, if those two can be opposed to each other. But would love to see your take on it.

      • They are excellent lines. Thanks. It’s not on Kindle so it may not be my next Crace after all, but it is a very tempting one. I can’t think of anything quite like it, which is a good recommendation for it really.

  4. Sue, your review itself has inspired me to fall in love with the book. I love your reflection on the title. The word ‘Being’ before the word ‘dead’ is something I have never thought of. And that last quote. Oh, how utterly beautiful and motivating and comforting! I am surely going to read this and from the way I am already thinking about it, I think I will ending up rereading this. Thank you, Sue.

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