A Quiet Brit’s Loud Talent: Jim Crace’s Corpse Comedy

Being Dead , by Jim Crace. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 196 pages, $21.

The literary novelists from Britain best known in the United States can be classified by decibel level: the noisy (Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson), the somewhat less noisy (A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes) and the blessedly quiet (Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro). On this same scale, Jim Crace–who lives in Birmingham, light years from the London scene–has been sub-audible: zero ego clamor, zero media buzz. And yet I’m willing to bet that the cool, crisp sound of his voice will begin to be heard very soon, and that the sound will carry far and linger a long time.

Being Dead , Mr. Crace’s sixth novel, was just nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. Will winning bring him the attention he richly deserves? He’s won plenty of prizes in England and a ton of critical praise (in America, the reviews have been scattered but almost unanimously ecstatic)–and still he hasn’t broken out. (The NBCC award will probably go to the crowd-pleasing American favorite, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , or to White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which is the sexy choice: The author is young, talented and photogenic, and the book, raucously multiculti, was thought to be a serious contender for England’s Booker Prize but was left off the short list. Ms. Smith is owed.) An American award for Mr. Crace would be nice, but hardly necessary. He’s a captivating storyteller and alarmingly intelligent; more importantly, his novels seem blessed with wisdom. In short, there’s no hurry: Mr. Crace will sooner or later be crowned with honors.

His debut was Continent (1986), linked stories about an invented land mass and the socio-economic growing pains of its population. Next came The Gift of Stones (1988), a love story set in a Stone Age village in the split second before bronze made stone weaponry obsolete. Arcadia (1992) was set sometime right around now in a city called Gotham; it should be on the bookshelf of every urban planner. Mr. Crace went nautical in Signals of Distress (1994), and for the first time fixed his action in a specific time and place: a seaport on the English coast in 1836. Three years ago he published Quarantine , a shockingly vivid and convincing re-imagining of Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the wilderness. And last but nowhere near least: Being Dead , to my taste easily the best novel of the year 2000.

Can you imagine a funny novel about two corpses lying in the dunes for six days–a comedy of bodily decomposition? Or, stranger still, a rotting-corpse comedy that egins with a brutal double murder, encompasses a 30-year love story and addresses, with utmost seriousness, what we know of the hereafter? Being Dead is at once macabre and lighthearted, violent and tender, witty and profound, irreverent and moving–and perfectly calibrated, so that all these crosscurrents seem to ebb and flow in harmony.

Two middle-aged zoologists, Joseph and Celice, decide to picnic in the dunes at Baritone Bay, the place where they had met 30 years earlier when they were students doing field research. The picnic is Joseph’s idea, a bit of romantic nostalgia peppered with lust. His erotic hopes are nearly fulfilled, then fatally interrupted: He is naked, Celice half-undressed when they are attacked by a robber who batters them to death with a hunk of granite and steals their wedding bands, their watches, her bracelet, some cash, the keys to the car.

The rest of the novel is a playful narrative exploration of time, mortality’s smoldering fuse. Three clocks are ticking. One is a kind of necrometer: It runs forward from the instant of death to the discovery of the bodies by police dogs six days later; it charts decay and the necrophagous activity of beetles, birds, crabs and rodents; and it monitors, also, the half-hearted search conducted by the dead couple’s disaffected daughter. A second clock measures the day of the murder: Mr. Crace sets it back earlier and earlier, until at last it reads 6:10 a.m. and the couple is still safe in bed, still asleep as the morning breaks–”A dawning death.” The third clock is antique by contrast: It takes us back 30 years, to the clumsy courtship that led to the marriage of Joseph and Celice. As these three clocks tick, we become uncomfortably aware of time’s terminal consequence for each of us. Though every clock can seem like a spinning roulette wheel, bringing us absurd coincidence and unlikely accident (two people meeting at the seashore and falling in love, the same two people planning a picnic at the same seashore and dying violently)–in the end, the game is drearily predictable: Everybody dies.

What happens to the remains when human life is extinguished? It’s sort of slapstick. Chapter 6 begins like so: “The bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first.” A day later, the ugly biological facts are taking on bold hues: “The skin was piebald. Pallid on the upper parts. Livid on the undersides … Celice, her nose still pressed against the grass, was purple-faced. Her downward-flexing knees and upper thighs were black as grapes. Her buttocks were as colourless as lard.”

It could be argued that Mr. Crace has merely elaborated beautifully on the great lines from King Lear : “Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all.” As he tells us, “Celice and Joseph were soft fruit. They lived in tender bodies. They were vulnerable. They did not have the power not to die. They were, we are, all flesh, and then we are all meat.” Toward the end of the novel, he shares with us the thoughts of the disaffected daughter: “No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death–or birth–except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.”

This is not the sum total of Mr. Crace’s message. He’s just as interested, I’d say, in living narrow but deep, with memory and imagination coursing through the channel. No one transcends. And yet, with loving attention to two putrefying corpses, Mr. Crace succeeds in granting Joseph and Celice a kind of immortality. There’s no afterlife, at least not as advertised from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, but this fictional couple lives in death.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.