By Jim Crace
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 255 pages, $24.95
Bad timing: The Pesthouse, Jim Crace’s new novel, set in an America devastated by an unspecified apocalypse, will be lumped, inevitably, with Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer- and Oprah-blessed The Road, a much more powerful account of our post-apocalyptic future. Mr. McCarthy’s bravura performance is impressively disciplined, and whatever your opinion of the message of The Road (the Christian reverb is too much for me), you have to admire the effectiveness of the writing and the relentless drive of the narrative. The Pesthouse, by comparison, is curiously unfocussed; it gives the impression of a talent adrift.
Mr. Crace transports us to a distant future that resembles the Dark Ages. America as a nation no longer exists; the population, ignorant of all science, lacking any but the crudest technology, hounded by poverty, disease and lawlessness, is on the move: Everyone, it seems, is heading east, hoping to catch a boat to the rumored land of promise across the ocean. “America was emptying.” You could say that the tide of history has turned—except that history has no meaning in this post-literate world.
There are ruins in the landscape, eroded evidence of a lost machine age, “tumbled stone and rock, stained with rust and ancient metal melt”—the “junkle,” Mr. Crace calls it. Franklin and Margaret, our kindhearted hero and heroine, thrown together by chance and perpetually on the brink of romance, are also traveling east, through the “plains of scrap,” towards the coast; the sequence of their adventures gives the narrative its loose, rambling shape.
Part of Mr. Crace’s ambition is to forge a style that reflects a world stripped of modern technology and a population unacquainted with scientific reasoning. He invests heavily in the personification of natural forces, especially in the early chapters. “The sun occasions modesty. It disapproves of flesh.” “The rain was unforgiving in its weight. It meant to stay and do some damage and some good in equal parts. It meant to be noticed.” Later, when the travelers reach the shore, Margaret is baffled by the ocean: “Its moodiness made no sense. What could be the purpose of such restlessness and indecision?”
When it works, the prose seems simple and rich, earthy. When it doesn’t, you wonder whether Mr. Crace isn’t trying too hard, straining for effect when he should have his eye fixed on a compelling storyline. Here, for example, he flounders in the surf: “What had been flat a little way offshore seemed to resent the unresponding land. It had raised itself up in folds and furrows of water that broke against the beach, flashing their white underskirts, unloading and delivering themselves, time after time, never seeming to progress.”
Mr. Crace likes to call himself a “traditional” storyteller; in each of his novels he flirts—sometimes blatantly—with folklore. In The Pesthouse, he goes whole hog: The language, setting, characters and plot all suggest a fable or a myth. The novel has the feel of a parable, and it’s shaped like a mythic journey. And to me, at least, it’s disappointingly opaque, like a satire with a secret target. I suspect that Mr. Crace set out to expose “the taints and perils of America”—but got lost along the road.
Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.