Sunday, August 20, 2000
On a Tuesday afternoon, married zoologists Joseph and Celice decide to take an outing to the beach and dunes where they first met nearly 30 years ago. By the middle of the first page of Jim Crace's incredible, haunting new novel, "Being Dead," the couple, in the midst of trying to recreate their first intimacies, are murdered by a sociopath wielding a large chunk of granite. As Crace says at the end of the short first chapter, "They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia."
The book, however, contains little nostalgia. The brutalized bodies will not be discovered by humans for six days. Crace describes in exacting, clinical detail what exactly happens to human flesh, bone and organ when bludgeoned with a heavy object, and how the bodies' physiological defenses snap into trauma mode then slowly recede, smothered by the blanket of death.
But in the half-hour before Joseph expires from his myriad, "His hand -- bruised a little when the wedding ring was stolen -- dropped on the stretched flesh of her lower leg, the tendon strings, the shallows of her ankle."
A detailed host of bugs, crabs, birds and microbes come to feast on this human flesh, doing things that would make Thomas Harris ("Silence of the Lambs") gag and run for cover. And Crace will return readers again and again to the decomposing bodies at the scene of the crime, cataloging their natural decay. By turns his descriptions are horrific and scientific, and readers learn far more than they ever wanted to know of the specifics of death.
But, Crace also keeps his focus on the image of the hand on the leg, "There is a meadow that separates death's chilly gate and the tumbling nothingness beyond, in which our Joseph and Celice are lying, cushioned in the sunlight and the grass, and held in place by nothing firmer than his fingertip." And it's around this image that Crace weaves what is the best, most convincing love story I have ever read.
No doubt that the book is disturbing, the circumstances of their death violent, cruel and unfair. Crace balances that horror with the couple's avowal of love. A love that transcends the quietness and routine of 30 years of marriage between two people who don't even sleep in the same room. In a feat that can only be described as absolutely amazing, Crace cultivates the life in death, and concurrently, the death in life. As Celice chides her students, "Our births are just the gateway to our deaths. " You're dying now, get used to it!"
But the love story doesn't come out in their banter, fantasies or even the dead hand on the more dead ankle, but rather Crace's breathtaking rendering of the tenuous grasp by which we cling to life.
Midway through the novel, Crace introduces us to Joseph and Celice's only daughter, Syl, a troubled twentysomething who lives far away and for all practical purposes despises her parents. But through her thoughts, her anger and panic at her parents being "missing," a few days in her old home, a creepy trip to the morgue and eventually to the beach to identify the decaying bodies, we see Crace's profound meditation on grief. Their deaths, contradictorily floor and free her. "There isn't anything beyond me now," she says, "There isn't anything I cannot think about, or say."
Most writers will have a clanky chapter, an uninspired sub-plot or recurring metaphors that never work, but at the most nit-picky level, readers would be hard pressed to find more than a few sentences in the novel that don't work. Crace's writing sings with tenderness, overwhelms with sorrow and divinely transforms a contemplation on death into a trumpeting celebration of the peregrinations of life and love.
If writing can ascend to a state of grace, the hymnal, resplendent words of "Being Dead" are there, looking feebly for worthy company.
Mark Luce, Lawrence, serves on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle and writes book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.