Saturday, November 10, 2018

Morbid curiosity

Jim Crace's Being Dead begins by presenting the reader with the bodies of its two central protagonists, Joseph and Celice, lying prostrate in the dunes, but this is no run-of-the-mill thriller whose plot subsequently follows the hunt for the murderer. On the contrary, the crime itself is almost incidental and the perpetrator is merely an opportunist thief who hardly figures in the story at all.

What interests Crace much more is the mere fact of his characters' deaths, and how this somehow reframes their lives. Essentially, he has the couple killed so he can bring them back to life again. An early chapter talks of "quiverings" - noisy expressions of grief and commemorations of the dead that in previous centuries used to begin the mourning process - before going on to imply that the novel will be just that for Joseph and Celice.

Of the four separate but intertwined narrative threads, one recounts the circumstances in which the couple first met nearly thirty years earlier; one relates the events of their last day alive; one charts what happens to their corpses as the hours and days pass; and one follows their daughter Syl as she tries to track them down. Essentially, Crace's theme is the passage of time: how it changes individuals, how it affects relationships, what it does to the body (both alive and dead). We see Joseph and Celice in the full flush of youthful lust; in their later years, by which point that passion has all but dissipated, replaced by a familiarity that can be both irritating and consoling; and finally united in death.

Crace's perspective on death is robustly unsentimental. His descriptions of the process of corporeal decomposition, of the busy action of the attracted wildlife upon the now inert, insentient matter, are extraordinarily vivid and rich. The couple's "final legacy" is far from grand: "A rectangle of faded grass and, where the bodies had decayed for their six days of grace, a crushed and formless smudge of almost white where time and night had robbed the lissom of its green". And even that legacy proves to be only temporary: "the wounded lissom grass perked up. Hope springs eternal in the natural world. ... By final light on the ninth day since the murder all traces of any life and love that had been spilt had disappeared."

For such a slight novel (albeit one that is tightly and carefully conceived, with no fat or bagginess whatsoever), Being Dead carries a weighty message. For the individual, death is not the "fine translation to a better place" promised by religion but a definite ending, albeit one that gives meaning, impetus and urgency to the life that has gone before it. In the grand scheme of things, though, an individual's death is insignificant; the world is insensitive, life goes on.

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