by Jim Crace
208 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review by J.S. Colley
The first thing you need to know about Being Dead is there are no vampires.
Not a one.
It isn’t about the curse of “living death.” It’s about the real deal—detailed and gruesome.
On the surface, this novel is about a long-married couple who take a day trip back to the place of their first lovemaking for a nostalgic redo, only to be brutally and thoughtlessly murdered. But it is oh-so-much more. This book isn’t for lightweights. It will appeal to those who love their fiction dark and literary.
Being Dead was recommended to be by one of my writer friends from across the pond. Jim Crace’s popularity has yet to take hold here in the States, which surprises and saddens me. We’re missing out on a great writer. This is the first book I have read in his collection but I don’t intend it to be my last. After finishing the book, I immediately posted on my friend’s facebook page how much I loved it. So many things to ponder, I said, so many things to discuss! One of those things is “truth in fiction” but I’ll save that until the end of this review. Another is how I compare my feelings toward this novel with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But this, too, I shall leave until later.
After briefly hinting at the couple's death amid the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay, Crace starts out the novel by describing a quivering—a fictional ritual where mourners stand in a circle around the bed where the dead is laid out. They take hold of the headboard and mattress and shake or “winnow” out the wrongdoings so the deceased might enter heaven unencumbered by sin. Then they sit and reminisce about the dead, starting with the nature of the death and then they “…regress through the years. Their memories, exposed to the backward-running time…upend the hourglass…and let their sands reverse.” This sets up the tone and themes—one being sin—as well as the structure of the rest of the novel. Alternating chapters move us back and forward through time, like the motion of the tides on Baritone Bay. We move forward as the bodies decay and backward as they make the fateful decisions that will ultimately lead them to their deaths.
There are four threads to this novel—the backward journey of the couple immediately preceding their death; the couple thirty years earlier when they first met, which was marred by the death of one of their fellow students; the decomposition of their undiscovered bodies; and their estranged daughter’s attempt to find her missing parents. The four threads interweave throughout the novel and the author does it masterfully.
We are first introduced to the main couple, Joseph and Celice—he an oceanographer, she a zoologist—just prior to their brutal murder. They don’t even have time for a post-coital redress when the wife’s head is bashed in by a piece of granite welded by a local vagrant. Having studied them while they try to find the exact location of their first encounter, the vagrant surmises that Celice is the more threatening of the two, so when the time comes for him to disable them (he did not intend to kill them), he strikes her first, welding a fatal blow on the first stroke. But Joseph has enough time to reach out his hand to touch his wife’s ankle in his final moments before death. His hand will stay there for, what the author calls, their “six days of grace.”
Here starts Crace’s detailed and gruesome description of the couples decay. But Crace’s writing has a rhythm and tone, making the minutiae of a decaying body almost poetic. Hiding behind the poetry, however, is also a very clinical assessment of the process of decomposition—much like the victims themselves would write in one of their scientific reports.
“There were still battles to be fought but these would be post mortem, the soundless, inert wars of chemicals contesting for her trenches and her bastions amid the debris of exploded cells. Calcium and water usurped the place of blood and oxygen so that her defunct brain, almost at once, began to swell and tear its canopies, spilling all its saps and liquors, all its stored immersions of passion, memory and will, on to her scarf, her jacket and the grass.”
The novel is drenched in religious symbolism. From the vagrant thinking the woman more of a threat than the man—a common theme in many religions—to the author giving them “six days of grace,” which is the same amount of time it took God to create the world. Some have suggested the nakedness of the couple symbolizes the creation of Adam and Eve. The husband reaching out to barely touch his wife’s ankle puts me in mind of Michelangelo’s The Creation, where the fingertip of God is giving life to Adam; and of woman being created from the rib of man or, in this case, his touch. Just as Joseph coaxes Celice to the dunes the first time they made love, he also coaxes her there on that final day. Man, this time, tempting woman with the forbidden fruit, only to cause their banishment from Eden.
Some might take Joseph’s final gesture of reaching out to touch his wife as a symbol of his love, and I won’t argue the point. But theirs was not a giddy love story. It was as clinical and precise as one of their scientific studies. From their first meeting they were both calculating and logical about their possibilities as a couple. I did not find either of the characters sympathetic or likeable and perhaps that, too, was Crace’s intent. Humans are flawed. Not until after their six days of grace can they be redeemed.
We learn later in the book that the couple’s first lovemaking was marred by the tragic death of one of their fellow students, and Celice’s roommate, Festa, when the study house they are staying in while working on their doctorates catches fire. Celice harbors guilt her entire life thinking she might have caused Festa’s death due to her neglect when rushing to meet her lover amid the dunes—though there is never any proof. Again carrying forward a religious theme, this time of original sin and the guilt we carry with us until our redemption.
The irony of their deaths being in the same place they first made love is not lost on the reader. The circle of life—we end up where we being and begin where we end. But there are also less thematic but still intriguing ideas: was the fellow student who died in the fire seeking her revenge? Was the curse of the ominous singing dunes of Baritone Bay coming true?
In the end, even the authorities and public begin to begrudge the couple. “Why had they taken off their clothes, at such an age, in such a place, if not to draw the devils and the monsters to the dunes? These victims had been accomplices in their own misadventure.” Even the vagrant—intent on robbery, not murder—muses that they caused their own deaths.
There is so much to talk about for such a short novel—it is only about 200 pages—from the various themes to the writing itself, which I found exhilarating. But my space is limited so I will move on to the other topics I promised I would discuss.
First, “truth in fiction.”
I don’t know about you but when I read fiction, I read to learn, whether it is about human nature, places, plants or animals. When reading a work of fiction—unless it is fantasy where everything is made up—I surmise the author has done his homework, has researched whatever it is he’s writing about, that when I’m reading about a quivering or a sprayhopper that there really is such a thing as a quivering or a sprayhopper.
Not so—at least not in this novel.
It seems Mr. Crace made up the flora and fauna—and their Latin names—mentioned in this novel. And as earnestly as I think I remember hearing of a similar ritual, “quivering” is also a mere figment of Mr. Crace’s superb imagination.
Crace really fooled me on that one. It sounded much like a “chiverie,” which is a mock serenade with kettles, pans, horns, and other noisemakers given for a newly married couple.
How do I know he made all these things up? I tried googling quivering and sprayhoppers. I got nowhere with quivering and the closest I could get with sprayhoppers was spray gun. Then I started to do more research and found Crace confirms it.
Should I be upset?
At first I was a little annoyed. If I hadn’t googled sprayhoppers I would be looking for them in the waves the next time I went to the beach. How embarrassing would that be? But, in the end, I forgave Mr. Crace. It is fiction after all. I just think he should have made a note that the flora and fauna (and rituals) are not real. Am I being naïve? Probably. But now I wonder if all those flowers in Agatha Christy novels really exist. I thought so. Now I’m not so sure.
And I wish I realized, before now, that a writer could do that—I spend hours researching the natural plant and wild life of the places I’m writing about. About the public buildings where my scenes are taking place. I thought it was part of my job. Now I realize I can just make stuff up. So, beware. All that you read in fiction—no matter how believable it sounds—may not be true. Who wudda thunk? (What’s the old saying? Believe half of what you see and none of what you read?)
I also promised I would write about my visceral reaction to the gruesomeness of death as I read this book versus how I felt while reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Faulkner’s book came to mind almost immediately when I started reading Being Dead. I was surprised to realize that, although far more graphic, this book didn’t trouble me as much as Faulkner’s.
Since I don’t have much space left, I won’t delve into this too deeply. But I think it has something to do with the presence of humans. In Being Dead, the bodies are left to decay in nature, near the ocean where all life began. They are given their six days of grace. I don’t get squeamish about the graphic details of their decomposition until their bodies are discovered and “man” starts passing judgment on the corpses.
In Faulkner’s book the body of the mother does not decompose in nature. Instead the dead mother is being transported to her family’s cemetery against obstacles of biblical proportions—flooded roads and the like—and in hellish heat. The difference is Crace’s account, while gruesome in detail, is done in a clinical fashion while Faulkner’s is more immediate. The son and husband of this woman must endure the odor of her decomposition, the feel of her liquefying body as it sloshes around in the wooden coffin. The entire thing seemed very undignified.
She was not allowed her six days of grace, or any grace at all. Even though it was her wish to be buried with her family, the husband’s obdurate insistence in not giving up in the face of such overpowering obstacles makes the gesture and their struggle seem mean-spirited rather than respectful.
Last, I don’t feel I’ve given anything away, so I’ve not given any spoiler alerts. Being Dead is less about the plot and more about the writing. No matter what I tell you about “what happens,” you will never fully appreciate this novel until you’ve read it.
I suggest you do.