Jim Crace
(Picador USA)
Celice and Joseph are zoologists and university professors. They met thirty years ago at Baritone Bay --- so named because the sand, at certain times, with certain winds, sings with a low hum. The two of them had arrived on a field trip, along with several other scientists, and after a few days, the two of them succumbed to love-making in the dunes, among the singing sands.

Since the Bay is about to be invaded by development, the two of them, now married, decide to return for one last visit. To investigate again the humming dunes and, presumably, have a memorial lovemake scene. At the moment of their conjoining, however, they are attacked by a rock-wielding robber, who mashes in their heads, steals their loot, and leaves their bodies to the insects, gulls and crabs.

Crace gives us a full-bore description of the actual murder, where their various body parts, awash with blood, end up --- how they begin to decay. This is his report on the now-defunct Joseph:

    When he fell on his back, his legs apart, his fat and puckered testicles were on display. They'd split and torn with the impact of a heavy blow. The swag flies browsed his chest and swarmed between his legs. They gleaned the urine and picked at the semen lacquer on his inner thigh.

It is a few days before their daughter Syl figures out that they are missing --- and a few more days before their bodies are discovered. By that time, what is left of them has turned even more gorpy. Crace goes at the description with no little fervor:

    In the warmer, gaping caverns --- sub-rib, sub-flesh, sub-skull --- the garish blues and reds and greens of their disrupted, bloated frames. They were too rotten now and far too rank to hold much allure for gulls or crabs.... The swag-fly maggots had started to emerge on this fourth day from their pod larvae, generated by the putrid heat in Joseph and Celice's innards.

§     §     §

Being Dead won the 2001 from the New York Critics' Circle fiction award. It has gotten an veritable army of bouquets from the critics: The L A Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Kirkus, Booklist, PW, the NYRB --- all the literary heavies. The Hudson Review said that Crace "will probably be the writer who defines this era for future generations." The Virginia Quarterly Review cited the book for its "gentle and poetic writing."

If you ever had a moment's doubt about the lemmings who run the American literary set --- let this be your clue. Because Being Dead is about as gentle and poetic as the bombing at Hiroshima. Dead, Celice and Joseph are certainly not much to write home about. Even alive, they aren't much better. This is Celice reluctantly disrobing for her reluctant rematch with Joseph in the dunes:

    The naked pigeon thighs. The balcony of fat around her navel. The strong and veiny legs.

Joseph doesn't fare much better, with his "dropped lip and short breaths...his retracted testicles... creased like walnuts." Crace doesn't even want the old bastard to enjoy himself in the passion department --- he saddles him with a premature ejaculation before they can even get the engine roaring.

Rather than a novel about old love (as some critics have suggested), the author has created a smelly stygian mess. He seems to have a strange fascination with bodily goo. He comes back again and again, during the course of the narrative, to report on new slimy creatures supping down on poor old Celice and Joseph. He gives constant updates on how their bodies are faring in the full blast of the sun, and on the many beesties noshing down on their unexpected rich banquet.

And its not just an exposure of bodily juices and decaying parts. Crace goes after exposing all with a vengeance --- not only our two old bashed-in zoologists. We get a full-on listing of the foibles, personality kinks, the coarse and craven souls of all those who turn up in this messy contretemps: the fellow scientists, the police, the keeper of the corpses at the local morgue, taxi-driver Geo, and the one child Syl. They are all shown to be insensitive, noisy, unlovable. All get enmeshed in the claws of the author --- making him some kind of a crab nosher in his own right.

If this is the writer who "defines this era for a future generation," let me off the bus. Please. Eudora Welty said that an author should always have love for their characters --- even if they aren't the nicest of people. Crace obviously doesn't care a whit for his and, indeed, doesn't seem to think much of the world in general. Publishers Weekly reports that he liked his Critics Circle Award because he hoped for "a fatter advance next time around." He also said that "there was nothing critics liked better than making a winner out of a loser --- and short books." With less than 200 pages of pure slime and goo, he may have a point.

--- Lolita Lark

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