Being DeadBeing Dead by Jim Crace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s curious that author Jim Crace isn’t more well-known on this side of the Pond. On the other hand, during the two years I spent underneath the Equator in Aotearoa I was introduced to a great catalogue of writers who have made no more than a faint “ping” on the U.S. cultural radar. Even with the supposed borderless Nation of Internet, we Stateside-bound lot live in our own world. A big huge one, granted, so we can’t catch everything. But we miss a lot. Don’t get me started on the authors who create in languages other than English who will never be published or spoken of in the U.S. Mostly because I don’t know who the majority of them are. Because I live here.

Anyway. Being Dead is my introduction to Crace, and this after first hearing of him just two weeks ago. Yet this novel has heaps of awards (National Book Award, New York Times Book of the Year, Whitbread (now Costa) Book Awards short-list, American National Book Critics’ Circle- see, America did take note!). Had I been paying attention in 2000 when it was making the rounds of “Best” lists, I surely would have sought out Crace and his brief, elegiac novel.

I find it all a bit confounding. Being Dead is highly stylized and so meta. It’s full of symbolism and writerly tricks, like made up species and poets and legends and cultural practices (Hint: don’t waste any time looking up anything unfamiliar on Wikipedia. You’ll get a great big Crace “Gotcha!” Just read the damn book). Gobs of gorgeously pretentious writing – you get seduced by and swallowed up in its richness, like duck confit or Sauternes. It contrasts the minutiae of decay with abstract atheism. It’s like watching a Terrence Malick film and pretending that you know what you’re supposed to get out of the deep themes and esoteric observances, but really, you just like the pretty pictures.

I’m sounding cynical. It’s not that I don’t think this is an astonishingly composed novel. It is. Parts of it are breathtaking. But this reader enjoyed the central characters far more when they were dead than when they drew breath. Which is to say I enjoy Crace’s writing far more when he is alone with his dead characters than when he is their puppet-master as they interact in the world.

Dead, our murdered protagonists Joseph and Celice are beautiful, humane, tender, multi-layered, Technicolor beings. Alive they are crashingly dull. As are their lives and their histories. Dead they are mysterious, life-giving, splanchnic and viscous. Alive they are vapid.

I wouldn’t venture to recommend this to anyone because I don’t want to be responsible for keeping someone up at night as they listen to their bodies die. Or because I don’t want the sound of someone throwing this book across the room to wake me up. I’m very glad to have read it. I will seek out other novels by Jim Crace. But I won’t pretend to like them.

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