A writer of “hallucinatory skill”: Jim Crace

Jim Crace’s new novel “The Pesthouse” will be out in North America in May. O frabjous day!

I own and have read three of Crace’s novels (Signals of Distress (1994),  Quarantine (1997) and  Being Dead (1999)).  To quote John Updike, Crace is a writer of “hallucinatory skill”.  Each of Crace’s novels for me stands as a lesson in economy, clarity, and craftsmanship, and his prose is hard to beat for sheer beauty.  

In the opening pages of “Being Dead”, we come across the dead bodies of a middle-aged couple, Joseph and Celice,  lying naked on a beach. Crace writes:

It was as if they had been struck by lightning but the thunder, separated from its faster twin, had yet to come with its complaints to shake and terminate the bodies lying in the grass. Time was divided into light and sound. There was a sanctuary for Joseph and Celice between the lightning and the thunderclap. Such were their six days in the dunes, stretched out, these two unlucky lovers on the coast.  

This is our only prayer: May no one come to lift his hand from her leg. Let thunder never find its voice. Hold sound and light, those battling twins, apart. There is a meadow that separates death’s chilly gate and the tumbling nothingness beyond, in which our Joseph and Celice are lying, cushioned by the sunlight and the grass, and held in place by nothing firmer than his fingertip.

My favorite piece of writing by Crace, however, is his advice for aspiring writers, originally published in The Guardian in 2005.  Crace (as is presumably the lot of every successful novelist) is often approached by strangers begging him to look at their manuscripts, and his responses are full of warmth and humor, often acerbic but never unkind. I began to like the man as much as the author after reading this article. Here’s an excerpt from his reaction to a would-be novelist, Alison, and her manuscript “The Lizard”:

Dear Alison,
It was so nice to be recognised in the restaurant last night. I appreciate you coming across to introduce yourself to me and my wife and was touched that you then went to all the trouble of abandoning your meal and your friends to hurry home for your manuscript. I feel a bit guilty about the little scrape you had with your car on the way back. All in a good cause, I suppose.

And

You wrote, “The lizard was poised on its four flexed legs, waiting for a fly to show itself.” I do not wish to be unkind to you or overestimate the intelligence of your intended reader, but that first sentence does not widen my understanding of the reptile world. The news that a lizard has four legs and is keen on flies is not likely to draw me in to your narrative. “The lizard was poised on its five flexed legs, waiting for a child to show itself”, is much more likely to get my attention.

But, really, you must not allow your sentences to be weighed down with unnecessary and unproductive ballast. Every writer has a damaging idiosyncrasy, and that is yours. You remind me of a young author I met when I was an Arts Council writer-in-residence many years ago. She’d written a strong and heartfelt story about the ugly break-up of an appalling marriage, but she, too, was overfond of stating the bleeding obvious. (“The black and white magpies flew across the countryside” was one of hers. Black and white, indeed. The countryside!) As evidence that the warring couple in her story could hardly bear each other’s company, she had described how the husband would always find some excuse to escape into the garden, to do a bit of weeding, perhaps, to mow the lawn, to tidy the shed, to burn some weeds, instead of bickering with his wife. “In the last months of their marriage, there was always a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, emitting smoke,” she wrote. A tender image, don’t you think? But hardly a rigorous or revealing one. Lazy writing. A bonfire emitting yogurt, or black and white magpies, would have been more engaging for the reader, even if a little silly.

And

I challenged the woman to make some small changes, to engage the reader in a testing metaphor of her own. Her change was minuscule – only two letters – but that change transformed the sentence from a lazy one to one that was demanding. Instead of “a bonfire emitting smoke”, she had written, “In the last months of their marriage, there was always a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, knitting smoke.” Her image did not have to be explained. We could see the blackened sticks and branches crossed like thick needles in the nest of the bonfire and the long, grey scarf of smoke that they produced.

A golden statue of Crace ought to stand in every MFA program faculty lounge…

Crace has his own website (www.jim-crace.com), with links to reviews and excerpts of his books. You can also read more about him at the Contemporary Authors website here.

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