Being Dead

Being Dead

3.3 13
by Jim Crace

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A haunting new novel about love, death, and the afterlife, from the author of Quarantine

Baritone Bay, mid-afternoon. A couple, naked, married almost thirty years, are lying murdered in the dunes.

"Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell—just look at them—that Joseph and Celice were still devoted. For while his hand was touching her,


A haunting new novel about love, death, and the afterlife, from the author of Quarantine

Baritone Bay, mid-afternoon. A couple, naked, married almost thirty years, are lying murdered in the dunes.

"Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell—just look at them—that Joseph and Celice were still devoted. For while his hand was touching her, curved round her shin, the couple seemed to have achieved that peace the world denies, a period of grace, defying even murder. Anyone who found them there, so wickedly disfigured, would nevertheless be bound to see that something of their love had survived the death of cells. The corpses were surrendered to the weather and the earth, but they were still a man and wife, quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A work of near-genius . . . [by] one of the most distinctive and talented writers of our time."

—Justin Cartwright, Literary Review

"Magnificent."—Caroline Moore, The Sunday Telegraph

"A brilliant, astonishing novel."—The Times (London)
Amazing Crace

All six novels by Jim Crace—perhaps literature's greatest living non-South American fabulist—are, he says, about present-day Birmingham, England, the ultimate urban victim of Thatcher-era British decay, "my depressed city with its ugly center." is that, Jim?

His first book, Continent, is about an invented eighth continent, a land of wonder containing talking skulls, vast totemic ceiling fans, and sexually charged calves' milk. As far as I know, none of these things exist in Birmingham—at least outside of Crace's head.

His second, The Gift of Stones, is about a seaside community of stoneworkers at the beginning of the Bronze Age: an amazingly resonant allegory about the world's changing technologies and tastes. As I read, I kept thinking that this was really about the obsolescence and new world order wrought by the advent of the computer; then I thought it was about how the difficult craft of storytelling has been superseded by the crude technologies of film and television; then I lost myself in the book and stopped thinking it was about anything other than its sensuous self. I suppose it's also possible to read The Gift of Stones as an ironic requiem for the end of the age of metals, a bittersweet RIP to Birmingham's moribund steel industry, but I doubt this would have occurred to me if Crace hadn't told me all his books were about Birmingham.

His third, Arcadia? Well, it is certainly a visionary urban novel, a modern fable about a poor boy who grows up to become a tycoon and wants to obliterate his old neighborhood and build a bizarre bazaar, a huge glass-walled shopping arcade. So, okay, maybe that one. But the one after that, Signals of Distress, about an 1836 shipwreck and the havoc wreaked by its survivors (American sailors, hundreds of cattle, one African slave) on a bleak English fishing village, will not make anyone think of the boarded-up mills of Birmingham.

It was when I thought about his fifth novel, Quarantine—a tale of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness (told from the points of view of the other desert-bound cave dwellers in the Mount of Temptation and written with respect for the Judeo-Christian myth by a man who describes himself as "a devout atheist")—that I couldn't help but ask Crace if he was pulling my leg.

He smiled, threw up his hands and said, "Absolutely not."

Quarantine, he said, was directly inspired by Birmingham's Palm Court Hotel—a decaying thing thousands of miles from the nearest outdoor palm tree. The hotel has been converted to a hostel and is now home to 150 mental patients. "All these people have nothing in common," Crace said, "except that each of them is accidentally juxtaposed with all these other troubled people, each of whom is living a life that is teetering on the edge."

A realistic novelist, he speculated, would have the task of taking that resonant setting and that cast and balancing the documentary realism of that against the need to tell a story through it. Nothing wrong with that, of course. "Some of my best friends are realistic novelists," he said.

"But as for me," Crace said, "I kept waiting for some idea or inspiration that would allow me to take the subject and dislocate it to another place and time to see if it cracks, if it bends. To see what happens when it cracks and when it bends."

One day, a friend of Crace's sent him a postcard of the Mount of Temptation, so named because it, supposedly, was site of Christ's wilderness temptation. The face of the mountain was dotted with caves—caves, Crace found out, that were dug into the side of the mountain by human hands. For no reason in particular, Crace started counting the caves. It turned out there were about as many caves as there were residents of the Palm Court Hotel.

Eureka. "And so it was," Crace said, "that a novel with a 1990s Birmingham provenance would end up getting set 2,000 years ago and in the Judean desert, 2,000 miles away."

I was starting to understand.

Crace's just-published novel Being Dead—which, by my stars, is his best book yet—is about...well, being dead. A couple, prim college professors in their 50s, are at the outset of the novel dead: clubbed to death moments before by a thief while they are preoccupied making love on a desolate beach where years ago they'd made love for the first time. "They paid a heavy price," Crace writes in the first chapter, "for their nostalgia."

The story is the least likely page-turner I've ever come across, and one of the most gripping. Its present action takes us from the moment just after their death through their gradual decomposition, their corporeal transition from zoology to botany, until they are discovered days later, and the earth upon which their corpses had been sprawled gradually erases any evidence that they were there: The sea grasses unbend themselves; the flies and crabs and gulls that ate their fluids and flesh are hungry again; the sea wind blows; the indentations their bodies made on the sand dune drift over. Along the way, Crace tells three other stories: the story of their lives together, the story (in reverse chronological order) of their morning together, and the story of their colleagues and relatives' search for the missing couple. It somehow does all this in fewer than 200 pages.

None of it will remind anyone of Birmingham.

Yet here again, the novel had a Birmingham provenance (what a perfect word for this! with its art and antiques and shipbuilding connotations). Soon before Crace started the novel, his father died. Grief-stricken, Crace set out to write, as a kind of monument to his Birmingham-resident father, "a devout atheist's love song to the lack of an afterlife. I wanted to create something more uplifting than any fairy-tale nonsense about pearly gates and angels."

This is all a paradox, perhaps, the Birmingham provenance of these wild contemporary fables, until you think of Kafka, tubercular, working in an insurance office and living in the sooty Prague ghetto. Or García Márquez, born in the midst of a violent banana-pickers strike, whose early years as a writer were spent covering violent crimes as a journalist and living in a brothel in the rough port town of Cartagena.

Maybe, I say, for a writer like Jim Crace, Birmingham—despite its appalling dearth of sexually charged calves' milk—is as good a place to live as anywhere.

Again Crace smiles. "Better," he says.

Mark Winegardner

Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Crace is a brilliant British writer whose novels are always varied in historical setting, voice, theme and writing style, and are surprising in content. Those very factors may have contributed to his failure to establish a literary identity and to attain his deserved audience here. This latest, sixth effort (after Quarantine), a stunning look at two people at the moment of their deaths, is the riskiest of his works, the most mesmerizing and the most deeply felt. Joseph and Celice, middle-aged doctors of zoology married to each other for almost 30 years, revisit the seaside where they first met and made love "in the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay." They are surprised on the dunes, murdered and robbed, and their bodies lie undiscovered for days. In alternating chapters of chronological counterpoint, Crace traces their last day, working backwards from the moment of their murders to their awakening that morning, innocent of what is to come. At the same time, he recreates the day they were introduced, in the 1970s, when they were researching their doctoral dissertations. By the time these chronological vignettes converge, Crace has created two distinctive personalities who sustain a marriage and careers and parent a rebellious, nihilistic daughter, Syl. His finesse in drawing character is matched by the depth of his knowledge and imagination, and the honesty of his bleak vision. Some readers may be horrified by the brutal imagery ("Her scalp hung open like a fish's mouth. The white roots at her crown were stoplight red") or the matter-of-fact details of the body's putrefaction: the first predators "in the wet and ragged centres of their wounds" are a beetle, swag flies, crabs and a gull, and their activities in each corpse are described with detached scientific accuracy. The profession of the deceased, of course, adds irony to the situation. Celice taught that the natural sciences are the study of violence and death, while Joseph maintained that "humankind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology." In juxtaposing the remorselessness of nature against the hopes, desires and conflicted emotions of individuals, Crace gracefully integrates the facts and myths about the end of human life, and its transcendence (in Syl's epiphanic vision), into a narrative of dazzling virtuosity. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
While not well known in this country, Crace (Quarantine) is established in Britain, where this naturalistic meditation on life and death was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. Set contemporaneously in an unspecified country, it concerns Joseph and Celice, middle-aged zoologists murdered while on a nostalgic visit to the place they first met. Crace alternates between detailing the brutal circumstances of their deaths and reconstructing the quiet regularity of their everyday lives. He dwells on the process of their physical decomposition among the seaside dunes in a tone that is at once coolly scientific and highly poetic. A side plot concerns the effect the couple's disappearance and death have on Syl, their estranged adult daughter. This is undeniably a tour de force, but Crace's unrelenting emphasis on "rot and putrefaction" (to quote the novel's flip epigraph) may put off some readers. For larger libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99.]--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

For old times' sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay. And to lay a ghost. They never made it back alive. They almost never made it back at all.

    They'd only meant to take a short nostalgic walk along the coast where they had met as students almost thirty years before. They had made love for the first time in these same dunes. And they might have made love there again if, as the newspapers were to say, `Death, armed with a piece of granite, had not stumbled on their kisses.'

    They were the oddest pair, these dead, spreadeagled lovers on the coast: Joseph and Celice. Both had been teachers. He was director at the Tidal Institute, where he was noted for his coldness as much as for his brains. She was a part-time tutor at the university. Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch. How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions. Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air?

    They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia.

Meet the Author

Jim Crace is the author of six novels, including Quarantine (FSG, 1997), which won the 1997 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. He lives in England.

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Being Dead 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
SpyderWryter More than 1 year ago
Being Dead is a beautifully written novel. Crace constructs sentences with such vivid imagery that there is a simple pleasure in reading his words slowly and letting the picture he paints come alive in your mind. If I may provide a quick example: "The house itself is stretching, creaky in the rousing wash of dawn's first grey. The sun's forehead is peeking at the day, its face still indigo from sleep, its cloud head uncombed and tumbling its vapour curls on to the skyline of the sea." If that doesn't do anything for you, doesn't create an image in your head, then this book may not be for you.

This is a slow (but not difficult) and pleasurable read. The characters are credible, and Crace evokes your empathy for them. The narrator telling this story has a captivating voice capable of compassion, humor, knowledge and brutal honesty. He very well becomes a character in the story.

I have nothing but good things to say about this novel. If you enjoy the craft of a book, if you enjoy complex and realized characters, if you're interested in the fragility of mortality and just how to recapture the glory of a life passed away, if you want to see beauty where you think it couldn't possibly exist, then this book is for you. I never though I'd be saying the words "Being Dead is great," but there you have it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jim Crace is the Flaubert of our time. That may seem a rather heady exaggeration, but I have yet to read a living writer who is a better craftsman of that most fundamental unit of style, the sentence. Crace's are elegant, slightly unusual, a touch poetic, but never heavy handed or overdone. I'm always amazed at the way his powers never waver, not once--the stylistic consistency of his works, maintaining that perfection of style on every page, in every sentence, from start to finish, is great proof of a true literary genius. I can't recommend his work enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
roycharlesPA More than 1 year ago
One of the more imaginative books I have read. This will become a part of my permanent library. I discovered Jim Crace through a review of Being Dead in The Financial Times. I recommend this book to thoughtful readers.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Jim Crace's book, on the surface, is depressing. It is about death, and takes a brutal atheistic perspective. However, it is also about love, and romance, in situations where they should not flourish. The book examines two distinctly unromantic and unattractive people who meet in an unromantic situation, who are incompatible and somewhat unpleasant besides, and stay together into the unromantic period of middle age. They obviously love each other anyway. The couple is killed, and in disgusting detail are described as they rot and are consumed, but maintain a pose of tenderness and love. The world of this book is cynical and pessimistic but the beautiful, hopeful conclusion is this: love is not part of a situation, it transcends situation - love needs nothing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel failed to engage me on every level. It was written with a dryness that was supposed to suggest a deeper meaning, but it never conveyed anything extraordinary. The characters were flat and their relationships over-simplified. The plot, unique in its conception, was clumsily advanced. The novel manages to be boring without rewarding the reader for the effort. It lacked insight and emotional truth, though it pretended to reveal both. The last two words 'Being Dead' are 'being dead.' When I finished reading, I had to groan in disgust. At least it was cheap and short.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read it .... but it was neither entertaining nor uplifting. There is a gloominess that I just couldn't may be fine literature but I can't appreciate it. When there is a violent murder, i want some justice... not ambivelance and decomposition narrative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being Dead is a love poem without the poetry as it might appear in Scientific American. The detailed description of the decomposition of two bodies was skillfully done, but beyond that success, there is little to be gained from this blessedly short novel. Joseph and Celice are drab, dispassionate people who, if they are, in fact, in love, show scant proof of it in the book. Maybe they were in Crace's imagination, but he failed to transfer that emotion into his characters. Indeed, Celice seems to flat out dislike her husband; it is hard to believe they were married for thirty years, much less subsequently destined to 'enjoy a loving and unconscious end' eternally thereafter. If you don't believe me, ask their daughter, Syl. She was unabashedly happy to see them go and didn't for a minute think of them as two people in love. Joseph and Celice lived and died and decomposed and that is what this book is about and there is nothing more to be harvested from Crace's prose other than his good intentions. Being Dead might have been an eloquent love dirge with another writer's execution. Return to James Joyce's 'The Dead' for an idea of what it's supposed to feel like.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a real 'real' bummer of a book. 'Being Dead' is a very existential look at death. If Paul Sartre had the word on living in our existence, this book has the corner on the dead existing after their gone, i.e. a hunk of rotting flesh. It really puts a perspective on the daily priorities. Get the sex when you can, don't stress on the future, and act on the important things. If I could only figure out the last one I could probably execute the first two better. This book is a good read, and a must read for a better life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book very enjoyable because of its sincere examination of death and a love relationship.