All six novels by Jim Craceperhaps literature's greatest living non-South American fabulistare, he says, about present-day Birmingham, England, the ultimate urban victim of Thatcher-era British decay, "my depressed city with its ugly center."
Uh...how 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 Birminghamat 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wrought by the advent of the computer; then I thought it was about how the difficult craft of storytelling has been superseded by the crude technologies of film and television; then I lost myself in the book and stopped thinking it was about anything other than its sensuous self.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, Quarantinea 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 Hotela 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 cavescaves, 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 Deadwhich, by my stars, is his best book yetis 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, Birminghamdespite its appalling dearth of sexually charged calves' milkis as good a place to live as anywhere.
Again Crace smiles. "Better," he says.
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.