Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Being Dead: A Novel

Being Dead: A Novel

3.3 13
by Jim Crace

See All Formats & Editions

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."

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Being Dead

By Jim Crace


Copyright © 1999 Jim Crace
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8015-9


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.


Had Joseph and Celice been killed, their bodies found, then carried home not on that Tuesday afternoon but, say, a hundred years ago, when even doctors of zoology could be lamented publicly, hysterically, without embarrassment, their family and their neighbours would have held a midnight quivering for them. The bodies would be laid out side by side on the bed in their best clothes and shoes, their wounds disguised, their hair slicked back, eyes shut, mouths shut, his hand on hers, their faces rhyming. The room would smell of camphor, candlewax and soap, and be as full of coughs and hard-backed chairs as a doctor's waiting room.

The mourners, women first, would come as soon as it was dark to start their venerations, weeping till their shoulders shook, tapping on the floorboards with their boots and sticks, rattling their bracelets and their cuffs. Whoever had the squeaky chair or the loosest floorboard to creak or the most resounding of sobs could count herself the most distraught. The greater the racket the deeper the grief. A hundred years ago no one was silent or tongue-tied, as we are now, when death was in the room. They had not yet muzzled grief or banished it from daily life. Death was cultivated, watered like a plant. There was no need for whispering or mime. Let the hubbub drive the devils out, they'd tell themselves. Let's make a row. Let's shout. There were even quiver sticks to buy and shake, made out of metal rods with clacking wooden rings. The children would compete for those; their squabbling and their snatching would only benefit the din. A quivering should make the whole house rattle, it was said. It ought to keep the neighbourhood awake. It ought to sound as if a thousand crows were pecking at the roof. But those were optimistic times; death was an ill-lit corridor with all its greater rooms beyond.

At midnight, when the men arrived, all the guests would stand to form a circle round the bed. They'd grip the mattress and the bedboards, a shoal of hands, to quiver the murdered couple, winnowing and shaking out their wrong-doings so that they'd enter heaven unopposed. The ashy chaff of all their errors and misdeeds would drift like cigar motes in the candlelight. Their tallowed sins would smudge the men's clean shirts.

Afterwards, fuelled by the older children of the house who'd serve them coffee or little cups of Boulevard liqueur throughout the night, the neighbours and the relatives would reminisce about the dead, starting with the hearsay of the couple's final, bludgeoned breaths. And then – with, naturally, some shuffling, dozing silences in the hollows of the night when no one could concentrate on anything except the hardness of the chairs – their recollections would regress through the years. Their memories, exposed to the backward-running time of quiverings in which regrets became prospects, resentments became love, experience became hope, would up-end the hourglass of Celice and Joseph's life together and let their sands reverse. When north is south, the dead sit up, climb off their beds, grow younger and indifferent to dying. Skin stretches tight, hair thickens and becomes as sleek as nightcats', blows and bruises are revoked. Wounds close.

First, the friends and neighbours would recall Joseph and Celice's latest months, 'So quiet – considerate, I mean – you hardly knew if they were in.' Then their middle years, their married life, their work, perhaps, their parenting, their wedding, the student days, until – with sentimental guesses at their early lives, what sort of girl and boy they must have been, how they excelled at books if not at sport – their childhoods were achieved.

With practised timing, the quiverings for the murdered couple would end at daybreak. As dawn was flattening the candle-flames and deepening the corners of the room, an aunt, a colleague, an old friend would celebrate the wonder of the couple's births over fifty years before, their infancies, how sweet and difficult they'd been, how promising, how loved.

Quiverings were resurrections of the dead.

But these are hardly optimistic or sentimental times – and that Tuesday afternoon was not a hundred years ago. Poor Joseph and Celice would not be found and carried home for burial. Not for a while, at least. Nor would their faces rhyme sweetly on a bed. No one would come to hide their wounds or slick their hair. There'd be no camphor, candlewax or soap to disguise the smell of their decay. A thousand crows would not be pecking at the roof. There would be crueller birds and greater spaces. There's nothing after death for Joseph and Celice but 'death and nothing after'.

Yet there can be a quivering of sorts. It might be fitting, even kind, to first encounter them like this, out on the coast, traduced, spreadeagled and absurd, as they conclude their lives, when they are at their ugliest, and then regress, reclaiming them from death. To start their journey as they disembark, but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning death. And all their lives ahead of them.

The doctors of zoology were out of time, perhaps, but they can be rescued from the dunes by memory, receding, and tucked up in their waking beds again, still tenants of the room.


3.50 P.M.

Celice, at fifty-five, was hardly old enough to have lost her fear of death. That accommodation is only for the elderly or the insane. But her dying, chaotic though it was, was far too sudden to be frightening. There were only fifty seconds between half completing her last sentence ('It's not as if ... ') and drawing her last breath. She did not have the leisure or the knowledge to be fearful. She just felt – for a tumbling instant – like she'd often felt at night, half conscious in the falling shudders of a dream. Winded, weightless and betrayed. Her heart collided with her ribs. Her body shook and arched. Her head was loose and hurtling through rimless chambers. Some conjuror had vaporized the earth and emblazoned all the space through which she fell with pixilated, pulsing lights. Her final moments were kinetic, abstract, pointillist.

Judging by the modest blood-flow of her far from modest wounds, Celice's heart had ceased pumping almost as soon as she was hit. Her skull was not as thick as Joseph's. (That was something that she'd always known about the man. Her husband was curmudgeonly, distracted, timid and thickskulled.) Her skull was weaker than the granite too, of course. The bone caved in like shell. Her brain, once breached and ripped, was as pale and mushy as a honeycomb, a kilogram of dripping honeycomb. It was as if a honeycomb had been exposed below the thin bark of a log by someone with a trenching spade. Her honeycomb had haemorrhaged; its substance had been spilt.

The blows across her face and throat cut off the blood supply and, though her brain did what it could to make amends, to compensate for the sudden loss of oxygen and glucose, its corridors of life were pinched and crushed. The signals of distress it sent were stars. The myths were true; thanks to the ruptured chemistry of her cortex, she hurtled to the stars.

Celice began to hyperventilate, a squall of sips arid gasps and stuttered climaxes. Her heart and lungs were frenzy-feeding on the short supply of blood, until, quite suddenly, they failed. They had abandoned her, too devastated to survive. Her chest muscles had forgotten how to rise and fall. Her reflexes were lost. She could not cough or even swallow back the blood. The brain-cell membrane pumps shut down. Celice had lost control for once. She'd gone beyond the help of medicine and miracles. No breath, no memory.

There were still battles to be fought but these would be post mortem, the soundless, inert wars of chemicals contesting for her trenches and her bastions amid the debris of exploded cells. Calcium and water usurped the place of blood and oxygen so that her defunct brain, almost at once, began to swell and tear its canopies, spilling all its saps and liquors, all its stored immersions of passion, memory and will, on to her scarf, her jacket and the grass.

Less than a minute. She was fortunate.

Was Joseph any luckier, with his thick skull? Already he was almost lost, though if (the wildest dream) angel-paramedics had arrived by helicopter and flown him to the hospital they might have saved his life, if not his senses. His blood pressure was madly high already, from diet, age, the titillations of the day, and now from shock. His heart was straining on its membranes like a hatching sopbug, pulsing its wet wings against the sac. But he was breathing still, alive enough to feel the pain and to experience the dying. He outlived Celice by more than half an hour.

Joseph had been insensible at first. He was concussed. His grey matter could metabolize only half the glucose that it needed. But he was functioning. His kidneys still processed and cleaned his cells. His stomach still digested what was left of the mango and the cheese brioche he'd eaten for his breakfast, and the humiliating sandwich that he'd had for lunch, twenty minutes earlier. His blood supplied his tissues with their nutrients and sent its white corpuscles to construct their canopies of scars across his wounds. His bone marrow continued to add new cells to the trillions that had already passed their dark, unknowing time as part of him. His pupils dilated in the sunlight. His bladder processed all his waste, although he was incontinent already. He still breathed the heavy, salty air of summer in the dunes. Occasionally he moved his leg or extended a finger. He was warm, kept warm by his unenlightened, circulating blood, and by the sunshine. He hadn't put on any screening block, as Celice had advised him to that morning. His naked skin was getting tanned. He urinated down his thigh.

But some minutes later, and against the odds, Joseph came back into the world. He surfaced briefly from his coma – awakened by a rush of oxygen, its bubbles spiralling and rising like the gas in lemonade to pout and burst inside his brain. He'd never heard a wind so loud before or noticed so much odour from the busy earth or felt the syncopated pulsings of his body. The sun was blinding him. The galaxies were bearing down. He turned his head out of the light, despite the pain of moving, so that his cheek was flatter on the grass. He opened his undamaged eye. His spectacles, still on his head, were not broken but they were smeared with blood.

At first, he could see only blades of grass, ungreened by the smudging on the lenses – and then, half a metre to his side, he saw his wife. Her leg was level with his face, braced and supported on its toes and knee. He knew her ankle and her foot. He did not have the angle or the strength to lift his chin and look beyond her knees to glimpse her face. Perhaps she was not dead or even injured. Her leg looked so composed and calm. Her toes were manicured. Her nails were berry red. There was the usual shine on her skin from shaving, the familiar, heavy calf, peppered with sand, the broken veins behind her ankle bone, the foot's low arch, the ochre calluses on her heel.

It must have seemed her leg had moved, a shrug of skin, a spasm of muscle, enough to dislodge some calf-sand and to shake the longer grass under her foot. Joseph tried to bark and squeak her name. His arm was heavy and numb, dislocated at the shoulder. The air seemed too thick to penetrate with anything as soft as flesh. Yet somehow, fortified by his self-pity, Joseph found the will and the adrenaline to reach across towards his wife. He wanted to apologize. He had to twist his wrist against the broken angle of his arm and weave his fingers through the heavy air. His hand – bruised a little when the wedding ring was stolen – dropped on to the stretched flesh of her lower leg, the tendon strings, the shallows of her ankle. Blood from his damaged knuckles ran over her skin but not enough to glue his hand in place. He spread his fingers and tried to grip a solid bone to steady himself. He had to stop his body being swept away, by wind, by time, by continental drift, by shooting stars, by shame.

Her skin was warm, so Joseph might have taken this as confirmation that his wife was still alive, that she might get up off the grass at any moment, collect her clothes and go for help. He could afford to sleep. He started on a dream. An anxious dream in which he'd left his daily ledger out on the deck one morning, on the breakfast table. A careless oversight. It could well rain and wash away his ink, the records of his life. His pages would be turned to pulp. Or else they might be found and read by strangers.

At what point had the life – curmudgeonly, distracted, timid and thick-skulled – gone out of him? Joseph's heart was squirming like an angler's worm, refusing to be reconciled to the awaiting deep, but weakening with every beat. The fish would rise and take it soon. Mondazy's celebrated fish. But the agony did not belong only to the heart. Every pod and pocket of his body played its part, at its own pace, in its own way. Joseph was being gathered in by death, cell by cell by cell. He came to be half of himself, and then a quarter of himself, and then a fraction of himself, which was too small to measure. The music and the mayhem had all gone. His more-than-half-an-hour had elapsed.

They say that hearing is the last of our proficiencies to die, that corpses hear the rustling of bed sheets being pulled across their faces, the early weeping and the window being closed, the footsteps on the wooden stairs, the ruffian departing, the doctor's scratchy pen. That is why our generation talks so quietly in the dying room. And that is why the quiverings of old were not a waste. The body hears the widow and the child, the rattle of the chimney-pot, the quiver sticks, the life unravelled backwards through the night.

The final sound that Joseph heard was his own bark. His face was grey-white, sheenless, dulled. He was still sweating and his penis was erect, not filled with blood and passion but stiffened by the paroxysms of his muscles. Cruel fate. His limbs and face still twitched, a reflex to the blood's acidity. His larynx was convulsed. The sound he made was not a rattle or a whoop, but more like the call of foxes, or else a gull, or else the unresponding kick-start of a motorbike. Within a moment of the bark – and the few retreating cub squeaks that followed it – Joseph stared up at the day with flat, toneless eyes. Again, no breath, no memory.


Excerpted from Being Dead by Jim Crace. Copyright © 1999 Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.

Jim Crace is the author of many novels, including Quarantine, which won the 1997 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction. His novels have been translated into eighteen languages. He lives with his wife and children in Birmingham, England.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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 shake...it 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.