Genesis: A Novelby Jim Crace
A major new novel about sex and the citizen by the award-winning author of Being Dead
The timid life of actor Felix Dern is uncorrupted by Hollywood, where his success has not yet been shackled with any intrusive fame. But in the theaters and the restaurants of his own city, "Lix" is celebrated and admired for his looks, for his voice, and for his/p>/b>
A major new novel about sex and the citizen by the award-winning author of Being Dead
The timid life of actor Felix Dern is uncorrupted by Hollywood, where his success has not yet been shackled with any intrusive fame. But in the theaters and the restaurants of his own city, "Lix" is celebrated and admired for his looks, for his voice, and for his unblemished private life. He has succeeded in courting popularity everywhere, this handsome hero of the left, this charming darling of the right, this ever-twisting weather vane.
A perfect life? No, he is blighted. He has been blighted since his teens, for every woman he sleeps with bears his child. So now it is Mouetta's turn. Their baby's due in May. Lix wants to say he feels besieged. Another child? To be so fertile is a curse...
In Genesis, Jim Crace, winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the Whitbread Novel of the Year, charts the sexual history of a loving, baffled man, the sexual emancipation of a city, and the sexual ambiguities of humankind.
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By Jim Crace
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2003 Jim Crace
All rights reserved.
LIX LEFT IT late. Till November 1979. He was almost twenty-one and it was nearly midnight when he first had sex with anyone. Full docking sex, that is. Full snug-'n'-comfy. Like almost everybody else his age, of course, he'd had hand jobs, not only with himself since he was twelve but twice with helpful boys at school and once (a birthday treat when he was seventeen) with an unsuspicious girl, one of nature's volunteers. Her first time with a boy. She'd seemed surprised at what she'd done, at what she'd made him do, and with such little exertion. She jumped back just in time, so that only her sandal and her wrist were soiled by Lix's sudden gratitude.
On that night of his induction—if it were not for the birthmark on his cheek—you would not recognize the celebrated Lix. Less heavy for a start, less grand. And much more volatile, as you'd expect of someone in his first semester free of parents and the family home. He was training for the stage at the academy. This was a time when Theater, newly unleashed from the censors, was argumentative and powerful. Lix truly wanted to improve the world, believed that Art was Revolution's smarter twin, that Acting and Action were equal partners. Collaborators, in fact. He'd signed up with the Mime/Scream Community Drama Collective in his first month as a student and was active, too, in Street Beat Renegades, Provocations & Co., and the Next Stage (as in Paul Roesenthaler's "The next stage is the elimination of captains, chaplains, and kings"). He didn't have a repertoire, Lix said (adapting Roesenthaler yet again, our city's feted radical), he had "an onstage manifesto." Actors seemed to be the partisans of change back in those simpler times when appointees and the army controlled our lives even more completely than they do now, now that—to chant the cynics' chorus—theater is unfettered and trifling, all our leaders have been democratically imposed, and Freedom has destroyed our impulse to be free.
Lix had a democratically modest fourth-floor room amongst the tenements down on the wharf, with not only skylight views across the newly named City of Kisses toward the river but also a narrow glimpsing view from his box kitchen into Cargo Street, where now there are boutiques and restaurants instead of groceries and bars and "working folk."
The woman who had set her heart that night on Lix stood with his binoculars (where he had stood and spied on her so many times), her back against the little stove, her face veiled by the curtains, the rubber eyecups pressed against her lids and focused on the late night customers, the waitress, and the owner in the sidewalk cafe below, across the street. His stolen daily view of her. She was surprised how large the people seemed—they filled the lens—and how unsuspecting, uninhibited, they were, free to mutter to themselves, or stare, or rearrange their belts and straps, or swing their legs, with no idea that they were being scrutinized. "So!" she said. So this was where the owl had his nest. "I've often wondered what the view would be like if I were looking down on me!"
Lix was embarrassed, obviously. Caught out. He was also frightened and aroused. For all his noisy confidence, he'd never had an unrelated woman in his room before. What might it mean? He watched her from the kitchen door, his arms stretched up to grip the lintel, his printed T-shirt riding high above his belt to inadvertently display an adolescent abdomen and the apex of his pubic hair.
She, too, seemed large and detailed, in a way she'd never been through his binoculars. Her outfit was familiar, of course, her general shape. He recognized the fashionable "Sandinista" tunic suit with its half sleeves and "rough-look" calf-length skirt. He recognized the matching spangled rebel scarf. But mostly she was unfamiliar. The angle, for a start, was different. He'd mostly seen her from above, the shoulders and the head. Binoculars had shortened her. Binoculars diminish the world, reduce the senses to one. Precision optical instruments, no matter how finely ground, fogproof, waterproof, and vision-adjusted, could not hope to convey true proximity, the candid softness of the flesh, the spiciness of scent, the rustling, independent simpering of clothes, the clink of her bracelets, the perfect imperfections and the blemishes of someone close to thirty years of age. Until that night, he'd only seen this woman from afar.
Lix, actually, like many young men, was practiced in the art of watching women from afar, not always through binoculars, of course, but women he could only dream of touching, women he could only scheme about: his voice tutor at the Arts Academy, the swan-necked student called Freda from one of the science faculties, the daughter of the concierge at his apartment house, the over-scented cashier in the campus cafeteria, the tiny half-Greek actress in his course, the bursar's haughty wife in her white suits, the many tough and visionary women in his "groups," and—let's admit the universal truth—any female under fifty simply chancing into view. All worshipped from afar. They'd all be judged and sifted, feeding his mind's eye, as casually and unself-consciously as a sea anemone might sift the random flotsam in its reach.
When you're that young and inexperienced you take in fantasies with every breath. You mean no harm. But then you don't expect a distant fantasy to walk up to your room. You don't imagine that the woman waiting for her boyfriend every evening after work in the sidewalk cafe below your kitchen window will ever be so close and intimate except through your binoculars. You cannot know, might never know, that she will be the mother of your eldest child.
SHE'D NOTICED HIM standing there with his binoculars many times in the preceding weeks, behind the twitching curtains in the rented rooms. The shifting lenses caught the light and signaled to the street. As did the pale and transfixed face beyond, with its dark birthmark on the upper cheek. She hadn't minded that he was spying on her. Being watched and waiting for your lover was much less tedious than simply waiting unobserved. She did not display herself, exactly. She stayed demure; crossed legs, with a newspaper or magazine to read, perhaps, or a letter to write to her sister in Canada. Sometimes a book. Occasionally a cigarette. She always seemed so self-contained and concentrated, this little information clerk in her expressive outfits. Always looking down. She had learned to watch the upper window in the building opposite without lifting her head. Men weren't as undetectable as they imagined. And she did seek out the best-lit tables in the sidewalk cafe, the ones most favored by the evening sun, the ones directly opposite the snooper's room. She liked this silent and seductive rendezvous.
It had occurred to her, of course, that any man so patient and persistent with binoculars, and fixated enough to waste his time staring through his lenses at her, might not be honorable or sane or attractive even. She'd seen the remake of the classic Peeping Tom. She'd read the trial reports of dangerous voyeurs. There was something animal about his spying, too: faces at windows, figures in caves. She should have been more fearful and more wary. Yet she felt safe. She had spotted her admirer once, out on the street. There'd been no mistaking that birthmark, or how unmenacing he seemed. The young man was striking. The blemish on the face was beautiful, an unexpected touch of innocence for one so secretive and scheming. She was surprised, as well, how adolescent he was. That made his voyeurism charming almost, more forgivable, appropriate. How satisfying to have magnetized a fellow scarcely out of his teens when she—a mere month off her thirtieth birthday, not married yet herself but desperately dependent on a married man—had almost dismissed herself as being attractive to no one single.
It can be no surprise, then (given how her sense of worth had been diminishing), that the daily half an hour between her ending work and her part-time lover getting to the cafe became for a month or so the best part of her day. She sat with a perc of coffee, out on the street, her body trim, and was desired. Desired sexually. Desired simply for the way she looked by the young man now swinging from the door frame only a meter behind her, with his sweet, appealing midriff and the kiss-me birthmark on his face. She did not want him for a lover. She didn't even want him for a friend. She wanted him just once, just for the hour, and just to reassure herself. A "little interlude" to salve her wounds.
Her "little interlude" had not been planned. She'd never cheated on a man before. Never needed to. But when the call had come through to the cafe that evening to tell her that her lover had been delayed and that he'd phone the next day at her office "when he got the chance," then she'd been troubled and offended beyond words. The small offenses irritated most—the effort she had expended after work, before arriving at the cafe, touching up her makeup, fixing her hair, changing into clothes he liked, the time she'd squandered during the day imagining their meeting, rehearsing their embrace—although the larger implications were unignorable and frightening. The pattern was familiar. This was the third time in ten days that he had let her down in one way or another. This was the third cheating husband in the last two years who had disillusioned her. She took the hint. She felt the chill. Another cooling, flagging man was scuttling from her life.
She'd started out the day as a woman with some status, not bloated with self-regard like some people she could name but confident enough to know that she was valued somewhere. Whenever she was waiting in the cafe—an almost daily routine for the past three months—she had a purpose and a role. She was the early half of a couple, waiting to be validated by her man—and that was satisfying. The owner and the little waitress understood that she would arrive before the boyfriend, that she would order a coffee and—occasionally—a glass of mineral water. They were used to her eager nervousness—the frequent checking in the little vanity mirror she carried in her purse, her habit of shaking her watch as if to hasten time, the way she stared into her book, her writing pad, her newspaper, but never seemed to turn a page. And then, when he arrived, the lover always just a little bit too late but standing over her at last to stoop a kiss onto her cheek, they'd be familiar with his embrace, her hand bunched up across his back.
Some days they'd only stay at the table for a few moments and then depart separately. The briefest meeting, just to hug. Once in a while, they'd share a beer, though clearly the man was not comfortable in such a public place. On other days, they'd go off hand in hand to possibly a restaurant or the hotels on the wharf. Then their passion would be almost palpable. It made her beautiful, the waitress thought.
Where was the beauty, though, in being so publicly stood up? Her borrowed husband could at least have called her to the cafe owner's telephone, to whisper in her ear from his safe distance with his excuses and apologies. Why would he be so cowardly as to trust his betrayals to a messenger if he were not ashamed? Or lying? She'd had to smile and nod and seem wholly unperturbed when the cafe owner—the co-conspirator, it seemed to her—had come to pass on the shaming news: "Your friend said to tell you that he'll phone tomorrow, when he gets the chance." She felt exposed. Demeaned. A woman with no purpose in that cafe. She could drink a thousand coffees there and still not count as half a couple waiting for completion. She was a laughingstock—a woman revealed as exactly what she was—unmarried, only half successful in her work, the tenant of a less than homely apartment shared with two women just as unfulfilled as she was, reliant on the rationed attentions of a married lying man with children and a home he'd never abandon. She could hardly hold her coffee cup without shaking, she was so angry and upset. The evening had been so promising. They had planned to spend some time together in a restaurant, the famous—and expensive—Habit Bar where all the singers and the actors went. There'd be no grubby hour in a hotel room before he hurried home on this occasion. There'd just be food and wine and romance. She'd always liked that better than the sex. Love must be fed or it grows thin.
What occurred, then, to turn this calamity on its head and rescue the evening? What took her up the stairs to Lix's unappealing room? An almost-stranger's room? It must have been the romance that she had already planned for that evening which made the difference. The bottle was uncorked. Sitting on her own (before her lover's phone call came) in her familiar place in the sidewalk cafe had—as nowadays it often did—made her not sexually but emotionally aroused. Romantic expectation was her mood—the expectation of the stooping kiss, her lover's guaranteed tumescence, the watchful, surely jealous eyes of the cafe owner, the passing glances of the many husbands going home to their dull families, the certainty that she was being spied on through far binoculars, that kissing one in this bright street was making love to two or more. Was this a mad indulgence for a woman of her age, that she was being wanted from many angles by several men at once? Perhaps this was the worst of vanities. But surely anyone could see how poised and heaven-sent she was for men.
Now what? No boyfriend suddenly. No prospect of a kiss. Not even any twitching curtains on that night. She'd checked. Just the complicit sympathy of the cafe owner and his waitress and the added insult of the stiffening liqueur they had offered her "on the house." To go home was impossible. How could she bear the chatter of her roommates, the television programs, the surrender of her hopes to all the domestic chores that needed attending to? A woman who had expected to be dining out with celebrities in the Habit Bar would be at home instead, ironing blouses, defeated by the telephone.
Still, she had to eat. So rather than order anything from the sidewalk cafe—an unflattering choice of cold snacks—she went to the little fixed-menu cafeteria, the ABC, behind the railway station where single men and women stranded by their lifestyles and their trains could eat without expense—and without embarrassment. She ordered menu C, the soup, the fish, the crème brûlée, and—recklessly—another glass of the Boulevard liqueur she'd been given at the cafe. She'd pay for one at least that night, to save face.
She didn't have anything to read. Not even a pen to doodle with. So she could be excused for looking around the restaurant and studying the gallery of faces, the exhibition of clothes and postures. Staring was polite compared to some behavior there, the table manners and the arguments, the lack of modesty. The ABC was the sort of place where you could stare. Nobody considered it rude. You stared and they stared back. No need to be genteel with such a cast of students, bachelors, artists, unemployed, third-class travelers.
She spent ten minutes gazing around, not really looking for her dishonest lover with another woman possibly, or with his work colleagues, or with his children and his wife, not really practicing what she would say to him, in front of everyone. She studied almost every visible face, the back of almost every other head. So she couldn't miss that half-familiar blemished man three rows of tables down from her and walking in between the diners and their bags and cases, looking for a place to sit. The pattern on the cheekbone was unmistakable. It was her clandestine admirer. She knew at once he'd recognized her, too.
How could she be so reckless? That was not her style, not normally. She was the sort who only spoke when spoken to, in matters of the heart at any rate. A woman of that age even in those newly unshackled days did not initiate encounters of this kind. But now her fury and her disappointment seemed to shift and occupy a different space. Instead of standing boldly at the family table, the wife amazed, the children cowering, the lying husband silent, pizza-faced, as she'd imagined, she was instead half standing at her chair, pulling back the table, making room for Lix. For once she'd made a move on her own behalf. It had been easy, actually. She simply pointed at the place opposite her and said, "It's free." He had no choice. To walk on past, without a ready lie, would be unnecessarily rude. So he sat. He was blushing uncontrollably. The spy exposed.
The blushing, though, was irresistible. Not only was it evidence of innocence, embarrassment, and shame, but also of desire, arousal, fear. She'd never seen such fear on anyone's face. It made her feel unusually powerful, to be able to bring on such involuntary discomfort in a man. The shoe should be on the other foot. Had always been before. So this was what it felt like to be male, a hunter, predatory, to have a blushing quarry within reach, the color in his face the flag of his arousal.
Excerpted from Genesis by Jim Crace. Copyright © 2003 Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jim Crace is the author of seven previous novels, including Being Dead (FSG, 2000) which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and, most recently, The Devil's Larder (FSG, 2001). He lives in Birmingham, 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.
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Genesis is the beginning of one man's life with the woman he loves. But to understand the woman he loves and the man he is, you have to understand the women before her: all 5 of them. His transformation from young playboy to mature father is intriguing.