The Anti-Canon: The Price of Nostalgia – The novels of Jim Crace by Gary Budden

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

gift of stones jim crace
gift of stones jim crace

“We have heard my father talking - and we know the way he worked. We know that when he spoke he shaped the truth, he trimmed, he stretched, he decorated. He was to truth what every stoney was to untouched flint, a fashioner, a god. We know that when he said, ‘I’ll keep it simple too, I won’t tell lies,’ that this was just another arrow from his shaft by which we were transfixed.”

- The Gift of Stones

“They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia.”

- Being Dead

Sprayhoppers. Kelp-ash. An indoor retail-Eden of glass and steel. One-armed stone-age storytellers. An unnamed town, in an unknown time, struggling in an indistinct rural region isolated from the world. Some of these things are real and some are not, some may have been real once and some may be real in a time yet to come. Characters full-blooded and contradictory, petty and noble, as human as the page allows, unlikeable and sympathetic in equal measure. They enact small dramas we recognise in fictional topographies. These places that seem so familiar, the battered coastlines, heaving cities and muddy fields, they have no name and they don’t exist. They’re populated by creatures that never were, but sound like they did. They are archetypal and specific.

I only discovered the novels of Jim Crace in 2013, and then through the recommendation of a poet (the indignity!). Read Harvest, it had just been nominated for the Booker. I recalled hearing someone talk on the radio about it. British landscape novel, anti-pastoral, left-wing politics. The Enclosures Act? That was a maybe. It sounded like my kind of book, and then I forgot about it.

Browsing an Oxfam shelf in Angel, Arcadia sat there and it seemed the right thing to do to buy it. It’s a deceptively simple tale – the only two places in this fictional almost-mythic geography are city and country. Nothing else exists. Yet the people who live in this smudged, ill-defined world are no ciphers or allegories, described in unflattering physical terms, a city of piss and farts, suckling breasts and starvation, and an orphaned boy from the country transformed into a true capitalist. This story of Victor, abandoned to the whims of the Soap Market as a child in the city (his country mother, dead), who rises higher and higher in a joyless quest for wealth, instilled only with the romantic notions of a ‘countryside’ that he never knew. Age 80, richest man in the city,the ultimate Tory-story of working class boy pulling himself up by the bootstraps, Victor decides to level the Soap Market that made him. Replace it with an edifice of shining steel and glass, that brings the outside in. It will be called Arcadia, the countryside put under lock and key, commodified and filtered through the memories of an aged and wealthy man, himself remembering the tales his mother once told him. Sentimental capitalism. The destruction of community in the name of nostalgia, all commemorated with a wrought iron statue of a poor country-girl with a suckling babe at her breast.

arcadia jim crace
arcadia jim crace

Arcadia articulated clearly something I was seeing happening in the UK, right now. The novel was from 1991, was eerily prescient, gave me that sense that this guy knew the score. I was hooked. Next, I read The Gifit of Stones (1988). A crippled outcast in a stone-age community famed for their toolmaking (their gift of stones) finds his place and earns his keep as community storyteller; another shaper of base matter into something both beautiful and useful. This is the cusp of the Bronze Age, technological change comes as it always does, threatening the existence of these working people who live by their soon-to-be redundant skills. Then the importance of the man, one-armed and useless in any practical sense, becomes clear; the person who can make sense of all this raw data, who can tell their story when their way of life has dwindled and died, becomes crucially important.

Like all of Crace’s best work, this novel has the pleasing three-pronged effect of working as a possible political allegory (easy to draw parallels with eighties Britain here), as an exercise in fictional time and space (when we know roughly, where is simply a coastal area of somewhere bleak, wet and European, most likely Britain) and as a thoroughly engaging story in its own right with beautiful poetic prose (that often follows the rhythms of blank verse). It’s a combination that makes his work some of the best I’ve ever come across from an English novelist.

Being dead jim crace
Being dead jim crace

My personal favourite, Being Dead (1999), plays out like a literary equivalent of the old Buddhist practise of the contemplation of dead bodies, breathing in the smells and noting every small stage of decomposition. This is the story of two unattractive zoology doctors, Joseph and Celice, murdered in the sand dunes where they had met and fallen in love thirty years earlier, to be left naked and undiscovered for six days as they decompose in the changeable coastal weather. The book, we are told, is to serve as a ‘quivering’, an old custom of waking the dead by shaking a house with grief before recalling the lives of those departed.

But in Crace’s world, God is most definitely dead. There is no afterlife here, something made clear by the forensic descriptions of the couple’s decay, as crabs and gulls feast on them and their bodies bloat. Life, he says, is our one chance. All this morbidity is interspersed with the story of how the couple met, their life together, everything they ever did leading inexorably up to this point. It’s touching and very human, in a world that feels so utterly real that the reader assumes this narrative is occurring in a real place. But no; look up Baritone Bay or sprayhoppers (as I did) and you’ll be left confused. This is something I find very appealing about Crace’s work; the human stories are so vivid that the landscape around them feels just as believable, but Being Dead is just another example of a very physical human drama, complete with bodily decay and the awkward fumblings of sex, playing out in an idea of a location, a geographical sketch.

Slight traces of Crace’s more overtly politicised work can be detected here; in Joseph and Celice’s attempt to return to the past, to the geography where their lives started, they find parts of the coast have eroded; dunes have shifted; new building developments and private developments block their nostalgia. And it is here, in this warped version of their own past, that they die.

***

It says a lot about how much I like Jim Crace that I read five of his novels in a row. They’re clear eyed and unsentimental but undeniably poetic; calmly atheistic and focused on the physical world of the body as much as the mind; left-leaning without ever resorting to plain allegory; and aware of the power of storytelling, and the dangers of nostalgia, in shaping our own versions of the past. If you want more than the books I’ve mentioned, Harvest, Quarantine and Signals of Distress are all worth reading.

He’s been nominated for, but never won, the Booker Prize. This is probably a good thing.

Gary Budden is editor at Influx Press. He also works as a fiction editor for Ambit magazine. His writing has appeared in The Quietus, Rising, The Journal of Wild Culture, Smoke, Boscombe Revolution and more. He lives in London.