Being Dead, by Jim Crace

by Robert A. Parker

This 1999 work is a novel which the critics loved, but which I loathed. Loathed so much that I skimmed through it in one sitting. I almost did not write any comment, but I finally decided to be honest with myself and with the reader, even if it would expose my prejudices, my blindness, or simply my failings as a critic.

This is the story of Joseph and Celice, an elderly couple found murdered on a sand dune. They were scientists and teachers, unsuited for society but, we learn, perfectly suited for each other. Indeed, these unappealing characters were deeply in love, and went to the dunes to recapture the first sharing of their desire thirty years earlier.

The novel then advances on three levels. The first is their actual death in the immediate past, as the murderer sneaks up, and brains the unaware couple for their valuables. The second is the slow rotting of their bodies and the arrival, for a week, of birds, crabs, and insects to feed on those bodies. The third returns to a more distant past, to the couple’s initial meeting, courtship, and 30-year marriage. It is a marriage of two misfits, and this reader found it difficult to relate to or sympathize with either party. My approach was as clinical as was the author’s to their decaying bodies.

Much of the second half of the novel returns to the present, and concerns their equally uninteresting and estranged daughter as she searches for her missing parents. At this point, one wonders if Crace has deliberately created uninteresting characters in order that the reader focus on the corrupting bodies in the sand. Indeed, is that why he has created the dead couple as zoologists?

Yes, the process of corruption was distasteful to me, as was the details of the actual murder, including the couple’s complete unawareness of the killer as he inches closer. But what turned me off, primarily, was the unpleasantness of all the characters. Again, this is, I believe, because Crace wanted me to concentrate not on the characters but on death itself. And yet, it seems to be the “beauty” of this clinical description of the murder and the decaying bodies that has fascinated critics—along with the objectivity that confronts these unpleasant characters with inevitable death.

Such critics, I surmise, have no belief in or interest in any aspect of one’s character that might continue after death. Much like the author’s own lack of interest in his earlier tale about a Christ-like character spending forty days in the desert. Indeed, my reaction to that work, Quarantine, is consistent with my reaction here: “Crace, however, appears as uncomfortable with the spiritual world as he is comfortable with the physical world. And so while this novel succeeds in literary terms… it fails in its larger mission to discover a truth about a man and the meaning of his life. Crace sees his world precisely, but sees it only on the surface.”

Thus, I will accept that the author has even less interest in this book in the possibility of existence beyond death. But I feel he has stacked his deck too much. He has pushed the fact of inevitable death into our face and twisted it. I do not like being force-fed. I do not like being confronted with unpleasant people who endure an unpleasant death, and who live on only through their decomposing bodies. As if that is all of us that exists. That his decaying hand is found clutching her decaying ankle is not for me the beautiful symbol of love that the author intends.

To sum up, I am not as fascinated with the body as are the author here and his critics. We are more than bodies. We are hearts, minds, and souls. We are families. We are an interdependent society. We are more than two bodies decaying alone on distant sand dunes.

Of course, Grace’s sole purpose here may have been to convey the reality of death. Which explains why he took the various technical steps I have criticized above. If so, my response is that the result is a tour-de-force—and fails to meet my parameters for a work of literature. Simply put, I do not like dead ends. (July, 2015)