Being Dead

Being Dead by Jim Crace

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A married couple are murdered and their bodies left to rot on a beach.

Was it really any good?

It certainly wasn’t very pleasant, and I say this not just in response to the nihilism it takes as its theme, and which is introduced in the epigraph: “Don’t count on Heaven, or on Hell./ You’re dead. That’s it. Adieu. Farewell.” As if the attention given to the gradual decomposition of the two bodies isn’t enough, the narrator makes sure to tell us that the daughter’s visit to a church is pointless: “hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are no gods.” That’s it. Farewell.

The unpleasant thing about the book is not this, but the fact that it is impossible to sympathize with any of the characters. Joseph and Celice, the husband and wife zoologists who, at the beginning of the book, have just been bludgeoned to death, are revealed through flashbacks as small-minded people only interested in themselves. Like everyone else in the book, they spend most of their time scheming how to get what they want out of others. The rule in life is use or be used.

Affection, like God, is dead in this world. Everyone we meet is hateful. Syl, the daughter, sleeps with a stranger for taxi fare, a single act that establishes her as whorish, lazy and cheap. And full of hate. When her chauffeur, Geo, kindly suggests she start making a list of places to look for her missing parents, she makes a face: “She hated lists. She hated Things to Do.” She resents Geo to the extent that she feels she owes him anything. “It was tempting to get rid of Geo straight away. Already [the morning after!] he was getting on her nerves. He was a whiner and a liability.”

The casual violence of the natural world, the beetles, gulls and rats that devour Joseph and Celice, are nothing compared to the novel’s human hunters. The killer isn’t motivated by any complex psychological urges, but is only another swag fly on the beach. And even the clerk at the morgue who tries to seduce Syl imagines himself a predator feeding on the dead: “He’d like to have her warm and naked on a slab, his scissors slicing through her polymura coat.”

In one sense Joseph and Celice are to be envied since, being dead, they won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age (and of course their lives were boring, empty and meaningless anyway). The narrator even seems to get a weird delight or at least grim satisfaction in the messy end of “our doctors of zoology.” The murder is presented as a sort of terminal comeuppance. The scavengers feasting on their flesh represent nature’s revenge on her too literal-minded servants. Hence the frequent finger-wagging: They should have known better, should have realized that it all would come to this. And yet if only they’d had more imagination – had taken to heart The Goatherd’s Ancient Wisdom, had been more in tune with faint premonitions like the kind you get from the other end of a ringing telephone line. Perhaps then they could have understood a passage like this:

Love was to blame, and passion. Passion such as theirs, brief as it was, was strong enough to shake the balance of the natural world, and test its synchronicity. Where there is sex, then there is death. They are the dark co-ordinates of one straight line. Grief is death eroticized. And sex is only shuffling off this mortal coil before its time to plummet to the post-coital afterlife.

This, we are told, “is a scientific view.” I have my doubts.

To its credit, the novel is well organized and doesn’t draw too much attention to its clever reverse narrative. The writing is also quite effective, with a lot of the low-key, clinical impressionism and irony we have come to expect from writers like Ian McEwan. “If life was an express that hurtled between termini, then it had been their choice to quit the moving train before the final station had been reached and dash themselves against the flying stillness of the earth.” The “flying stillness of the earth” is good.

Unholy Legions

What is the biggest threat facing today’s literary culture? The erosion of imagination beneath the relentless double onslaught of television and film? The rise of an entertainment-industrial complex that has effectively turned books into corporate products? The marketing of demographically appealing fiction and good-looking authors to readers more interested in celebrity than art or ideas? The death of the stand-alone book review?

No, I’m afraid it’s none of the above. As any editorial these days is bound to tell you, the greatest danger is that posed by self-published authors.

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What Has Changed

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

I’ve used the line a hundred times in as many different contexts when talking about books. It casts an aura of learning over whatever position I choose to adopt. Nothing puts an opponent’s argument away faster than pointing out that you’ve heard it all before. Got a thing about today’s hotshot celebrity authors? Well, what about Byron? Can’t understand why poetry is so despised? My friend, poetry has been despised for centuries. Don’t like books being written as sequels? Check out Henry IV Part Two. And so it goes. There is nothing new under the sun; you can be sure we’ve heard it all before.

Nevertheless, I often find myself thinking that there are some things that have changed. Books today are marked by a spirit of the age as certain as that which previously marked a novel “Victorian” or a poem “Romantic.” Without getting into a narrow, fruitless discussion of what makes a book “postmodern” I came up with my own list of what I see as the three things that most define literary expression since, to draw a rough line in the sand, the 1970s.

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The Morning After

May 1, 2001. National Poetry Month (which is the same month and goes by the same name in both Canada and the United States) has come and gone. Organized as a publicity event – a party for the media, on a level with most book awards – it could claim some success. But as a “celebration of poetry and its vital place” in our culture the results were almost certainly counterproductive. The media came not to praise poetry, but to bury it. And their chorus was a bitter elegy.

No one should have been surprised. It seems the only time we talk about poetry any more is to ask if it’s dead. But in some of the voices raised against poetry this year I thought I could sense a change in tone. As low as poetry has been, for so long, I wonder if things haven’t begun to take a turn for the worse.

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Old Dogs, New Tricks

I’ve noticed I’ve been posting a lot of obituary notices recently. Mordecai Richler, Eudora Welty, Poul Anderson – it’s enough to make you think about a changing of the guard. Many of the world’s most highly regarded authors are now very old and, frankly, we can’t expect them to be around much longer. This raises the question of succession. Who will be the literary lions of the twenty-first century?

But perhaps that’s moving just a bit too fast. Philip Roth, age 68, has his doubts about whether literature, at least as we know it, will even exist in the new millennium:

I’m not good at finding encouraging features in American culture. I think we’ve got a substantial group of original and talented writers who’ve been at work in America for the past 20 or 30 years, but their readership gets duller and smaller every year. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.

Well! Imagine being a young American writer and reading that! America’s most original and talented writers are part of a group that have been writing for 20 or 30 years! So much for the next wave!

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Some Observations on the New SF

Introduction

In the following essay I want to take a look at what I see as some of the main trends in SF today. Before I get started, however, I have to provide some disclaimers. In the first place, I am not an authority on SF. While I am interested in SF, my fascination stays on this side of obsession. SF is a particularly lush field, and I can’t claim an acquaintance with the majority of it. The reviewing I do covers everything from history and biography to poetry and picture books, so I don’t have the time to give any one genre the full attention it deserves. In addition, my knowledge of the critical literature is sparse at best. Confessing my ignorance, but also delighting in my amateur status, I have decided to plunge straight in.

As a way of narrowing things down I have limited myself to discussing the stories found in the last three volumes of The Year’s Best Science-Fiction (that is, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Annuals). The major issue this raises is the undue influence it gives to one man’s vision of SF – the editor of the Year’s Best anthologies, Gardner Dozois. But while I admit that this is a cause for some concern, I don’t see it as invalidating what I consider to be general thematic observations.

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Spring Cleaning

This year found the annual spring clean-up at my house taking on an added dimension. After extensively remodeling three other rooms, I finally came to the holy place where I keep my books. This forced me into special considerations. I definitely didn’t want any paint getting on my library. Just to be on the safe side I decided to put most of my books into boxes and move them well out of harm’s way.

The thought of putting these “moldering paper bricks” into temporary storage made me reflect. Once packed away, which books would ever come out again? I have room for about 1,500 volumes on my shelves, but I reached capacity some time ago and every week there are more coming in. Drastic times called for drastic measures. Several boxes were going to have to be put away for an indefinite period. How to choose?

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The Shrinking Canon

I attended the University of Toronto as both an undergraduate and graduate student from 1987 to 1996. In hindsight, we might say that these years marked the highpoint of the campus culture wars, before “politically incorrect” became the name of a bland late-night talk show. I can’t say that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive, but as an English student I did feel very much in the middle of things.

One of the offshoots of the political correctness debate in English departments everywhere was the campaign to update the “canon.” What this meant was opening the list of what had become more or less established texts to new voices. Certain writers, it was argued, had been unfairly excluded from the canon in the past. “Canon maintenance” was an expression on every young academic’s lips. It all seemed very important.

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The Death of the “Author”

It is one of the ironies of postmodernism that Roland Barthes’s claim to literary immortality comes from having pronounced the “death of the author.” What he meant was that an author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in interpreting that text. The death of the author was life for the critic.

Academics immediately fell in love with the notion because it seemed to place them on an equal footing with genius. Meanwhile, authors who knew what Barthes’s theory amounted to were powerless to do anything about it. The announcement of the death of the author came after the fact, recognizing a dramatic shift in cultural power that had already occurred.

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Kid Stuff

The headline of the BBC report announcing the results said it all: “Top 100 books are child’s play.” In a poll to determine the nation’s favourite reads, children’s books made up over a third of the titles chosen. From classics like Black Beauty and Winnie the Pooh to all four installments (thus far) of the Harry Potter franchise, kid stuff ruled.

The news comes hard on the heels of a piece I wrote recently on the new popularity of children’s lit. What set me off then was a column by Philip Marchand in the Toronto Star on the gender gap among readers. What I found even more interesting was the age gap. According to Professor David Booth at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, “Boys stop reading fiction at the age of 12 or 13 . . . If they read a novel after that, it’s because they’ve been told to in school.”

There was probably some explanation here of why The Lord of the Rings and The Catcher in the Rye hold top spot on all of those “favourite book” lists. These may be the last books many people have read. And if reading is a childhood activity, is it any surprise that Britain’s Top 100 are “child’s play”?

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