Sunday, May 13, 2012

10. The Pesthouse

By Jim Crace 

I put The Pesthouse on my list as it was a post-apocalyptic tale about America, albeit a literary one, and I had read good reviews.  The story plays out as a kind of reverse frontier tale.  In the historical past as we know it, America was the new land that Europeans emigrated to as pioneers and settlers.  Now in some distant future, some unnamed catastrophe has reduced post-industrial America to ruin and the generations that have survived have since regressed to a state similar to the 17th century colonial frontier, except without any Indians or abundant resources.  This backstory is given in incremental detail.  At the beginning of the novel, you’re led to think the setting is like the Old West.  But instead of traveling west, the two brothers travel east, their ultimate goal being to board a sailing ship towards Europe in order to seek a better life.

I had very mixed feelings about this novel, being mainly disappointed by the lackluster storytelling. There was quality to some of the writing as befits a “literary” work, as this novel is regarded as such, but I generally felt quite disconnected from the main characters and indifferent to the events that befell them.  

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had a similar premise and it too had a distant narrative style, but as a reader, I was much better able to relate to the character’s desperate situation and immerse myself in that frighteningly black and lifeless world.  The Pesthouse, on the other hand, was like watching a mildly interesting TV drama.  The novel, as a wholle, was strangely and frustratingly low-ley. For much of the novel, the threat of violence was looming (when it finally comes it is rather PG-rated), and though blood-curdling violence is not always necessary in this type of story, the author never takes the narrative to a level that impacts the reader in any memorable way.  

This review from TheNew Yorker articulately summed up how I felt about the book.  It's evident that Jim Crace is a great writer, but The Pesthouse was obviously not the best pick to showcase his talent.

“The Pesthouse” is Jim Crace’s ninth novel, and the most self-consciously mythic. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the virtuoso fusion of high-concept fabulism and psychological realism you find in “Being Dead” (1999), which takes a pitilessly minute observation, as through a microscope, of the processes of organic decay in the lifeless bodies of a middle-aged married couple, and makes something unexpectedly romantic. Nor do you find the world-conjuring gifts that are on display in Crace’s “Continent,” “Signals of Distress,” “The Gift of Stones,” and “Quarantine.”

The new novel is almost purely conceptual, an idea-driven work that might have been more effectively executed in graphic-novel form, or in film. The post-apocalyptic landscape, though repeatedly described, is never more than generic wilderness, like the backlot set of a low-budget movie, and never acquires regional specificity. Where Crace’s first, Calvino-inspired novel, “Continent,” conjured an imaginary continent through the sheer poetry of language, “The Pesthouse” is blandly and perfunctorily narrated…

The book’s droll, mock-tall-tale tone soon grates: it isn’t clear whether Crace wants us to feel sympathy for his characters or laugh at them as fools who have brought their collective doom upon themselves. 


Although this review by the Guardian praised The Pesthouse as a “wonderful, wonderful book”, the reviewer also shared my opinion about the novel’s flaws.

At this point Crace's customary rigour and control desert him for a while: there are a number of rather pointless diversions and adventures, but they don't engage the reader. It is as though, by broadening his perspective to include America and the perennial American dream, Crace has gone a little beyond his natural inclinations and ventured outside the arena of his enviable talents. The endless attempts to find food and to escape capture or rape - particularly after Franklin and Margaret are separated and Margaret acquires a baby - become less and less interesting. After Franklin has been enslaved by bandits (who are very sketchily drawn), Margaret finds refuge with a strange religious sect, the Finger Baptists, near the coast. Now the story picks up again, and all Crace's imagination is brought to bear on the elders of the sect, the Helpless Gentlemen, who must be washed, fed and even pleasured by the women, as using their own hands is the devil's work. Somewhat improbably - even within the very flexible boundaries of what is permissible in a dystopian novel - Margaret and Franklin are reunited and the novel canters towards the finish. The couple find a row of abandoned cottages near the sea and make some sort of life there as they wait to emigrate. Here Crace is at his best, describing their sight of the ocean and its vast and alien character.


Some people might like this book, but I'm not going to recommend this to anyone I know.  There are some interesting ideas, but I have read more traditional PA genre novels that are more engaging and original than this one.