The British novelist Jim Crace likes to boast that he’s “the least autobiographical writer of fiction you’re likely to encounter.” It’s been an apt description. No one could confuse the benevolent, balding Crace of book-jacket photos with the sojourning Jesus of Quarantine or the decaying, married biologists of his best book, 1999’s Being Dead. Crace’s medium is catastrophe: “Misfortune is a hawk,” he wrote in Being Dead, “most likely to surprise us when the visibility is good. Death likes blue skies. Fine weather loves a funeral.” But there’s a corollary, too: Being Dead‘s unhappy couple are never more in love than after their own murder. If fine weather loves a funeral, Crace maintains, then a funeral can also create some fine weather.
Readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will recognize, in parts, this sentiment, and that book’s similarities with The Pesthouse, Crace’s ninth novel, don’t end there. Both are products of the authors’ long fascination with the redemptive power of disaster, and both writers, after flirting throughout their careers with death and its aftermath, have created worlds in their new novels where modern life is a thing of the distant past. Like Walker Percy, both write as if their characters must have the world they know taken away before they can begin to know the world at all.
America is Crace’s subject in The Pest house—not the United States of today, but a future America, a place where the land has sunk into frontier cruelty, where the “wayside going east”—the path of a reverse exodus toward the sea and Europe-—is “littered with the melancholy camps and the shallow graves” of the dead. The country has been lost, though no one remembers ex
actly how—the land is poisoned, bandits prey on the weak, and the distant rumor of a civilized Europe is all that sustains those who remain. Like McCarthy, Crace finds something archaic and elemental in the degradation. “This used to be America,” he writes of Ferrytown, the riverside village in the intentionally vague region where the book begins. “This river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth.”
It’s here that Margaret, a diseased town daughter, has been remanded to the titular Pesthouse to heal or die (the metaphor for America is none too subtle). While recovering, she meets Franklin Lopez, a hulking but timorous young man making his way toward the coast. After a deadly natural disaster befalls the inhabitants of Ferrytown, the two decide to travel east together.
Heading out, they encounter the remnants of an older world: The disintegrating highway they follow is “no escarpment provided by nature, unless nature had on this one occasion broken its own rules and failed to twist and bend but instead hurtled forward, all symmetry and parallels.” Margaret’s treasured antique coin bears the image of a “floating man who, storytellers said, was Abraham and would come back to help America one day with his enormous promises.”
En route, the unconsummated lovers become separated. Franklin falls into the service of marauding slavers, while Margaret takes shelter in the dubious sanctuary of a cult that makes its home in a wooden palisade called the Blessed Ark. The cult provides safety near the coast in exchange for labor and the renunciation of metal (the “cause of greed and war”). They are the Luddite prophets of a new world, blaming the vestiges of the past for their predicament in the present.
When a confrontation between the sword-bearing slavers and the sword-fearing cultists ensues, Franklin and Margaret find one another and flee, finally making their way to the Atlantic. To say more would spoil the ending, to the extent that there is one—suffice to add that they are not done with America, or with one another.
For all its mythical trappings, The Pesthouse remains a contemporary novel. In his pointed choice of locale, Crace takes literary revenge on a country he’s clearly disgusted with: Manifest destiny is unwound, Abraham Lincoln has become a mad prophet, and everyone pines for Europe.
You don’t have to be American to be irritated at Crace’s insistently vengeful note. Were the diminished world he replaces ours with remotely convincing, perhaps his apocalypse would be easier to swallow. Instead we’re given not just Ferrytown but other lazily generic locales like Boundary Wood, Center Island, and Achievement Hill. Franklin and Margaret are virtually the sole representatives of this new world. But Franklin is an oversized manchild, blushingly naive, “prone to being seized by sudden, girlish reddeners,” while Margaret, a 31-year-old woman, wonders at the “Mrs. Phylis” references a friendly prostitute drops, and rubs a lucky piece of cloth when she’s anxious. Crace’s characters are implausible cartoons—insulting not to any particular nationality, but to the reader, who’s asked to believe in them.
If this is all that remains, why leave any survivors around at all? Crace’s accomplishment in his past work has been to take an unknown world, a place that exists only in his mind, and render it through infinitesimal detail. The Pesthouse, however, takes a real, known country and reduces it to the vague platitudes of allegory. One can’t help but suspect that Crace’s contempt for his “American” characters and setting is some long-denied autobiography finally leaking through.