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The Pesthouse: A Novel

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Author Q & A

The Pesthouse begins with an idea many readers will find arresting, even shocking: American emigrants moving eastward, towards Europe. What does the book say about history?

I was hoping to investigate my own confused love-hate relationship with the United States, which – to grossly simplify – came down to enjoying and admiring most things American when I was in the country but distrusting all things American when they were exported and imposed. Novels are by nature mischievous and disruptive. And they can do what they want without drawing any real blood. So, by way of trying to articulate my confusion, I could simply reverse America’s position in the world and stick it at the bottom of the pile, give it a medieval future instead of one swaggering with wealth and technology and power. That was the starting point of The Pesthouse. I had no idea where it would lead me.

Technology has failed in the world you create. What does technology have to do with civilization?

Technology is the toolmaker. Tools protect us from many of the discomforts of the natural universe. There’s no denying that. They allow us to be less bestial. The Pesthouse removes tools from America, just to see how it would cope. What levels of civilization would survive? The good news is that – if this novel’s agenda is to be trusted – humankind’s civility is deeply imbedded and can survive the loss of almost anything, so long as there is love and rain.

Your fans will know not to expect a Hollywood ending to this book. How would you describe the ending (without giving it away)?

Well, it’s a curious love story with a happy ending, so you can’t get any more Hollywood than that. But Hollywood earns its optimism a bit too cheaply, in my view. My novels go into the darkest corners of existence to hear their brightest notes. I’ve always counted myself a deeply optimistic writer, though many of my readers have considered me irredeemably sombre. With The Pesthouse, however, the optimism is unmistakable. Although the American Dream is stripped naked by the novel, at the end of the story America is ready to recreate itself, to find its West again, to strike out for a territory which with any luck will be just as splendid and as lovable as the old America but not as overbearing.

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Grady Harp, July 2, 2007 (view all comments by Grady Harp)
'Dreamers do not want advice.'

Jim Crace takes more risks in his stories than most authors writing today. In THE PESTHOUSE he manages to create a love story with seeds in disease, death, futuristic semi-annihilation of America, and a reversal of the concept of immigration. And the primary reason he is able to succeed in his books (BEING DEAD, QUARANTINE, THE DEVIL'S LARDER, GENESIS, etc) is his uncanny gift of flowing poetic prose that can make even the most terrifying and horrendous sights and incidents an exciting literary experience.

The time of this powerful novel is sometime in the future, a time when for some unstated reason the place called America has been reduced to 'junkle', the lands being destroyed by some form of disaster (? nuclear, defoliation, uncontrolled disease?) and all that remains of the once highly technologically advanced country is debris and starving people, all struggling to migrate to the East Coast (reverse pioneerism) to board a ship to Europe for the dreams of a better life. Disease and famine are rampant and one of the victims of the deadly disease 'flux' is Margaret, a plain woman approaching middle age without ever having a lover or caring partner: she is place in The Pesthouse on Butter Hill to die. At the same time two virile brothers, Jackson and Franklin, are migrating to the East Coast, but Franklin suffers a severe knee injury and is forced to let his brother go ahead without him. Franklin seeks refuge in the Pesthouse, finds Margaret near death, and despite the possibility of contagion, nurses her to health. As the completely shaved Margaret shows signs of improvement, the two agree to gather goods from Margaret's nearby hometown Ferrytown and begin the long journey to 'freedom and promise' on the East Coast.

Ferrytown has succumbed to 'flux' and Franklin and Margaret burn the little village in an act of cremation of the inhabitants. Their trek East is disrupted by evil men who separate the two, enslaving Franklin and forcing Margaret to seek refuge with other terrified migrants, one of whom has a newborn grandchild whose father was captured into slavery with Franklin, and Margaret eventually becomes the little girl's guardian. There are extended stretches of incidents: Margaret and baby Bella take refuge in an Ark run by Baptists whose life is one without metals (the sign of the devil, read technological greed) but provide a socialist style living quarters for the winter months; Franklin is chained into slavery on work crews, one of the jobs being to excavate the buried evil metals discarded by the Baptists. Come Spring and by accident Margaret and Franklin reunite and alter their goal of sailing to Europe to opt for turning West to create a life of what America once was.

Some readers may tire of the recent number of books about post-devastation America (Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD paints a similar concept), but Crace is able to make a rather grim novel one of very pure love. He also is able to conjure thoughts that make us look around our earth and visualize what could happen should we elect not to change our current course of global and human abuse. His story also gives a quiet but healthy pause for us to feel the other side of the immigration dilemma: the remaining people are struggling to leave their land of hardship for the Gilead of Europe. And overriding all other aspects of this exceptional novel is Jim Crace's grace with prose. Highly recommended. Grady Harp
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780385520751
Author:
Crace, Jim
Publisher:
Nan A. Talese
Subject:
Literary
Copyright:
Publication Date:
May 2007
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
272
Dimensions:
9.56x6.56x.99 in. 1.16 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

The Pesthouse: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 272 pages Nan A. Talese - English 9780385520751 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] thoughtful and exciting post-apocalyptic tale....Crace, an award-winning British writer who should be more widely appreciated, manages to give depth and complexity to characters in a post-literate society who are practically nonverbal."
"Review" by , "Equal parts allegory, adventure story and rich meditation on existence, The Pesthouse imagines a place on the Dream Highway where the best in human nature always has a path. For that it serves as perfect complement — and tonic — to The Road."
"Review" by , "Less spare and more idiosyncratic, this new book risks being swamped in the tsunami of publicity for The Road. And that would be a shame, because The Pesthouse boasts three noteworthy features that McCarthy's story lacks: women characters, a smooth landing and some sly humor to leaven the bleakness. If for no other reason, read it to compare."
"Review" by , "The Pesthouse is no less a dark envisioning, though it lacks the startling high-wire act of Being Dead, creating instead a tooth-and-claw society in the wilds of America, somewhere on the other side of global catastrophe."
"Review" by , "Crace can write amazingly well, as he did in Being Dead. When he's on, as he often is here, the results are stellar."
"Review" by , "McCarthy may have cornered the market on blood-red prose that captures postapocalyptic violence and horror, but Crace provides an equally intriguing vision that seems less frenzied but not too sanguine."
"Review" by , "The journey in The Pesthouse is quite different from that in Cormac McCarthy's recent book, The Road, though both run through postapocalyptic landscapes....Mr. Crace is the coldest of writers, and the tenderest."
"Review" by , "The Pesthouse is never funny, but Crace's mordant humor shines darkly, making it both provocative and winsome."
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