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The Pesthouse: A Novelby Jim Crace
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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