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Jim Crace Peels Off the Labels

Jim Crace Quarantine, Jim Crace's 1997 novel, earned the author his second Whitbread Award. Being Dead, his follow-up, won the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Now comes The Devil's Larder, which Crace calls, "a patchwork fiction made up of sixty-four parts [that] never takes its eye off the point where food and human beings meet."

More coherent than a collection of stories, more fanciful than a traditional novel, The Devil's Larder relies on its subject and themes to carry readers from one piece to the next. Without the unity of character of plot, I'd expected some degree of stop-and-go pacing; its effortless momentum caught me completely by surprise. The book jacket should warn aspiring writers, "Do not attempt this at home," Crace makes it seem so easy.

"Someone has taken off - and lost - the label on the can," the first piece begins appropriately enough, for in fact the book resembles nothing so much as a literary cupboard filled with sixty-four unlabelled cans. Each bears the stamp of its creator, a familiarity of style and tone, mischievous and inquiring; still you never know what the next will bring. The characters come and go; narrators enter and immediately disappear. The format defies you to stop reading, yet you bite off "just one more" again and again.

"Even by Crace's standards," Adam Phillips raved in The New York Times Book Review, "The Devil's Larder is an extraordinary book."

Dave: The Devil's Larder will be recognizable to readers of your earlier work - there's a consistency of tone and style, certainly - but its form and structure is quite a departure from your earlier novels.

Jim Crace: Well, all my books are different. It seems to me that I build up a readership with one book, then throw it away with the next because I spread my subject matter so widely.

There's no question that they're from the same pen - they have the same stylistic imprints on them - but the subject matter shifts. I think it's because I'm not at all an autobiographical writer. Writers taking themselves, their lives, or their geography as their subject matter always get some duplication from one book to the next. You only have to think of an author like Doris Lessing. Her novels are novelizations of her life, even though they're full of invented materials. I'm the least autobiographical writer of fiction you're likely to encounter, which means there's no continuity of self in my books. This book is just another change.

It's different from the earlier books in one regard: its shape. It's a patchwork fiction made up of sixty-four parts. It's still an eiderdown; it's still a coverlet for the bed, one piece, but it's made up of sixty-four separate parts. Sometimes I call it a patchwork novel and sometimes I call it a sequence of stories. It's lighter and more playful than anything I've written before.

There is no unity of character and no unity of plot within it, but there is a unity of subject matter. It never takes its eye off the point where food and human beings meet.

Dave: You begin the book with the piece about the unlabelled can, a can missing its label, which perfectly introduces the enigma of the book: what is inside these pages, anyway? The book takes the form of a cupboard filled with sixty-four unlabelled cans.

Crace: That was the very first piece I wrote, and it set the tone for the whole book. The order of the pieces isn't terribly important, but it was clear to me that that one had to be first and #64 had to be the last. That was always the shape. The piece about the label-less can defines the whole book, in a way.

Dave: You do something similar in Being Dead. Near the beginning of that book, you describe a ritual called a quivering. A reader knows at that point, I think, that the quivering will be enacted somehow in the story.

Crace: What's happening is that I'm forcing myself to come up with an architecture for each book. I need a rigid frame and a clear structure on which to hang the extemporization. All my books are extemporized, though they might not seem it.

I was in MOMA the other day in San Francisco, looking at a Piet Mondrian painting, with the stripes. You can't imagine a more schematic painting. It seems geometric and mathematical. But I read the little label at the side where he described himself as "intuitive."

Being Dead was very schematic. The Devil's Larder is again another schematic book, sixty-four squares, like a chess set. The reason is that when I'm writing the innards of the book I abandon myself completely. It's entirely improvised. Other writers who know what the material is going to be before they start writing can be more relaxed about the shape of the book. For me, it's something to hang on to, a device that offers some degree of sanity.

Dave: Without the unity of character or plot, how did you go about writing The Devil's Larder? Sitting down to write, was it literally a matter of starting over each day?

Crace: It was. At first it was scary. I thought I would not find sixty-four pieces about food. I thought I'd have trouble finding even four. But once I realized that it's not a novel about food...

There's nothing you can trust about food in the book, and I certainly wouldn't try any of the recipes. It's actually a book about our sense of self, our identities, the way in which we're knitted into the culture, the way we regard our bodies and our relationships. Once I realized that, all I had to do was live my life and be on the lookout for the point where emotions and tenderness and family and surprises and the darkness of the universe touch on food. It's happening all the time: the way we mediate relationships over a dinner table, the importance of ritual in food....Very quickly it occurred to me that I could write a hundred pieces, or I could write two hundred pieces. But I'd decided in advance that sixty-four was going to be the number because of a story that I'd loved as a child - the folk tale of the peasant who defeats a king in chess and asks to be rewarded with rice (enough to feed the world, it turns out!).

That gave me the template to start edging in these stories. As it happened, the book was fun to write, particularly after Being Dead, which had been quite a hard companion.

I was surprised in the end that it wasn't more political. There's no question that the politics of food is an increasingly important subject - not only the difference between what you have in your fridge at home and what the average Afghani has on their table tonight, but also the personal politics of food. It's more family-oriented and relationship-oriented than I thought it would be. There's a lot about mothers and children, about husbands, failed relationships and successful relationships, marriages that are glorious and marriages that are bad. That's the shape the book wanted to take.

Dave: Did Being Dead go somewhere you hadn't originally intended?

Crace: With Being Dead, I wanted to resolve a problem in my life which had to do partly with the death of my father, who was an atheist and had an atheist burial, and partly with my dissatisfaction with my own atheism, which lacked transcendence and spirituality and mysticism, all those things you have to use Christian words to describe because atheism doesn't have words for them.

The old fashioned atheism was a political position, whereas it seemed to me that the post-scientific, post-Darwinist, twenty-first century atheism needed to provide narratives of comfort and explanations of the universe in the way the old religions did. So I set out to see if I could come up with a narrative of comfort in a world in which death ends everything, a world without gods.

Beyond that, I didn't have any characters or setting or plot. I just sat down and started writing. Oddly enough, I did know what the last line of the book was going to be. Early on, when I started making notes, I came up with the phrase, "And these are the everending days of being dead." I knew that would deliver to me the last line. It would sum up what I was looking for. They weren't neverending; they were everending. In other words, they were final but there was a continuity about them. That was the ambiguity I was going for. Also, that would deliver, in the final two words, the title of the book, which always pleases me because it's a very architectural thing to do.

I'm not sure how true this is, but anecdotally, anyway, the story goes that Dylan Thomas would make a list of all the rhyme words and back his lines into them. I was doing something even crazier, backing a whole novel into this final sentence!

Initially, I didn't know where those characters came from. I didn't know where the daughter came from. It wasn't until I understood that one section should run backwards...I knew that was the magic ingredient that would make the book work.

Dave: There's no fat to it. It feels exactly the right length, the right weight and volume for what it's meant to be.

Crace: Organic, I hope. I want the books to read as though nature made them. That sounds very pompous, but it's what I aim for.

Dave: Being Dead is a hard book to describe. In some ways, it seems very traditional, and yet in others it's entirely unique. For me, that's what makes it a great novel: it's familiar and not like anything I've read, both.

You're constantly compared to other writers. Regarding architecture or tone or style, are there writers you refer to as role models?

Crace: I'm not a writer driven by other books. Recently I heard a writer on the radio who said his advice to young writers is to read a lot. I actually don't think that's the best thing for literature. It's like the snake eating its own tail. I don't write books full of landscape because I read books about landscape. Being Dead didn't come out of reading Barry Lopez, although I'm an admirer of Barry Lopez. His books and my books come out of walking, seeing the landscape, and being intimate with these things.

I'm very much in favor of primary sources, but I don't really want to be much like other writers. I'm entertaining myself at home, trying to have fun, trying to tell as big a lie as I possibly can.

Dave: Which speaks to the improvisation you were talking about earlier. You're making these stories up.

According to Jim Crace

1. They're so preacherly, so moralistic.
2. Nothing in them is going to be true. (That's a reasonable position to have - not being able to trust the veracity of the books.)
3. The rhythmic prose, the over-reliance on the percussive note in my sentences.
4. My books are so utterly schematic, so that if you encounter a stone on page one you know that the stone has a role to play on page ninety-eight and that's just part of the architecture.
5. I'm a pessimistic and dark writer, a negative writer whose characters are hard to like. (Though the people who say that are the pessimists, I think, people who have trouble liking less-than-perfect people. I think I'm the most optimistic writer that you could ever encounter, but many of my critics think I'm just impossible.)

Crace: I'm not a writer that holds a mirror up to the real world. In fact I've taken themes from Birmingham, my hometown. Arcadia is about town planning. That's a Birmingham theme, but I didn't set the book there. To set it in Birmingham would have required a photographic skill that I don't have, but also I'm much more interested in telling big lies, in bending the truth. I like to dislocate my readers by placing them in a universe they haven't experienced rather than placing them in a location they recognize, as most contemporary literature does.

I do admire that kind of writing. I read Philip Roth recently. You read him and you think, Yeah, New Jersey's like that. The glove industry was like that. I recognize the smells. Jewish life is like that. He's got that right - it's like the Jewish households that I know. I admire that, but it's not a skill I've got. I have a kind of magic realist skill, a liar's skill, and in that regard I'm much more traditional than most writers today.

If you think back to all the traditional stories, very few of them are mirror-of-the-world stories. Most are fantastic stories with Minotaurs and such... Beowulf and all that. It's the writers that write photographically that are the innovators and the modern ones.

Dave: Quarantine is obviously a fiction, but even so it's surprising to most readers that in fact you spent very little time in the part of the world where the book is set, the Judean desert.

Crace: It was based on an act of the imagination. When I talk about being intuitive, this is the dark and deep seam that my abandonment is leading me to. It's the spirit of storytelling, which is thousands and thousands of years old.

I was recently on a small island where there was just one little area of fresh water, and the birds were coming in, migratory birds, landing on the island and going straight for the water. They had a built-in sense of where they'd find it. I think humankind's sense of narrative is as strong as that. It's a distinguishing mark of humankind, the ability to tell stories. Among all the creatures in the world, we are the one that has the ability to recreate the past and imagine the future, as you and I do all the time. If it didn't confer upon us some kind of evolutionary advantage, it would have died out. We wouldn't have it.

I don't want to tell cramped stories which rely on the observable truth outside my window. I'm not going to use a real animal in Being Dead to come up on the beach; I'm going to invent one that doesn't exist. Like the Cyclops never existed, like the Minotaur never existed, so the sprayhopper doesn't exist. But I'm going to dish it up with all the mannerisms of the truth so the reader doesn't know what's real and what's not. To do that, you don't need research. You don't need to go to the Judean desert. You don't need facts to tell lies; what you need is a confident vocabulary.

Dave: Before you wrote novels, you were a journalist.

Crace: Didn't tell any lies.

Dave: Did that frustrate you or was it rather that, in fiction, you found something you had a knack for?

Crace: When I was a journalist, that fit my puritanical project more than writing novels would have. I'm a political animal, and when I was a journalist with the Sunday Times a million people or more would buy the newspaper and have a chance of reading my stuff. If you're a political person, you want to be a player, you want to be part of the debate, you want to change the hearts and minds of men and women, set agendas if you possibly can. I could pretend that I was doing that to a small extent when I was a journalist.

Writing the kind of novels that I do, if I see people reading one of them, who are they? They're clones of me. They might be a different sex or they might be a bit younger, but essentially they're left-wingers, they're progressives. They share my views. I could, of course, be a political novelist, but I don't have those skills, and you have to play the hand you've been dealt. I've been dealt a bourgeois literary hand that's moralistic and very rhythmic in its prose. I'm not Steinbeck. I'm not Orwell. I would have liked to be when I was seventeen. My seventeen-year-old self would look at the kind of books I write now and sneer at them.

So when I was a journalist I felt I was addressing my project. I didn't feel frustrated. I didn't want to tell lies. I was doing a valuable job. Now, I'm doing a less valuable job, I think. I'm a writer without a constituency. I have readers, but I'm not a black writer or a gay writer or a feminist writer. I have readers is all. Paradoxically, I've found my true calling, the one thing in life I'm really good at. I've found it by happenstance, but even so I don't think it's important.

Dave: But I would argue with that. I read a quote of yours on jim-crace.com (excerpted from an article in Redbrick) that really struck a chord with me:

The comfort that we can gain from the hard cruel truth of death is that life itself is wonderful, full of love and full of transcendental moments - that's what really matters.

I'd expressed a similar sentiment recently. As backwards as it seems, in some respects I've been in a better mood since September 11th. Yes, whenever I see something on the news or think about what's going on, I feel horrible, but the flipside is I realized that I spend far too much time worrying about the future and not nearly enough time appreciating the present. It's not a profound revelation by any means, but September 11th and the events that have followed seem to me the ultimate wake-up call. For every fear about what could come to be I'm that much more aware of how much we take for granted, how spectacularly fortunate I am in almost every way.

Crace: Here you are, you're you and you're fine.

Dave: I'm better than fine. I have a fantastic relationship, a great family, a job that I love....

Crace: You won the lottery.

Dave: Right. Which causes moral dilemmas in itself, but none that I wasn't aware of previously. What's going on scares the shit out of me, but look: I woke up this morning as grateful as I've ever been for being alive and healthy.

Crace: Everyone says this is a big wake-up call, meaning that you're never going to walk around free again, you're never going to be able to travel on airplanes without feeling neurotic. Well, that may be true for some people, but there's actually another wake-up call, which is, Wake up and smell the coffee. In fact it smells really good.

Dave: Right. And I would argue that Being Dead serves a meaningful purpose in that respect, as a kind of wake-up call. The book is violent. It's disgusting, even, if you're the type of person who would be made uncomfortable by the facts of bodily decay. And yet it's somehow uplifting.

Crace: I'm glad to hear you say that because I have real trouble with the people who say I'm a pessimistic and dark writer, a negative writer whose characters are hard to like. The people who say that are the pessimists, I think, people who have trouble liking less-than-perfect people.

I'm still shocked when people say what a dreadful woman Syl was, the daughter. I think she's wonderful. I wish I were twenty years younger so I could drive with her around town. Because she's gutsy! She's blemished, sure.

I've said this so many times before, but I think that the Hollywood view of the world, and the Christian view of the world, which tells glorious stories about an afterlife and stories about this life in which virtue and good looks are one and the same, that we're going to live forever in a honey-soaked heaven, I think those are deeply cynical views of the world. For me, optimism is taken from the fact that when you look really closely into the dark corners of the world and know that death is final, when you accept that most of the people you know are blemished and you're blemished yourself, and nevertheless out of that find a reason to be optimistic, that for me is a triumph.

I think I'm the most optimistic writer that you could ever encounter, but many of my critics think I'm just impossible.

Dave: Well, you address that darkness. You're not avoiding what Hollywood generally considers uncomfortable subjects. Which doesn't speak to your outlook on them, particularly. It just means you're not ducking those issues.

Crace: People ask, "Why were Joseph and Celice such unattractive people?" Because I wanted to dig deep for your sympathy. I didn't want it to be Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston that died. Then we're all feeling sorry from page one. I wanted to make it hard to feel sympathy with this rather damaged couple in their compromised relationship.

Some people get that and some people don't, and that's fine. There are plenty of reasons not to like my books. I can understand that. Some people don't like that they're so preacherly, so moralistic. Some people don't like being able to trust the veracity of the books, that nothing in them is going to be true - and that's a reasonable position to have. Some people really dislike the rhythmic prose, the over-reliance on the percussive note in my sentences. Some people dislike the fact that my books are so utterly schematic, so that if you encounter a stone on page one you know that the stone has a role to play on page ninety-eight and that's just part of the architecture. There are many, many reasons why people shouldn't like my books. I've come to terms with it, and I'm quite relaxed about it. It's not personal, is it? People have different likes and dislikes. But the one thing that riles me is when people say that they're pessimistic.

Jim Crace visited Powell's City of Books on October 16, 2001. In the weeks leading up to his reading, every time the author's name came up in conversation someone made a point of telling me what a nice person he is. "I interviewed him last time he was in Portland," Georgie told me. "He was so sweet. Just the nicest guy in the world." I'd enjoyed the author's highly touted books thoroughly, but Crace-the-person could not possibly live up to the hype. Except that he does. He's the most down-to-earth, go-for-a-pint-at-the-pub kind of guy you can imagine.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. The Pesthouse: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $6.95
  3. Quarantine New Trade Paper $18.00
  4. Being Dead
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  5. The Devil's Larder Used Trade Paper $4.95
  6. Quarantine New Trade Paper $18.00
  7. Being Dead
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  8. The Devil's Larder Used Hardcover $5.50
  9. Arcadia Used Trade Paper $5.50
  10. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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