The Devil's Larder
by Jim Crace
The Devil You Know
A review by Dale Peck
The difference between curiosity and promiscuity is much the same for
writers as it is for lovers. The first is a good thing, the second bad,
the line between the two rather blurry. At what point is inquisitiveness
revealed to be a wandering eye, an inability to focus or to commit?
Over the past fifteen years, the British novelist Jim Crace has wooed
an international audience with six clever tales about a fictitious continent,
a Stone Age society, a fruit market, a shipwreck, an adolescent Jesus,
and dead people. Yet each new book has had the effect of reducing rather
than enlarging his oeuvre. Awards have been given, comparisons made to
J.M. Coetzee, Jeanette Winterson, even Borges. Those comparisons strike
me as oddly apt, for Crace amplifies the worst traits of each of those
great but problematic writers. Crace is a Coetzee for those fascinated
by the pornography of perverse behavior rather than perverse thought,
a Winterson for those who pray that such thoughts can be explained away
on the psychotherapist's couch, a Borges for readers who want to believe
that paradoxes and labyrinths and infinity are nothing more than literary
With his seventh work of fiction, The Devil's Larder, Crace turns
his attention to gastronomy, and the result finally exposes him for the
gourmand that he is. No David Bouley, Crace stands as the Betty Crocker
of contemporary novelists: though the packaging promises devil's food,
angel food, and German chocolate, the desiccated contents of each box
taste remarkably the same. Taken on their own, Crace's novels are inoffensive;
their popularity is unfortunate, but not hard to understand. As a body
of work, however, their lowest-common-denominator dilettantism is the
embodiment of everything that I have come to despise about contemporary
I did not arrive at this admittedly extreme opinion after reading The
Devil's Larder, which served as my introduction to Crace's books.
Certainly it is a slight book. Billed as "sixty-four short fictions about
food," its sum is, if anything, less than its parts, such that one emerges
from the text with little to add to the jacket description of the book.
There are sixty-four pieces; they are short (ranging from two words to
ten pages); they are, to the best of my knowledge, fiction; they all feature
food. They are also linked by the fact that they seem to be set in the
same place the coastal village where the protagonists of Being Dead
were murdered, perhaps, or one of the towns of his unnamed Continent?
It is impossible to say, just as it is unclear what to make of repeated
references to "Mondazy," the fictitious (and terrible) poet who also featured
in Being Dead.
The stories in The Devil's Larder defy paraphraxis, like Aesop
or Lydia Davis at their insipid worst. Here is one:
He kept a curved plate in the middle of his
kitchen table, with carvings on its edge. The sun, the moon, some leaves,
some stars. It wasn't old or valuable, but it was natural wood, unvarnished
and hand decorated. Each day, first thing, once he had done his lifts
and bends, he placed his titbits on the plate, food to see off death.
Pumpkin seeds to protect the prostate. Bran for bowels. Brazil nuts for
their selenium. Dried apricots. French pitted prunes. Linseed. A tomato.
There were no supplements or vitamins. He had no confidence in pills.
Then he drank his green-leaf tea with honey from the comb. He was a regimented
man, well organized, reliable. He kept his diet up, without a break, until
the day he died.
Here is another:
Spitting in the omelette is a fine revenge.
Or overloading it with pepper. But take care not to masturbate into the
mix, as someone in the next village did, sixty years ago. The eggs got
pregnant. When he heated them they grew and grew, becoming quick and lumpy,
until they could outwit him (and all his hungry guests waiting with beer
and bread out in the yard) by leaping from the pan with their half-wings
and running down the lane like boys.
Here is a third:
A migraine is a certain sign, that you should
drink a case of wine. Is that confusing? No, just a lesson to be learned;
that pain is fine if it's been earned, by boozing.
That last one is printed in fake handwriting, suggestively childish
or drunken. The words are typeset in the shape of a bottle of chianti.
These pieces remind me of only two things that I have read before. The
first is Jay McInerney's Model Behavior, an unbelievably bad collection
of stories whose adolescent adventures range from the immature to the
merely amateur, and whose most remarkable feature is that someone actually
published it. The second is a short story sent to me by an imprisoned
sex offender who had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
In that story, a veterinarian feels guilty about euthanizing a suffering
dog and is rewarded by a canine smile and wag of the dog's tail when he
sends it to meet its maker. In McInerney's stories and the prisoner's
story, there can be seen the sense of discovery familiar to anyone who
has ever read one of those "aha!" paragraphs that end so much fiction
in college workshops: this isn't as hard as I thought!
Never mind that in Crace's first story it is impossible to tell whether
the "carvings" adorn plate or table (syntax leans toward the former, grammar
toward the latter). Never mind that in the second story the "fine revenge"
lacks an object and the closing simile "like boys" prompts a similarly
unanswerable question, namely, why? And never mind that in the third story
the ironic "lesson" of the second half is linked to the first half by
rhyme rather than reason, making it a proposition as indefensible and
unassailable as the statement "all dogs are blue." What matters in the
Cracian universe is only that the elements are arrayed in an order that
resembles fiction, and that this imitation yields a simulacrum of what
purports to be wisdom.
But the semblance is too canny. Stories such as these always bring to
mind a set of "prehistoric" cave drawings found in France a few years
ago. Owing to their accurate depiction of the movement of the legs of
running animals, the drawings were proved inauthentic: it was not until
the invention of stop-motion photography that humans were able to ascertain
how a horse's or deer's legs bent and lifted and came down during flight.
The drawings, in other words, did not imitate life, they imitated art;
and the same inauthenticity plagues the stories in The Devil's Larder.
The short sentences masquerading as careful prose, the resonant observations
that turn out to be nothing more than artless tricks of language, the
use of enough irony to avoid appearing recherché: these are not
stories, these are imitations of stories.
My point is not merely that Crace's new book is bad, but rather that in
its exclusively banal view of life, death, sex, and art, in its solemn
pseudo-minimalist belief that any trivial detail, earnestly presented,
is filled with significance, and in its reference librarian's elevation
of facts to totems, it is so bad that I began to suspect that Crace might
actually have talent. Fiction, after all, requires a monomania: the concentration
to winnow away the real world until all that remains is its outline, leaving
the story neatly defined by negative space. Perhaps these "short fictions"
were bits of chipped stone mistakenly put on display, and Crace's Galatea
lay elsewhere. And so I read five more of his books, Continent,
The Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress, Quarantine,
and Being Dead. I began each one optimistically, thinking that
I might discover in it Crace's hidden ability or appeal. I like Crace's
subjects. I like their variety and idiosyncrasy and audacity. That is
why my disappointment grew greater and greater when each successive book
proved as stale as The Devil's Larder.
Look again at the story about Crace's "regimented man." The prose is
detached, observational, objectifying its one-dimensional protagonist;
now imagine that effect extended over two hundred or three hundred pages.
What is merely boring at one hundred twenty-nine words is, well, really
boring at fifty thousand words. There is no investment in such a world,
such characters, because it is not in fact a world, and they are not actually
characters; they are nothing more than shadow puppets projected on a barren
wall. In fact, what I realized after reading three or four of Crace's
novels is not that they are bad novels, but that they are not novels.
This is because they are not stories. In truth, they are not even imitations
of stories. They are just extended metaphors that Crace tries to pass
off as stories.
Before reading Crace, this was a distinction that I had never thought
to make. Metaphors, after all, often take the form of anecdotes, and all
stories have a metaphoric rendering, usually called theme. But there is
a difference. A story, as Forster brutally reduced it in Aspects of
the Novel, is nothing more than two events separated by time, whereas
a metaphor is two events separated by distance. Very often that distance
is mental more specifically, it is desire, the yearning between what
we want and what we have. But there is no desire in narrative. Time may
be relentless, but not in the manner of a serial killer; it doesn't want
to go forward, it simply goes. It is not momentous, it is momentless;
and thus the more a story seems to desire to achieve its conclusion, rather
than simply to arrive there, the further it strays from its true purpose,
which I will call the accurate presentation of time.
Desire in narrative is an authorial intrusion as artificial as any hat
trick by Barth or Barthelme. It is also human, and sacred, the age-old
urge to make things make sense, to shape historical events into something
more than points on a line: it is what characters do, but not writers.
The speeding up that we associate with the end of a good novel represents
a transformation of the character's psychology, not the writer's psychology;
the Oedipal urge to finally discover the truth, even if it destroys you.
There are any number of great writers who document that urge without giving
in to it themselves, but when a writer does give in to it, the work becomes
tinged with sentimentality, the cloying poetry of hymns as opposed to
the ecstasy of singing voices.
For the reader, the distinction between an extended metaphor and an
actual story translates into the difference between boredom and pleasure,
between passive observation and intellectual engagement. It is the difference
between a tapestry and a weaving: the former is a finished product, the
relationship between its parts fixed and geometrical, whereas the latter
is an ongoing process that advances along ordered lines while still containing
the possibility of diversion and variation a multitude of potential tapestries,
in other words, as opposed to a single scene that gathers dust on a wall.
In an attempt to achieve such a multiplicity of meaning, Crace entangles
each of his so-called stories within a more or less complicated modernist
framework, hoping that the act of unraveling the narrative will add what
it does not actually contain, namely, a semblance of humanity. But Crace's
juxtaposition and cross-cutting do not jar you into rethinking your position
with regard to what you are reading; they simply conceal or prop up the
narrative's lack of spontaneity, suspense, or surprise. Similarly, double
spaces and chapter breaks, the pregnant pauses of typography, do nothing
more than elide those places where characters might be expected to show
something more than actorly "motivation": free will, choice.
When all else fails, Crace trots out the good old direct address to
the reader: "I expect you smile and brighten in expectation of some fantasy
of mine"; "The young man in his suit whose name you'll know before the
day is out was left [behind]." "This is our only prayer," he writes in
Being Dead, the conspiratorial "we" that is even more powerful and
more desperate than the gentler "you." But when "you" bracket off these
insinuations and remind yourself that "you" and Crace do not in fact form
any kind of "we," "you" find yourself presented time and again with the
same static picture. In six books, I never saw anything break out of the
ordered mold of Crace's extended, reified metaphors. One is reminded that
they are called conceits.
In his first novel, Continent, a kind of Utopia lite, seven
vignettes of an invented continent reveal a land that bears no appreciable
difference from the six continents that already exist. The worldly son
of a wealthy man tells how his father sells the urine of hermaphroditic
cows as magic "milk"; a man is imprisoned for speaking against the government;
a visiting teacher uses the logic of topography to outrace an over-confident
young buck on his horse; a scientist discovers a primitive tribe whose
women seem to go into estrus; an elderly calligrapher tells how forgeries
of his work sell for thousands of dollars in the outside world; electricity
comes to a rural town with comically disastrous consequences; a foreign
geologist doesn't want to discover anything valuable that might lead to
the destruction of an unspoiled landscape. In each case, the vignettes
plod toward their foreordained conclusion, their themes relentlessly borne
out in every single line, their characters accruing not depth but parts,
like cars on an assembly line. In Edmund White's novel Forgetting Elena,
an older writer chastises a younger writer for placing a chandelier in
a ballroom for no other reason than having it around to drop on the characters
at the story's climax. The elements in Continent are similarly
perfunctory, the utter redundancy of each tale never questioned. Superstition
persists in the face of science, oppressive governments are bad, the tortoise
always beats the hare, and so on. It takes a novel to say this?
And so on: Being Dead utilizes a cut-and-paste technique to elevate
a pseudo-scientific poetics of decay into a sort of afterlife for the
otherwise uninteresting elderly couple murdered in its opening pages.
They rot amid flashbacks of their past until their self-centered daughter
discovers them and is sad. In its self-important presentation, Crace's
tedious inter-cutting seems ignorant of anything written during the twentieth
century. Instead his characters remain dead, the life beaten not just
from their bodies but from his flashbacks, which are nothing more than
synopsis or summary, plot points for a film script.
Quarantine's framing device, by contrast, is purely conceptual.
This "historical" novel postulates a Jesus whose forty-day fast in the
desert was a bit of adolescent drama designed to prove to disapproving
parents that his faith wasn't, like, weird. But if you still want to,
like, believe in all that God stuff, that's cool, too, because after he
starves to death Jesus is a man; and men cannot live for forty days without
food; ergo, Jesus did not live for forty days without food people choose
to pretend that he did not die, and even to pretend that he worked miracles,
too. Is Crace attempting to disprove Christianity? To expose its hypocrisy,
and offer a psychological alternative to immaculate conception? It is
impossible to say. Despite the fact that the narrative's central character
is a boy called Jesus, he bears no relation to the historical and mythological
figure of the same name; and by the same token Crace's novel fails to
demonstrate any serious engagement with the faith that it is supposedly
unmasking. This is not a retelling of a myth; Crace is simply ignoring
what has gone before. He might as well walk into a church and tell the
congregation that they all believe a lie. Whatever its philosophical merit,
such a declaration would hardly count as literature.
In Signals of Distress, a village of idiots run around like a
bunch of Tom and Jerrys for two hundred seventy-five pages, until a group
of them get on a ship, which then sinks. Isn't that ironic? Or unfortunate?
Distressing, perhaps? But hey: the announcement of the ship's sinking
is typeset as though it were a photocopy of a page torn from the 1837
edition of Oliver's Register of Ships and Shipping. Who knows,
maybe it really is a page from the 1837 edition of Oliver's Register
of Ships and Shipping. Isn't that something?
In each case, Crace's intensely sharpened focus the man is nothing
if not narrow-minded presents a piece of the world as isolated as his
regimented man with his all-natural diet, and then, through anachronism,
anthropomorphism, and sleight of hand, that fragment is turned into something
slightly different from what it was before, a photograph dropped from
history's scrapbook and begging for an exegesis that it does not deserve.
This is because Crace refuses to admit that the novel qua novel can make
a distinction between invention and reality, between recorded history
and lived history. In fiction, there is no such thing as non-fiction,
as empirical truth, even as something to be referred to, invoked. It all
becomes fiction. Critics often speak of the "blurred line" between fiction
and non-fiction, but Crace seems not to understand that the blurriness
isn't static that there isn't a line at all, but rather a dialogue about
the elusive goal of perfect knowledge and the imperfect tool that seeks
it, the human mind.
For Crace, it is all a game: "The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies
are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft." So says the narrator
of Crace's second novel, The Gift of Stones. It is perhaps the
most useful novel to examine in detail because it contains a storyteller
as its central character, and as such is full of pronouncements like the
above. "Of course, man must eat and food for me was earned by talk. I
did invent for them another breed of tales"; "When he spoke he shaped
the truth, he trimmed, he stretched, he decorated. He was to truth what
every stoney was to untouched flint"; "You see? I've pulled a screen of
grass around the story too. I'll not creep up and tell you what I saw.
You can be sure this is the truth no chronicler with any sense would
disappoint his listeners so."
In fact, though the foreground of this wildly ambitious story ostensibly
examines what happens when a vastly superior product (versatile, malleable
bronze) is introduced into a Stone Age economy dominated by clumsy and
unreliable flint implements, in the background we witness an even more
radical innovation: the invention of storytelling itself. Crace is imagining
the birth of the selfsame conventions that Homer would use 3,500 years
later to transform a few fragments of folklore into a culture-defining
myth. But where Homer wrote big, Crace writes small. Here a literal interpretation
of the term "Stone Age" creates the entire world of his novel, whose unnamed
protagonist lives in a village of "the stoneys and the mongers, the villagers
who dug and worked the flint, the traders who hawked and peddled it."
It is unclear whether this economic stratification is meant to register
as an intuitive re-creation of how life might have been lived six thousand
years ago or is simply anachronistic, but in either case life in the village
seems eerily Dickensian. "You'll never guess," the protagonist says, speaking
of profiteering middlemen and hardworking stonemasons, "which breed was
fat and wealthy, which gave the orders, which named the price, which did
not stand and shiver in the line with baskets full of earth." It is the
protagonist's misfortune not only to have been born into this world as
a worker rather than a capitalist, but also to lose an arm as a child.
Useless as a laborer, he must find a new way to earn his keep, or at least
to secure handouts sufficient to his survival.
He becomes a bard. It happens this way. One afternoon he sees a ship
(deus ex machina) and follows it along the shore. He loses the
ship but meets a hermit woman (deus ex machina) who supports herself
and her daughter by working as a prostitute; when he returns to the village
he responds to demands about where he has been with a story that his audience,
though sophisticated enough to recognize his words as a mixture of truth
and falseness, is nevertheless enraptured by (deus ex machina).
One good story from his mouth transformed him
in that village, overnight, from the wild plant, not-much-use, into their
And so it was that father became not liked exactly,
or respected but useful in the village, and admired by some. You'd
meet him, too, at a great occasion, celebrating with a tale the naming
of a child or marking death and burial with some fitting yarn. And there
were hardly any feasts or meetings of the village which did not feature
father fantasizing at the higher table in the hall.
And deus ex machina the modern story is born, as fully formed
as Athena sprung from Zeus's skull.
Note, again, the nineteenth-century inflection: the protagonist (father
to the novel's narrator, who would seem to have inherited her father's
skill) is neither liked nor respected but useful. This strikes
me as the same sort of pseudo-rationality for which Dickens lampooned
Bentham, that Huxley and Wells found so alarming in More's Utopia.
The narrative in The Gift of Stones progresses with the well-oiled
order of a clock's hands, but it is believable as a blueprint for a human
society only if you believe in neither chance nor free will.
The protagonist returns for Doe, as he calls the woman he met on the
beach, and she tells him that her husband disappeared on an errand to
his village. But when the protagonist uses his newfound storytelling prowess
to ask his fellow citizens about it, "they peeled away before the tale
was done, unmoved by father's portrait of the widow and her child on the
heath. My father stood alone and startled for now he understood the power
of the truth." But what is that power? And how has it worked? Why are
the villagers willing to pay for one story but not the other? If they
were somehow responsible for the husband's disappearance, one could attribute
their lack of interest to guilt, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
The only thing that comes close to providing an answer is, again, anachronism:
the villagers' taste runs to inconsequential fantasy rather than heavier
stuff, just like today's fickle, faint-hearted media consumers. Deus
Crace's story makes his point too conveniently, too simplistically;
it exists not only without nuance but also without alternative, and as
such is a reductive look at both his invented world and the real world
it's supposedly commenting on. And it doesn't affect anything anyway:
Doe continues to work as a prostitute, with the men of the village as
her clientele, and the narrator continues to tell stories until, conveniently
enough, another ship returns, discharging sailors who kill Doe with an
arrow tipped with the bronze implement promised in the jacket copy. Within
a page, bronze tools are everywhere, in the kind of market saturation
for which Bill Gates would kill. The villagers abandon their quarries,
presumably in hopes of finding a place far away from the dreaded innovation.
And as they embark on their great trek into or away from? the past,
they turn to the protagonist "to invent a future for us all."
Here, again, is the "aha!" moment of the tiny tales in The Devil's
Larder, the same messianic urge that lurks behind Quarantine
and Being Dead. History disappears beneath memory's distortions.
Only perception remains. So one might as well have a story that tidies
things up, that inspires hope, right? Fiction is a balm, a sop even. On
bad days, when everything I write seems inconsequential or meaningless,
I have thought as much; but I'm not sure that Crace allows fiction even
that much life. What little compassion I had for his work disappeared
when I read the following interview with him in the last issue of Bookforum:
People are baffled when they hear me prefer
journalism over fiction. But I'm equally baffled that anyone could inspect
the array of subjects highlighted by serious newspapers, note the size
and variety of their readerships, consider the role they play in providing
the source material of our opinions, and still consider the literary novel
an equal force. Of course, narrative literature increases in importance
when newspapers don't or aren't allowed to do their job. I couldn't argue
that Russian newspapers of the cold war period represent a better record
of their times than the novels of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, for example.
And narrative literature can be immensely important among communities
that are marginalized or misrepresented by newspapers. I could make a
good case for the gay novel, the black novel, the feminist novel of the
last fifty years. But these are novels with alert constituencies as well
as plain readers. Now, step back, consider me, consider Britain. A white,
middle-aged, heterosexual male in a bourgeois, liberal democracy. Where
is my constituency? How can my thin novels, with their overload of rhythmic
metaphors and their few thousand readers, claim equal importance with
newspapers? Poets (and novelists) are "the unacknowledged legislators
of the world"? Not anymore, they're not. Come on, you self-deluding writers,
get a grip!
This is perhaps the most damning confession ever made by a novelist.
It is not simply a statement of bad faith; it is also an admission that
he has no idea what a novel is, what a novel does.
The problem with most contemporary novelists is that they seem to have
forgotten the basic ontological difference between history and fiction that
one is real and the other is made up; and so they write their smug "realist"
novels with no indication of the unbridgeable gap that separates their
flights of fancy from the horrific trajectories of actual aircraft. Crace,
admirably, does not pretend to record history in his novels. But he does
seem to think that the measure of any narrative's "importance" is its
ability to do so. And so, convinced before he sets out that his novels
cannot "claim equal importance" with newspapers, he allows fact and fiction
to dissolve into each other like sugar in water, leaving a sticky residue
on everything they touch.
This is just another variation of the inferiority complex felt by a
select group of contemporary novelists all that bleating by David Foster
Wallace and Jonathan Franzen about their lack of connection to the thing
that they call "the culture" but which, on examination, turns out to
be nothing more than a denigration of fiction for not being something
it was never meant to be. And trotting out poor old Shelley to defend
your opinion is an insult to the poet's memory, not to mention the kind
of literal-mindedness that ought to disqualify one from being a poet (or
a novelist). For a man who writes nothing but metaphors, Crace has no
idea how they work.
I am not, at this late date, going to suggest that fiction is or is
not as important as history. That is a question for a metaphysician (or
a novelist). All I want to point out is that fiction does not record history,
or compete with it. Fiction interprets history. It was history, in fact,
that originally aspired to fiction, not the other way around. "What happened"
was considered less important than what posterity made of it, an impossible-to-untangle
skein of truth, lies, mistakes, and something like what we would now call
"spin"; what made The Iliad so vital to its listeners wasn't its
truth value, perceived or actual, but rather its ability to tell its listeners
what it meant to be Greek, a lesson so historically resonant that everyone
from Virgil to Dante to Dos Passos has used it as a model for what fiction
can aspire to. It was not until Suetonius began writing his biographies
of the Caesars around the first century C.E. that objectivity and subjectivity
began to separate into two distinct genres, the former reifying itself
into history, the latter mutating through any number of forms into what
we call inadequately, vaguely fiction.
Like Potter Stewart and pornography, I can't tell you what fiction is,
but I know it when I see it. Fiction does not make meaning by reifying
ideas, because you cannot reify something that does not exist. Instead,
it establishes a series of contextual relationships in which meaning is
vested in a number of elements: writer and reader, invented and actual,
shapely narrative and shapeless history. Ultimately fiction speaks to
the narrativizing heart in all of us while gently admonishing that history
has no such neatness, none of the inevitabilities of climax, resolution,
and dénouement with which religion or politics or art comforts
The novelist treats the facts of history as a juggler treats his balls,
rather than as a rock climber treats his pegs: it's the amount of time
he can keep away from them that is most fascinating, not the amount of
time he spends clinging for dear life. The novelist does not tell lies.
He unmasks the truth. He does not provide sheltering illusions. He dispels
them. If Jim Crace, the former journalist, thinks that journalism does
something more important than this, then he should get on a plane to Jalalabad
right now. He'll have to hurry if he wants to make it before the shooting's
Dale Peck’s most recent novel is Now It's Time to Say Goodbye
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
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