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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, January 3rd, 2002


 

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 concepts.

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 fiction.

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 raconteur....

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 ex machina.

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 us.

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 over.

Dale Pecks most recent novel is Now It's Time to Say Goodbye (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).


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