Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Being Dead" by Jim Crace

Joseph and Celice are zoologists, scientists and academics. They harbor few illusions about the meaning of life or death, seeing both as just two points so far apart on a continuum that they could conceivably be touching somewhere on the other side.

Married for 30 years, they've traveled back to the bay where they met and first made love, when a stranger finds them on the beach and brutally murders both of them.

So begins Jim Crace's Being Dead, which is both a detailed study of what becomes of two corpses left to the elements and a surprisingly tender love story that begins and ends in death.

Crace is a British writer with some half dozen well-regarded novels to his name and, judging from this book, someone who's both horrified and enraptured by humanity's place in a world that cares little for its fate.

The novel is structured as two interwoven halves. The first opens with the murder of Joseph and Celice and catalogs with detached specificity the changes their bodies go through as they first die and then succumb to the forces of nature over the course of six days. The second chronicles their meeting 30 years earlier as graduate students doing fieldwork at the same spot they would later die.

Just as their meeting was not a typical -- or even entirely romantic -- story, nor is their life or death. Crace describes Celice as something of an Amazon, tall and muscular, with a prickly demeanor; Joseph is smaller physically, but the superior one when it comes to intellect and career. These complementary aspects -- or imbalances, depending on how you want to look at it -- combine to make a marriage that is not always happy and passionate, but one built on mutual respect, understanding and, most of all, enduring love.

Reading Being Dead I was often reminded of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, another novel composed of intertwined stories that move forward and back in time and somehow manage to merge so completely that it seems everything is happening to everyone. Eventually the connections between the characters -- and by extension, us -- become so overwhelming that they almost completely obliterate the differences separating them.

Though told on a much smaller scale, Being Dead has the same effect, especially once the couple is noticed missing and their daughter, an unsteady combination of both parents' physical and emotional make-ups, strikes out to discover what's become of them.

Crace's emphasis on the decomposition of Joseph and Celice's bodies is a fitting tribute for two scientists who have always believed that death is simply another stage of life. He follows them in precise, but never gory, detail as their bodies first give way to a great darkness, then become food for crabs and gulls, grow stiff and bloat, and finally begin their return to the earth.

And yet, this clinical tone sets the reader up for some very emotional moments, such as when police are removing Joseph's hand from around his wife's ankle, which he reached out for in the last moments of life. But six days of decomposition have caused their flesh to meld, and the two must literally be torn apart. It's an image that manages to be both sickening and unspeakably sad at the same time.

Crace's British vocabulary did cause me to scratch my head on more than a few occasions. For example, I have no idea what an "unmetalled road" is, though several of them appear throughout the book. But the world he describes -- one in which nothing on earth lasts or matters except for love -- is one I'm familiar with, and it brings me a small measure of comfort to learn I'm not completely alone in it.

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