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Crace, Jim

CRACE, Jim

Nationality: British. Born: Brocket Hall, Lemsford, Hertfordshire, 1 March 1946. Education: Enfield Grammar School, Middlesex, 1957-64; Birmingham College of Commerce, 1965-68; University of London (external), B.A. (honours) in English 1968. Family: Married Pamela Ann Turton in 1975; one son and one daughter. Career: Volunteer in educational television, Voluntary Service Overseas, Khartoum, Sudan, 1968-69; freelance journalist and writer, 1972-86; since 1986 full-time novelist. Awards: Arts Council bursary, 1986; West Midlands Arts Literature grant, 1980; David Higham award, 1986; Whitbread award, 1986; Guardian Fiction prize, 1986; Antico Fattore prize (Italy), 1988; International prize for literature, 1989. Address: c/o Viking/Penguin, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England.

Publications

Novels

The Gift of Stones. London, Secker and Warburg, 1988; New York, Scribner, 1989.

Arcadia. London, Cape, and New York, Atheneum, 1992.

Signals of Distress. London, Viking, 1994; New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.

The Slow Digestions of the Night (novella). London, Penguin, 1995.

Quarantine. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Being Dead. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Short Stories

Continent. London, Heinemann, 1986; New York, Harper, 1987.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Refugees," in Socialist Challenge, December 1977.

"Annie, California Plates" and "Helter Skelter, Hang Sorrow, Care'll Kill a Cat," in Introduction 6: Stories by New Writers. London, Faber, 1977.

"Seven Ages," in Quarto, 1980.

Plays

Radio Plays:

The Bird Has Flown, 1977; A Coat of Many Colours, 1979.

*

Critical Studies:

Jim Crace by Judy Cooke, London, Book Trust and the British Council, 1992.

Jim Crace comments:

I count myself to be a traditional, old-fangled novelist rather than a conventional writer or a new-fangled modernist. I am more interested in the fate of communities than the catharsis of individuals. I owe more to the oral traditions of storytelling (rhythmic prose, moral satire, naked invention) than to the idiomatic, ironic, realist social comedies which typify post-war British fiction. My books are not an exploration of self. They are not autobiographically based. I do not write from experience. I focus on subjectsusually political or sociological, usually concerning the conflict between the old and new ways of humankindwhich interest me, which seem worthy of exploration but of which I have no personal expertise. (I am surprised but not saddened to note that my novels are less progressive and more pessimistic than I am myself.) I shroud the offputting solemnity of my themes in metaphorical narratives which tease and subvert and flirt with the reader and which regard lies to be more eloquent than facts. Thus far, my novels seem to reach-and-preach the same conclusion: that everything new worth having, in both the private and public universes, is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping. Those who do not like my novels consider them to be overwrought, passionless, schematic, and unEnglish.

* * *

The fiction of Jim Crace is an alchemical alloy of meticulous rationality wedded to a broadly inventive imagination and written in a seemingly arch style that belies its suppleness and tensile strength. While critics have noted his fondness for blank-verse iambic rhythms highlighted with occasional alliterative trills and rhetorical flourishes, this stylized writing has been used by Crace to construct narratives set in such exotic and varied places as the dawn of the Bronze Age, the deserts outside biblical Jerusalem, nineteenth-century rural England, and a present-day metropolis. But such scope should not imply that Crace writes panoramic epic. Instead, Crace portrays characters who are anything but heroic in the Homeric sense, their very ordinariness precisely rendered with a focused attention on the minutiae of lives lived within their specificand ever-changinghistorical contexts. And Crace can easily shift gears from ornate to ordinary, often within the space of a few syllables, at one moment relating the rhetorical musings of an elderly magnate, then seamlessly morphing into a prosaic account of the old man's indigestion.

His first book, Continent, betrays the strong influence of Borges and other Latin-American fabulists. Considered by many to be a novel only in name, this narrative is a collection of interrelated stories set on a mythical continent where the main occupations are, according to the book's epigraph, "trade and superstition." Far from being fanciful, however, these tales have the quality of parable, being both overtly fantastical as well as topically relevant to life on the real continents of our world. In the chapter entitled "Sins and Virtues," an old calligrapher must stoop to an ingenious but ironic solution to meeting government demands for his suddenly lucrative artwork. In "Electricity," the fate of a giant ceiling fan becomes emblematic of the promises and pitfalls of technological progress, and in "Cross-Country," a visiting teacher from Canada, an aficionado of the alien sport of jogging, engages in a kind of tortoise-versus-hare footrace against a local horseman. For all its fabricated flora and fauna, the continent of Continent is a recognizable place where the tragicomedy of life is brought into sharp relief against a vivid backdrop. This book made a literary star of Crace, winning him three of Great Britain's most prestigious literary awards: the Whitbread prize, the Guardian Fiction prize, and the David Higham award.

His second novel, The Gift of Stones, is an evocative depiction of life at the moment in human prehistory when bronze supplanted stone. It is also a meditation on the art and purposes of storytelling in the life of a community, albeit a doomed one. In a village of stoneworkers, a maimed boy becomes the tribe's entertainer, wandering away from the village during the day only to return and relate, with embellishment, his travels to his fellows as a way of earning his keep. When the village's fortunes fade with the sudden appearance of traders in bronze, the storyteller, as the tribe's most imaginative member, becomes a guide to the outside world as remnants of the tribe begin to wander in search of a new home. Tellingly, Crace leaves open the question of whether the storyteller's guidance proves fruitful or not.

In Arcadia, Crace's third novel, he creates a contemporary fable of a self-made man that begins, "No wonder Victor never fell in love." Now eighty, Victor, a produce magnate, decides to erase his dark and lowly past by erecting a huge, glass-enclosed mall over the open-air market where he spent his destitute childhood. But his aspiration is opposed by Rook, his former majordomo, and their conflict is further complicated by their involvement with Anna, Victor's assistant and Rook's mistress. But Arcadia is more than this triangle of competing motives; it's a meditation on life in and of cities, a novelistic aria on the theme of the city as an organism that thrives with the help ofand often in spite ofthe efforts of its denizens, no matter their place in the socioeconomic strata. As befits a book about constructions, Arcadia is Crace's most overtly structured novel, and critics have praised this structure for its artfulness while berating it for creating a kind of clinical distance from his characters, blocking the reader from achieving any real sympathy.

Signals of Distress, Crace's fourth novel, has an even more specific historical setting: Wherry town, on the coast of England, during one week in November of 1836. An American sailing bark runs aground, stranding its Yankee crew, its cargo of cattle, and an African slave while the ship undergoes repairs. The townspeople, down-to-earthers who are mainly kelpers and fishermen, warily take in the sailors just as a priggishly moralistic abolitionist named Aymer Smith arrives to announce news of economic disaster for the Wherry. Like all of Crace's fiction, Signals of Distress is concerned with the clash of differing cultures in a time of historical upheaval, and this novel treats the ensuing conflicts with as much comedy as pathos. The slave escapes and becomes a local legend; Smith competes against a minister for the hand of a local girl only to lose his virginity unceremoniously to another woman; a local landmark is destroyed; and the sailing bark is repaired. The week passes, but nothing in Wherryor the worldwill ever be the same. Like Arcadia, Signals of Distress was both praised and condemned for Crace's contrivances of structure and theme at the expense of fully realized characterizations, a criticism Crace himself has repeatedly dismissed.

Quarantine is Crace's fifth and most provocative novel, being a reimagining of Christ's forty-day fast in the desert. However, Crace makes Christ a minor but pivotal character in the story of a group of pilgrims who have gone to the desert to seek spiritual renewal. Indeed, Crace's Christ is little more than a willfully deluded runaway who mistakes the proddings of his fellow fasters for the temptations of Satan. Beginning with the purely scientific premise that no mortal could survive forty days without food or water, Quarantine maintains a scrupulously realistic air that colors any mysticism with the patina of fever or madness. Jesus' prayers seem more like epileptic fits than communications with a Creator. But Quarantine is not just a literary debunking of the New Testament. Although Crace is a publicly avowed atheist who has admitted that the inspiration for this novel was in fact just such a debunking, the novel manages to rise above the level of anti-religious polemic by making its characters and setting come truly alive in ways his previous novels, at least according to reviewers, did not. Each of Christ's fellow pilgrims is a vivid character, from the beleaguered-yet-unflagging Miri to the proud-but-desperate Marta. Musa, the novel's true central character, is a deliberately coarse creation who nevertheless is the only one sensitive enough to realize that there is more to Christ and his story than the fate of a starving teenager who sees visions. In the end, Musa, though he is devious and even criminal, is the only one in the group to see a supposedly resurrected Christ following the pilgrims to Jerusalem after their fast, thence to start a movement that will sweep the globe. That Musa is able to envision the coming religion only in terms of its profit potential only deepens the questions raised by this book. Quarantine won Crace a second Whitbread prize, and it was a finalist for the Booker prize as well.

Throughout his first five novels, Crace again and again focuses his narratives on people living on the cusp of great historical change, be it the coming of electricity or Christianity. But setting his characters at such chronological crossroads allows Crace the freedom to sensationally dramatize the essential fact that life itself is flux, whether or not such flux is measurable along the timelines in history books. With his next novel, however, Crace eschewed such historically dramatic scene-setting; instead, he focused on the most dramatic change that any life can make.

Being Dead, Crace's sixth novel, is what one critic calls "a secular meditation on death" that, in vividly portraying the process of death in minute detail while recalling the lives previously lived by the corpses whose decay forms the structural spine of the novel, is also Crace at his most convincing. The book begins with the murder of a middle-aged couple en flagrante delicto. From there, the narrative diverges into two major tributaries. The first concerns what happens to the corpses as they decay; the second concerns the life of the couple as it led up to death. By tracing these forking paths of story, Crace has fashioned a novel that unflinchingly fixes the human place in the physical universe while affirminghowever brieflythe single human trait able to jump the chasm between life and death: love. Such a structure again raises criticisms of Crace's tendency to over-design his novels, but such a structure is perfectly suited to this one. Joseph and Celice, the married-then-murdered couple, are unlikable as characters, but their deaths and subsequent lives, when subjected to Crace's close study, render them automatically sympathetic in ways that enlarge the reader's capacities for compassion rather than merely affirming the reader's preconceptions. Life is made precious by mortality, while love is even more so.

J. J. Wylie

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