Crace, Jim 1946-
CRACE, Jim 1946-
PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1946, in Brocket Hall, Lemsford, Hertfordshire, England; son of Charles Sydney (an insurance agent) and Edith Grace (a homemaker; maiden name, Holland) Crace; married Pamela
Ann Turton (a teacher), January 3, 1975; children: Thomas Charles, Lauren Rose. Education: Birmingham College of Commerce, London, B.A. (with honors), 1968. Politics: "Libertarian Socialist; Labour." Religion: Atheist. Hobbies and other interests: "Family and garden; tennis, politics."
ADDRESSES: Agent—David Godwin Associates, 55 Monmouth St., London WC2H 9DG, England.
CAREER: Sudanese Educational Television, Khartoum, volunteer producer and writer, 1968-69; Kgosi Kgari Sechele Secondary School, Molepolole, Botswana, teacher of English, 1969-70; freelance radio and feature journalist, 1970-86; full-time novelist, 1986—. Midlands Arts Centre, writer-in-residence, 1981-83; Birmingham Festival of Readers and Writers, founder and director, 1983; West Midlands Arts, chair of literature panel, 1984-85.
AWARDS, HONORS: Arts Council of Great Britain major writing bursary, 1976; West Midlands Arts writing award, 1980; Whitbread Award for first novel, David Higham Prize for Fiction, and Guardian Fiction Prize, all 1986, and premio Antico Fattore, 1987, all for Continent; GAP International Award for Literature, Echoing Green Foundation, 1989, for The Gift of Stones; British Society of Authors travel award, 1992; Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, 1995, for Signals of Distress; E. M. Forster Award, AAAL, 1996; Whit-bread Prize for Best Novel, 1997, for Quarantine; National Book Critics' Circle Award for fiction and Book Review Best Books selection, both 2001, both for Being Dead; honorary doctorates from University of Central England, 2000, and University of Birmingham, 2002.
Continent (stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1997.
The Gift of Stones, Scribner (New York, NY), 1988.
Arcadia, Atheneum, (New York, NY), 1991.
Signals of Distress, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Quarantine, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
Being Dead, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
The Devil's Larder (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Genesis, Farrar, Straus, (New York, NY), 2003.
Author of radio plays Salateen and The Bird Has Flown, BBC-Radio. Contributor to Introduction Six, Faber, 1977; contributor to periodicals, including the Sunday Times, Telegraph Sunday Magazine, and the Times Literary Supplement.
SIDELIGHTS: Jim Crace is known for his original fiction probing the social and political nature of human beings. Although his works are often remarkable for their unique settings—Continent takes place on an imaginary continent while The Gift of Stones is set in a prehistoric era—the books' scenery becomes subordinate to Crace's examination of communal behavior. "I'm not interested in truths, [or in] drawing an accurate picture of the real world," Crace told Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times Book Review. "I'm interested in exploring the verities of the human condition…. I believe that in some respects, if youhit the [nail] of storytelling right on the head, then you can come up with lies which are more powerful than any truth."
Crace's first book, Continent, portrays an invented and unnamed continent modeled after the Third World. A collection of seven loosely connected stories, the work contains vignettes that demonstrate how development impinges on Old World ways, often exploiting the continent's natives. Nevertheless, Crace once told a CA interviewer that the work was never meant to be a polemic, or even to represent his own opinions. "With Continent I wasn't writing about what I knew—political views that I'd already formed about the relationship between the Western World and the Third World, or between the new ways of mankind and the old," he explained. "I was writing about what I was interested in and what I still wanted to debate and discover. So that book poses questions rather than answers them; I find that a much more interesting way of approaching narrative than writing political tracts."
Robert Olen Butler described the essence of Continent in the New York Times Book Review: "Tradition and progress, superstition and rationalism, the primal and the mercantile struggle for the souls of men." In one story, for example, a city-educated young man returns to his small village and contemplates how to carry on his father's business of selling milk with supposed magical properties. The son decides to continue marketing the milk as magical, determining that preying on the villager's superstitious nature can be quite profitable. In another story, electricity is introduced to a town by way of a ceiling fan in a local establishment. The fan packs so much power, though, that it knocks bystanders against walls while the urbanized installer of the appliance stands safely in the "calm" of the fan directly beneath. And in the story "Sins and Virtues," a calligrapher whose antiquated signs are suddenly in great demand in the United States is urged by his government to produce new masterpieces for export. Elderly and exhausted, the craftsman is unable to produce signs in his former manner and resorts to submitting forgeries of his own work for sale; notes the calligrapher, "The quest for Meaning in Form belongs to an age long past."
Continent was hailed enthusiastically by several reviewers. Calling the book "brilliant, provocative and delightful," Butler wrote: "One of the basic tasks of fiction is to strip down and rearrange experience in order to distance the reader from habitual reactions to surface reality and thereby, paradoxically, draw him closer to a deeper reality. Mr. Crace … does this splendidly." Crace was not only applauded for creating a fictional landscape that highlights social and political realities, but also for composing lucid and lyrical prose. While John Melmoth in his Times Literary Supplement review deemed the stories in Continent "sparsely and elegantly constructed," Brian Stonehill observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Crace's language is alive, a distinctive voice, an engaging character in itself. Life not only is the subject of, but is subject to, his artful words. We welcome his new-found 'Continent' to our maps."
Crace moves from an imaginary present-day setting to an actual historical one with his second work of fiction, The Gift of Stones. Set in the late Stone Age, the novel depicts a community whose livelihood rests on its stone-crafting skills. The villagers' flint tools and weapons are so superior that trading in them sustains the community fully, thereby affording it seclusion from outside influences and dangers. Visions of the outside world, though, are brought to the village by a storyteller who, rendered useless as a laborer because he lost one arm as a child, travels in search of adventures with which to embellish his tales. During his travels he befriends a young woman, Doe, and her daughter. When the three return to the storyteller's village, they find the community in economic turmoil. Doe is then mysteriously killed by a bronze-headed spear, thus foretelling the village's demise in the face of technological advancement. The community disbands under the leadership of the storyteller. "Formerly," observed Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "the storyteller's fictions had simply been their entertainment; now they are prophecy and all they have left."
The setting and plot of The Gift of Stones, reviewers noted, are secondary to Crace's efforts to explore themes of art and technological progress. The author himself once told CA: "I was interested in what happens when a community is robbed of the certainty of wealth and occupation that is provided by having jobs." The resulting novel "is not a 'you are there' experience, but a contemplative one," commented Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review. "The setting … is, rather than an attempt to create a world, a conceit that provides the author scope for his meditation. The reader seeking to be swept into the past will be disappointed." Describing how the author conveys his themes, Chicago Tribune Books contributor Perry Glasser noted, "Crace writes allegory. Every carefully shaped event advances an idea and illuminates one more facet of the argument. The Gift of Stones is not about people, but about imaginative art, storytelling in particular, and the complicated relationship between art and the realm of commerce that at once supports and despises its artists." Times Literary Supplement writer Richard Deveson offered another interpretation of Crace's intentions: "He suggests … that the artist may … be the true progressive, and that it is the imagination, rather than economics, that will teach a society how to regenerate itself."
The Gift of Stones earned overwhelming appreciation from critics. "One of Crace's virtues is to make a deep imprint with light steps," remarked Eder. "The implications of his novel are complex, but they grow out of simplicity." Commenting on the author's prose, Glasser pointed out that "Crace's language, crackling with sensory detail and intensely imagined, achieves the kind of effortless ease that comes only with extraordinary work and care…. Poetry lurks in thisprose." And Smiley acknowledged that "The Gift of Stones is a work to be read and savored, full of thought, but also full of the concrete world … a prose poem where the natural world is new and powerfully evoked."
The success of Continent and The Gift of Stones allowed Crace to devote himself full-time to fiction after having worked as a scriptwriter with the British Broadcasting Corporation and as a journalist for two decades. Crace told Publishers Weekly that, although he is a disciplined worker who spends at least five hours a day in his office—and who sets a 5,000-word-per-week goal for himself—he still views himself as an adventurer. "I am not like some writers who have a flow-chart on their walls before they start writing," he said. "I definitely fly by the seat of my pants."
Crace once elaborated for CA: "One of the key pieces of advice which colors the way I write is something I read many years ago from a Chinese poet called Wei T'ai. He said that poetry presents 'the thing' in order to convey the feeling. 'If a writer wishes to set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits, then he should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling or the emotion.' In other words, the writer ought to describe the coffin and not the grief. This has been advice that I have applied to fiction. I don't want to define for the reader the heights or depths of emotion that he or she should feel, but to provide the raw materials that will elicit that response independently from the reader. That's one of my narrative methods."
That method informs Crace's 1995 novel Signals of Distress, a tale set in a small English fishing village in 1836. The story begins with a storm that grounds an ocean-going American vessel on a sandbar near fictitious Wherrytown. Simultaneously, a moralistic entrepreneur named Aymer Smith arrives via steamboat, preparing to tell the local kelpers that he no longer needs their services in the production of soap and is hoping to find a wife. The zealous Smith soon comes into conflict with the American ship's captain after he sets the captain's slave, Otto, free, giving the African carte blanche to run away during a snow storm without food or sufficient clothing. Calling Crace "one of the brightest lights in contemporary British fiction," New York Times Book Review contributor Charles Johnson described Signals of Distress as "a quiet tale of strangers thrown together by caprice, emigrants, business scions, paupers, street toughs and former slaves who, before their paths diverge, find their lives are unintentionally and irreversibly linked."
As is often the case with Crace's fiction, the actual historical details in Signals of Distress are less important than the tone of the narrative and the interplay of the characters. "The point of my fiction is to adopt a tone of voice and use language and make things up which sound authentic, that are more real than real," the author once explained to CA. This technique proved useful in Signals of Distress, a novel "in which history is reimagined, viewed through a late 20th-century microscope," according to Tribune Books reviewer William O'Rourke. The reviewer added: "Crace's novel has the look of miniaturized Dickens, revved up and sleeked down for the 1990s….Crace's cast is to a man (and woman) vivid and compelling."
Critical response to Signals of Distress was not universally positive. Although Tim Parks commented in the Spectator that Crace's "blend of period-pastiched terse modern prose is excellent and engaging, with the set piece descriptions—the shipwreck, the night fishing, the snowstorm—particularly strong," he added that "what promised to be an excellent plot crumbles away in a series of costume sideshows, beautifully written, but somehow inconsequential, even when lives are at stake. In short, the book fails to focus." Conversely, in the Times Literary Supplement, T. J. Binyon asserted that Signals of Distress "is an intriguing work; more approachable, being less schematic, than Crace's three earlier books." And Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert dubbed the book "real, vivid and indelible … a quiet, thoughtful work that pulls the reader in powerfully."
Crace's 1998 novel Quarantine takes place during the lifetime of Jesus Christ, specifically during Christ's forty days in wilderness exile. A self-proclaimed "scientific atheist," as Crace referred to himself in a New Criterion article, he "certainly meant to debunk religion and religious impulse" in this novel, maintained New Criterion writer Brooke Allen, "but Crace turned out to be too imaginative an artist to stick to anything quite that simple, and the book developed into a near masterpiece of poetic ambiguity." Quarantine won the coveted Whitbread Prize for British fiction.
Crace's next book also brought its author kudos, this time in the form of the the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Being Dead, set in the present day, is a mystery that unfolds into a character study. Two aging zoologists, Joseph and Celice, "are not the kind of married couple you'd expect to see on the beach doing anything other than collecting sea-cricket specimens," noted Salon reviewer Gary Krist. Yet as the novel opens, the pair are found brutally murdered on the sands of Baritone Bay. The narrative then proceeds backward in time. The story touches on the ritualistic "quivering," in which loved ones remember the deceased; Crace also reconstructs the couple's thirty years together to relate how Joseph and Celice met, became lovers, and ultimately met their fate. "These two thematic lines, along with a third involving their daughter's reactions, … intertwine in a kind of narrative fugue, spun out in chantlike prose that often takes on the measured rhythms of blank verse," according to Krist.
Some reviewers have pointed to Crace's scientifically grounded view of death and decay as witnessed through the disintegration of Joseph and Celice's bodies prior to their discovery. Allen, reviewing Being Dead for the New Criterion, said that Crace "creates what is in effect a spiritual vision out of the most earthbound ingredients, details we are usually accustomed to perceive as disgusting." To Eric Miles Williamson in Southern Review, "There's no mistaking Crace's intentions….His idea: when we die, werot. That's it. If there's anything spiritual about the condition of humanity, it only happens when we're alive, and is to be found in love between two human beings, no matter how tainted or soured or tired that love may be." "Crace cannot tell us what being dead means," acknowledged F. Gonzalez-Crussi in a Commonweal review. "No one can." However, the critic continued, the novelist "seems to tell us that, if we pay close attention to the surroundings of death, we shall perceive absolutely nothing of death itself, but our vision of life—that other mystery—will be wondrously enhanced." Allen summed up Being Dead as "a remarkable piece of work, utterly unsentimental yet beautiful, faintly comical yet full of measured gravity….Itis also as consoling a meditation ondeath as an atheist is ever likely to encounter."
As Crace related to Nicholas Wroe in a Guardian interview, his publisher wished to follow the downbeat themes of Being Dead with "something more playful." The result: a collection of fictional vignettes titled The Devil's Larder, described by Suzanne Ferriss of the Houston Chronicle as sixty-four "original meditations on food." Spectator reviewer D. SJ. Taylor wrote that the book "roams all over the nutritional universe: neat little descriptions of scene and incident, tall stories, fragments of culinary law." Ranging from just a few words to just over a page in length, each of the entries shows that "food is intimately connected to memory," suggested Ferriss. In the tradition of Marcel Proust, the critic continued, Crace's characters "take nostalgic trips to the past, recalling birthday pies and Grandma's calls to dinner." Yet The Devil's Larder takes its dark turns as well. In one story, patrons sit down to a restaurant so chic it doesn't serve any food, preferring instead to celebrate, as the book puts it, "emptiness in an otherwise sated world." In another tale, a "truculent, self-denying health-food faddist," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor described it, "is remembered by the jaded voluptuary who long outlives her."
The Devil's Larder earned mixed notices from critics. New Republic writer Dale Peck wrote that the book's stories "defy paraphraxis, like Aesop or Lydia Davis at their insipid worst." Taylor, while acknowledging Crace's "usual arresting prose," also perceived the writer's "tendency [to] surface glitter" and concluded that the book, "to borrow its own critical language,… resembles nothing more than a meal of celery." "This is not the big Crace we are waiting for," stated Library Journal's Barbara Hoffert, "but [it] will certainly hold us." The overall challenge to readers, opined Adam Phillips in the New York Times Book Review, is in the author's experimental style: "It is often Crace's trick to let a simple observation draw itself out until it begins to go mad." The Devil's Larder "toys with the reader's willingness (or unwillingness) not to make too much sense of what is going on." But the critic summed up this work as, "even by Crace's standards … an extraordinary book."
In Genesis Crace once again deposits readers in an unnamed, unnerving, yet familiar invented landscape, this time telling the story of Felix Dern, an actor whose talents on the stage are bested only by his talent for impregnating women. "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child," the reader quickly learns of Dern, and the book's six chapters divide the novel's narrative focus between the six consequences of Dern's amorous adventures between 1979 and 2002. Describing Crace's prose as "rich yet lean," a Kirkus reviewer added that in telling the story of Dern's growing awareness of his destiny, Crace "dives into life's chaos, surfacing, every time, with the mot juste." Through his focus on Dern's innate caution and wish to remain out of the public eye when not in character, Crace makes his protagonist an Everyman whose concerns over sexuality and the responsibility inherent in creating human life are universal. Calling the book's tone "cool and non judgmental," a Publishers Weekly reviewer went on to praise Crace as a "protean British writer" and Genesis as a novel with "memorable metaphorical impact."
Crace noted in Publishers Weekly that the respect accorded his fiction has been, for him, "the resolution of a lot of unspoken dreams" dating back to his student days when his father encouraged him to write. "There are five impulses which form the basis of my fiction," he once explained in a CA interview: "one, the simple pleasures of invention, of convincingly merging the real and the concocted, the mundane and the bizarre; two, an admiration for the disciplines of good journalism—clarity and depth of expression, orderliness of structure and design; three, a preoccupation with international issues and politics, and a disdain for the domestic; four, an instinctive preference for restrained and dispassionate prose which avoids sentiment and declamation but which takes its power from the narrative itself and not from authorial intervention; and five, a 'fear-of-self' hostility towards political repression, conservatism, racism, sexism, Puritanism, officialdom, and rules."
These impulses have comingled to produce a unique fictional style which Southwest Review contributor Adam Begley compared to poetry. Crace's rhythmic prose "is full of meticulous lies that sound like sober scientific fact, and routine facts dressed up in fairytale costume," Begley added. "He's brilliant at exploiting the tension between the highly specific and the generic, … between an imaginary topography and the invented landscape's familiar features….Thecruelty in his books does a little dance with tenderness; humor and sadness do the same….Ina Cracenovel nearly everything is equivocal."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 2000, Wendell Brock, "A Meditation on Death Alive with Imagination," p. L14.
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Frank Caso, review of Being Dead, p. 1435; October 15, 2001, Frank Caso, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 381.
Boston Globe, November 1, 1992, p. B40.
Christian Century, March 10, 1999, review of Quarantine, p. 292.
Commonweal, June 18, 1993, p. 26; July 14, 2000, F. Gonzales-Crussi, "Approaching the Unknowable,"p. 27.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 13, 2000, Max Davidson, review of Being Dead; July 8, 2000, Nicholas Wroe, "The Reluctant Storyteller,"p. 13; December 8, 2002, p. 8.
Economist, October 16, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. S14.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 6, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. D27.
Guardian (London, England), September 30, 1986; September 18, 1999, Carol Birch, review of Being Dead, p. 10; August 25, 2001, Sally Vincent, "Death and the Optimist," p. W38.
Houston Chronicle, December 16 2001, Suzanne Ferriss, "Tasty Tidbits," p. 19.
Hudson Review, autumn, 2000, Susan Balee, review of Being Dead, p. 513.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 1144; August 15, 2003, review of Genesis, p. 1032.
Library Journal, August, 1995, p. 114; February 15, 2000, Lawrence Rungren, review of Being Dead, p. 195; September 15, 2001, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 115.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1987, Brian Stonehill, review of Continent, p. 4; April 9, 1989,p. 3; October 4, 1992, p. 3; January 28, 1996,p. 9.
New Criterion, May, 2000, Brooke Allen, "Meditations, Good and Bad," p. 63.
New Republic, May 6, 1996; December 31, 2001, Dale Peck, "The Devil You Know," p. 38.
New Scientist, March 10, 2001, review of Being Dead, p. 51.
New Statesman, November 29, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. 82; September 30, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. 57.
New Statesman & Society, September 2, 1994, pp. 36-37.
New York Review of Books, December 3, 1992, p. 14; April 13, 2000, John Banville, review of Being Dead, p. 30.
New York Times, April 13, 2000, Richard Eder, "The Life after Death of a Pair Not Yet Gone," p. B11; September 27, 2001, Richard Eder, "Food Stories That Aren't Really about Food at All," p. E7.
New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1987, Robert Olen Butler, review of Continent, p. 30; July 16, 1989, Jane Smiley, review of The Gift of Stones, p. 12; October 18, 1992, p. 11; September 24, 1995, Charles Johnson, review of Signals of Distress, p. 20; February 9, 1997, p. 32; May 23, 1999, review of Quarantine, p. 36; April 23, 2000, Jim Shepard, "Dune: Working Forward and Backward, a Novel Details the Murder of Two Biologists," p. 10; April 1, 201, review of Being Dead, p. 20; October 21, 2001, Adam Phillips, "Eat This Book," p. 30.
Observer (London, England), October 12, 1986, p. 29; September 4, 1988, p. 41; September 11, 1994; September 19, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. 12.
People Weekly, April 9, 2001, review of Being Dead, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, July 10, 1995, p. 42; October 2, 1995, pp. 49-50; November 6, 1995, p. 59; July 21, 2003, review of Genesis, p. 171.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2000, Paul Maliszewski review of Being Dead, p. 145; spring, 2002, Paul Maliszewski, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 128.
Southern Review, winter, 2001, Eric Miles Williamson, review of Being Dead, p. 174; September 10, 2001, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 60.
Southwest Review, spring-summer, 2002, Adam Begley, "A Pilgrim in Craceland," p. 227.
Spectator, March 21, 1992, p. 34; September 3, 1994, pp. 36-37; October 2, 1999, Miranda France, review of Being Dead, p. 46; September 15, 2001,D. SJ. Taylor, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 39.
Times (London, England), October 16, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, October 3, 1986, p. 1113; September 2, 1988, p. 952; March 13, 1992, p. 22; September 2, 1994, p. 12; September 17, 1999, review of Being Dead, p. 22; September 7, 2001, Christopher Taylor, review of The Devil's Larder, p. 8.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 16, 1989, Perry Glasser, review of The Gift of Stones, p. 6; November 15, 1992, p. 3; December 31, 1995, pp. 3, 7; March 9, 1997, p. 8.
Village Voice, June 30, 1987, p. 58.
Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2000, Wendy Bounds, review of Being Dead, p. W8.
Washington Post, June 4, 1987; December 1, 1992,p. C2; October 21, 2001, Michael Dirda, review of The Devil's Larder, p. T15.
Washington Post Book World, April 1, 2001, review of Being Dead, p. 10.
Jim Crace Web site,http://www.jim-crace.com/ (June 18, 2002).
Salon,http://www.salon.com/ (March 30, 2000), Gary Krist, review of Being Dead.