12 January 2004

Genesis by Jim Crace

British writer Jim Crace doesn't often get labelled as an SF writer -- he's "unique" or "idiosyncratic", a "writer's writer". He's been nominated for various awards and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead, a brilliant novel which never quite becomes fantasy, but is certainly a kind of gently scientific fiction.

Crace's new novel, Genesis (titled Six in the U.K.), doesn't fit comfortably into the science fiction or fantasy genres, even under liberal definitions, but like most of Crace's other books, the setting is one which can't be pinned down to the "real world", and the writing gives the events a hazy, dreamlike quality. Reviewers often don't know what to do with Crace because of this -- he isn't a realist, clearly, but what is he? The only possible answer -- an obvious one, but true -- is that he is himself.

What always strikes me about Crace is how his lucid, poetic prose serves to heighten the effect of his story, creating mood and atmosphere as much through the rhythms of the sentences as through what the sentences say. Opening to a random page, I find:
This was a night of pregnancies, and not just Freda's pregnancy. The snow is sexier than the sun. The cold encourages us to get to bed and hug the person we love. Our folklore says it's so. As does demography. The snow is consummate. Fine weather brings the birth rate down. So this was only one of many rooms that benefited from fertility that night, and Fredalix was only one of many pairs. None of them as yet was counting on the cost, the cost of lovemaking, the cost that lasts for threescore years and ten. Nobody thought, when all the hugs and kisses had been finished with, to tell themselves, Things never end. They only stretch ahead from here. We have to thank our lucky stars for that.
Like a refugee from the Romantic Era, Crace loves landscape, loves to suggest ideas and emotions through descriptions of architecture and markets, beaches and fields. A word I have often come back to when trying to describe Crace's prose is palpable. (There's a description of a market in my favorite Crace novel, Arcadia, which at times seems more like a sculpture to me than a couple pages of writing.)

Genesis is about sex and love, about marriage and growing into middle age, about power and fame. The main character, Lix, is a famous actor from a small, apparently European country (a police state growing into a sort of democracy, a place where public kisses were illegal once, and then, when legal, became a kind of magic, until the magic was turned into an advertising campaign, a commodity), but he has one particularly interesting attribute: every time he has sex, it produces a child.

Some reviewers have found this basic premise of the book difficult to swallow ("Why doesn't he just use condoms more frequently?"), but I think a careful reading shows what Crace is up to. This is a book about freedom and responsibility, about trust and daring. The first sentence lays it all out: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child." The choice of words is careful -- the rhyme of "dares" and "bears" is clever, indicating how important those two could be, and, indeed, are, for first there is risk and then there is a result which follows from it, a result which hints at carrying, at weight, at a burden. His child. And yet the story shows us over and over that the children are seldom his in any sense except the biologic -- he is often a terrible father, neglectful, distant, selfish.

There's a lot of sex in the novel -- beautifully written, sumptuous sex, even when, as so often happens, it doesn't please the characters, but leaves them feeling hollow and frightened, sometimes of each other -- but the real subject is the path to love. Lix doesn't learn to love until the end of the book, and it's not the all-out, endlessly passionate love of teenage fantasies, but rather the practical, sustainable love of two adults. A difficult, imperfect love. One which belongs to two people and is a part of the world, reflected in so many of its systems and designs.

The book houses endless possibilities, its characters resound in the imagination, but I don't expect it will be either popular or much of a critical success. It's easy enough to read it quickly, but hard to like it if you do so. The glories are in the details, and few of those details will blossom if they are passed over quickly. There is no clear plot to the book, though plenty of stories. There is occasional suspense, but it is often interrupted. The book lives and dies on its language, and if you don't savor the language, you will lose so much of what is below that language. It is not a book which can be understood or appreciated until its rhythms are absorbed, and that may take a few readings (it certainly required me to reread many passages after I had gotten to the last page).

What a gift from an author, though! A book which is worth rereading, which all but requires it, and where the pleasure in reading grows with each return. There are still books of Crace's which I prefer to Genesis, but all of his books have this quality, though this one, it seems to me, is moving in a new direction for Crace, as if he is now more comfortable than ever in his writerly skin, more comfortable than ever to write at a pace and in a style which pleases him.

In many ways, Crace reminds me of M. John Harrison, though it's hard to cite the exact similarities, aside from a concern for language and landscape. It's interesting to know that Crace is working on a new novel, one which, he says, posits a future United States which has run to the end of its technologies and fallen back into a kind of Medieval society. I wonder if he's ever heard of Viriconium...

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