Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Pesthouse

The Pesthouse
By Jim Crace
Vintage Books, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-307-27895-1

“Hard times make stones of us all.”
Jim Crace in The Pesthouse

The scary thing about the recent spate of post-apocalyptic novels that have been published lately is that the idea of surviving and living on after a cataclysmic event such as a nuclear holocaust has entered the public consciousness and imagination. If we can imagine it, can the actual event become a reality?

Jim Crace takes a more lush and evocative approach to the end times in The Pesthouse than Cormac McCarthy did in The Road. In fact, the two novels illustrate the differences in modern British and American prose. Whereas McCarthy is lean and spare, Crace writes voluptuous sentences. His novel is full of setting and character, no everyman or unchanging landscape of ash. He moves us from the high country across an unnamed, rushing river, and on down to the sea where salvation is a possibility for the characters of Franklin Lopez and Margaret. There on the coast they can meet a ship to take them out of America and across to Europe. That’s right: in Crace’s world, people flee from America. Immigrants become emigrants, a reversal of conditions in America today. In Crace’s novel, America is a dead country with infrastructure destroyed and lawless bands of criminals running rampant through the countryside.

Crace begins with a moment in time. It is night, and several characters find themselves caught in this moment, when a mountainside slips away and rumbles into the lake, but the real danger for the inhabitants of Ferrytown is the cloud of gas that escapes from the lake during the landslide. The poison slips across the land, killing every living thing.

As the new day dawns, we find Margaret in an old stone hut called the pesthouse, where she is recovering from the flux, a plague-like illness sweeping the countryside. She has had all the hair on her body removed and been ostracized from Ferrytown. It is the only way the people of the town know to fight the disease. The baldness also marks the victims so that people know to avoid them. The irony is, the disease makes Margaret only one of two survivors of the landslide.

The other survivor is Franklin Lopez, a gigantic boy-man who is traveling to the coast with his brother Jackson. Franklin has hurt his knee, and therefore is hiding in the hills above Ferrytown when Jackson journeys down to investigate the town. When the brothers part, they will not see each other again. Jackson is killed in the landslide.

This sets up the meeting between Margaret and Franklin and launches them on their journey together to try to reach safe passage to Europe. Each carry touchstones of their past lives. Franklin has his brother’s coat, made for him by their mother, colorfully composed of goatskins. Margaret carries “her three lucky things—a silver necklace that was old enough to have been machined; a square of patterned, faded cloth too finely woven to have been the work of human hands; some coins from the best-forgotten days, all inside a cedar box…”

The coins include modern pennies, dimes and quarters that she found on a river bank. She describes the presidents on each as “mostly short-haired men,” and identifies the motto, “In God We Trust.” With the penny, “She dragged her nail across the disk to count every column and tried to find the tiny seated floating man within, the floating man who, storytellers said, was Abraham and would come back to help America one day with his enormous promises.” History becomes mythology.

These artifacts of the past are lost for some of the novel. The coat becomes a portent of evil, and the cedar box is recovered in the pesthouse, ironically a place of safety and refuge.

Of course, Franklin comes across Margaret, feverish and near death in the pesthouse, and nurses her back to health. In and out of consciousness, she remembers him rubbing her feet. Franklin does this because he believes disease leaves a body through the feet. So he begins his relationship with the desperately ill Margaret by rubbing her feet.

After she is better, and Franklin’s knee has healed, they start down the trail together. In Ferrytown, they encounter the dead, in their beds, in the fields, in the midst of activities. Franklin ransacks the cabins and homes for supplies, and thus outfits himself for the trek ahead.

Crace is very good at weaving in the history and mythology of America. These new emigrants making a beeline for the coast dream of a past nation. “The optimists among them believed that once the river had been crossed, something of the old America would be discovered,” he writes, “the country their grandpas and grandmas had talked about, a land of profusion, safe from human predators, snake-free, and welcoming beyond the hog and hominy of this raw place; a country described by so many of their grandparents in words they’d learned from their grandparents, where the encouragements held out to strangers were a good climate, fertile soil, wholesome air and water, plenty of provisions, good pay for labor, kind neighbors, good laws, a free government and a hearty welcome.” It is the American dream of long ago, of what was and never will be again. Jim Crace excels at bringing every American’s nightmare to life: what will happen when it all ends? As we know from history, all empires must end and the American empire most likely will not escape mortality.

The remarkable aspect of Crace’s writing is the richness of it. There is a grace and beauty in its fullness. He tells a story, and he does so in such vibrant detail that the ordinary becomes beautiful. His description of an abandoned, damaged highway is poetic and clear, avoiding clichés and overused descriptions. “It did not take them long to reach and climb the first of the two parallel mounds that protected the road from the wind…this great swath of track could easily take two teams of horses, each fifty wide or more. It had to be the pathway of a giant or else to have been designed to carry something huge and heavy—those wooden war machines, perhaps, that Margaret had heard talk about, the ones that broke through walls, or shot boulders in the air, or hurled fire.” His prose is so rich with mythological imagery that it takes a minute to realize Crace is writing about a common roadway, although one in extreme disrepair. “The road…seemed built—by how many laborers and over how many years? At what immense cost?—to take great weights. Its now damaged surface, much degraded by the weather and time, comprised mostly chips of stone, loose grit, and sticky black rubble…” Such ideas float about regarding the Egyptian pyramids—what race of men or slaves could build such massive structures?

The ocean, too, is rendered poetically without resorting to tired language. Margaret wakes in the night to hear the waves crashing on shore in the distance. “…[T]he sounds she could hear were only breathing and the wind, and the restlessness of horses, and something deeper, far and near, a sort of restful quake. That was a sound she’d never heard before, but still she recognized it from the stories she’d heard. The snoring sea.”

The journey takes the young couple over rough terrain. They are terrorized by bandits, Franklin is captured by them as well, and Margaret winds up carrying for an infant when she is separated from the child’s grandparents. So the three make a trinity, not unlike Jesus, Mary and Joseph—Margaret is a virgin—searching for a place to rest, to be taken in, and possibly, start another life.

All along the journey, Franklin cannot help feeling pulled back, back west to his mother and the farm. In the end, in all this rush to escape the dying country, the west holds particular attraction for the cobbled-together family. As when the country was first settled, Franklin sees the west as a chance to start over in this now unfamiliar landscape. He sees the opportunity to begin again and reinvent himself, which ironically, was the attraction of the west for people at the start of America.

Jim Crace’s novel pulls the reader into a world we only dare to imagine. He does so with such poetry and grace that we must consider what America might become after the empire falls. In Crace’s view, the land returns to the wild, the untamed, the savage.

Margaret and Franklin are such clearly drawn characters that we can feel their uncertainty while reveling in their strength and resilience. The book is a page-turner, exciting as it is wise. In many ways, it is a better novel than McCarthy’s The Road because the story is richly told. It is the kind of novel that reads like a dream—it is America that our travelers wander, but it is nothing like the America we know. The power of fiction is to create worlds that parallel our own, and then feature characters who act out our worst fears and nightmares. The lesson of The Pesthouse is clear: when everything is lost, the human spirit will endure. We will find danger, we will witness horrors and immense suffering. So to, we will find love, salvation, redemption, and hopefully, a chance to live again. In our darkest dreams, this is the only comfort we have.

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