After the Fall
By Jim Crace
Doubleday. 255 pp. $24.95
Jim Crace is a writer about plain things, but he writes about them in a way that's both startling and subtle, a shimmering surface over still depths. His novel Being Dead was largely the chronicle of the dissolution and decay of two dead people, murdered on a lonely beach during sex. They rot away, eaten by bugs and birds -- and yet those bugs and birds, though they behave much like the ones we know, are all invented by Crace. And every few pages the gentle style falls unmistakably into iambic pentameter. It's a book as strange as it is successful.
The Pesthouse is written on a larger scale, in a world quite different from ours yet one to which ours gives birth: not only because the book is set sometime long in the future, but because its profoundest undercurrents could only have arisen in the world we live in now.
In his America of the future, there is no technological society, no power but muscle and water and fire, no money, no government, no law. There seem to be not very many people. The America we live in is a dim memory -- a few ancient coins, a bit of lore, some ruins ("the junkle"), mostly an emptiness. People are largely on the move, trying to reach the coast and the ships that they have heard will take them away from America to a better place on the other side, where there will be work and safety and some nameless human salvation.
Franklin and his brother Jackson are among the hopeful emigres who have reached Ferrytown, where a broad river can be crossed and the journey continued. But as the book opens, the river belches up a cloud of poisonous gas that has been long trapped beneath its surface, and, like the people of Pompeii, every resident and visitor in Ferrytown, every mule and dog, dies in minutes. The only ones to escape are Franklin, who has climbed a hill above the town to find shelter and tend to his wounded knee, and Margaret, expelled from the town because she is sick with a contagious flux and condemned to lie in a secluded hut -- the pesthouse -- till she dies. But contrary to expectations, she is not dying but recovering when Franklin seeks shelter in the hut. Together they set out to reach the coast and the ships.
This, then, is a book about what might be called the new end of the world. The former end of the world, the one whose classic accounts were Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and that spawned a hundred others, was brought about by the bomb. The new end of the world has less clear causes: global warming, social exhaustion, the apparent failure of the built world -- the multiple disasters underlying Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Nowhere in The Pesthouse is any explanation offered for why the world is as it is, or how long it has been so. It's been long enough for a primitive kind of sociability to have evolved, with rules of behavior: The stranger is to be welcomed; young men are to greet older persons first; "a man's beard should be longer than a man's neck"; "never bare your throat to strangers." But rustlers and "landlopers" raid the weak and enslave the unprotected, and misery is general.
Franklin and Margaret pass through dangers and hungers. They are separated for a time. Franklin is enslaved by a beribboned brigand and his gang. Margaret is threatened with rape and ends up with the grandchild of two refugees who have abandoned her. Throughout, a delicate, touching, shy romance blossoms with great slowness between Franklin and Margaret. Modesty and pudeur are strong in this world, and these two people won't pass bounds. They are pals, says Crace. But they are also a family, with a child. And when the coast and the ships they have longed for and dreamed of turn out to be not what they imagined, they are faced with a choice that mingles disillusion and new hope in equal measure.
Most tales of the end of the world have a lesson or a warning to offer. The former end of the world warned against nuclear weapons; newer tales have other lessons. The Pesthouse seems at first to have none, but there are depths below the plain prose (plain but strange, as if handmade long after the prose factory has closed). Shift your glance only a little and you can see families and strangers such as might be walking away from any disaster anywhere in the present, amid ruins, toward some hopeless hope, without sustenance, without protection, their old human kindnesses and honor strained or broken but not forgotten, as though Crace wants us to see fates that are common elsewhere suffered here, in an America that's to be escaped from and not to.
At one moment, I'm certain our world shows through: Margaret, separated from Franklin, finds shelter with a cult that blames the woes of the world on metal, which they won't even touch. They will take in only those who give up all the metal they have. "Margaret watched as the . . . families ahead of her in line were frisked by devotees in gloves and then required to empty out their bags, every single item, and put their shoes and belts onto the tables."
Crace's America lies not in the future but in our uneasy consciences. What's remarkable is the fortitude, grace and patience he grants to the wary people who must make a life there, must remember and love, against all odds. ·
John Crowley's 11th novel, "Endless Things," is being published this month.