Sunday, February 17, 2008

Breaking the Rules

Jim Crace's The Pesthouse rejects all the advice given to aspiring writers--but does he make the risk work?

In our last blog entry, I set out my current reading list before plunging in to what fellow writers seemed to agree was the most promising choice, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse. It's not a long book, and already I've had the chance to read and digest.

The Pesthouse is part of the long tradition of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, the brand of speculative fiction most likely to find a mainstream audience (think, for instance, of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale). Technology, and even the memory of technology, are long gone from America as the unlikely couple of Franklin and Margaret pick their way to the east coast through famine, pestilence and marauding robber bands. The Pesthouse is a self-consciously mythical journey, the journey east deliberately reversing the western spread of the original European settlers.

Many of readers of ::Acquired Taste are themselves writers. You will all have heard the 'rules' (and almost certainly questioned their validity). Show don't tell. Reveal character through dialogue. Tell us what characters do, not what they're like. Crace knows these rules better than the rest of us: The Pesthouse is his ninth novel. So, in choosing to ignore 'the rules of fiction', he's making a deliberate artistic choice.

The most obvious of these choices, and the biggest risk, is to all but dispense with dialogue. In a novel of over 300 pages, there are perhaps five pages of it, half of that in a conversation between one of the protagonists and a minor character. Crace has foregone the most common, and most useful, way of conveying information, and to replace it, he simply tells us what the main characters are thinking, and why they act the way they do. It's an extraordinary decision, and not one I would dare take in my own (unusually dialogue-intensive) fiction.

So how does Crace get away with it? His main weapon is the sheer beauty of his prose. If you can write with the muscular lyricism Crace commands you can probably make your shopping list into compelling reading. And the lack of dialogue is curiously appropriate to the story: it's a quiet book about a quiet place. America is huge, and empty. The survivors are concentrating on staying alive, and mistrustful of their neighbours. When people do get together, there's a wary truce as they tell their life stories over a shared meal. The Pesthouse can be seen as an extended version of one of the stories, a story told and not shown.

Crace also has a facility for the creation of place. The decayed, toxic America with its ruined highways and towns beyond the inhabitants' memory or understanding is realised with stark clarity. Occasionally we'll see a bizarre institution from the new America. The Finger Baptists, a luddite sect whose arms have atrophied because they believe using their hands is the devil's work, would not be out of place in Jack Vance. The ships on the east coast, taking a select few to Europe, are sail-powered, and the careful reader can infer that it's not just America which has sunk into a dark age.

But Crace's choices are not without cost. Because most of the action takes place inside characters' heads, or through a distant third-person narration, the story can be uninvolving at times. Franklin and Margaret sometimes feel more like archetypes than individuals. That's entirely appropriate for mythic tale that Crace is telling, but it takes a risk in terms of reader involvement. What we lose is perhaps best illustrated by thinking about The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood is also a stylist of unusual talent, but she puts us in the action, rather than above it. Tastes will vary, but for me at least, The Pesthouse is an ambitious work which falls just short of the first rank of dystopian fiction.


David Isaak said...

Oh, hell. Now I'll have to read it. (Though based on his earlier work that shouldn't be too onerous a chore.)

Tim Stretton said...

I guarantee you'll find it interesting. Which isn't quite the same as saying you'll like it.

Alis said...

Tim, thanks for this thoughtful review, I agree with you about Crace's creation of place - his version of first century Palestine in Quarantine was extraordinary. clearly, the Pesthouse is one to go on the 'Books to Acquire and/or read list.

Tim Stretton said...

I'll certainly be looking out more Crace, Alis. He wasn't even on my radar until Will gave me this.

I'm interested to see whether this "minimal dialogue" technique is something he's used because it's appropriate to the story he's telling, or whether it's part of his usual voice. Web Admin said...

Great post, Tim

I’ll be interested to see how this compares with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

That point about the lack of dialogue reminds me of the new Daniel Day-Lewis film, There will be Blood. The first twenty minutes of the film is completely free of dialogue, yet you never realise this until the silence is broken by the first spoken words. As a cinematic device, it’s absolutely stunning – though I’m not sure how it would work in a book.
The Pest House is several books down on my “to read list”, so it will be interesting to see…