By Jim Crace
Nan A. Talese. 272 pp. $24.95
America's future looks a lot like its past. At least that's the supposition of Jim Crace's dystopian fiction The Pesthouse.
For his ninth novel, the British writer has turned his eye to this side of the pond, imagining - as many Europeans gleefully might - a world in which the balance of power has seemingly shifted from the New World back to the Old. It's an intriguing idea, but Crace unfortunately never makes full use of it. Instead, The Pesthouse is an old-fashioned frontier adventure masquerading as a cqpostapocalyptic allegory. Luckily, there is plenty of beautiful prose to make up for any disappointment in theme.
Brothers Franklin and Jackson Lopez carry both America's past - with the references to Benjamin and Andrew - and America's future - when a character sees a European, he's "unusually light-skinned" - in their names. But they're leaving America behind. An unnamed and unexplained disaster has turned the country from sea to shining sea into a wasteland. Gone are the factories and skyscrapers that once screamed out America's prosperity. Living is at subsistence level - if you're lucky. Even money is no longer in use, the country having reverted to a system of barter. The early Americans would recognize this country as their own.
The Lopez brothers, like so many others, are making their way from the Midwest to the East Coast. It's a reversal of the migration that settled America. Rumors say boats on the coast take one and all to Europe, which Americans now see as a land of opportunity.
But the way there isn't easy. The brothers are separated when Franklin can no longer walk on his damaged knee. The older and tougher Jackson heads off to nearby Ferrytown for provisions. It's a fateful decision: Overnight, an environmental disaster strikes and everyone in the town is killed, including travelers like Jackson in the guesthouse, "where almost everyone was sleeping and dreaming of the ruined, rusty way ahead and all the paradise beyond."
Margaret is the only Ferrytown survivor, a woman in her early 30s who was quarantined at the pesthouse of the title to recover - her family hoped - from a plaguelike illness called "the flux." She makes a strange-looking heroine, with sunken eyes, dry lips, and the "ginger drama" removed from her head to aid in her recovery. (Modern medicine is completely absent from this America, replaced by superstition of the strangest kind.) But as soon as Franklin finds her, he's smitten.
The two forge a tentative friendship that quickly becomes more intimate when Franklin helps save Margaret's life. But not too intimate. If manufacturing and medicine have reverted to a preindustrial state, so have manners and sexual mores. The love story here is a surprisingly chaste one.
The pair head off to the coast together in search of a better life. And here The Pesthouse becomes a traditional frontier story, at times as exciting as any classic western. Franklin and Margaret face bitter cold and a lack of food. But Mother Nature isn't nearly as dangerous as other human beings, not fellow travelers but "the ones who wouldn't emigrate until they'd picked the carcass of America clean." These opportunistic people-rustlers soon make off with Franklin - Margaret is spared because her bald head advertises her recent illness.
Crace's shifting point of view then settles for a stretch on Margaret, in the strongest part of book. Here the author's vague ideas come most sharply into focus.
Margaret takes shelter for the winter at the Ark, a commune set up by a religious sect called the Finger Baptists. These amusing creations take even further the dictum that idle hands are the devil's tools, concluding that all hands are the devil's tools. The elders simply refuse to use theirs, relying on sympathetic nonbelievers to do their work.
Franklin and Margaret are reunited in a thrilling turn of events. The journey they continue on is not unlike that made by another pair in another postapocalyptic America, the father and son of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. That novel, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, is almost as mysterious about the cause of America's decline. But it's a more moving work, partly because McCarthy seems to have a better understanding of where America is and could go, and partly because his sharp style eschews cliche. Crace's future, with Americans more mannered than ever despite the hardship, never rings true. And the characters of his frontier drama - like the trials through whichthey're put through - never veer too far from stereotypes.
Where Crace has the upper hand, though, is in his prose. Though he doesn't always put it to deep enough use, he can certainly write it with a striking beauty. The world is charmingly humanized: "The dawn seemed tired and hesitant at first, hardly capable of shaking off the clouds and pushing out into the day." Even an inanimate coat is "terrifying." Perhaps Crace sees too much beauty in the world to embrace realism and imagine a properly apocalyptic one.