Books: Too much talking about degeneration

Post-mortem poetry is not enough to rescue this rhapsody of rot from inhumanity. By Michael Arditti;Being Dead by Jim Crace Viking, pounds 16.99, 210pp

JIM CRACE'S last novel, Quarantine, was a superbly imaginative recreation of life in a first-century Palestinian desert. It faltered only in its feeble portrayal of Christ. There was no place for the numinous in Crace's vision. So it proves again in Being Dead. For once, the title says it all, since a substantial part of the narrative concerns the gradual decomposition of two zoologists in the six days between their murder and the discovery of their bodies.

Crace repeatedly emphasises that human existence ends in "death and nothing after". He takes a bleakly Beckettian view of life. Indeed, his statement that "our births are just the gateway to our deaths" contains strong echoes of Pozzo's famous line that "they give birth astride of a grave". It is, therefore, strange that he should function as an omniscient narrator. God may no longer be in His heaven, but the author remains god of a created world.

Moreover, in making his central couple zoologists, Crace ensures that they share his neo-Darwinian outlook. Their profession, however, mitigates the effect of their death. It reduces horror to the gentler mode of irony: that Joseph and Celice themselves should become an object-lesson in decomposition.

Being Dead interweaves three plot-strands. The most significant takes place in the six days following the couple's murder. The second relates their initial meeting as students on a field-trip to Baritone Bay and the incineration of a companion at the very moment when they make love - a graphic illustration of the book's sex-and-death equation. The third concerns the couple's activities on the day of the murder, during a long- delayed return to the Bay.

The strengths of the novel are to be found in Crace's prose, with its exquisitely precise imagery. He proves himself a poet of putrefaction. Mouldering itself becomes eerily beautiful: "a dazzling filigree of pine- brown surface veins, which gave an arborescent pattern to the skin." Crace depicts corpses as if they were landscape.

His lesser expertise at portraying human emotions becomes a serious flaw. Joseph and Celice remain flat characters, with no inner life. And the entire book can be seen as a gloss on the prayer-book phrase that "the days of man are but as grass". Human life is shown to be of no more consequence than any other element in the universe. But the "so what?" factor comes to the fore. Even - perhaps especially - writers who see no purpose in death should be able to engage readers more fully in the process of life.

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