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Should Jim Crace Retire?

Getty Images/AFP/Jose Jordan

Back in 2008, the British writer Jim Crace announced that he would retire from fiction in three years’ time, fearing the fate of the elderly novelist who is “no longer fashionable and can only find a marginal publisher and command a tiny advance.” Leaving aside the melancholy truth that plenty of writers must make do with trifling advances from small publishers, one has to take Crace at his word. He must have assessed his own career—much as Philip Roth recently did—and concluded that his best work was already on the shelves.

Certainly, reviews for 2007’s The Pesthouse, a tale of post-apocalyptic America, were not encouraging, suggesting that the wellspring of Crace’s famously deep imagination had run dry. Joyce Carol Oates, not exactly known for wielding a sharp hatchet, wrote in The New Yorker that it was “an idea-driven work that might have been more effectively executed in graphic-novel form, or in film.” In The New York Times, Francine Prose concluded that “You can’t help wanting more from art, and from Jim Crace. You can’t help wanting something new, something beyond an inspired melding of science fiction and the horrors we ourselves dream up in the dead of night.”

That’s long been the simmering complaint about Crace—that his imagination exceeds his execution, that he cannot, in the crudest of terms, close the deal. That’s not to say he hasn’t written some damn fine fiction. Quarantine (1997) boldly reimagined Jesus’ temptation in the desert, while Being Dead (1999), which describes the relationship of a dead and decomposing couple, was roundly praised for its lurid inventions. The latter novel, in particular, suggested that in an age of mawkish introspection, Crace was unafraid to go big, go philosophical, even if the human brain were, as he wrote, “as pale and mushy as a honeycomb.” He’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won many other awards; his advances, I suspect, have not been tiny.

But those two novels were, in postmodern terms, long ago. Crace’s latest, Harvest, will only renew the concerns The Pesthouse raised—and will also make Crace’s decision to retire, not yet fulfilled, seem all the more prescient (he recently told Reuters he’s really done this time). If that reads cruel, it isn’t meant to. I wanted to like Harvest from the moment I opened it, thinking the first-person plural narration was heading for a version of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily set in an antediluvian English village, its residents collectively digging into their own Jungian muck to extract long-submerged secrets.1 Later in the book, as land rights and enclosure laws came to the fore, I held out hope that Crace might be trying for historical fiction of the kind Hilary Mantel has mastered, only without all the royal glamour. Finally, though, I ended up feeling much the same as after senior prom: a hell of a lot more disappointed than I ever thought I’d be.

The old bromide says that a good book reviewer evaluates the writer not on the discrete merits of the book, but on what the author tried to achieve. Well, I confess to not having much clue regarding what, exactly, Crace was trying to reap in Harvest. Its infuriating lack of temporal or geographical signposts suggests a fable—but without any of that genre’s sly moral gravity. Yet nor is this a druid-punk cousin to Crace’s more inventive works, for despite the villagers’ fear of “witchery,” the supernatural is a rather tame beast in Harvest.

The story is not so much simple as it is ploddingly plain. It is actually a little hard to describe, so absent is any kind of propulsive force. But here goes: The residents of a village are concerned because some strangers have shown up in their simple agrarian community, presided over by a Master Kent. One of those strangers, Mr. Quill, is a surveyor for Master Jordan, who intends to claim the land on a long-ago deed. It is believed that he will raise sheep on what had been harvestable land. The potential for such great upheaval causes terrific agitation among the citizens, who rebel against what they see as the certainty of encroaching change.

At the center of this brewing brouhaha is Walter Thirsk, a non-native villager of uncertain allegiances who has ties to Master Kent. Walter is the novel’s most irksome sore thumb: a dull protagonist with a flat narrative affect. You’d think a man whose world is being torn asunder, perhaps by unnatural forces, would be in an acute state of distress. All we get from Walter is, “I find myself so saddened and incensed that I can hardly hope for the salve of lasting sleep.” That’s the sort of thing you might find in the diary of a teenager who’s watched too much “Downton Abbey.”

Far more compelling are the lamentably rare first-person plural sections dealing with human dread, which—if I try to discern some intention from the novel—I am fairly certain Crace had aimed to explore: “Everything was bound to keep its shape. That’s what we thought.” The statement manages to be both ominous and direct. So does this one: “We’re not a hurtful people, hereabouts. But we feel naked without tools.” Such assertions effectively convey a community desperate to hang on to what it knows, even as it suspects everything familiar is slipping away.

As for the book’s supernatural elements, they never quite coalesce into anything approaching real horror. Crace’s language is too casual for that: “It feels as if some impish force has come out of the forest in the past few days to see what pleasure it can take in causing turmoil in a tranquil place.” The mere addition of the vague “some” blunts the impact of “impish force,” while no reader is going to feel much sympathy for the dull construction of “a tranquil place.”

There are, throughout, glimpses of the old Crace, the one of ample imagination and prodigious talent. In one elegiac passage, Walter intones, “Come, maids and sons of summer, get ready for winter ice. Your day is shortening. The air is nipping at your cheek; the cold is tugging at your wrist. The glinting spider’s thread will turn in a little while to glinting frost.” If only that were not an interlude, Harvest would have been a far superior book. Superior, too, if it had more earnestly mined the themes over which Crace so swiftly skates: how we fear change, inevitable though it may be; how easily we call something unnatural when it is merely unlike ourselves; how loyalty is easy to talk about, much harder to put into practice.

As Thirsk says toward the end of this unsatisfying novel, “I have survived to tell the tale, although there’s not much of a tale to tell.” That, I fear, is precisely the problem.

  1. A Rose for Emily is the story of a woman’s death and her complicated relationship with the townsfolk, who speak in one voice: “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.”