The Pesthouse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

The Pesthouse

by Jim Crace

Picador, HK$176

In Jim Crace's latest novel, the US has collapsed after some kind of catastrophe, the nature of which is never revealed and which, in the face of such a monumental reversal of national fortune, seems an irrelevant detail. Set sometime in the distant future, the remnants of American society are now living in a post-apocalyptic state of nature that's not too different from the country's 17th century colonial beginnings, clinging to foggy memories of civil society in an anarchic, plague-ridden, perilous wasteland.

Into this Hobbesian nightmare Crace brings his hero, Franklin, a conscientious farm boy making his journey to the east coast in search of a ship to Europe and a better life, and Margaret, a beautiful, red-haired victim of a mysterious disease known only as the 'flux', who has been quarantined by her village in a hillside shack named the Pesthouse.

As a series of disasters estranges each character from their families, they become unlikely partners on an eastwards journey towards the Atlantic coast and the promise of leaving America behind. Along the way they observe the industrial ruins of the US and experience the dangers of a society without the rule of law.

Crace wisely resists the temptation to turn his novel into a predictive post-mortem of US decline - a staple of much cold war-era apocalyptic fiction. Although he leaves his readers clues about the nature of the disaster that put an end to the US as we know it, they're thinly spread and oblique.

Crace's commentary, like all the best satire, draws its power from subtle inversions that will chime with anyone with an appreciation for historical irony - American pilgrims board leaky boats heading east, not west, in search of civilisation; roaming bands of bandits force Americans into slavery. Organised commerce and religion, two of the most historically identifiable hallmarks of the modern American state, are almost unheard of.

But it's Crace's style that really distinguishes The Pesthouse as a novel. At a time when most of his British contemporaries are writing with a stylistic exuberance that occasionally borders on the absurd, Crace's prose rhythms look understated in The Pesthouse. Its characters aren't vividly drawn and its plotline, although strangely gripping, can hardly be described as epic. Yet Crace's story is exquisite in its bleakness.

Post-apocalyptic fiction's periodic resurgence in popularity has often been linked to the prospect of real world catastrophes - notably the threat of nuclear disaster represented by the cold war. As dangers such as climate change and global terrorism increase in their intensity, they can be expected to loom large in forthcoming books. We've already seen the end of the world explored in Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Will Self's comic romp The Book of Dave, to name but two. The Pesthouse stands out as a harrowing example of just how such a tale should be written.