I'm going to Craceland

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

LOGGING ON TO Amazon.co.uk, author Jim Crace came across an entry for a new novel, Useless America. Listed as having been published in hardcover last September by Viking Penguin - a short book, at 224 pages - Useless America could be ordered for GBP16.99. The snag was, Crace was supposed to have written it. He hadn't.

'It was actually my highest ranking book, although not a word of it exists,' says Crace from his home in Birmingham, England. The error came about because Crace's former publisher, Penguin, had mistakenly noted down some years earlier that he was working on a novel called Useless America. Having been asked the title of what he was then working on, Crace said that all he knew was that the first line would be: 'This used to be America'. Someone at Penguin misheard it as Useless America.

The false information reached Amazon, who gave it an ISBN number and filled in the blanks. The irony is that, while the online book-seller was generating anticipation about the bogus book, Crace was working on a fictional critique of US global capitalism, now out, The Pesthouse. A love story in post-apocalyptic America, The Pesthouse is set at an unspecified date in the future, when technology has regressed to a medieval state. Bandits rule America's plague-infested wastelands, while its inhabitants - fleeing poverty and disease - head eastwards to the ocean in the desperate hope of boarding a ship to Europe.

The 'pesthouse' of the book's title refers to the stone hut where its heroine, Margaret, has been quarantined from her community after catching the plague. It's there that Franklin Lopez meets and falls in love with her, after he injures his knee and is forced to find refuge on his trek east to the sea. 'The myths of America have always been westward bound, from Wagon Train through to The Grapes of Wrath. I try to turn that upside down and make the book an eastward bound mythology.'

As with all of Crace's novels, The Pesthouse presents a beguiling mixture of the fantastic and the familiar. 'My books tend to dislocate the reader rather than locate the reader in a recognisable world.'

Readers first toured 'Craceland' two decades ago with his fictional debut, Continent - interlinked stories, set on an imagined seventh continent. Since then, he's produced eight more wildly inventive novels with the timeless, universal qualities of fables.

Crace, 61, is a jovial conversationalist, in contrast to the ominous third-person narrative voice of his books. He's wary about making grandiose statements about his work. 'I don't want to be one of those writers who pretends that all you've got to do is to lift a pen and write a book and the heavens are going to open,' he says.

A freelance political journalist before becoming a published novelist at age 40, Crace is a committed left-wing political activist and self-proclaimed dogmatist, but says that his novels are apolitical. 'I know that what I'm doing is writing bourgeois, metaphorical literature, which clearly isn't getting into the hearts and minds of most people.'

The seriousness of his writing explains why reviews of his work are more guarded in his homeland than abroad. 'In England there's a great fear of seeming to be intellectual,' he says. 'When you're with a group of writers in this country, if anybody is serious for too long, it will be considered a faux pas and one of the other writers will introduce some joke to lighten the tone. In Czechoslovakia or China or Italy, if you make a facetious point, that's considered a faux pas.'

Little wonder that he's sometimes mistaken for a European writer: 'People call me Jim Crach-ee, as if I'm some Bulgarian who has dropped on the shore by mistake.' He likens his writing to 'the work of a vicar at a pulpit - lecturely and moralising in a very un-English way'.

That does his work a disservice. Crace intoxicates the reader with his simple, rhythmic prose, rather than preaches. But he's right about the austerity of his subjects. In Quarantine (1997), the atheist novelist reimagines Jesus Christ's 40 days in the wilderness. Being Dead (1999) - a Darwinian meditation on natural processes - introduces its two protagonists being bludgeoned to death on the opening page, before describing their rotting corpses in increasingly grotesque detail throughout the book.

Still, it intrigues Crace that his novels are seen as grim. 'I write books which take pessimistic subjects as their promptings and find within those dark corners an optimistic outcome. In the past, my readers haven't spotted the optimism. I think in The Pesthouse they will.'

From its opening line, 'Everybody died at night', there's little apparently upbeat about The Pesthouse. But what initially appears to be an allegorical attack on contemporary America, with its imperialistic ambitions and degradation of the natural environment, eventually takes on optimistic tones. 'I was feeling very hostile towards America and I wanted to write a strong critique, but there comes a point where a book abandons you and starts to express a view of its own,' he says. 'Instead of writing a hardnosed, pessimistic view of the American dream, the book resisted that. It turns out that it's a love song to America rather than a lament.'

The germ of the book occurred to Crace while he was visiting the barely inhabited island of St Helens in the Isles of Scilly, where he holidays annually with his wife, Pam. The island has a quarantine station from the 18th century, where people arriving by boat were locked up if thought to be carrying disease. 'They would be at the end of a long journey and expecting to arrive in this promised land. But instead everybody with the vaguest rash or temperature would be taken off the boat and put on the quarantine station,' he says. 'I thought, 'What a fantastic subject matter for a novel in which immigrant hopes are dashed'.'

As a teenager, Crace wanted to write politically engaged realist novels, in the manner of John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Raised in working-class flats in the northern outskirts of London, Crace imbibed the socialist principles and passion for nature of his father, a groundsman and avid bird-watcher.

For two decades, Crace's belief that writing should serve the working-class cause led him into political journalism. Then, at the age of 40, he became a novelist after he fell out with his editor at The Sunday Times over a story that he says was spiked on political grounds.

'I didn't really want to be a novelist,' he says. 'I decided that I'd write fiction because my freelance journalism world had collapsed. So it was serendipitous.'

Publishers had been courting Crace since 1974, when he published his first short story, Annie, California Plates - a comedy about a 1960s American road trip, indebted to Jack Kerouac. But for the next decade, Crace struggled to write a realist political tract. 'When I tried to write a political novel, I couldn't even do the next sentence, let alone imagine what the next few books would be,' he says.

The turning point came when Crace reviewed In Evil Hour, by Colombian magic realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and realised that he needn't be wedded to the real world. 'He was inventing stuff. And I thought, 'Bloody hell, I do this when I go down to the pub'.'

Now, Crace invents everything, down to the minute details about wildlife that colour his books. You won't find references to the 'spray hopper' or 'swag beetle' in any natural history dictionary. He even makes up the epigraphs of his novels, although that hasn't stopped critics from The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among others, from claiming to be familiar with the fake authors.

Crace is working on a novel about 'the failings of bourgeois leftist liberalism', which he initially started in an attempt to satisfy his youthful desire to write a campaigning political novel. But his compulsion to invent has made that impossible.

'Every step I take takes me off into the fabulous. My books don't want me to write a realist novel. Maybe they know in their heart of hearts that it would be a terrible book because I haven't been dealt the hand of realism and writing books set in recognisable landscapes.'


Genre Literary fiction

Latest book The Pesthouse (Picador, HK$208)

Lives Birmingham, England

Age 61

Family Married with two daughters

Other works include Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), (1994), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), The Devil's Larder (2001)

Other job Political journalist

What the papers say 'The principal requisite of a first-rate novelist is the ability to create an imaginary microcosm as convincing in every particular as the real world. This is what Crace triumphantly does.' - The Daily Telegraph

author's bookshelf

The Complete Stories

by Flannery O'Connor

'Thirty-one unsparing and humane masterpieces about New York and the Deep South from a woman who could always draw out the weightiest of implications from the lightest of details.'

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

'Marco Polo lies to Kublai Khan about the cities of Asia and thereby proves the superiority of the imagination to the work of architects and planners.'

The poetry of Robert Frost

'Clarity, depth and landscape from a poet who understood first-hand what it was to work fields, tend animals and build walls.'

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

'All the wonders of our planet's biodiversity presented with both scientific and narrative relish. Quammen provides a travelogue and an adventure yarn while still staying true to natural history.'

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

'The arrival of the Europeans in Africa, retold in a novel of tenderness and compassion by Nigeria's greatest writer.'