Going to Hell in a Handcart ; INTERVIEW ++ in His Eighth Novel, Jim Crace Depicts a Future in Which the United States Is Humbled and Defeated. but for All His Anger, He Tells Suzi Feay, a Belief in the American Dream Still Came Shining Through
Feay, Suzi, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
'My books are are so unem-barrassedly moralistic and serious," says Jim Crace, "which is why I'm so successful in the States, and marginalised at home. I'm not complaining!" he smiles, anticipating my protest. "I've won a couple of Whitbreads." Quarantine was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I point out. " Being Dead didn't even get longlisted!" he counters. "Oh, I have a critical success, I have esteem, but I haven't really got much of a sales record here. It enables me to stay anonymous in a way I quite like."
For all that, Crace is a major player on the British literary scene, and his eighth novel, The Pesthouse, may challenge his anonymity in the UK; it deserves to be a bestseller. It may not do much for his American sales figures, though. Set in the far future, it depicts a broken-down America which has reverted to primitivism in the aftermath of some unspecified catastrophe. Written language has been forgotten, the wrecks of former civilisation are regarded with suspicion and bafflement. So dire are things, in fact, that desperate people are migrating eastwards to the coast, in search of a better life across the ocean. Margaret, a sick woman who has been left in the pesthouse of the title, meets a callow young man, Franklyn, when he seeks refuge there for the night. Ironically, by abandoning her, her family saves her life after a cataclysm overwhelms the village. Franklyn puts the sick woman in a handcart, and the two begin the perilous journey to the sea.
Crace's original idea was that the book would "deal a blow to America at a time when I think it needs to have a blow dealt to it. It will take America from the top of the pile and put it at the bottom of the pile, politically and culturally. It will defer to Europe, instead of Europe having to defer to it. This is what I would do: I would reduce America in this work of fiction, and I would show it as an entirely failed nation."
The book is the product of his love-hate relationship with the country. "We're entitled to have a view of America in a way that we're not entitled to have a view of Ecuador or Fiji or Iceland. There are no Icelandic whaleburger outlets, there are no people in Icelandic uniforms driving Humvees through 147 countries in the world, which is the figure I came across."
Nevertheless, as he continued working, the novel itself began to subvert his plans. "There's a moment when, if a book has any power of its own, it abandons you and takes over. And it became clear to me that what the book was doing was resisting the failure of America. It didn't want me to write this political novel that reflected my anger at America. It was too fond of the American dream, all those narratives we've been told of hope and getting your own acre. American literature is so full of that; all of those westward-bound novels, all of those waggon train stories, those road movies, Thelma and Louise - they're all heading west with hope in their hearts. Even Borat! He doesn't want an acre of land, he's after Pamela Anderson and he doesn't get her. The American dream doesn't always deliver, but there's something powerful about it."
As he points out, classic science fiction "likes to look at the future as an expansion of what we've already got. Maybe a disastrous expansion, but along the lines that we were using manual typewriters 20 years ago, and posting letters, and now look what we're doing. …