Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"From Zoo. to Bot.": (De)Composition in Jim Crace's Being Dead

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"From Zoo. to Bot.": (De)Composition in Jim Crace's Being Dead

Article excerpt


This article examines the portrayal of death in Jim Crace's 1999 novel Being Dead. By combining an account of the lives of two murdered protagonists with a graphic description of the decomposition of their bodies, Crace's novel challenges contemporary attitudes toward death, privileging the natural process of biological regeneration over mythological assumptions of survival and clinical practices of disposal. A celebration of the grotesque, Being Dead draws the reader's attention to a biological truth which has been sequestered in modern culture, and which has become the object of sensationalism and fetishism in popular horror narratives of zombies, vampires and the undead. Undeniably unsettling, Crace's novel rejects the premise of the horror narrative, which seeks to constantly unsettle and defamiliarize the consumer, and looks instead toward a reunion of modern consciousness with the body's vulnerabilities.


Decay: privileged place of mingling, of the contamination of life by death, of begetting and of ending.

--Jim Crace

THE THRESHOLD BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH, THAT MOST CURIOUS AND ELUSIVE locus of narrative, has provided a fertile and enduringly popular premise for fantastic fiction throughout the history of literature. From Homer's visions of the underworld; through Dante's voyages through Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory; through the modernist experiments of Lewises Wyndham and C. S. to the present day, where Alice Sebold, Will Self, and others probe the interstitial zones between being and nothingness--the imaginative scope afforded by the life/death boundary has endured in spite of endless challenges from science, religion, philosophy, and plain old common sense.

Yet nothing in these fantasies could be more fantastic than the grim reality of the ordinary, natural, biological process of dying itself. In her amusing and illuminating study of the (after) life of the cadaver, Mary Roach emphasizes the grotesque properties of the dead. "Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in," she tells us. "Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it" (11). Sometimes unmanageable (the autolysing, self-digesting bodies whose orifices need to be plugged to prevent seepage), sometimes uncannily compliant (the crash test cadavers which drive themselves obliviously into high-impact moments of trauma, repeatedly, held in place by duct tape and wires), the dead are always, in some sense, absurd. This absurdity is surely a product, in no small measure, of our diminished familiarity with death itself, an estranging phenomenon that has seen the deceased disappear from daily life into the realm of an unseen margin, one in which antisocial bodily events are concealed and permitted, their unruliness always moderated, in a Foucauldian fashion, under the management of the medical authorities.

What, then, are the consequences of a sociological revolution that has thrust death behind the scenes, made it obscene, something to be denied rather than embraced? Arguably, such a cultural shift, through which the natural process, the essential counterpart to life, has become an inviolable taboo, a source of horror rather than reassurance, has served to distance us from our own biological identity. If we have allowed ourselves, culturally, to suppress death in light of its negative implications for the living, and particularly the natural death that sees the body returned to the ecosystem rather than hygienically erased, we have also, perhaps, allowed ourselves to become alienated from the remarkable and perplexing potentialities it embodies, those which find the essence of life inextricably interwoven with its own end.

Jim Crace's 1999 novel, Being Dead, can be seen as an effort to address this cultural denial through a celebration of the transformative phase living beings undergo as a consequence of dying. …

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