Magazine article The Spectator

Struggling to Survive the Future

Magazine article The Spectator

Struggling to Survive the Future

Article excerpt

THE PESTHOUSE by Jim Crace Picador, £12.99, pp. 309, ISBN 9780330445627 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Jim Crace's latest novel, The Pesthouse, is set in a future America which, following an unnamed catastrophe, has endured a massive regression. There are no machines any more, no electricity or shops, no books and therefore no knowledge of history. In case this seems like an Arcadian idyll, there are also gangs of robbers skulking around, and regular outbreaks of plague. You might call the place faintly medieval, but it is worse because systems of trade are collapsing, not expanding.

Unsurprisingly, then, many are trying to flee. The novel begins in Ferrytown, a village whose river must be crossed by those heading for the ocean. One night there is a landslide into the water, the pressure of which forces a breath of deadly gas from the silt bed (a clue, perhaps, to the earlier disaster), which kills everyone near by. The only survivors are two people who were sheltered from the fumes by a hill:

Franklin, a large, gentle young man trying to leave America, and Margaret, a resident of Ferrytown, who has the 'flux', a contagious disease, and who has been quarantined in the nearby 'pesthouse' either to recover or to die.

Franklin meets Margaret, by now showing signs of recovery, and, aware that they must leave an area probably still toxic, they cross the river and venture through swamplands and bracken towards the ocean. They feel affection for one another, but are too modest to act on it, neither having taken a lover before. But then their partnership is broken when Franklin is captured as a slave by bandits. Margaret pursues them, but loses the trail and ends up sheltering with the 'Finger Baptists', a religious sect whose devotees abjure metal -- 'the Devil's work' -- and are governed by the 'Helpless Gentlemen', a group of elders whose doctrinal observance stretches to never using their arms. …

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