Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Disunited States


In the past, Jim Crace has shown a penchant for unconventional novelistic subjects: Stone Age man or Jesus in the wilderness, for example. Now, he envisions an America of the future, which has regressed to a medieval time. Bands of survivors travel down highways -- stopping at remaining towns and villages -- en route to the east from where they hope to set sail to other lands for a better life.

It’s an ironic inversion: America, in Crace’s book, is a society of emigrants, not immigrants, not a land of opportunity, but one of lost causes. Across this blighted landscape trudge Margaret, newly recovered from the plague, and Franklin, her would-be beau, who has encountered her in a ‘pesthouse’, a room of quarantine.

The narrative is taut and accomplished, and Crace takes pains to mythologise his invented land – with, for example, a Dreaming Highway, an Ark and Finger Baptists. Yet, the novel lacks resonance, and this is because the central conceit of a future America as a large pesthouse is hijacked by the desire of main characters to seek a one-dimensional love that overcomes all else.

Worth your while? If you’re a Jim Crace fan, certainly. Otherwise, turn to Cormac McCarthy’s own chilling take on post-apocalyptic America, The Road.

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