"On Baritone Bay, in mid-afternoon, Joseph and Celice, maried for almost thirty years, lie murdered in the dunes. The shocking particulars of their passing make up the arc of this courqageous and haunting novel. The story of life, mortality, and love, Being Dead confirms Jim Crace's place as one of our most talented, compassionate, and intellectually provacative writers." From the bookjacket.
This is not a book about the murder per se, but about death and decay described in oxymoronic language both lyrical and clinical. Crace builds a backstory that begins with a strange kind of young love that is ignited by the antics of a marine cricket known as a sprayhopper. Apparently, zoologists have their own ideas of what works in the romance department! He depicts their past as a meditation of ordinary days straining toward the "gateway to our deaths" as Celice told her zoology students in her lectures on life and death -- the double helix of existence.
This book, though oddly compelling, is not for everyone, and should be avoided by the squeamish, but it does make one appreciate life and having thought-provoking books like Being Dead to read.
Joseph and Celice, are middle-aged zoologists. In the opening chapter, they are found murdered in a remote area of the dunes. As their bodies begin to decompose, the narrative takes us on a serpentine journey through this couple’s lives and we witness their chance meeting in college, a long, sometimes bumpy thirty-year marriage, the usual joys and pitfalls, a restless, unhappy daughter and then finally their last fateful day.
There is some gruesome detail to this story but it’s described in a simple scientific manner. It is also filled with some lovely prose:
“Yet there was still love, the placid love that only time can cultivate, a love preserved by habit and memory. Their tree had little rising sap, perhaps, but it was held firm by deep and ancient roots.”
I tremendously enjoyed this book, though, it does seem incongruently odd to say that I liked a book about "being dead".
The writing is magical, lyrical, complex and compelling. Two Middle aged Zoologists, Joseph and Celice have long struggled with a marriage that simply doesn't mesh. Successful in their field, yet by societal standands, they have failed in many areas, including raising a daughter who is self sufficicent and other directed.
It an attempt to find one last chance at romance, Joseph invites Celice to return to the area on Baritone Bay where they first met as post graduate students and had sexual encounters in the sand.
Tragically, their nostalgic journey nets their senseless killing and they are robbed and beaten to death in the deserted dunes.
While Craces' descriptions of the decay of their bodies is not an easy read, the reader is hooked by his intelligent philosophical rendering of life and the natural process we will all endure when we die.
This is seem less writing that is not romantic or over embellished with sorrow. And, while it seems clinical, there is enough character development that holds the reader riveted to the story, deeply understanding the fact that on a bring, sunny day, life can suddenly end.
Juxtapositioning chapters between the bodies on the beach and details regarding the lives of Cecile and Joseph lends to sadness, but also detachment. Truly, the characters are not like able. From the beginning chapters, the reader does not like self obsessed, pragmatic Cecile. Joseph seems flat and unappealing. Still, in no way does Crace intimate that their senseless, untimely death was justified.
A very strange story and I will be interested to read more from this author.
Second, we start out with this married couple in midlife being dead and go backwards. We learn enough about these two zoologists-what they were like when they were young, how they met and became closer and everything inbetween. By the end of the book, we know infinitely more than we'd ever thought to want to know about the two that were killed off beginning on page 1. And yet, these are the main protagonists of the book and the more that you read, the more that you wish you could escape the inevitable fact that these two are not going to have any moments together anymore. It's as if being dead redeems them as characters because you grow attached and you even love them a little. All the while, the tragedy is accentuated. And in these 200 pages that escape, you find yourself slowly realizing ad you grow to love them that it might, in fact, be because they are no more. If they were alive, surely they would not be as interesting or as (ironically) vivid as they are now. They are preserved in a sense of tragedy that makes them intriguing.
Third, it's much less predictable than most fiction on this topic. Our two protagonists are dead from the start because of a rather brutal murder but instead of focusing on who did it and why, Crace instead tells us their story. In a way, that makes them less like victims and more like modern British tragic heroes. It's also what makes the story more interesting than a whodunnit or a why did it happen sort of novel. There's enough already written like that and not as many with this sort of angle.
The author’s way with words makes this book a delight to read. Its unorthodox timeline keeps the reader alert as the story progresses. The total package examines death from its natural base and adds the angle of human misfortune. The story is quite enchanting despite its macabre subject..
The story moves from raucous realism, to poetic images of beauty and nature, and can be quite shocking initially. There is a considerable amount of horror in the story, and a sense that death lies in wait for everyone, only to snatch away life in a moment. Life is as capricious as death.
While the title of the book is Being dead it might as well simply have been "Death", or "Memento mori". A universal theme of all times, in a shocking new conceptalization.
A fascinating read (if you can stomach some of the disgusting details, described with the detail of a dissection).
The murdered couple's daughter, Syl, embodies this atheism even further when she sits outside a church and listens to a congregation singing hymns, but finds no comfort - "Her father's songs, for all their mawkish sentiment, were far more powerful. Love songs transcend, transport, because there's such a thing as love. But hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are no gods."
There is more depressing stuff as the emotionless narrator goes on to describe how the crabs, insects, gulls and rodents "went to work" browsing the human remains.
The murderer himself is never identified or described; he is simply a means to an end, an instrument who causes this very final and very 'natural' state of "being dead."
The redeeming parts of the story come in the quirky love story that is Joseph and Celice, both zoologists, but nearly complete opposites in their outside interests and personalities. After thirty years together, they bicker and argue and make each other angry - "Yet there still was love, the placid love that only time can cultivate, a love preserved by habit and by memory."
Yes this is a very skilfully written story, but it leaves me cold. So maybe Mr. Crace did what he intended to do. Death is very final, but it's also an integral part of life. We begin to die from the moment we are conceived. I get it. But do I really want to have my face - my mind - rubbed in it? Nope.
The details of physical death were graphic and kind of gross. All kinds of bodily fluids and degenerative processes. Ugh. And the telling of the crime and the absolute coldness and heartlessness in the attacker’s mind. I was kind of disappointed that he didn’t get caught, but that’s not what this book was about.
One thing that struck me was how similar the daughter is to Celice. She thinks her parents are old-fashioned and have always been as backward and conservative as she thinks they are. In reality, she is very much like her mother in attitude if not in execution. Casual sex and a feigned sense of self-esteem carry them both through their days. Celice turns into a very hard, unforgiving and unsensual woman. It’s easy to see that Syl will become the same.
The beginning is the end in Being Dead. The couple, hand in hand, and whose nakedness had subjected them to indignity, terminated their lives in each other's flesh in a manner marked by a placid love that only time can cultivate. The narration, like the love of Joseph and Celice, is utterly unsentimental and business-like, something that is preserved by habit and memory, not necessarily with flaming passion. The dreamy writing accentuates the serene mood of the novel while it de-emphasizes the dramatic deaths and the reckless physical aftermath. The tranquility of the crime scene, the intrepidness with which the lissom grass perked back up after removal of the corpses, the gradual disappearance of rectangle of time-paled grass, the absorption of blood into the soil and the equanimity of their daughter Syl downplay the horrible death but at the same time usurp the promptings of readers' hearts.
Being Dead transcends other contemporary works on the subject of death with its meditative, poetic monologue that dwells on life, love, and death. It is a literary treatise on an event, and the event is the death of a renowned zoologist and his wife in the midst of sand dunes at a remote beach. Being Dead is a literary event made possible by the author's naked daring.
Crace achieves a remarkable mediation on the subject in BEING DEAD, a novel that is unnerving in its originality and tenderness. He centres on Joseph and Celice, an elderly married couple, brutally murdered on a quiet beach. Crace takes several offbeat tacts in portraying what these deaths mean, both biologically and emotionally.
First, the bodies themselves. Crace goes into determinedly graphic detail in his characterization of decomposition. As the bodies slowly deteriorate, the small world that surrounds them begins to interact, to reclaim the material for nature. For most of us, the thought of what happens to our bodies physically after death is a repulsive one. Yet Crace never offends, and never becomes exploitative. The lyricism and sense of melancholy Crace brings to the biological breakdown of a body are truly haunting.
Interwoven with biology is nostalgia, as Crace charts the map of Joseph and Celice's relationship. From the first awkward rush of passion, to the resignation that an elderly couple may face every day, Crace allows the reader a glimpse into their minds, a reminder that every person is unique, and what we see is only superficial. Joseph's small frame and majestic singing voice only hint at his unhappiness with his life's outcome; physical opposite Celice's apparent quiet love of her husband masks her increasing frustration with the lack of passion in her life. These small glimpses into the makeup of their lives are an abrupt change from the description of their deaths, but the contrast serves to heighten the senselessness of death, and the steadfast mysteries that life and death both contain. How can we ever believe we can comprehend death, when we cannot even begin to understand the true nature and purpose of one solitary individual?
Thirdly, Crace follows their daughter, a sullen young woman who has never gotten along with either of her parents. As she reluctantly searches for her missing mother and father, we view the way our lives continue after death, in the thoughts and memories of those we knew, and in the biological framework of our progeny. While the daughter would never admit it, she is equal parts mother and father, displaying both the good and bad traits of her parents. In Joseph and Celice's death, she finds a measure of comfort and renewal, ultimately of purpose.
I do not mean for this to sound like a spiritual odyssey. As in his previous novel QUARANTINE (a realist version of Christ's forty days in the desert), Crace is not ready to resort to comforting platitudes on what comes next. Death is death, and what is beyond remains, and should remain, a mystery. Death is both intensely personal, and a universal experience shared by all. By providing the reader no easy answers, by never revealing the answer to the question, Crace provides an altogether mesmerizing and satisfying experience.
Celice and Joseph, married scientists in their 50's decide to take a sentimental day trip to the beach where they met and fell in love. As the last sentence of the first chapter states, "They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia," for by page 5, they have been brutally murdered in the dunes. Their bodies lay undiscovered, Joseph's hand tenderly grasping Celice's ankle, for days. In alternating chapters we are told the story of their life and given a day-by-day description of what happens to their bodies after death.
This book is beautifully written, and the scientific descriptions of decay meld perfectly with the intellectually curious scientific characters of Joseph and Celice. Here is the poem by Sherwin Stephens, "The Biologist's Valediction to His Wife," which is set forth on the frontispiece of this book:
Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell
You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell.
Eternity awaits? Oh, sure!
It's Putrefaction and Manure
And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot,
As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot.
I'll grieve, of course,
Though Grieving's never
Or coaxed a single extra Breath
Out of a Body touched by Death
Reading in detail about the decomposition of someone's body is a weirdly intimate thing, kind of like getting stuck in an elevator with a stranger.