Saturday, 22 May 2010

Jim Crace: The Pesthouse

I didn't get on with this book as well as I would have liked, thanks to what I thought was an overrated writing style. But I've said this blog is not about book reviews, and The Pesthouse is a good story in an interesting setting, and it certainly got me thinking.

It's the story of a man and a woman travelling to the east coast of an America that has sprung up in the aftermath of some kind of apocalypse. Americans, in the world Crace imagines, are subsistence farmers, emigrants hoping to cross the Atlantic, or raiders and ne'er-do-wells. The remnants of the USA, its cities and high technology, are almost nowhere to be found; no one in the novel expresses the slightest interest in learning about life before whatever cataclysm put America back in the middle ages, and indeed the cataclysm itself is not mentioned, let alone explained.

Instead, Crace presents us with this world and lets us make what we will of it. That might be simply an entertaining story, that follows a fairly conventional "journey" or "quest" structure, or it might be an interpretation, ultimately an optimistic one, of America itself. One striking aspect is the almost universal desire of the Americans in the novel to leave, to emigrate and seek a kind of promised land, presumably in Europe or Africa. America is, for the main part of the novel, a place of dying dreams, a cursed land; it's not the hellish wasteland of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in terms of the landscape itself, but the characters' journey is essentially a showcase of dangers and hardships. This is, arguably, the exact opposite of the mindset that has made America what it is today. For four hundred years or more, America has been the human race's "promised land"; The Pesthouse is a subtle, unassuming response to this thinking.

The shack in the woods that the novel is named for seems to be what the book is really about, despite its only appearing twice. It is a place where the characters feel safe, and where they rest and recover before continuing on their journey. And it is the only place in the novel that is unequivocally good. All the towns, the highways towards the coast, the sea itself, are tainted with the threat of danger or the ill will and greed of other people. This is by no means a dogmatic book or a moral tale, but I was left with a strong impression of the idea that happiness and resolution are in a humble place of safety and rest, not some better world across the sea.

In its own way, The Pesthouse is a comment on America, and on the long-standing dream of a land of opportunity, on how this dream may turn out to be just that and nothing more.

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