The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 128 pages. $20. BUY NOW

     
 

Jim Crace's body of work is remarkable for a number of reasons, most of all for the fact that it could only have been written by Jim Crace; his fictions are so particular, self-contained, and obviously of the Cracean universe that playing the usual comparison game ("Joyce with more fruit," "Samuel Beckett at the beach") is, to quote a narrator from Crace's newest book, The Devil's Larder, "to test the flavours of deceit." Who else, after all, would choose to write a literary novel about complacency and obsolescence at the dawning of the Bronze Age? (The Gift of Stones, 1988.) Or about a fruit-and-vegetable trader raised in Dickensian squalor who, as a wealthy old man, dreams of enclosing his open-air market in a spectacular postmodern arcade? (Arcadia, 1991.) Certainly no other writer working today relies so heavily on invented sources like Mondazy (a poet) and Emile dell'Ova (a diarist and author of the fictional Truismes). One doesn't read a book by Crace so much as one bathes in a tidal pool of his creation; the water is amenable (if a little briny), just like in the real world, even if the landscape, weather, and sea life are foreboding and strange.

If you're a reader who has yet to try Crace's "immersion" cure, or if you've taken a dip and found the experience unforgiving (the pungent fumes are not for everyone), then I suggest you cast aside your inhibitions and head straight for the sixty-four pieces collected in The Devil's Larder. All are numbered variations on a single themeˇfood, to put it simplyˇand many are examples of Crace at his imaginative and oddly strident best. "The finest food," reflects Eugene Naval, the Syrian fry-cook in story number 49, "like the best of marriages, is bound to break the rules. . . . It seeks to reconcile opposing tastes and textures, sweet with sour, hot with cold, sharp with bland, the fluid and the firm, the solemn and the comic, and it depends as much on luck as diligence." The standard Naval sets for his cooking is the selfsame Crace aspires to with his fiction; with these unusual recipes for narrative, some "traditional," others improvised, some rich with the finest ingredients, others made from stones, mushrooms, roots, and berries (there's even one featuring "elephantine polyps"), Crace has accomplished nothing less.

Take, for example, story number 13, about the joyless seaside honeymoon of a middle-aged music teacher and his young bride, Rosa, a timid former student. Sex, the couple had agreed beforehand, would come with time and familiarity, and the husband, in true male form, tries to accelerate the process by foraging for their mealsˇthis despite his empty claim that "it would be a joy for him to wait." They breakfast on wedding cake and blackberries. They gather driftwood for fuel and share a dinner of roast pigeons and boiled samphire. At night the husband wraps himself around Rosa "like a cashew nut," but she ignores his advances. By day three of the honeymoon, with the novelty of hunter-gathering now worn off and Rosa no closer to raising her nightdress, the music teacher begins muttering about patience and saints. "It's all impossible," he says, after a meager meal that night, and the reader will be tempted to agree; then Rosa, at his urging, samples eringoˇan aphrodisiacˇstewed with blackberries, and something awakens in her like a fever, sending her back to the bowl for leftovers in secret, while her husband sleeps off his discontent. Rosa's defiant awakening is one of the deepest surprises in a book that takes nothing on earth for grantedˇsave the unruly persistence of plant and animal life, which humans can only fail to understand.

 
     
     
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