Jim Crace is something of an enigma. A profoundly literary writeróhis last two novels, Quarantine and Being Dead, won, respectively, the Whitbread Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Awardóhe is, by his own admission, "not especially interested in Literature" and wary of interpretative analysis. A former newspaper feature writer, he professes to be more comfortable discussing politics, natural history, sport, travel, contemporary musicósubjects, he says, he would happily "bleat on about without embarrassment." Crace's concerns arise in the midst of an extended e-mail correspondence about his new book, The Devil's Larder (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), a collection of sixty-four linked stories about food. Even as he immerses himself in the back-and-forth, he can't help wondering whether, "in representing the books, I am misrepresenting myself."

Crace worries he may generate misperception about his relationship to his work: "In responding to your questions unironically and without my usual self-deprecating dismissiveness, I feel I am betraying the solid ground from which my airy fictions emanate. In simple terms, I am talking about a happy childhood, a long and loving marriage, great children and friends, good health. I want it known, I suppose, that my books are not self-exploration. Their seriousness is not exactly my seriousness. And if there is little playfulness and contentment in my books, that is because there is so much in my daily life."

ó L. ULIN

 
     
     
 

DAVID L. ULIN: The Devil's Larder represents a departure for you. Certainly, it's lighter fare than Quarantine or Being Dead, or, say, Continent. Where did it come from? Have you always been interested in food?

JIM CRACE: I'm not especially interested in food. But I did become interested in the culture and politics of food, and the ways in which the great dramas of both Civilization and Personal Life could be traced through the family larder and the restaurant meal. Putting food on a plate in front of your children, for example, can mean so many thingsóit is an act of love, it is a means of control, it is a biological impulse. And every meal has a subtext. Choosing to meet a new girlfriend over a meal is not a statement about cuisine but about the languages of love. I hoped that I might find a clearer view of our sense of identity in this new, self-obsessed millennium if I concentrated on the table-life of humankind. It was a bit of a journey into the unknown. I knew exactly what I wanted from Being Dead before I wrote it. But with The Devil's Larder I was simply curious about what I would discover by the end. What would my tone be? How dark? The book turned out more tender and sentimental than I expected. And I am glad and thankful for that. The book is full of loss and love and generosity. And so are meals.

DU: Some of these stories first appeared as early as 1995, under the title The Slow Digestions of the Night. Has the idea been gestating that long?

JC: All my books take a long time to gestate. What's the hurry? So, yes, the first parts of Larder are five or six years old. I was testing the waters and looking for the courage to go ahead with a sixty-four-part "novel." I like the flourish and color of short fiction, but I came to like the idea of writing a sort of cumulative novel, a patchwork of stories that shared all the unities except one: unity of place, time, subject, style, voiceóbut no unity of character.

DU: In your nonwriting life, you're politically active, yet your fiction doesn't deal with politics much. Why?

JC: Many writersótoo many?óclaim to put their politics into their books. They think that they are therefore absolved from voting in elections, signing the petition, turning out on the picket line, eschewing personal violence, behaving well. I may not be an overtly political writer, but I do have a genuine and active political life. Revolutions are won with leaflets and slogansónot with novels and metaphors. (I'm only kidding you a bit.) To be honest, when I was about seventeen I had hoped to be a didactic novelist like Steinbeck or Orwell. But I do not have the necessary skills. My one attempt at overtly political writing was dead on the page. I've had to accept the cruel irony that the hand I've been dealt is flush with bourgeois, moralistic, metaphor-ridden cards. The rabble-rousing teenager in me is a little ashamed of my books, to tell you the truth.

DU: What about the former journalist in you? Although it's been years since you made the switch to fiction, you still take journalism more seriously. Why?

JC: People are baffled when they hear me prefer journalism over fiction. But I'm equally baffled that anyone could inspect the array of subjects highlighted by serious newspapers, note the size and variety of their readerships, consider the role they play in providing the source material of our opinions, and still consider the literary novel an equal force. Of course, narrative literature increases in importance when newspapers don't or aren't allowed to do their job. I couldn't argue that Russian newspapers of the cold war period represent a better record of their times than the novels of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, for example. And narrative literature can be immensely important among communities that are marginalized or misrepresented by newspapers. I could make a good case for the gay novel, the black novel, the feminist novel of the last fifty years. But these are novels with alert constituencies as well as plain readers. Now, step back, consider me, consider Britain. A white, middle-aged, heterosexual male in a bourgeois, liberal democracy. Where is my constituency? How can my thin novels, with their overload of rhythmic metaphors and their few thousand readers, claim equal importance with newspapers? Poets (and novelists) are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world"? Not anymore, they're not. Come on, you self-deluding writers, get a grip!

DU: Do you see any role, then, for politics or social commentary in fiction?

JC: I don't know the answer to this question. And I don't need to know. When my books are under way, they abandon me. If I excel at anything, perhaps it's at being the nation's most abandoned novelist. I'm like the small boy on the hilltop, flying my kite, using my skills to make it dip and dive, but no more in control of the wind than the wind is in control of me. The kiteóthe novelómediated by the boy and the wind, is both manipulated and willful. In fact, loss of control, abandonment, is perhaps the essential process of my novel writing. I want each book to have its own say and not defer to me. I am a socialist progressive, but I have produced in Continent a sequence of stories that is to some extent politically reactionary, preferring the old ways of humankind to the new. I am a hard-line scientific atheist, but I have produced in Quarantine a scriptural novel, which (according to my mail) tends to underpin rather than undermine Christian belief. This is interesting, baffling, and disconcerting. It's also much more interesting for me than the conventional autobiographical novel, which is a mirror image of the writer. I don't want to encounter mirror images of myself. I don't want to reveal myself to my readers. I am essentially a private and secretive person. Writing for me is an act of secrecy. Fictionóat least, my kind of fictionóthrives on ambiguity and opaqueness. How's that for not answering your question?

DU: You call yourself a socialist progressive and an atheist, yet I'd have also labeled you a naturalist. Books like Being Dead or The Devil's Larder have everything to do with natureóor more accurately, the place where nature and spirit merge.

JC: What you call "spirit," I would call consciousness. Human beings are the congress of flesh and consciousness. Only a conscious mammal could be so obsessed with finding meaning in life and searching for ways of preparing for death. Where else would an atheist, who believes the world to be an inside job rather than the work of outside forces, look for meaning and transcendence except in the conscious, bodily self? Nature, socialism, and atheism are logical, inevitable companions. They are the triplets at my shoulder.

DU: These issues also motivate Quarantine, albeit in a deeply ambiguous way. On the one hand, the novel undercuts the Jesus myth, while on the other, it leaves open the possibility that something's really there. How do you jibe these opposing impulses? Or are they really opposing at all?

JC: Despite my own intransigent beliefs, Quarantine is not an atheist tract, intended as a coherent argument or a manifesto. I will say that for fifty-five years I have tolerated the childish narratives of religionóthe hymns, the icons, the lectures, the tyrannies of beliefóand that my novel is merely a rough, long-overdue narrative riposte. But, though Quarantine might seem an act of vengeful vandalism, it is, in the reading, a gentler, more forgiving book. That's the ambiguity . . . that a writer such as myself who is so politically dogmatic off the page should consistently produce fictions that are driven by irresolution, uncertainty, and ambivalence. I behave, on show, as if I am Street Fighting Man, eager to do battle with every little heresy. But privately I understand myself to be a timid sentimentalist. Perhaps my only intention has been to shame and shock myself and to appear, to my readers at least, as a braver and more disruptive person than I really am.

DU: How did you come to write Being Dead after Quarantine?

JC: One of my Christian critics wrote that Quarantine could not possibly have been written by an atheist. I must have had the Grace of the Lord standing at my shoulder as I typed. Ho ho. It was the Imp of Storytelling breathing down my neck, not the Grace of the Lord. But even though my atheism was not rocked during the writing of Quarantine, it was changed. I saw that the great religions offered narratives of comfort for moments of fear, bereavement, confusion. The narratives were false, of courseóheaven, eternity, recompense, et cetera. But the comfort was real. If only atheism had had its own false narratives of comfort when my father died, then we might not have dispatched him with such godless unceremony. I thought that in writing Being Dead I might be able to discover such narratives of comfort in the natural, scientific world. I think I succeeded in finding some philosophical comfort, but the novel comes up with nothing that will truly disarm mortality when the doctor comes through the door with the dark stain on your X rays.

DU: This idea of comfort seems to belong to a new kind of atheismówhat you've called "transcendental atheism." What exactly does that mean?

JC: It means that atheism ought to come of age. It can no longer be a simple absence of belief or an uncomplicated resistance to ruling-class religions. As science enters and illumines the darkest corners of our universe, God Almighty has become the God-of-the-Gaps. If there were any logic to the universe (there isn't), then God should soon run out of gaps to inhabit. Scientific knowledge would then reign supreme, and humankind's need for transcendence, spirituality, mysticism, and joy would have to be serviced by a new form of atheism. We'd better be ready.

DU: Isn't that the role of literature, also? To provide narratives that, in some hard way, console us, if only by offering up a bit of common ground?

JC: Narrative is not just for novelists. We writers simply formalize between covers what is an essential life skill for all human beings. To have no spoken narrative skill is a form of autism. Spare us the man who cannot tell a tale. Look how the people in the bar avoid his gaze. They want the company of those who fib and sham, those who can imagine the future and reinvent the past with only half an eye on the unadorned and feeble truth, but with full command of narrative. Humankind has not evolved as this uniquely storytelling species by mistake. If they didn't benefit us as a species, storytelling, fibbing, all the shades of deceit, all the colors of invention, would have been bred out of us already. But they clearly confer on us an evolutionary advantage. They are part and parcel of our consciousness. They provide comfort and transcendence. Maybe that's why I cannot be entirely dismissive of the Great Judeo-Christian Religions. They use the Trojan horse of narrative to smuggle their orthodoxies past our scientific guards. Perhaps what we now need is a Great Narrative Atheism. Perhaps that's what my books have been attempting to provide.


David L. Ulin is the editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001). He is currently writing a book about the mythology of earthquakes and earthquake prediction.

 
     
 
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