As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes:
He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art.
His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions.
On the opening page of “Being Dead,” Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting to decompose. What happens to those bodies over the next six days until they are discovered by police is one stratum of the story that Jim Crace writes — direct, clear, unblinking, even beautiful in its way.
The swag flies found it easiest to feast on the blood in her hair or to settle in the swampy bruises on her neck and gums or at the damage to her hands. They fed in clinging multitudes. Loose knots of flies. They made black balls of wings and antennae amongst the clots, as weightless and as dry as tumbleweed.
Another stratum is composed of flashbacks that tell the couple’s history — how, as young zoologists, they met and fell in love on this beach, how they settled into married life and how, in their mid-50s, they were professionally established and comfortable, if not all that passionate, in their marital partnership.
The third stratum is another series of flashbacks but extremely short-term. These seven episodes, presented in reverse chronological order, cover the ten hours from the moment of their murder back to just after 6 a.m. of that day when Joseph and Celice are still asleep.
That’s a lot of levels of story to tell in a book of just 196 pages. Yet, without all this shifting of scene and chronology, “Being Dead,” published in 1999, would have been a much different, and lesser, novel.
The key is Crace’s decision to start the book with Joseph and Celice already dead and to frame his story from that perspective.
Dead and disintegrating, the bodies of the zoologists are just one more part of the natural world. They are like the grass they lay on, the beetle they trap, the gulls they feed.
Death for them is not “going to a better place” or “ascending on high.” The bodies are here on this dune, and the Joseph and Celice who had once been are no more. And, if the bodies hadn’t been found by police:
the dunes could have disposed of Joseph and Celice themselves. They didn’t need help. The earth is practised in the craft of burial. It gathers round. It embraces and adopts the dead. Joseph and Celice would have turned into landscape, given time.
Yes, we will all turn into landscape.
In this novel, there is no afterlife for the beings who were Joseph and Celice. Their deaths are their ends. But even a reader who does believe in an existence beyond death will recognize the stark reality of what Crace describes. We are, at all times, on our way to death. We live lives of hope and pain, ambition and love, boredom and desire. And then we die. And, even if there is another life, we’re gone from this one.
From the perspective of Celice and Joseph already dead, their lives appear banal. Their early passion. Their academic careers. Their passion. Their tinny secrets. Even their murders.
I suspect that, if you told anyone’s life story from the perspective of their death, it would seem empty, flat. After death, controversies and triumphs lack their punch. They become lines in an obituary.
Syl, the aimless daughter of Joseph and Celice, seems to understand this when she comes to grips with the deaths of her parents.
How should the dying spend their time when life’s short portion shrinks with every waking day? … Her gene suppliers had closed shop. Their daughter was next in line. She could not duck out of the queue. So she should not waste her time in this black universe. They world’s small, breaking denizens, its quaking congregations and its stargazers, were fools to sacrifice the flaring briefness of their lives in hopes of paradise or fears of hell. No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death — or birth — except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.
Patrick T. Reardon