The Pesthouse by Jim Crace (book review)

Happy Monday!

As I mentioned last week I have for you today a very spirited book review of The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, another one of those books that “…the kind of book that when you finish it, you want to toss it against a wall” however in this context that’s not a particularly good thing and it disappoints me to say that.

The Pesthouse, a post-apocalyptic story set in the United States, opens up with some of the strongest writing in the entire book. Consider the opening paragraph:

“Everybody died at night. Most were sleeping at the time, the lucky ones who were too tired or drunk or deaf or wrapped too tightly in their spreads to hear the hillside, destabilized by the rain, collapse and slip beneath the waters of the lake. So these sleepers (six or seven hundred, at a guess; no one ever came to count or claim the dead) breathed their last in passive company, unwarned and unexpectedly, without any fear. Their final moments, dormant in America.” (1)

However this is from the preface from a character named Nash, who is never revisited and very loosely related to the story in a rather irrelevant way which is a shame as he might have been a more interesting or likable character than the lot Crace has cast for us. Once the narrative proper starts with chapter one page eight, the quality of writing

the pest house

Instead of ‘The Pesthouse’ this book should be renamed ‘The Passivehouse because almost the ENTIRE novel is written in the passive past tense voice.

goes down for me because nearly the rest of the book is written in this slow dead-paced passive voice

“Franklin Lopez had not been sleeping in Ferrytown, though [he had] wanted to. [He had] not been sleeping anywhere, in fact. [Could not] sleep. [He had] weathered such pain the day before that [he had] been forced to consider…” (8) italics for emphasis

Notice in 3.5 sentences Crace uses “had” 5 times (I count conjunctions ie the original quote reads “he’d” and I extrapolated it for emphasis as [he had]) and another passive past tense word “could” once. I’ve had creative writing teachers who would not accept your story if it was written entirely in the passive voice unless it was used for specific reasons (an example that comes to mind is the story format of the frame story where a character, usually a lead is remembering back and telling us [both the reader and the audience in the context of the story] their story complete with

pat rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss can grow a sexy beard

foreshadowing because of hindsight insight, an excellent example of this story structure executed masterfully is The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss and The Pesthouse does not present a reason for this stylistic choice.

Without giving spoilers, I found the story to generally drag on until about the final act when the story converges with a strange religious sect when both the story and writing quality improved enough to help me push through to the rather anticlimactic ending.

Overall I really didn’t like this novel because it felt like a first draft of something that could have been much more interesting rather than a cash grab at the Post-apocalyptic America-land trend(1). If this was Crace’s first novel, I’d be much more lenient because this novel does have potential to be something more interesting however it’s his 10th novel in 20 years and not only but he’s an award winning author and a member of the Royal Society of Literature. I haven’t read Crace’s other novels but if after 20 years this is what he can produce, I am not impressed.

Footnotes:

  1. Whilst in the UK and talking with one of my friends on the subject of post-apocalyptic stories, she pointed out to me a distinct lack of non-american set post-apocalyptic stories particularly none she could think of taking place in the UK [I failed to remember, somehow, that Children of Men takes place in the UK] and whilst on the subject of the post-apocalyptic trend in media I do want to note that I would really like to see more stories set in places that are not america for a change or maybe more interesting types of apocalyptic events like H.P. Lovecraftian monsters enslave the human race or aliens visit the planet, unbenounced to humans, and grant all the octopi super high tech helmets that allow them to build structures and complex tools which leads them to creating an alien atlantis which then leads them to land excursions and demanding rights leading to interspecies civil war (they create helmets for dogs and pickles and things too), or maybe all the water on the planet turns to jell-o (or jelly for my UK readers) and it’s like a science thriller race against time to figure out a way to turn the jell-o into water again or something fucking original (zombies are cool and I will likely never get my proper fill of zombie media but seriously there are other interesting crisis to subject fictional humans to).

SPOILERS BELOW

Okay so I have some spoiler specific complaints about this novel the first one being Jackson. I’m not entirely sure why Crace found it necessary to give us 2 POV characters who’s POV status doesn’t contribute to the story nor do their stories give us any sort of important information nor satisfaction (I’m not impressed that Nash died, it felt unnecessary and when Jackson dies I was robbed of satisfaction because he wasn’t a particularly good character either morally or in complexity and his death was rather inconsequential and generally meaningless).

Another problem I have (I’m gonna be real: the rest of this is going to be me complaining about how a well established novelist can publish something with such frochic errors) is how ham fisted the writing is at points. Consider when Franklin and Margaret first meet,

“She held her candle out to get a better look at him and in its sudden guttering of light they saw each other for the first time: Red Margaret was startled first by the size of him, two times the weight and size of her grandpa, she thought, and then by what she took to be a face of honesty, not quite a handsome face, not quite a beauty boy, but narrow, healthy, promising a face to rescue her from fear if only he would dare.” (31)

Holy crappy cardboard hearts writing that made me nauseous. Not only is it all in this dead slow passive voice but we get no concrete description of this guy other than he is “…two times the weight and size of her grandpa…” and “narrow face”. If he has an honest and healthy face, maybe show me what she thinks honest and healthy features

face_you_can_trust

This is a pretty narrow and honest looking face.

look like. Tell me about his eyes, tell me about his complexion, does his nose have a cute little crook that keeps him from being a “beauty boy”? I feel as if this description is almost intentionally vague as to allow readers to construct their own idea of what he should look like which is, in my opinion, lazy writing because you are missing an opportunity to paint a picture that tells more about your characters so you don’t have to. The idea of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is of prime relevance in a situation like this.

Ultimately the “love story” feels super forced and circumstantial rather than organic or real as if they end up together because “who else are you gonna end up with?” This clip sums up about how organic their relationship feels,

And whist we’re on the subject of repetitive pounding, when I read things like

“He would be welcome as a guest if his face was free of rashes, if he wasn’t seeking charity, if he didn’t try to win the short-term favors of a local woman, and if he put any weapons — and any bad language — into their safekeeping until he traveled on. Weapons, rashes, charity and short-term favors of any kind were ‘off the menu’, he was told.” (34)

I start to wonder how much this guy, Crace, has on the line here? As in this feels like filler, as does about 200 pages of the book, and I wonder if this was a “drawer idea”(1) that Crace had about an improbable love story set in an futuristic dark ages United States runned by marauders, cults, and the decaying land and when he began writing it, realised he only had material for about a good 100 pages but already agreed to a 300 page contract or something.

wheres the money

Sometimes I like to imagine that bigger publishing houses have a retainer of hired thugs to intimate squishy writer types with a penchant for procrastination, like yours truly, when they’ve spent the advance and the’re not enough pages. Maybe I’ll find out someday…

Maybe one of my last big complaints (minor ones I’ll list here but aren’t even worth expanding on include: traditional sexist gender roles, overall lacking a general direction of the plot, an anticlimactic ending, questionable word choices, a lack of meaningful or interesting dialogue, errant pov characters, side characters potentially more interesting than leads, errant setting as in what does it contribute to the story that it is specifically set in the US [in my opinion, nothing and because of that I feel like it detracts from my enjoyment of the story because I being a native American am trying to feel out where in the US this book is taking place and what part of the east coast they’re heading to and coming up with an infuriating lack of description], stealing the baby is cra-cra I see no serious moral or character development justification for it, etc) is that EAR WAX IS NOT SWEET!

“[Bella’s] lips were chapped and sore from the salty food she’d had and from the cold, so Margaret dug for wax in her own ears and applied the honey-colored secretion as a lubricant. The child licked her lips, stopped crying for some moments when she tasted the sweetness, and then cried out for more wax, tugging at Margaret’s fingers…” (146)

HOLY FUCK VOM! Okay like I will own up to the fact that when I was a kid I was an eater. I ate bugs, I ate glue, I drank nail polish once, so like yea OF COURSE I tried eating my ear wax once. ONCE. Full stop. As in “never again”. It’s a vivid memory too, it tasted stale and vaguely poisonous, kinda like a moth ball(2). Now I accept that everyone has different tastes, for example I really hate tomatoes but love mushrooms. However in order to see if I was just completely out of line, I asked google about the taste of ear wax

EAR WAX

Yup. Ear wax is gross, folks. The google collective has spoken.

and literally no one seems to equate ear wax with sweet. In fact in my search to verify a home rem

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