Jim Crace writes books that are difficult to categorise. Continent was initially published in 1986 as a novel in seven stories. This is the last story, portraying the lonely life of a company agent, suffering from “phrenetic insomnia”, assigned to a remote hill to test drill cores for precious metals and gemstones. “He sorted clays as milky as nutsap and eggstones as worn and weathered as saint’s beads into sample bags.” In such exquisite prose, Crace documents the protagonist’s slow descent into madness or perhaps, more sympathetically, to a higher plane of environmental awareness. To an imagined state of innocence, living as a hunter-gatherer with a family he’s never had. Treading lightly on an ancient landscape the civilised world, after silver is discovered, is bent on destroying for profit.
I introduced myself to Jim Crace when you could still find his email address online, as I’d written a book set in the suburb where he lived. By way of thanks for the generosity of his response, I bought him a lump of Mahon, because who doesn’t like cheese? Earlier, he had written a series of short stories about food. Number 39 is about a man who goes fishing and dies of botulism; like the other sixty-three it is droll and full of memorable images and, despite its elegance, insidiously unnerving too.
First published in The Devil’s Larder, Viking, 2001
The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 stories about food. It’s billed as a ‘cumulative novel’ but in fact each story stands alone. Chapter 27 stands out, partly because of its arresting opening: ‘I am a pimp of sorts. I have a team of girls’. The narrator goes on to explain that he runs a seafood restaurant and the girls, who are still at school, gather razor clams for him at low tide. They describe the process of gathering clams as ‘prick-teasing’ because they pour salt into the clam’s burrow to encourage the clam’s pink, fleshy penis-like siphon to appear. The narrator is voyeuristic; he watches the girls through binoculars from the terrace of his restaurant. He also watches their alluring teacher, who one day goes out with the girls to experiment whether the clams will pop up for culinary items other than salt; vinegar, cinnamon, soda pop and so on. Through his binoculars, he sees her squatting to pee on the sand, and the clams ‘springing up between her legs’. Later he cooks her piss-soaked clams: “She liked the satisfying chewiness and swore she could detect the jam, the cinnamon, the pop, and many things besides”. Like ‘My Wife is a White Russian’ and ‘Lavin’ this story straddles a disturbing line between elegance and disgust. I like its uneasy quality.
In my own writing I have found myself pulled between the realism of writers like Wolff or Munro and the more heightened, fabulistic effects of stories like ‘The Swimmer’ or Jim Crace’s first book, Continent. Sometimes described as a novel, Continent is a collection of short stories each of which takes place in the same unnamed country where the struggle between tradition and progress, science and superstition is a constant theme. As elsewhere with Crace, it is a miracle of style and language, a completely accomplished debut that set the template for everything that he would write afterwards. I refuse to choose a single story. Read the whole book.
(William Heinemann, 1986)