A literary feast

Jim Crace confronts food and relationships in a collection of thoughtful vignettes

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… And all participants walk away with burned flesh and happy memories.

Jim Crace has been a fiction writer to be reckoned with since Continent won the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award in 1986. But most American readers only came to know the British author through 2000's Being Dead, which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award and was short-listed for Whitbread Novel of the Year and the Booker Prize. Being Dead is a lyrical meditation on love and death disguised as a chronicle of the decomposing bodies of a long-married couple who were murdered on the beach where they'd met more than 30 years before. The novel explores the mundanities of natural science alongside the complexities of human emotion, an unlikely marriage that Crace imbues with surprising insight and generosity.

His new book, The Devil's Larder, manages to delve into the same themes while focusing on an entirely new subject: food. Although fictional, The Devil's Larder is hardly a traditional novel. Crace sews together 64 vignettes of varying lengths — from several paragraphs to several pages — to create a sort of gourmand's patchwork quilt. In an interview from his home in Birmingham, England, Crace explains that he created the book's structure in part as a reference to a traditional story about a peasant who outwits a king — using a chessboard, which has 64 squares — and ensures that all of the citizens will be fed.

"I thought it would be a very political book, because of the politics of food," he says. "The book didn't want to be that. It was telling me something about the place of food in my life and in our culture.

"It's not really a book about food, is it?" he demurs suddenly. "I wouldn't have your readers take it into the kitchen and try to use it as a recipe book. . . . It's a book about relationships, about sex, about children."

Whatever his underlying themes, Crace finds in food a willing vehicle. An elderly woman lays out a strip of dough for the angels — a habit she picked up from her mother and passed onto her daughters — as she bakes what she decides will be her last loaves of bread. A grocer convinces his dubious customers to try unfamiliar fruits by labeling them "pygmy oranges." A group of friends plays a game of "strip fondue," and all participants walk away with burned flesh and happy memories. A man resurrects his mother's recipe for "blind pie" in an effort to punish his sisters for a lifetime of grievances. In every story, characters confront food and their relationships with it in a way that will leave readers pondering their plates until their dinner has grown cold.

Besides the elemental themes, fans of Being Dead may recognize in The Devil's Larder the same interest in the natural world, the same close attention to detail. As much as his graceful prose, these elements have become a touchstone of Crace's writing. The thing is, they're fake. Crace laughs off any talk of research.

"I'm just methodical in my inventions," he insists. "In Being Dead, the sprayhopper is entirely invented. Mondazy's Fish doesn't exist. I'm very clued-up to the natural world. I can invent birds because I'm a bit of a birder. Clearly, that interests me.

"We shouldn't feel so conscious about that," he continues. "You wouldn't have to explain to the Greeks that you'd invented [something]. They understood that these were perfectly invented stories. It's only since Jane Austen and the Western invention of the novel that we think stories should mirror the real world. I don't try to place my readers in the real world, I try to place them in an unreal world and see what happens."

The playful attitude is more representative of Crace than the serious themes he explores in his fiction. (Besides death and food, Crace took on religious faith in Quarantine, and for his next book he is inventing a medieval future for the United States.) Despite his background as a serious political journalist, despite a slew of literary awards, despite a host of other factors that might inspire Crace to take himself and his work seriously, he remains wonderfully down-to-earth and delightfully mischievous. This attitude serves him well when he brings his personal beliefs to serious topics, as he does in Being Dead, where he presents an atheistic view of death (the murdered couple aren't transported to any sort of afterlife) that might leave some readers bereft.

"My rosy view of the world is something grabbed screaming from the dark corners of the world," Crace says. "It's better than the Hollywood kind of optimism. Face up to the fact that there are foul noises in the world. This is a roller coaster. Knowing that it ends finally with death, and that there's nothing after it, our experience of life should be that we've won the big lottery."

Crace has won the big lottery, at least as a writer. Besides his commercial and critical success, at least two of his books have been optioned for films. Still, Crace says, "my 17-year-old self is a little embarrassed of my work." He worries that fans of Being Dead "will feel let down" by The Devil's Larder. ("I've come up with tapas," he says of his latest, "which is never an entirely satisfactory meal.") Rather than penning clever, thoughtful, poetic novels, Crace would have rather turned out to be a political writer, another "John Steinbeck, had I those kind of skills." His lament, he says, can be summed up by the fact that most of his readers turn out to be people just like him: middle-aged, middle-class, white, and comfortable.

"I don't have a constituency. Someone like Toni Morrison, who I admire immensely, [has a constituency]. If I were a black writer, a feminist writer, a gay writer, I'd have a constituency. Any pretense that I can have, I would be deluding myself," Crace says. "I don't have political readers, deeply committed religious readers. I'm not changing the minds of men and women when I write, and I sort of regret that."

But as he discovered yet again in the writing of The Devil's Larder, Crace prefers to let the stories come rather than program himself to turn out particular types of work. "When I write, there's a kind of possession going on. It's not about me, " he says. He likens himself to "a boy flying a kite. It would be a foolish person who thought the boy was in charge of the wind. I have control, I understand the craft. I am a skillful kite flyer. But nothing flies if not for the wind, and nobody controls the wind."

Eileen Murphy writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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