Staff Pick: Being Dead
By Jim Crace (Macmillan)
Like many college students, my summer reading is often limited to lighter fare. Generally I will reach for one of the several top-selling "beach reads" for vacationing — books that go by fast and accommodate short summer retreats. Having read my fill about disgruntled nannies, editorial assistants, and the like, I began looking for a read that would carry a message other than "beware of Manhattan socialites." Jim Crace's novel Being Dead is exactly what I was looking for.
Being Dead is about Joseph and Celice, a married pair of zoologists killed by a robber in the dunes of Baritone Bay while attempting to revive their love life. Their marriage has been less than perfect but tolerable nonetheless. Celice's scientific rationality in life is contrasted by the romantic nature of Joseph. What follows after the initial description of their dead bodies is the story of how they met almost 30 years earlier as well as a telling of the events that lead to their final hour.
Crace does not linger on the murder itself but rather the death of the couple and the way that their deaths become intertwined with the natural world that the doctors avidly studied and taught in life. Joseph and Celice are linked to the rest of nature because they will, like everything else living, die and become a part of the earth. Crace writes: "They would become nothing special. Gulls die. And so do flies and crabs. So do the seals. Even stars must decompose, disrupt, and blister on the sky. Everything was born to go. The universe has learned to cope with death."
Crace writes about life that thrives on death, from sea grass to crabs and flies to the morgue worker. After the murder of Joseph and Celice, creatures emerge from the landscape in order to feed on the bodies. Sections like this are not meant to repulse but instead to illustrate that the death of one creature may mean the survival of another. Crace writes: "No one, except the newspapers, could say that 'There was only Death amongst the dunes, that summer's afternoon.'"
The book is written both poetically and scientifically, showing the beauty as well as the inevitable ugliness of death. Admittedly, sometimes the graphic description of the murder as well as the decomposition of Celice and Joseph's bodies was a little difficult to read. For example, the description of Celice's corpse with a scalp that hangs "open like a fish's mouth" is incredibly vivid and slightly disturbing. But the depth in which biology and then love is explored makes the prose powerful even to a person who more than likely would be caught with a fashion magazine rather than a copy of Popular Science.
First published in 1999, Being Dead is a commentary on love and life in the context of death. Hardly morbid, Crace finds transcendental meaning in what we have here on Earth despite the fact that we will not always be consciously experiencing our environment.
Being Dead is a realistic and gritty portrayal of love and life that reads easily. The novel can be analyzed in depth or admired for the beauty of its prose. Be warned: If you are looking for a fluffy love story, you might be better picking up a Nicholas Sparks novel. And don't worry; Being Dead reads so fast you'll be finished before vacation is over.