Review: Continent (1986) by Jim Crace   Leave a comment

Along with several other prizes, Continent won Jim Crace the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, which must have been something of a surprise to him considering that this is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Despite being his debut work – novel or not – this book represents a mature and intelligent beginning to Crace’s career.

There are two things about Continent that stood out for me as a reader. The first is the quality of the writing. Crace avoids the great error practiced by many authors today, which is to be ornamental and flowery under the guise of being “poetic.” This excruciating emphasis of style over substance is too often the misguided product of creative writing programs. Students in these programs should instead study Crace’s style to get an idea of what good writing is like: poetic in places, certainly, but also possessing a level of restraint and understatement that lends muscle and nuance to his prose. There is no unsightly narrative flab on display here.

The other thing that stands out is Crace’s intelligence. Continent does not possess any recurring characters or plot lines, but the stories – with the exception of the second story “The World with One Eye Shut,” easily the weakest piece in here – are linked by the common theme of the ambiguity of change and progress. The opening piece “Talking Skull,” for instance, is told from the perspective of Lowbro, an educated young man whose father has made a fortune from selling the milk of hermaphrodite cows to a superstitious populace. Torn between his family history and the enlightened perspective his education has brought him, Lowbro is faced with difficult decisions about how to manage his future.

Crace’s repeated message that the arrival of modernity has, beneath its glittering surface, numerous drawbacks that cannot be undone is a message that stretches all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Crace is never simplistic or hackneyed in his treatment of these problems: the conflict between modern and ancient in each story is like a coin that is turned over and over, allowing the reader to see the qualities and flaws of each side. The objects of the old superstitions that appear in these stories – magical milk, sexual rituals, electricity, horse-riding traditions, calligraphy – are thus always presented ambiguously. The benefits of science and progress, Crace shows, can come at a high price, a trade-off that is reflected, in turn, by the mixture of profound wisdom and superstitious ignorance that characterizes pre-modern cultures.

It is hard not compare Crace’s stories in Continent to both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, although these two influences are fused together in an original way that belies mere imitation. There is, for instance, Crace’s decision, reflected in the title of his book, to set his stories in a kind of utopia in which particular settings are sometimes suggested (“Sins and Virtues,” for instance, is clearly set somewhere in the Middle East) but never clearly defined, a strategy that both Kafka and Borges use to great effect. But the most important aspect of their influence lies in Crace’s fusion of fiction and philosophy – not using literature as a didactic vehicle, but as a mode of critical inquiry, searching and questioning as the narrative snakes forward, always willing to double back and, if necessary, bite its own tail.

Continent is a solid book, but not a perfect one, and it is in the area of unity and purpose that I have my biggest reservations about it. The second story is glaringly out of place in the collection, as I have already noted, and I am bemused at what Crace was trying to do by suggesting that this fictional continent is somehow a variation on our own world – it’s not, and this strategy of suggesting a parallel world seems to me a distraction from the book’s real themes. That said, there was plenty to like in this collection, and it makes me looking forward to seeing whether Crace has fulfilled the promise evident in his debut work.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 14, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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