Ultimate safe space

Jim Crace’s epigraphs are notoriously unreliable. His debut novel, Continent (1986), cites “The Histories of Pycletius”, a work no classicist ever consulted; his last novel, The Melody (2018), (mis)directs us to an imaginary town guide. In between his paratexts have laid many traps for unwary readers. His new novel, edenquotes chapter and verse (7: 12) from the apocryphal book of “VISITATIONS”:

Regard the Angels and
their glisten’d wings;
Behold their flightless underlings
At labor in the fields.

The Miltonic sonorities and injunctive rhetoric command our obedience, but the dubious origin of these lines insinuates a counter-lesson: always question authorities.

The authorities, or “masters”, in question in this heavily revised version of the earthly paradise are angels. They oversee work schedules and lead prayers for the forty or so “habitants” of the walled and fortified eternal garden. Although Adam and Eve have long since been exiled to the temporal world beyond, there remain tantalizing traces of them: the communal dormitory still contains “the two bare-timbered frames” where they are once rested. The angels operate on behalf of the garden’s absent “lord”. Significantly, this is not the biblical Lord, but one demoted to lower-case, as is “eden” itself. This is fitting for a novel that, in signature Crace style, turns the world on its head, bringing its angels down to earth. Late in the story this will be literalized, but for the most part it is done through a vigorously materialist imagination that transcodes the metaphysical into the physical, angelology into ornithology, and treats these fabulous creatures more like common birds. Crace’s angels roost in “hay-deep” lofts; they bill and coo; when provoked, they peck; they moult; their droppings emit a “chalky fust”; their splendid “angelic blue” plumage requires regular grooming; and, in one memorable set piece, an angel is painstakingly plucked of ticks. They are not that common, however: “The stories say they are the airborne outcome of an eagle and a dove, both magisterial and modest, powerful and meek, soaring and domestic, forbidding and forbearing, communal and divine.” The pronounced paradoxicality of these angels alerts us to the richly dialectical nature of Crace’s novel, which, with impressive poetic concentration, sets (among others) eternity against history, natural description against narrative momentum, secure obedience against precarious freedom.

Crace’s characteristically supple narration cleaves closely to the alternating points of view of its focalized characters. Tabi, an orchard worker, inherits the transgressive spirit of “the garden’s thrilling absentees”, Adam and Eve; she is bored with the iterative life of seasonal labor and the quasi-monastic one “of rules and bells” that summons them punctually to sermons and meditations. “Prayers are not as sweet as apples”, she ruminates, revelling in sensuality; “a prayer does not have pips to spit”. She becomes another “thrilling absentee” and flees eden, driven by a “longing to be free and startled in the outside world”. Her absence is felt most keenly by two fellow habitants: the angels’ brutish go-between, Alum, who is ordered by the hawkish head angel to discover Tabi’s whereabouts, and her fellow orchard worker Ebon, who is devoted to her. Equally devoted is Jamin, a hapless angel with a broken wing and diminished authority (he flaps about like a chicken), who pines for the times Tabi would join him at the stock pond or groom him up in the trees. Tabi’s disappearance, a reprise of “man’s first disobedience”, also precipitates a fall from iterative description into narrative momentum. (Crace excels at providing both, as he triumphantly proved in Harvest2013, which similarly describes an immemorial community overtaken by history.) Jamin and Ebon hatch a secret plot to enter the outside world, find her, and bring her back.

Jamin’s wing has been damaged by too close a brush with the sacred wall that girds eden. When, in the Paradiso, Adam tells Dante that the tasting of the tree was “not in itself the reason for our exile”, but “the fact of going beyond the bounds”, he means this as a metaphor for disobedience. Crace literalizes this by making the bounds of eden themselves the locus of prohibition. The wall is off-limits to all, even angels, except when the gatekeeper leads the doling out of alms through special slots to the wretches outside. This conspicuous structure, with its twin-towered barbican, is the great structural, and structuring, achievement of the novel. Manifestly, it allows Crace to spatialize and concretize social divisions – a strategy he deploys throughout his oeuvre, however screened by allegory or shrouded in fable. (We may recall the self-made plutocrat’s cloud-capped penthouse in Arcadia1992, or the world-altering enclosure of the commons in Harvest.) Latently, this close circuiting of the wall (we never move far beyond its shadow) also works in more formally subtle ways. The wall projects a “thrusting chin of masonry”, a “jutting overhang along the whole length of the mortal side”, to deter anyone from scaling it. There is a corresponding narrative “overhang”; we are thrust forwards in the story before being forced to twist back and approach the same plot point again, from another character’s point of view.

“Imaginative fiction dislocates”, Crace has said. “What I do … is to dislocate the issues of the real world and place them elsewhere.” What issues are placed here, in this revisiting of the biblical locus classicus of dislocation? Social divisions, for sure: there is a gated privilege within (though the habitants have to work for their plenty) and hardscrapble existence without. But other readings – some contemporary, some historical, often contradictory – flickeringly emerge from the swirling allegoresis: eden as the ultimate safe space (“In their shaped and patterned world, any upset is unnerving”); or as a society in perpetual lockdown from the threat of disease and death beyond. The pervasive medievalism of the spiritual and material culture of eden (with its chapter house, cloisters, holy relics and angelology) also means that when the great wall is finally breached, there are echoes of violent dissolution, a stripping of the altars. Alum rifles through the prayer room’s aumbries and makes off with the priestly angels’ silver chalices and censers. (Like Musa, the merchant in Quarantine, 1997, he represents a ruthless adaptability that will thrive anywhere, whether as an angel’s apparatchik or an entrepreneur in the free-market new world.) There is also, inevitably, and, a residual Cold War cast to any contemporary account of an imposing wall’s fall. Thus, when Tabi, in exile, views the outside world from her furtive treetop perch, she experiences what in this light might be interpreted as a species of Ostalgie: “What is surprising is she never sees a table like the one in eden, with everybody gathered round and sharing pots and jars and talk as one community. They always eat their food inside their own small rooms, as far as she can tell. Some of them even eat alone, as silent as their candles.” (In America1988, Jean Baudrillard, at his most French, similarly uses solitary dining to epitomize an atomized capitalist culture: “he who eats alone is dead.”)

When Tabi finally encounters evidence of the ageing and mortality she has sought, she asks, in Larkinesque mode, “What must it be like to expect to die and to live with knowing it, to sleep with it, to wake with it? Why are they not in constant fright?”. Later on, Lear-like, she “howls” at the sight of the fallen angel Jamin, shot from the sky by a hunter. Crace shifts narrative perspectives as nimbly as the reader is invited to sit potential allegorical interpretations, and (in a choice instance of narrative overhang) this scene is elsewhere portrayed from the hunter’s point of view; he has seen nothing but some rare vagrant, a large, exotic blue-winged bird that might feed his starving family. When the wall is breached and the invaders advance on the angel lofts, this fluid perspectivism allows us to grasp, with a Brechtian lack of sentimentality, how easily deprivation, ignorance and resentment can transform a crowd into a mob.

Tabi eventually comes to appreciate the manifold “contradictions” of an outside world every bit as paradoxical as those eagle-dove angels (“its troubles and its joyfulness … its gaiety and hardship”), and there little doubt that the avowed atheist Crace has produced a work intended to favor the risky contingencies of history over the eternal certainties of faith. But it is a tribute to his dialectical art that, when we experience the same culminating events from Ebon’s vantage point, the terrible shock of this settled society coming under threat is rendered with such poetic intensity that we are fleetingly tempted to revise and reverse Blake’s famous gloss on Milton, and suggest that Jim Crace is of the angels’ party without knowing it.

Paul Quinn is a freelance writer and programme-maker

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