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Limitless Apocalypse

The Pesthouse

By Jim Crace

The end is here. Again.

When it comes to writing about the apocalypse, novelists today are positively blessed with the feast of forms from which to choose. There’s the variety described in the New Testament, where forces of good and evil rise up to do battle. There’s the Cold War version with the specter of a world leader pressing The Button and triggering a nuclear holocaust. There’s the post-9/11 view that Armageddon might come in the form of a Weapon of Mass Destruction or a biological plague carried in a suitcase by a swarthy young man with a prayer rug. And lately, with all the talk of global warming, an apocalypse in the form of the oceans swallowing us whole is very much the vogue.When writers allow their pens to wander down the dark alleys of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic possibilities, like junkies we pick up their books and devour them, searching for a world that makes ours less bleak in comparison, that perhaps rings truer than our own, or that gives us some kind of blueprint for hope or for revenge against the driver who habitually cuts us off during our morning commute.  

 
I confess that, apart from an almost illicit reading of the Book of Revelations during Sunday School, my introduction to the apocalyptic novel was Stephen King’s The Stand. I read it twice. King’s apocalypse comes in the form of a plague and contains all the major good and evil overtones you find in Revelations; bonus footage include the Lincoln Tunnel scene where commuters’ cars become their coffins and a junket in Las Vegas for evil forces who wear lots of black leather. Not so unbelievable. Much of my subsequent exposure to the apocalypse has been in film. There’s such a wonderful list of such movies—from Mad Max to The Day After, from The Postman to Twelve Monkeys, most classified as science fiction, all filled with different degrees of deprivation, violence, and hope.

With the release of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner and a recent selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club—the apocalypse came back onto the literary radar. McCarthy and the grim post-apocalypse landscape are a good fit. Hasn’t he been writing about that landscape, sans ashes, since All the Pretty Horses? But the news that Jim Crace has released a post-apocalyptic tale, The Pesthouse, is also reason to take note. Here is an author who has had the soul to tackle a soulless world. There is the dead couple into whom he breathes life in Being Dead, and there is his daring entry into the mind of Jesus, who meditates in a cave to test God and himself in Quarantine. Here is an author who can fill his novels with both men and women, unlike McCarthy who always wants to kill women off or leave them waving from the fencepost. Here is an author who has tackled the doubts of Jesus and made us mourn the loss of physical bodies almost as much as the people inside them. Our hopes for Crace’s apocalypse start high.

* * *

“Everybody died at night.” A steady narrator greets us at the beginning of The Pesthouse and practically hands us a cup of tea. Let me tell you how the world ends…. However, this cataclysm is merely a landslide that cascades into a lake, causes the emission of toxic fumes, and kills all the inhabitants of the village of Ferrytown. Nature does the killing, not man; hundreds die, not millions. In this novel the apocalypse has occurred off-stage at least a century earlier and, alas, details are few. This is maddening for the lovers of blackened tongues and bodies covered with flies; even McCarthy’s barbecued infant in The Road held a sick delight, that feeling of yes, this is how evil it could get. Where are Crace’s gruesome details to make this post-apocalyptic world come to life? In the early going the reader puts down The Pesthouse and says, that’s it, if more details aren’t offered about an apocalypse that leaves its characters barely curious about the images on a penny and reduces medicine to the weird practice of tying pigeons to people’s feet, this book is going out the window.

Instead of disaster details, the narrator introduces Franklin Lopez and Red Margaret, who survived of the fatal landslide because they spent the night on Butter Hill above Ferrytown. (This is not just a love story, this is not just a love story, this is not just a love story—we hope.) Franklin is one of many emigrants who are heading east to escape America’s hardships; at the urging of their mother, he and his brother follow rumors that a better land awaits beyond the sea if they can secure passage on a sailing ship. Americans abandoning America to find salvation in Europe—a little humor always takes the edge off disaster. Crace is British, after all. Let him have his fun. Of course, when the would-be emigrants finally reach the sailing ships they learn that only young or skilled men and young women are granted passage because they can be used as slaves. The fate of the rest—the old, the very young, the mothers—is summed up in the words of one of the hookers with a heart of gold: “…I’ll never be a man. And so I’ll always have to be American.” A fate almost worse than slavery or death, apparently.

In McCarthy’s The Road, the choice to be kind creates more struggles and conflicts than the choice to kill. When kindness finally steps in at the novel’s end, it feels so out of place that it’s more miraculous than water being turned to wine. In The Pesthouse, Red Margaret has no intention of emigrating, but the death of her family and all the inhabitants of her town leaves her with no other choice. Margaret has been ill with the flux—a life-threatening malaria-type disease that, due to the absence of anything more than herbal medicine, consigns her to a lonely death in the Pesthouse.

Before being left there, she is shaved of all her body hair to mark her as contagious. Tired of camping in the rain, Franklin seeks refuge in the Pesthouse, sees bald Margaret ill and curled up in a ball, and wants to help her. He massages her feet in a scene touchingly reminiscent of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet. Allusions to Christian Bible stories are sprinkled throughout this novel and give a comforting moral code to its destitute landscape. Here, Franklin risks his health to give aid to Margaret. When she is well, Margaret repays Franklin’s kindness by helping provide and cook their food and later by selflessly urging him to continue to emigrate even when she can go no farther. It’s a welcome relief to find that in Crace’s post-apocalyptic world kindness is still practiced and not an ogre to be feared.

Like McCarthy’s father and son, and like Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, Franklin and Margaret leave Butter Hill and take to the road. But they are not surrounded by an ash-laden landscape, nor do they have to part the sea: they only have to make it across a river and through a forest that provides ample food to the Dreaming Highway, called so because “the country would be flat…the wheels do all the work…the country lets you sleep.” As characters swap rumors about the journey and the sailing ships, their voices are warm, comforting in spite of their tales of “wood ants and blind lizards, both as white as snow, and rats that hunted for their prey by smell alone and so had noses longer than their tails.” Hints at genetic mutations resulting from the apocalyptic event? Probably. But we’re offered another cup of tea and told that ahead is “land and sky just like the land and sky we’ve always known” and that “tomorrow…will be like yesterday.” Don’t take the tea. Don’t be fooled. Finally, danger is around the bend.

It is the Dreaming Highway that leads us into the land of conflict. Rolling blissfully along, suddenly Franklin and Margaret are separated when highway bandits abduct Franklin and force him into their labor gang. Joseph’s been taken into slavery by the Egyptians. Have another cup of tea while following Margaret’s adventures for the next hundred pages.

After this abduction, we’re teased with mountains of metal strewn over the Dreaming Highway and veer back to wanting more apocalyptic details, while also wanting to shake Margaret and make her wonder what the hell happened to bring about all that twisted metal. But all the characters barely shrug as if to say, “More metal. So what!” Once more it seems that Crace is poking Americans in the ribs, now about the disastrous Iraq war, whose carnage in so many ways mirrors the nightmare in Vietnam. “Come on, now,” Crace seems to be saying. “Don’t be so complacent that you don’t learn the lessons of your own history.” We can certainly be seen as a republic that loves the easy life. Margaret, canny soul that she is, does warn Franklin before they enter the Dreaming Highway: “I feel we shouldn’t even step on it. Not one single toe. We have to find another way.” Franklin should have listened to her.

At the end of the Dreaming Highway lies Tidewater, the town nearest the port of the sailing ships and the home of the Finger Baptists and their Ark. Here it feels like we’ve slipped into an episode of Star Trek—this week we have the aliens called the Helpless Gentlemen, leaders of the Finger Baptists. They have hands withered from disuse—hands do the devil’s work, especially hands that touch metal. The Helpless Gentlemen are fed, bathed, clothed, even masturbated by devotees. Better for them to let everyone else do their dirty work. So desperate are Americans for easy food and shelter that, upon orders of the Finger Baptists, they toss aside all their metal objects and submit to soft labor and caring for the Helpless Gentlemen.

Crace seems to be jabbing us in the ribs for the undue influence of the Religious Right over America. We can’t be distracted by the insult for too long, though, because Franklin rides in as part of the labor gang assigned to pillage all the metal cast out of the Ark. The Finger Baptists protest the pillaging and, after a perfunctory battle scene (during which Margaret reunites with Franklin and they take flight), many Baptists are killed and the bandits get all the metal they want. Perhaps it’s not the Religious Right Crace is talking about here at all. Perhaps it’s the Muslims losing their oil to the greedy, warmongering Americans.

But whichever path we wander down doesn’t matter; the novel feels quite done at this point. The book hasn’t been thrown out the window. We’re turning it over and over, trying to make sense of it, relishing the fact that there is so much here to dissect, that this novel can be read as a love story, a morality tale, a political tale, even a bit of science fiction. Each choice varies the degree of satisfaction with this novel. In my case, of course, nothing changes the simple fact that, like Margaret and Franklin, I’m stuck being an American. I have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and, because I was raised to be polite, take a last cup of tea from the narrator’s hands.

* * *

Parables and fables make me bristle. Is it because I was force-fed Aesop’s tales as a child? Is it because they were just another voice saying wipe your feet, wash your hands, and look before you leap? I rebel against them because clever turns of phrase don’t ease the pain of failure or hardship and feel more like salt poured into a wound.

While Crace’s characters avoid many of the pitfalls of the apocalypse genre—our beloved blackened tongues, ash-laden landscapes, and barbecued infants—they can’t escape being sacrificed on the altar of sanctimony. The novel’s heavy-handed morality deflates its sense of danger and squashes its characters. If Franklin had said he wanted to get on a ship and leave Margaret, none of us would weep—none of us would even care enough to call him a coward. In the world of The Pesthouse, where all the characters are on their own and trying to make their way the best they can, he would have been one more of the cast.

And Margaret? What would have happened to her without Franklin? She seems like an excellent candidate for the commune of hookers with hearts of gold. (In fact, secretly, I think that ending would have been more exciting for her than ending up with Franklin, young stud that he is.)

To invest all that reading into a novel and not be worried or excited about the outcome of the characters…well, that’s doesn’t measure up to the standards of successful fiction. But it’s clear that Crace’s designs were to give us a modern-day parable rather than a moving story. Sometimes a writer can pull off both, but in this case The Pesthouse buckles under the burden of its many lessons: don’t be an ugly American, don’t be a religious zealot, don’t trust modern medicine, metal will be the death of us, and the Dreaming Highway will lead us into nothing but trouble.

Some lessons here are worthy, but I’m bristling. Here’s the lesson I’m more comfortable with: Life is hard work and involves making hard choices. Find someone to love and a little cabin off the grid with plenty of food and water, and you’ve got a shot at missing the next apocalypse.

____
Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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