Jim Crace has surely been one of the most consistently interesting writers in Britain over the last twenty-five years. Each novel is famously different from the last. As he has said himself, “Whenever I would go into my publisher’s office to describe my next book…no-one would look at me.” His latest novel, however, is a perverse change of direction even by his own standards:
“I wanted to see whether I could pull off a book where I do the things I don’t normally do well…I’m not good at holding a mirror up to a real world. I’m not good at believable characterisation.”
Having identified what he regards as his weaknesses, Crace has written a novel that embraces rather than avoids them. Gone are the timeless prose, the distanced, almost mythic settings, and the emblematic characters. Instead we are in London and Texas (we even have a ‘real’ character in Laura Bush) and a protagonist, Leonard Lessing, so rooted in reality that any dynamism he demonstrates is only visible at the edges.
Crace spoke about his idea for the novel in an interview in 2005:
“It’s going to be about a man who’s postured politically all his life but has never down anything politically dangerous, and in his fifties he does something immensely foolish and dangerous but courageous to try and put that right.”
Crace demonstrates Lessing’s unchanging timidity by placing one narrative inside another. In the novel’s present (fourteen years in our future) Lessing is startled to see the face of a man he once knew, Maxie Lermon, on the evening news making demands of the government in return for the release of hostages he has taken in a London suburb. Lessing faces his first dilemma: should he contact the police to identify Maxie? His character is neatly encapsulated by Crace in the antithetical pairing:
“He will phone. He will never phone.”
As so often with Lessing, events overtake him and Maxie is identified before he can make a decision. Maxie also features in the second narrative, set in Texas in 2006. It is here we get to know Maxie as a self-styled revolutionary, reckless and violent, and contemptuous of Lessing:
“Some two-trick circus pony you turned out to be, either runnin’ off or down on your knees.”
Nevertheless, Maxie manages to rope Lessing into his latest demonstration, a plan to disrupt a visit to a library by Laura Bush, largely because Lessing is trying to impress Maxie’s girlfriend (and the reason he came to Texas), Nadia. When Maxie is prevented from entering and Lessing discovers that the President is not in evidence, he immediately decides he has all the reasons he needs to call it off:
“For the first time that day, the rigid knot in his stomach loosens and unties. He is a happy man. Their plans can be abandoned.”
He abandons Nadia to arrest, just as later he backs out of her (and Maxie’s) daughter’s plan to end the siege by pretending to be kidnapped:
“I won’t be there. Sorry, Lucy, but I can’t.”
Clearly, Lessing is a difficult character to like, never mind admire. Crace has described him as standing for
“…the weakness in bourgeois liberalism….the person who would rather not give offence than do the right thing.”
However, there is another side to Lessing, particularly his career as a jazz saxophonist. That his music transforms him is represented by his adoption of a stage name, Lennie Less. Crace contrasts his political timidity with his artistic courage:
“He’s on the tightrope, balancing. It’s technique and abandonment. He’s elated, yes, but he’s also terrified…But there is no retreat. Nor does he want to find a safer place.”
That Crace has used jazz as a metaphor in the past for his own writing suggests we should take this seriously. He is also portrayed as a kind and loving husband, and the peace-maker (“They used to call him Cyrus, the Bringer of Peace”) between his wife and step-daughter. Indeed, his only achievement in the novel is to bring Francine and her daughter together again. His act of courage at the end, while bringing him his long-awaited night in the cells, is largely purposeless.
Crace prefaces his novel with two contrasting epigraphs which sum up the novel’s dilemma (whether direct action is brave or foolish), firmly coming down on opposite sides. The novel itself refuses to deliver an easy answer. Lessing’s cowardice is uncomfortable but understandable; Maxie’s revolutionary zeal appears dangerous and self-aggrandizing.
In striving for realism, Crace sacrifices readability in places, and his decision to set much of the novel in a future that is almost a mirror image of the present seems largely pointless. There is also a distinct lack of politics in the novel: we are expected to assume both Lessing and Maxie’s political beliefs. (Of course, this could suggest how shallow they are). However, as with all his work, the questions he is asking are important and urgent.