Crace's `Genesis': the ceaseless puzzle of new life

November 16, 2003|By Heller McAlpin, | Heller McAlpin,,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Genesis: A Novel, by Jim Crace. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 256 pages. $23.

There are writers - though not many - who permanently alter the way you view even the most quotidian subject. Anyone who's read Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine will never again regard a shoelace as just a bit of string. Similarly, anyone who's read Jim Crace's Being Dead, winner of the 2000 National Book Critics Circle award, will no longer think of a corpse as just a body that has ceased to breathe. And after reading Crace's latest, Genesis, chances are your conception of conception will also mutate.

Jim Crace is one of the most stunningly original novelists writing today. In Being Dead, he focused on the interplay of love, death and biology by tracing the story of a couple's 30-year relationship, including their bodies' decomposition after they are murdered on the beach where they first had sex. Far from being inert matter, their corpses become hives of activity. It may sound grotesque, but in Crace's hands the physical becomes ethereal and the morbid becomes lyrical.

In Genesis, his eighth novel, Crace shifts his biological focus from the end of human life to its very beginning. This time, his subject is the nexus of love, sex and biology, as they contribute to this most unpredictable and contradictory occurrence, at once so fleeting and yet having such lasting consequences. "Conceived's a charmless and misleading word," he writes, "too immaculate and cerebral, too purposeful and too hygienic, to truly represent the headlong thoughtlessness, the selfishness ... of making love."

Crace's main character, Felix Dern, labors under an unusual curse: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child." It's a catchy opening line, leading us to expect a happy-go-lucky Johnny Appleseed of procreation, scattering his sperm this way and that. But "Lix" Dern, successful in his acting career while a washout in his personal life, is no Don Juan. Innately cautious and insecure, he sleeps with a total of five women, by whom he has six children (though he knows about only five of them). In pinpointing the moment of conception of each of Lix's children, Crace chronicles not just Lix's less than fulfilled life but also the generation of life itself.

Crace's narrator rings the bell that Mother Nature won't, and chimes in with Lix's "natural history." He gives us Lix as a "mating mammal," a beast who is more successful at fulfilling his biological destiny than he is at sustaining love, which is a more human and more challenging endeavor.

Crace's novel is a banquet of delicious aphorisms. Referring to the "three hundred million tempest-tossed sperm, the wretched refuse of his teeming shore" that lead to Lix's final child, Crace writes, "There has to be a god of mischief to overcater so dramatically." He has a taste for arch pronouncements: When Lix and his first wife conceive their first son during a flood, he writes, "Odd weather stimulates. Such days are dancing lessons from the gods."

Genesis raises numerous questions: Crace's take on conception seems to imply life from the moment the sperm penetrates an egg. Is this why the subject of abortion is absent from these pages, or is it out of literary considerations? Why doesn't Lix, so daunted by his fertility, consider a vasectomy, like his first wife's lover? Finally, is Crace's peculiar dystopia really integral to his point that "love and lovemaking ... children, marriages, and lives ... could happen anywhere"?

These questions notwithstanding, Crace once again dazzles readers with a fresh, wry slant on something that does indeed happen anywhere and everywhere, day after day, eon after eon: new life.

Heller McAlpin is a full-time book critic living in New York. She is the author of Nostalgia and her work appears regularly in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. She spent her teens living in London. This review appeared in longer form in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company.

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