April 2, 2010

Jim Crace: All That Follows

Posted in Crace Jim at 8:00 am by John Self

In his last novel, The Pesthouse, Jim Crace gave us an America devastated by unspecified disasters; it was a good novel, overshadowed by being published a few months after a better one on the same subject, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Now, with his tenth book, Crace portrays an ambiguously gentler future, where mankind is having a softer landing from its legacy of environmental destruction, and a harder time in other ways.

All That Follows is set largely in England, 2024, where the middle classes drive community-owned electric cars, where nicotine in moderation has been discovered to help protect against dementia, and where the news reports that “the Latino state” California is holding a referendum to secede from the Union.  On the day the book begins, the eve of the 50th birthday of erstwhile jazzman Leonard Lessing (‘Lennie Less’ – “it rhymes with penniless”), the news is showing something else.  As the blurb on my proof copy put it:

HOSTAGES ARE SEIZED ACROSS TOWN
THE GUNMAN’S FACE APPEARS ON TV
LEONARD RECOGNIZES HIM AS AN OLD FRIEND…
HE HAS A CHOICE TO MAKE

When I read this, my heart sank.  I remember very well last year’s disastrous (and successful) decision by William Boyd to write a pulpy thriller.  Fortunately Crace doesn’t let us down in this way.  In fact, he is clever enough to disable any trad thriller elements he does introduce, including one maddeningly brilliant conceit which matches Strangers on a Train’s murder swap for symmetrical perfection.

If All That Follows is not a thriller, then what is it?  A few years ago, Crace detailed plans for future novels, one of which was to be titled The Finalist, and was “on one level only, a thriller of action and ideas, but its overarching intention is to be a metaphorical critique of both political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies.”  All That Follows, I believe, is the book which The Finalist became.  There is a little action, both in the ‘present’ (England, 2024) and the past (Texas, 2006), but the second part of Crace’s description is what underpins the book.

The man Leonard recognises on the TV is Maxim ‘Maxie’ Lermontov, a Canadian-Russian anarchist with whom he became friendly when living in USA at the turn of the millennium.  Maxie and his wife Nadia constituted the entire membership of a political sect calling themselves Snipers Without Rifles, and Leonard’s final involvement with them in 2006 was at their “AmBush”, when they plotted to take direct action against the then President at a public appearance in Texas.  Now, it seems, Maxie is taking hostages in England, where rights have been chipped away bit by bit until citizens are no longer surprised to receive a unwarranted and unexplained visit from NADA, the National Defence Agency (“not quite the police, not quite the SAS”).

Crace has never been afraid to go toe-to-toe with big subjects in his books: the nature of life in cities in Arcadia, the creation of a faith in Quarantine, what happens after we die in Being Dead.  In All That Follows he writes about the individual’s relationship with the state.  We ponder whether the erosion of civil liberties comes about when too many people engage in directionless rebellion like Maxie and Nadia (and Leonard, “the nation’s most nervous militant … a man of extreme principles, hesistantly held”) – or when too few do it.  But it is also Crace’s most human story yet, focussing on Leonard’s struggles to overcome, on the brink of his 50th birthday, a sense that his life is over, and that he lacks the guts to make it new.

Every dawn renews his hope and courage, briefly, he has found.  This is the day, is what he always thinks. He will not disappoint himself today.  He will not fail again today.

Against this is the unwelcome refrain from his wife, Francine – “That was then” – when faced with any reminder of their past.  “Used To Be is such a loaded phrase.”  Anyway she reminds Leonard that he has always been fearful, risk-averse – and now is a ‘nought per center’, a term used to describe citizens who avoid meat, sugar, salt, saturated fats.  In Leonard’s case, this also means “nought per cent passion, nought per cent fire, nought per cent tossing pebbles at the wall.”  Or as Francine puts it: “I know what they’ll put on your gravestone.  It’ll say ‘Scared to Death’.”  He changes, however, when Leonard Lessing becomes Lennie Less, saxophonist, a risk-taker, playing “only taxing jazz”: except that he hasn’t even done that in years, a shoulder injury killing off his career for now.  Still, “he’s not courageous when he’s playing, not mad and not demonic, just less frightened.  He’s Lennie Less Frightened, mapping out a landscape of his own where it is not truly risky to take risks.”

This makes Leonard a refreshing change from the ‘everyman’ hero of a thrillerish book: he turns down the crazy assignment, he takes the road more travelled.  He rationalises. “He’s done his best, it’s not his fault – the usual chorus line.”  Ultimately he will regain his mojo, his wife and his audience only when he stands up against the authoritarian state, exhibits some backbone, “not betraying any fear, not revealing any of the dread that was his foremost feeling at the time,” “mythologized” by the ubiquitous news footage, showing him seeming “fierce, and triumphant.”

He doesn’t quite resemble himself.

Crace too takes a risk in this book.  He moderates his authorial voice – it’s plainer, speedier – and threatens to frustrate both long-term admirers and those drawn by the catchy conceit.  The result, however, is a success, saturating its reader in its recurring themes as effectively as good music does.  In the future world of All That Follows, with its “bland eco-pods” and Reconciliation Summits, one development, wittily imparted by Crace, is particularly deplorable.  It seems that in 2024, the word ‘genius’ as an adjective has gained common acceptance.  Now that really does call for a revolution.

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12 Comments »

  1. Tom Cunliffe said,

    I read Quarantine and Being Dead, and this one is tempting me, so thanks for the review – I may take the plunge.

    Yes, a sad decline in William Boyd’s output – Restless started the downward trend in my view. Is this an author seeking more commercial success at the cost of quality?

  2. gaskella said,

    I’m very much looking forward to reading this – more so after your review. I’ve had mixed success with Crace – Loved Arcadia, enjoyed Signals of Distress, didn’t get on with Continent, but this one sounds brilliant.

  3. Lija said,

    I’ve got a taste for futuristic novels lately (read The Road for the first time this year, and The Year of the Flood a few months ago). Would be interesting to read something a few degrees below absolute devastation – sometimes that can be even scarier.

  4. [...] you’ll find a picture of Jim Crace (probably looking younger than he is).  His new book, All That Follows, has just been released.  It’s a thriller of sorts, and it may be his penultimate novel.  [...]

  5. I have Quarantine at home, I bought it after reading a review on Kerry’s blog, Hungry like the Woolf (wonderful blog name that). I haven’t read it yet though I am looking forward to it.

    This sounds pretty good, in fact he sounds an interesting writer generally. He’s been off my radar somehow, probably because for reasons that wholly escape me I’d mentally confused him with Coetzee.

    Well, off to read the interview.

  6. [...] of Jim Crace’s All That Follows: Adam Mars-Jones, John Self, Mark [...]

  7. Skip said,

    Good review. Only have read Being Dead, but this one sounds pretty interesting. Here’s hoping dystopian novels avoid becoming as common and asinine as vampire novels.

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks Skip. A Jim Crace vampire novel! Now there’s an idea for his next project after Archipelago!

  9. Cipriano said,

    What an excellent review, John.
    Such a joy to have discovered your terrific page, as a result of my recent reading of this new Crace book.
    I’ve read Pesthouse and Being Dead……. want to read more of this author, for sure. Preferably before I am either IN a Pesthouse or [well, goes without saying] being dead!
    All the best.
    – Cip

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments, Cip, and I enjoyed reading your review also. As to other Craces, I think Being Dead is one of his best, and I’d also recommend Quarantine and Arcadia – though of course all his books are worthwhile if you’re already a fan.

    You may be interested in the interview I did with Crace about All That Follows, here.

  11. [...] read more, John Self at Asylum has written an excellent in depth review and an author interview with Crace. Tagged: Mid-life crisis, Thriller Posted in: Authors C, CRACE [...]

  12. [...] of Kevinfromcanada and John Self of The Asylum both reviewed his book All that Follows, here and here. There’s also a fascinating interview with Crace by John Self over at The Asylum [...]


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