April 2, 2010
Jim Crace: All That Follows
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.