Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Poet of Prose – Jim Crace in interview.

Jim Crace is both flattered and amused that he’s become the subject of Academic study. “I’m flattered. I’d rather that there were academic books about me than there weren’t any – he says, in a down to earth tone before continuing to outline one of the stranger Academic analyses of his work – a Japanese mathematician and a Cambridge based linguistic scholar (Hideaki Aoyama & John Constable) wanted to find the difference between prose and poetry, and they devised a mathematical formula for the difference. It has a graph representing certain strikes or cadences, and there’s a clear pattern. One represented by hills, and one represented by plains. The hills represent poetry of course, and the plains represent the flat rythms of prose. They went to test this theory using a piece of prose pretending to be a poem, which was T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and compare it with a poem pretending to be a piece of prose, which was Quarantine. And lo and behold, Four Quartets comes out as a piece of prose and Quarantine as a poem through and through. I spoke to one of the authors of the study, who was at one of my book readings, and I said to him, ‘But what results would you get if you applied the test to spoken language?’, and he replied, ‘You’d be amazed, because we took all sorts of examples of spoken language, ranging from speeches through to conversations in pubs, and when tested it always came out with the rhythm of poetry’. So the odd man out, the only place where you’ll encounter language that doesn’t have the profiles and contours of poetry, is in the conventional rhythm prose novel. So, my books, which are often considered unusual, I can, tongue in cheek, say are firmly part of the mainstream”.

Crace, the author of acclaimed novels such as Quarantine and Being Dead, is well aware that the rythmn of his books is a distinguishing feature, that not all critics appreciate: “That’s just my natural voice, and it’s the sort of thing that infuriates the critics who don’t like my work. Adam Mars-Jones said that to read a passage from one of my books was to invite a migraine, which is very funny, and I recognise that that can be true, and there are many things about my books that you can list and they will infuriate you. But that’s my voice”.

While it might infuriate critics like Mars-Jones, Crace’s distinctive style is as likely to captivate a reader as invite a migraine. The combination of beautifully rythmic language with incredibly detailed invention sets Crace apart from most other British writers of the moment. “I’m not trying to write realist books – Crace explains – I’m trying to write books with beautiful prose in them, which is expressed in the oral tradition, and in the oral tradition of story telling, it’s not all about idiom, it’s not about being like Ben Elton. The real tradition of oral storytelling is all about rhythm and about hitting percussive notes, and changing the notation of prose, that’s the style of writing I employ. I couldn’t do anything else really, as I set all my books in invented places, if I started inventing idiom on top of that it would seem very false. Take for example the book that I set at the end of the Stone age, The Gift of Stones, we don’t know how people at the end of the Stone age spoke to each other. If I had them speaking in a twentieth century style that would strike you as false, but at the same time if I gave them a type of speaking pattern where they spoke in ugghs and arghs that would also seem false, and so storytelling sort of takes on this universal English, almost as if it’s been translated from another language”.

Crace’s next book, The Pest House, which should be published in early 2006, deals with an America of the future: “It’s again a retelling of previous narratives – outlines the author – It’s an attempt to retell and correct science fiction. Science fiction, and I’m generalising here, tends to see the future as one in which society expands, and technology increases, and the possibilities of human kind get even greater. That doesn’t tell us anything about our dependence on technology, it’s an inflated status quo. What I’m interested in is to learn the nature of our 21st century existence by taking it away. By taking away those things that define the 21st century: science, technology, the abandonment of belief, etc. So, where would be a better place to set this than America, because if you’re going to return humankind, or western humanity at least, to a medieval existence, how mischievous would it be to give it to America which has never had a medieval past. I was in Florida recently, and in a town I visited there was a house with a plaque proclaiming ‘1872, historical building’! Of course there is a medieval history in the persons of the native Americans, but to a large extent that history has been removed – he adds, – so I wanted to set this book in the hot seat of technological, and business development, which is America, and return it to a medieval past, although it never had one. To give it a medieval future. To examine something about ourselves. To see what human kind has become, now that we’re not huddled around fires with hot faces and cold backs”.

Reinvention is the key to most, if not all, of Crace’s fiction. “All of my books, to tell you the truth, are about retelling narratives – he concurs, – Six, my last book, is all about retelling the false narrative of human relationships as told by Hollywood, where beauty and virtue and good fortune tend to be confused. So in Six we have a blemished person, who’s not good at sex, and look at his sex life, his love life, and try to take an optimistic look at it”.

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