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"From Zoo. to Bot.": (De)Composition in Jim Crace's Being Dead.


This article examines the portrayal of death in Jim Crace's 1999 novel Being Dead. By combining an account of the lives of two murdered protagonists with a graphic description of the decomposition of their bodies, Crace's novel challenges contemporary attitudes toward death, privileging the natural process of biological regeneration over mythological assumptions of survival and clinical practices of disposal. A celebration of the grotesque, Being Dead draws the reader's attention to a biological truth which has been sequestered in modern culture, and which has become the object of sensationalism and fetishism in popular horror narratives of zombies, vampires and the undead. Undeniably unsettling, Crace's novel rejects the premise of the horror narrative, which seeks to constantly unsettle and defamiliarize the consumer, and looks instead toward a reunion of modern consciousness with the body's vulnerabilities.


Decay: privileged place of mingling, of the contamination of life by death, of begetting and of ending.

--Jim Crace

THE THRESHOLD BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH, THAT MOST CURIOUS AND ELUSIVE locus of narrative, has provided a fertile and enduringly popular premise for fantastic fiction throughout the history of literature. From Homer's visions of the underworld; through Dante's voyages through Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory; through the modernist experiments of Lewises Wyndham and C. S. to the present day, where Alice Sebold, Will Self, and others probe the interstitial zones between being and nothingness--the imaginative scope afforded by the life/death boundary has endured in spite of endless challenges from science, religion, philosophy, and plain old common sense.

Yet nothing in these fantasies could be more fantastic than the grim reality of the ordinary, natural, biological process of dying itself. In her amusing and illuminating study of the (after) life of the cadaver, Mary Roach emphasizes the grotesque properties of the dead. "Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in," she tells us. "Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it" (11). Sometimes unmanageable (the autolysing, self-digesting bodies whose orifices need to be plugged to prevent seepage), sometimes uncannily compliant (the crash test cadavers which drive themselves obliviously into high-impact moments of trauma, repeatedly, held in place by duct tape and wires), the dead are always, in some sense, absurd. This absurdity is surely a product, in no small measure, of our diminished familiarity with death itself, an estranging phenomenon that has seen the deceased disappear from daily life into the realm of an unseen margin, one in which antisocial bodily events are concealed and permitted, their unruliness always moderated, in a Foucauldian fashion, under the management of the medical authorities.

What, then, are the consequences of a sociological revolution that has thrust death behind the scenes, made it obscene, something to be denied rather than embraced? Arguably, such a cultural shift, through which the natural process, the essential counterpart to life, has become an inviolable taboo, a source of horror rather than reassurance, has served to distance us from our own biological identity. If we have allowed ourselves, culturally, to suppress death in light of its negative implications for the living, and particularly the natural death that sees the body returned to the ecosystem rather than hygienically erased, we have also, perhaps, allowed ourselves to become alienated from the remarkable and perplexing potentialities it embodies, those which find the essence of life inextricably interwoven with its own end.

Jim Crace's 1999 novel, Being Dead, can be seen as an effort to address this cultural denial through a celebration of the transformative phase living beings undergo as a consequence of dying. Taking a familiar crime-fiction premise (a couple, engaged in the act of open-air lovemaking, are brutally murdered) as a starting point, Crace proceeds to use the image of the abandoned, rotting corpses (the epitome of the modern aberration) as a foundation for a narrative in which the distinction between life and death becomes blurred, the biological process of decomposition from the zoological to the botanical being a transitory event which stresses not the termination but redistribution of life in a landscape of fertile decay.

In Crace's hands, the processes of dying and decaying are not lamented so much as celebrated, a reminder of the extent to which death sustains life. Undermining the binary nature of the life/death relationship and highlighting the way in which each state gives the other meaning and is necessary for the other's very existence, Paul Virilio once claimed, "Death isn't sad, it's Being itself' (Virilio and Lotringer 123). For Crace, too, the binary is far from stable, functioning instead in a dialogic capacity that has largely been forgotten in contemporary society as a result of the carefully-handled sequestering of the dead.

The phrase "being dead," read with both Virilio and the title of this special edition ("After/Lives: What Next For Humanity?") in mind, is immediately and inescapably provocative; there is a potential for reading the apparent oxymoron as a juxtaposition of polarities (being/dead), or an event in progress ([the act of] being dead). However it is read, the title draws attention to an incompatibility, a contradiction in terms that implies two distinct states. Crace embraces this conflict between states, identifying them as discrete and conflicting while at the same time bringing them together in a cohesive whole. In Being Dead, two primary narrative lines function simultaneously, one concerned with the construction of identity and history (in both the recent and the more distant past), and the other with the dissolution of the corporeal, bringing about a text that allows its readers to witness its principal characters being constructed and dismantled simultaneously. By adopting this approach, Crace highlights, perhaps, the extent to which, by denying or at least concealing death in cultural terms, we have placed ourselves in a state of dissociation from our own corporeality, a move that coincides with the posthuman drive toward virtual existence, inorganic augmentation, and artificial intelligence at the expense of biological identity. Yet Crace is not concerned with the dehumanizing potential of the future so much as with the diminishing humanity of the past. What is immediately striking about Being Dead is that, despite being a superficially grotesque work, its aim is not to horrify. Beyond its experimental premise, which situates it in the realm of both the body-shock narrative and the poststructuralist interrogation of the life/death binary, it succeeds as a sensitive portrait of a couple's romantic history, the graphic account of their murder and their subsequent physical decay exacerbating, rather than undermining, the love story. Indeed, the novel takes the traditional romance to its natural conclusion by incorporating the natural conclusion itself into the narrative. As Susan Balee has put it, Being Dead "operates like a double helix. While one strand composes the narrative of the protagonists' lives, the other decomposes the narrative of their deaths. By the time the tale of their living is fully assembled, their bodies have almost completely come apart. The one strand is balanced by the other, inextricably intertwined" (519). The narrative exists simultaneously within and outside of death, establishing a discourse between the maturation (growth, development, completion) and decay (decomposition, disintegration, emptying) of existence that constitutes both a movement toward a fullness of being and an eradication of identity itself.

In considering the suggestion of opposing polarities, we can note the absence of any slash or stroke in the title, which causes it, superficially, to be as oxymoronic and logically problematic as the statement "I am dead," M. Valdemar's brief but troubling assertion (one of "an inexhaustible richness") with which Barthes wrestled in "Textual Analysis of a Tale By Edgar Allan Poe" (285). The omission of any punctuation in the novel's title is suggestive of a lack of a boundary between the two states, between which there is nothing to prevent osmosis, a lack which is echoed through the text as Crace exploits the destructive/regenerative ambiguity of fertilizing decomposition. In logical terms, it is a challenge to the law of the excluded middle, one that overrides the natural polarity of life and death; death exists within the living, just as life continues to exist within the dead, causing the erosion of the being/dead (nonbeing) distinction. For Barthes, this constitutes a form of "encroachment," which he sees as "a paradigmatic disturbance, a disturbance of meaning; in the paradigm Life/Death, the slash is normally read 'against' (versus); it would suffice to read it as 'upon' for the encroachment to appear and the paradigm to be destroyed; this is what happens here; there is an undue erosion of one space by another" (285). This erosion of space leads to an ill-defined zone, one that does, indeed, challenge the binary paradigm, and does so in a way that disrupts the traditional notion of the literary character itself. The resulting indistinction, the liminal space suggested by the two opposing terms, is the basis of the problem the reader faces with the murdered protagonists of the novel, Joseph and Celice, whose decaying corpses provide a narrative every bit as compelling as that of their lives prior to their murder.

The very idea of being murdered and being a protagonist at all is problematic; this must, surely, be a ghost story. Indeed, it is suggestive of a ghost story of a particular kind, the kind that appears in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones or Susanna Moore's In the Cut, or even Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, in which the murder victim is able to recount their life-story from a vantage point in the afterlife. Yet Crace, rather than fusing the narratives of life and death as a typical teller of afterlife stories might, instead develops two concurrent primary narratives (along with two secondary ones which are largely unimportant here), "synthesiz[ing] two unlikely elements, a discourse of mature love with the challenges of the meaning and impact of violent deaths, in which he seeks a transcendent meaning" (Tew 136). In one narrative, through an analeptic retelling, the couple's story is allowed to run from beginning to end, to its proper end, objectively and in the voice of the third person. The other, the graphic tale of the decomposition of the bodies on the sand, represents the process by which the couple's presence is cleansed from the earth, eaten back until nothing remains but the pure white bones of their skeletons. It is a transitionary process that we have largely done away with, the stuff of horror stories, in which human death is counterbalanced by the emergence of another, threatening and parasitic, form of life. For Georges Bataille, stripped, clean bones can be regarded as "objects of reverence" which
   draw the first veil of decency and solemnity over death and make it
   bearable; it is still painful but free of the virulent activity of
   corruption. These bones do not leave the survivors a prey to the
   slimy menace of disgust. They put an end to the close connections
   between decomposition, the source of an abundant surge of life, and
   death. (56)

Lying on the sand, being cleansed of their ambiguous properties by the organisms that treat them as sustenance, the bodies are doing what comes naturally. This may not be the proper burial that culture demands, but it is the process through which the dead cease to be a polluting presence by becoming properly erased, or passed.

The interim period, between living and being a dry, stripped skeleton, which is described by Crace in graphic and unrelenting detail, is what makes the text itself culturally problematic. The bodies "defecate and piss while they are dying"; they smell of "sweat and pickles, bacon rind and eggs, toilets, rubber, cordite and volcanoes"; they "continue to smell badly till there's nothing left but bone" (140). Decomposing bodies are unruly, polluting, and conspicuously fertile, leaving them in a condition Crace describes as "watery," Joseph and Celice become "partly semi-fluid mass and partly salted drift; sea things. They even smelt marine, as corrupt and spermy as rotting bladderwrack or fish manure" (107-8). This fusion of the degenerative and the regenerative is a persistent motif in the novel, Crace taking pains to emphasize "death's unkind erection," the "penis [that] is a comedy when it is dead and best kept hidden," the cotton plugs and plastic orifice stoppers which are designed to fit all sizes, and numerous other indicators of the body's desire to impregnate and defile its surrounding environment (167 and 140-1).

Ends, then, are tightly bound with beginnings, in ways which inevitably shock the contemporary reader, even when the dying are not reproducing in the conventional sense. For Jonathan Dollimore, discussing Bataille's approach to the decaying body, the very idea of decomposition is intolerable precisely because it distorts, like the novel's title, the boundary between being and death:

What most repulses us is putrefaction; there is no greater human aversion, says Bataille, than that felt towards "those unstable, fetid and lukewarm substances where the eggs, germs and maggots swarm." One reason why putrefaction revolts is because I know that one day "this living world will pullulate in my dead mouth." Death is not just the annihilation of being but this "shipwreck in the nauseous," the knowledge that in my own decomposition I will once again become "anonymous, infinite life, which stretches forth like the night, which is death." Death is never pure non-being, but it is ever-present in life as change and decomposition: "Death is that putrefaction, that stench ... which is at once the source and the repulsive condition of life." (Dollimore 253-4)

This notion is extended by Karl Rosenkranz, for whom putrefaction "contains the process of death that is not merely a withering and dying, but rather an inverse becoming, an emergence of life out of what is already dead" (Menninghaus 132). The horrifying spectacle of the living dead, the real-world counterpart to the horror-genre's trope of the zombie, finds its root in this commingling of categories, of creating a disorder at the most crucial moment of life, that moment at which life achieves its fullest definition.

But, as Winfried Menninghaus notes, Rosenkranz's description of putrefaction is also reminiscent of the definition of the beautiful: "Lessing and others characterized aesthetic illusion by a deceptive aliveness; on the other hand, 'the appearance of life' is now meant to constitute 'the infinitely revolting within the disgusting'" (132). Thus an ambivalent image of the dying body emerges, one in which the presence of life has the potential to attract or repel depending upon the nature of the illusory life itself. Crace, clearly aware of this potential dual aesthetic of the decomposing dead, paints the following diptych of the bodies as seen by the scientist and the daughter:
   A trained mortician or pathologist, used to the pus and debris of
   exploded tissue, the ruptured membranes leaking lymph, the killing
   fields of murdered cells, might find a thousand signs of
   disassembly and decay on Joseph and Celice's cadavers. Their
   eyeballs were already liquefying and their faces were enlarged.
   Their skin was blistered on the undersides. Their innards were so
   bloated from the by-products of decomposition--methane and
   ethium--that their nostrils, ears and open wounds had been made
   frothy by exuding gas. But at the distance their daughter viewed
   them from, in that exaggerated light, they seemed less troubled
   than they had even that morning when they'd been found in natural
   light. Except for the typical glaucous bruises above the small
   intestine, their livid colors had calmed down, more blue than
   purple, more grey than green. They had even tanned and darkened a
   little in the sun. And the hours of rigor mortis had long passed.
   Their arms and legs no longer stuck out like mannequins. Joseph's
   one wild sign, death's unkind erection, had reduced. Their bodies
   were unstiffened and fell into the hollows of the grass, like
   sleepers fall into the cushions of a bed, relaxed and rounded,
   fitting in. (166-7)

The two conflicting perspectives offered by Crace are rooted in an empirical/ idealistic distinction; for the pathologist it is the former, the biology of death, that is appealing, but this is reliant upon the scientist's objectivity and familiarity with biological death. To anyone else, the image (as Crace is well aware) is repellent, but to the pathologist, it holds a comprehensive organic narrative. Conversely, for the daughter, Syl, who attends the scene to identify the bodies, it is not the presence of organic matter, but of an inorganic narrative, that makes the scene appealing. The metaphor of sleep, the softening of the colors, the gentle tanning of the flesh, all draw upon the same comfortable state that the couple had been in before they were attacked, aestheticizing the literally repulsive and producing from it something artificial but nonetheless reassuring in its simultaneous distancing from, and figurative reconstruction of, the scene. This, in some measure, is the successful conceit of Being Dead; by recognizing the differing appeals of the repellent and the beautiful that together constitute death, Crace has succeeded in reinvigorating the fusion of horror and romance that has partly disappeared in contemporary culture.

Death, too, marks a reduction of the distinction between animal and vegetable; it functions as a leveler not just of beings but of life itself. This erosion of the hierarchical categories of existence is itself disturbing, particularly in a culturally elitist context, as Crace makes clear:
   Joseph, like most zoologists, had been a faculty snob and hated
   botany. He thought the "plant men" lived a lesser life. He was the
   huntsman to their gatherers. Their only weapons were the plastic
   bag, and trowel. But he was closer now to botany than he had ever
   been. His greater, living predecessors had gone, but the longer
   blades of lissom grass, gasping for the light, were bending over
   him like nurses. His body was a vegetable, skin and pulp and fibre.
   His bones were wood. Soon, if no one came to help, the maggots
   would dismantle him. Then his body could only be gathered up by
   trowels and put in plastic bags. (109)

Upon reaching the mineral state of dry white bone, deposits of calcium phosphates upon the landscape, living identity can be seen to be erased; in the meantime, the properties of life continue to haunt the dead body, perpetuating its condition of being liminally tabooed. As a preface to Being Dead, Jim Crace quotes a fictional poet, Sherwin Stephens, from his equally fictional collection, Offcuts, presenting the mock-memento mori poem "The Biologist's Valediction to his Wife" as follows:
   Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell.
   You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell.
   Eternity awaits? Oh, sure!
   It's Putrefaction and Manure
   And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot,
   As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot.
   I'll Grieve, of course,
   Departing wife,
   Though Grieving's never
   Lengthened Life
   Or coaxed a single extra Breath
   Out of a Body touched by Death.

As Crace (in the guise of Stephens) expresses it, it is the regression from "Zoo. to Bot." that is extended beyond an instantaneous occurrence, giving rise to a state that is at once both zoological and botanical (the stuff of horror stories, from the soiled zombie, expelled from the earth, to the triffid and, by implication, to the paralyzed or catatonic figure, the pejoratively-named "vegetable" buried alive in its own encrypting corporeality, the real living-dead). It is this life that continues beyond and independent of the vital functions (whose vitality is thus called into question--for what are they vital?) that problematizes death as a quantifiable event. Crace illustrates this parallel existence, this simultaneous presence and absence, by providing parallel narratives, one of the couple as living beings (quite explicitly through their identity as zoologists), the other as carrion for the coastal wildlife. In doing so, he makes explicit not only the illusion of the human transcendence of the natural order that has been so carefully cultivated through technology, medicine and language, but also the counter-illusion of bodily immortality, perpetuated by the customary disappearance of the dead.

The consumption of the decaying corpses by everything from bird to beetle to bacteria prompts a return to the problematic nature of incorporation and expulsion of food, as highlighted by Robyn Longhurst: "In ingesting objects into itself or expelling objects from itself, the subject can never be distinct from the objects. These ingested/expelled objects are neither part of the body nor separate from it" (29). In this instance, it is not the character as a subject that is consuming and expelling, but the character as an object, being consumed and expelled; the couple, rather than incorporating foreign matter into their own selves, are being incorporated, kept alive in one sense by their partial presence inside other living beings, becoming, if not parts of those beings, then at least a presence that cannot be identified as entirely separate from them. The continuity of existence, in both narrative and consumption, is what is already known but, as a consequence of the sanitary conditions of modernity, also cast out, constantly forgotten, as Kristeva reminds us in her much-quoted observations on the spilled innards of the body, that "corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live" (3).

Being Dead is, on an aesthetic level, disturbing in its use of graphic description to bring to consciousness this process of post-death decay and consumption by non-human, non-mammalian beings, a process that brings a startling physicality to Barthes's philosophical conundrum of encroachment. To earlier generations, such consciousness might have been as banal and commonplace as the public exhibition of grief but, in the same way, it has been removed from the public arena, stigmatized as a tabooed knowledge or desire. In 1965, Geoffrey Gorer claimed, controversially, that
   at present, death and mourning are treated with much the same
   prudery as sexual impulses were a century ago. Today it would seem
   to be believed, quite sincerely, that sensible, rational men and
   women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of
   will and character, so that it need be given no public expression,
   and indulged in, if at all, in private, as furtively as if it were
   an analogue of masturbation. (128)

As the bodies of Joseph and Celice are forensically examined at the scene (and being made "presentable"), Syl is approached by the officer in charge, a man who "didn't mind the public face of grief and shock. It was reassuring and appropriate. He was not one of the new school who considered mourning and weeping little better than masturbation. A daughter, in circumstances such as this, ought to be hysterical. This woman ... was far too sensible and rational" (164-5). Crace's reference to Gorer is perhaps too explicit to be coincidental; this is the old-school authoritarianism of the institution, but equally one which takes care to ensure that the dead are "presentable" and laments the fact that the daughter is "underdressed for such a solemn task." If Gorer's project has been to remind us of the taboo on exposing the dead in their natural state, Crace's is to break that taboo, to eradicate the cultural ceremony that accompanies death in favor of an increasingly pre-civilized understanding of the natural process.

Crace thus presents a contradictory vision of the modern authorities, one which seeks to sanitize while simultaneously demanding forms of atavistic ritual behavior. He sees the distinction between contemporary attitudes toward grief and their more liberal ancestors: "A hundred years ago," he suggests, "no one was silent or tongue-tied, as we are now, when death was in the room. They had not yet muzzled grief or banished it from daily life. Death was cultivated, watered like a plant. There was no need for whispering or mime. Let the hubbub drive the devils out, they'd tell themselves. Let's make a row. Let's shout" (2). What is lost is the act of quivering, Crace's invented ritual which more closely resembles something from Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough than it does a scene from a Victorian British deathbed. But the point, if exaggerated, is clear, and has been made elsewhere. Norbert Elias, looking back to Marvell's lines "the grave's a fine and private place / but none, I think, do there embrace," contrasts the attitudes of contemporary society toward decomposition with those of the seventeenth century:
   It represents a different threshold of shame and embarrassment from
   our own, and so a different, social personality structure, not an
   isolated individual. Reference to death, the grave and all the
   detailed things that happened to dead human beings there was not
   subjected to such strict social censorship. The sight of decaying
   human bodies was more commonplace. Everyone, including children,
   knew what they looked like; and because everybody knew, they could
   be spoken of relatively freely, in society and poetry. Today,
   things are different. Never before in the history of humanity have
   the dying been removed so hygienically behind the scenes of social
   life; never before have human corpses been expedited so odourlessly
   and with such technical perfection from the deathbed to the grave.

This sequestering of the unpalatable, unruly dead, along with their reconstruction as figures of beauty and tranquility (a trend neatly satirized in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One), has led to a fetishized fascination with the natural processes of decomposition, one which has found mass audiences through sensationalist horror film, fiction, comics and other media. Crace's work, by contrast, is less an exploitation of the otherness of the decomposition process than an acknowledgement of its universality. It is, in one sense, an attempt to demystify the tabooed mechanisms of death, to restore a sense of natural disorder and uncleanliness to the politically regimented processes of contemporary life, by adopting a naturalist technique of literal description.

Yet it is still undeniably unsettling; it exposes the reader to what, as Elias rightly observes, is an element of life currently outside of the popular consciousness. The very fact that it is not sensationalist in its presentation, that it instead adopts a tone of clinical detachment rather than hysterical exaggeration, only serves to exacerbate the effect. Crace alienates the reader by suggesting that it is we who are other to the natural order, somehow lacking a basic knowledge of the facts of our own existence through our ignorance of the processes to which we will be inevitably subjected: "The doctors of zoology were ill-informed. They didn't understand the rigors of the natural world. If spray-hoppers could not survive the changes on the coast, then how and why should they?" (96). It is the fact that the reader is shocked by the content of Being Dead that is in itself shocking; it is a second order of offence, that which emanates from an understanding of why, in the first instance, the narrative should seem so disturbing. It is not the narrative itself that is most shocking; it is, as with any work that causes us to look upon the fragility of our own bodies with a sense of discomfort, the fact that the narrative shocks that produces the greatest shock.

This sense of discomfort is caused not least by the impact of the inversion of the natural order, in which the human body becomes subjected to consumption by creatures, not of comparable status, but of the lowest orders, the crabs that pick at the flesh, the "swag flies" (another Crace invention, suggestive of a thieving species) that gorge on the drying blood, urine, and the "semen lacquer" on Joseph's inner thighs, the emissions that have been rejected by a gull, having initially mistaken the scent of Joseph's underpants for a fish, but which are entirely palatable to the less discerning opportunists. This horrifying spectacle is horrifying precisely because of the high-achieving respectability of Joseph and Celice outlined in the life-review strand of the narrative, a respectability that stands as an exaggerated metaphor for the elevation of human society above the animalism of nature.

By transcending animalism, and thus nature, there is a sense, as has already been established, in which death should be somehow manageable and tamable. Thus the randomness, the sheer arbitrariness, of the violence in Being Dead is more than an arbitrary plot device. It is a reflection of a fear that is at once new and as old as fear itself. This fear is the fear that, whatever a life produces, achieves, establishes or consolidates, all this is essentially discontinuous with, and unrelated to, the moment of death. It is the exposition of the great myth of superiority, the myth that by transcending the ordinary in life, somehow the ordinary death will, too, be transcended. As the contemporary symbolic use of the flatlined electrocardiogram suggests, death is a reduction of the unique pattern of an individual life to a universal image of equality. When it comes, the end of the impressive, progressive, dignified existence of Joseph and Celice is no different to that which can be expected for their animal-like killer, or the lower organisms to which they have devoted their own lives. "No one transcends," Crace tells us. "There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death--or birth--except to hug the spaces inbetween" (171). Once again, Barthes's encroachment is making its presence felt.

In reality, what is left behind by the couple is no more than a quantity of decaying flesh, not out of place in the natural order, which will in any case tidy it away as quickly as it needs to, but out of place in the social order. Whatever steps they might have expected to occur in the disposal of their bodies, whether through burial, cremation or preservation, those steps have not taken place. Their murder, trivial, impulsive and somehow pre-civilized, has seen to it that the formalities of the cultural ritual go unobserved. Instead the couple have become a part of nature's own process, a process that cremation, embalming and even coffin burial are designed specifically to resist or retard. For the animal, to leave a dead carcass behind is of no concern; for the civilized human, it is a disturbing prospect; it is the horrifying potential to leave, upon death, a body in a state of crisis, expelling matter as it would in the private crisis of defecating or orgasm, which threatens to undermine the dignity of the life which preceded it.

Yet there is always a danger that, even in a society of over-exposure and hyper-visibility, death may strike unexpectedly, beyond view, and that the body may not be recovered and made sterile under human, scientifically-managed conditions. The thought is shocking, largely because it causes another disruption to the life/death polarity by hindering the processes of social hygiene. Burial, cremation, entombment, embalming: all these methods of dealing with the dead body have in common their sterilizing properties; that is to say, they deny nature the fertile resources of the dead flesh. Even when the intention is not to preserve the body, it is nonetheless isolated from nature; the body buried in the coffin, though it may rot, contributes little, initially, to the soil around it, the wooden box both symbolically and literally outlasting its nutritious contents. Whatever decay may take place, it is comforting to know that it is not a decay that supports life (inside the earth, Michel Ragon's "universal uterus" [58]), a decay that, by making the soil fertile, by feeding the maggots and earthworms, would represent a perpetuation of the life of the body, incorporated into other bodies and other living matter, blurring the distinction between the being and the dead. The natural move from the top of the food chain to the bottom is culturally inconceivable; better to be innocuous ash than to be fertilizer.

In an age in which obsessive hygiene vies with random death for possession of the body, the horror of being caught unexpectedly by death, as Joseph and Celice are, is clear. It is not simply the case that the body might be left in a compromising condition, leaving an unsightly and staining rem(a)inder of the deceased; there is, too, a consideration regarding life left incomplete, unfulfilled, and thus liminal. Talking specifically about the twentieth century, Lawrence L. Langer asserts that "the sheer quantity of lives wasted by atrocity has corrupted the redeeming power of tragic insight, which once enabled the imagination to leap beyond physical death to the consolations of a noble, moral or spiritual destiny" (xii). The leap Langer describes has become a faltering step; it is no longer possible to regard life in the same terms as previously, as having a logical structure through which its end might have some relevance to that which has gone before. The emergence of the nuclear threat, the rise of random terrorism, the lethally accelerated culture of machines and motion, the constant insidious threat of mass death that makes existence contingent, these manifestations of deferred violence, all wholly indiscriminate, have made ubiquitous and inevitable that which Langer terms "inappropriate death." As Robert J. Lifton observes, the Victorian/Freudian preoccupation with sexuality and moralism have been sidelined in a society for which "unlimited technological violence and absurd death have become more pressing themes" (274). On one level, Joseph and Celice's deaths echo this emergent arbitrariness that takes lives that are otherwise significant in such an indiscriminate way. But there is, too, a calculated degree of irony in the narrative of the natural scientists falling foul of the processes they had sought to master; that which defined them as civilized and modern has essentially been their undoing: "There's nothing after death for Joseph and Celice but 'death and nothing after'" (4).

To consider mass-scale inappropriateness as unique to contemporary culture is a problematic step; it is, after all, on a bedrock of barbarism and brutality that contemporary society rests. But this, in part at least, is why modern death is inappropriate; the history of barbarism is the experience upon which the mechanism of contemporary society, both philosophically and technologically, is built. If history has never seen a society more capable of protecting, curing and enhancing the health of its members, it has equally never seen one more capable of immediate, absolute and wholly effortless self-destruction. The process of dying, the very concept of death, has been absorbed into the political, removing it from the sphere of natural life, yet paradoxically, the development of weapons of extinction does potentially reduce death to an insignificant event; there will be no more biographies after the nuclear holocaust, nothing to separate dead human from dead animal. The nuclear holocaust is the great leveler; it is only the foreknowledge of death that remains of any significance. In Being Dead, Crace foregrounds the issue: when the dying body of Celice falls onto the sand dune, it lands upon a fictitious beetle, Claudatus maximus, a creature devised again by Crace with the purpose of destabilizing and abstracting the analogy by refusing a specific location in, or reference to, reality.
   Claudatus did not appreciate the woman's company. He fled her
   weight and shadow, despite the ancient dangers of the open air the
   skin-eyed hawks, the gull, the squadron ants, the parasites, the
   playful boys with jam-jars. He didn't carry with him any of that
   burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty
   that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with
   its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool.
   Mondazy's Fish again. It's only those who glimpse the awful,
   endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to
   lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets. He was
   not fearful of Mondazy's Fish. He had not spent, like us, his
   lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed
   his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the
   avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of
   human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or
   aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. The woman had
   destroyed his light. He wanted to escape her, and to feed. That was
   his long-term plan, and his hereafter. (37)

This passage, with its acute contrast between the human and the animal, is a reminder of Giorgio Agamben's zoe/bios distinction, outlined in Homo Sacer, highlighting the difference between the politically inscribed figure and its apolitical counterpart. Mondazy's Fish, to which the text makes repeated references, is yet another Cracean fiction, a phrase for which the real world has numerous analogues, an "old phrase, meaning Fate. The usual crap" (168). It belongs to the realm of nature, it is named as a fish, but it has been acquired by the human, in its political form; it is Mondazy's, proprietarily, it has been claimed by a system and named accordingly, it has been appropriated. It is, perhaps, an element of the distinction between the human and the animal, or even between the bios and the zoe, that for the former to function, even the untameable, fate itself, must be packaged, assigned a label, quantified, and made ultimately repressible. Fate has no place in the politicized life, challenging as it does the notion of voluntary social malleability. It is the "usual crap" precisely because it threatens control, and threatens to render meaningless the complexities of a political life, as it does in Being Dead. Indeed, civilized existence is only maintainable so long as it evades fate, which it can do no more effectively than Crace's beetle. Claudatus maximi is blessed with the lack of a need for repression, because it has nothing to repress; it is not burdened with the certainty of death. Equally, it is not burdened with a life for which death can be inappropriate, or premature, or unjust. It has no need of art or poetry or love, as a counterpoint to the horrors of death, because it has no system of bios through which its existence is elevated beyond the purely pragmatic. Its death, unlike that within a civilized society, is not disproportionate to its life. Consequently, its death is in no way taboo to itself or to another of its species; having not built a life disproportionate to death, death in no way offends it. Crace's boldest statement, then, is perhaps that in creating a civilized, technological, hygienic society, we have simultaneously manufactured the taboo, the sense of disgust, and the potential for nature to offend order.

Indeed, the violation of order lies provocatively at the heart of the narrative, through its conflation of the living with the dead, and through its rupturing of the most inviolable of boundaries. Being Dead is a novel about characters' insides, about characters literally split open, their essence spilling out into the world. As she dies, Celice is shown to lose both the control of her body and the contents of her mind: "[c]alcium and water usurped the place of blood and oxygen so that her defunct brain, almost at once, began to swell and tear its canopies, spilling all its saps and liquors, all its stored immersions of passion, memory and will, on to her scarf, her jacket and the grass" (7). Both physically and mentally, Celice is becoming uncontained, her boundaries dissolving, the division between self and other becoming just momentarily blurred before the self is lost altogether. The scene is a clear example of matter out of place, the wrong substances heading to the brain, or the right substances misdirected, causing not sustenance but distension and destruction, the fluids and emotions spilling from the broken structure into an exterior in which they lose their identity and their purpose. The moment for which the self breaks free, before it is lost altogether, is, for Crace, a scene of technical wonder, the shell-like cracking of her skull, the dripping honey-combed mass of her ruptured brain, the fight for oxygen that cannot arrive from lungs that, after gorging themselves on the short supply, have abandoned her.

But this is natural science, as Celice reminds her students ("Prepare for death and violence," she warns [41]), not art, a science that denudes the body of its social mask and presents it as it is, objectively, as a container of viscous, sticky matter, meat and juices and excrement. Crace makes clear, "[t]here was no beauty for them in the dunes, no painterly tranquility framed by the sky, the ocean and the land, that pious trinity, in which their two bodies, supine, prone, were posed as lifeless waxworks of themselves, sweetly unperturbed and ruffled only by the wind. This was an ugly scene. They had been shamed. They were undignified. They were dishonored by the sudden vileness of their deaths" (11). The exposure of the body, not just naked to the skin but naked through it, is the antithesis of civilized life and civilized death; it is, in the most fundamental sense, artless. It is, on these terms, without artifice, without politics, without structure, nothing more than natural death.

The crisis of being unable to disappear, when coupled with an irreversibly tabooed appearance, is the crisis par excellence of the modern age, an era in which the abnormal or malfunctioning body has experienced a cultural shift of signification from being an indicator of prophetic meaning to one of human fallibility. For Rosemarie Garland Thomson,
   The trajectory of historical change in the ways the anomalous body
   is framed within the cultural imagination ... can be characterized
   simply as a movement from a narrative of the marvelous to a
   narrative of the deviant. As modernity develops in Western culture,
   ... the prodigious monster transforms into the pathological terata;
   what was once sought after as revelation becomes pursued as
   entertainment; what aroused awe now inspires horror ... In brief,
   wonder becomes error. (3)

In Being Dead, bodily deviancy finds its purest form, stripping away the mythological narratives of human significance found in earlier cultures in favor of an altogether earthier natural pragmatism; in this respect, it subjects the reader to the most unsettling removal from the comfort zone of civilization.

Yet it is also a novel of consolation, one in which the finality of human death is contrasted with the interminable continuity of other forms of life, for whom erasure is never a certainty. Crace's invented monofiles, insects that reproduce by fission recall again Bataille's discussion of the implications of asexual reproduction: "No death. No corpses. Evermore. A more indulgent lecturer than Celice, less disciplined, more abstract, might ask the class to wonder if that single-celled eternity was paradise or hell. To break in two and not to die" (41). The horror of the question, of what the consequences of this eternal presence might be, is in part a concealment of a greater horror: what the consequences of an existence that disappears entirely might be, disappearing without dying, without leaving a corpse, without a tangible aspect of transformation from a positive to a negative entity, in a process of traceless erasure, simple and complete. This is exiting without dying, the horrifying prospect of a life left incomplete, the immanent promise of death, as the neutralizing inversion of life, left unfulfilled; "to break in two and not to die" omits the vital additional clause: that is, to break in two and not to die, and also not to live. Of the two new organisms derived from the single original, neither has a claim to be that original; they are both orphaned at birth not by the death of the parent but by its erasure, or as Bataille expresses it:
   In asexual reproduction, the organism, a single cell, divides at a
   certain point in its growth. Two nuclei are formed and from one
   single being two new beings are derived. But we cannot say that one
   being has given birth to a second being. The two new beings are
   equally a product of the first. The first being has disappeared. It
   is to all intents and purposes dead, in that it does not survive in
   either of the two beings it has produced. It does not decompose in
   the way sexual animals do when they die, but it ceases to exist. It
   ceases to exist in so far as it was discontinuous. (13)

Being Dead, for all its graphic depictions of the unhygienic nature of death, is also a convincing champion of death's biological character, celebrating the process of decomposition that is also fertilization, of bodily consumption that is also a continuation of existence by proxy. It is a celebration, like that seen in Rabelais, in Bakhtin, in grotesque realism, of the joy of abandoning the political, the structured, the civilized, the hygienic, the repressive. Natural, decomposing, fertilizing death is perhaps the purest transgression of all, upon which no amount of disgust or disapproval can impact. "The sharp and judicial eye of public opinion loses its power as soon as we enter the territory of death," Machado de Assis's Braz Cubas tells us. "I do not deny that it sometimes glances this way and examines and judges us, but we dead folk are not concerned about its judgment. You who still live, believe me, there is nothing in the world so monstrously vast as our indifference" (75).

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Author:Byatt, Jim
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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