By Nick Hinton
When major characters die in a story, it is often at the climax of the tale. However, like any other rule in fiction, this too can be broken. Being Dead, by Jim Crace, is a novel about two people who die before the novel begins, yet it is still worth reading. From the first paragraph of the novel the reader knows Joseph and Celice are murdered in the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay. In most novels, no matter how strongly it was hinted at, the main characters wouldn’t die until the end. Because there is a specific story that Crace aims to tell, one that involves the death of Joseph and Celice but is greater than the two of them, the novel is split into three distinct chronologies. This works well in Being Dead because it allows the reader to make a connection with the dead lovers while also following their daughter as she uncovers their fate. Death lies in the very center of this story, a fact which is never hidden from the reader.
Crace’s challenge in Being Dead is to make the reader interested in and invested in characters that we know will not make it to the end of the story. Not only that, but the regular method of storytelling, following a character through an escalating series of conflicts (be they physical or emotional) until a final climax, gets thrown out the window for Joseph and Celice after they perish. This normal method is used with Syl, the daughter of the deceased, when the narrator follows her around until she finds her parents. But most of the meat of the story is how Joseph and Celice ended up there on that specific day. Crace makes this story tantalizing, something worth reading, by weaving the tale of Joseph and Celice meeting with that of their demise. If Being Dead was only about the death of the two zoologists it would be a snippet on one of the back pages in the local newspaper. Without humanizing the two doctors, showing us their struggles and triumphs, it is impossible to be invested in their characters and therefore touched by their deaths. In order to make the story of two murdered doctors compelling, without making it a murder-mystery, Crace follows them backwards in time starting from their death, forwards from the start of their relationship, and follows their bodies forward in time until they are finally separated. These divisions break the narrative up into three different timelines. To have any fewer would deprive the novel of its humanity, or its scope that stretches beyond a single family. The timeline which follows them backwards from their death to waking up that morning provides a tragic note by showing the reader that any number of different choices would have prevented Joseph and Celice from meeting their demise on the dunes that day. But, as all pieces of good fiction must, it serves another purpose. The backwards-moving segment also connects the couple’s initial meeting to their death through the dunes. Joseph’s determined effort to get them back to where they first made love makes their deaths tragic yet inevitable. And without the addition of the timeline following the lovers posthumously the novel would not have the encompassing commentary on death; how it is an integral part of life, how it unites us with nature (fitting considering the dead were zoologists), and how, despite our best efforts, nothing remains of us after death. “If there was any blood left in the soil from Joseph and Celice’s short stay in the dunes then it could only help to fortify the living murmur of the grass,” (195).
Being Dead is one case where the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. If any one of the three chronologies had been omitted the story would have been weaker for it, because it is how the timelines intersect that imbues the story with a true, human feeling.
Crace, Jim. Being Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.