Being alive

Heller McAlpin is a regular contributor to Book Review.

There are writers -- though not many -- who permanently alter the way you view even the most quotidian subject. Anyone who's read Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine" will never again regard a shoelace as just a bit of string. Similarly, anyone who's read Jim Crace's "Being Dead," winner of the 2000 National Book Critics Circle award, will no longer think of a corpse as just a body that has ceased to breathe. And after reading Crace's latest, "Genesis," chances are your conception of conception will also mutate.

Jim Crace is one of the most stunningly original novelists writing today. In "Being Dead," he focuses on the interplay of love, death and biology by tracing the story of a couple's 30-year relationship, including their bodies' decomposition after they are murdered on the beach where they first had sex. Far from being inert matter, their corpses become hives of activity. It may sound grotesque, but in Crace's hands the physical becomes ethereal and the morbid becomes lyrical.

In "Genesis," his eighth novel, Crace shifts his biological focus from the end of human life to its very beginning. This time, his subject is the nexus of love, sex and biology, as they contribute to this most unpredictable and contradictory occurrence, at once so fleeting and yet having such lasting consequences. "Conceived's a charmless and misleading word," he writes, "too immaculate and cerebral, too purposeful and too hygienic, to truly represent the headlong thoughtlessness, the selfishness ... of making love."

Crace's main character, Felix Dern, labors under an unusual curse: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child." It's a catchy opening line, leading us to expect a happy-go-lucky Johnny Appleseed of procreation, scattering his sperm this way and that. But "Lix" Dern, successful in his acting career while a washout in his personal life, is no Don Juan. Innately cautious and insecure, he sleeps with a total of five women, by whom he has six children (though he knows about only five of them). In pinpointing the moment of conception of each of Lix's children, Crace chronicles not just Lix's less than fulfilled life but also the generation of life itself.

He opens, intriguingly, with Chapter 6, which is actually child No. 6. And to keep us as off-balance as Lix is in his relationships with women, he sets his unusual tale in an unsettling, fictitious dystopia, a police city-state. Crace, who lives in Birmingham, England, is peripatetic in his fiction. "Quarantine" was set in the Judean desert, "The Gift of Stones" in the Stone Age, "Being Dead" in contemporary England. In "Genesis," Crace's City of Kisses bears fleeting, teasing resemblances to Prague and other familiar cities that boast ornate balconies, floods, demonstrations and intermittent periods of political leniency and martial law -- but it remains unnervingly unidentifiable.

Adding to the vague sense of menace and disorientation, there's something Big Brotherish about the omniscient narrator who comments so dispassionately about Lix's life and about "our city." The narrator remarks: "Lix could never say exactly when the pregnancies began. They always took him by surprise." He further explains, "Mother Nature doesn't ring a bell. Whatever other noises might be made, the egg is punctured silently. If only he could call on chemistry and then biology, unsentimental disciplines, calculating, tidy, and precise. They could pinpoint for him (had they the mind) that careless and productive day in his beleaguered, complicated life, could specify the hour, even."

Crace's narrator rings the bell that Mother Nature won't, and chimes in with Lix's "natural history." He gives us Lix as a "mating mammal," a beast who is more successful at fulfilling his biological destiny than he is at sustaining love, which is a more human and more challenging endeavor.

As in the Old Testament, the begetting in Crace's "Genesis" takes place against a backdrop of momentous upheavals, including a great flood and "the Night of the Mathematical Millennium," Jan. 1, 2001. Because of his celebrity, Lix is able to travel through restricted zones in his city as easily as his volatile sperm cross contraceptive barriers to various eggs. Yet his two one-night stands, two wives and the long-necked feminist revolutionary who dallies with him for a month are more intimidating than the police -- one of many ironies Crace highlights. They demand heroism of Lix, who is disappointingly ordinary, a passive everyman.

Crace's novel is a banquet of delicious aphorisms. Referring to the "three hundred million tempest-tossed sperm, the wretched refuse of his teeming shore" that lead to Lix's final child, Crace writes, "There has to be a god of mischief to overcater so dramatically." He has a taste for arch pronouncements: When Lix and his first wife conceive their first son during the flood, he writes, "Odd weather stimulates. Such days are dancing lessons from the gods." And when that same marriage melts on the crucible of indifferent sex, he comments, "Marriages consist of more than orgasms, of graver spasms and contractions." Further, "Desire was like a plant, he'd found. The more you watered it, the bigger and the thirstier it became, the more demanding and dissatisfied."

"Genesis" raises numerous questions: Crace's take on conception seems to imply life from the moment the sperm penetrates an egg. Is this why the subject of abortion is absent from these pages, or is it out of literary considerations? Why doesn't Lix, so daunted by his fertility, consider a vasectomy, like his first wife's lover? Finally, is Crace's peculiar dystopia really integral to his point that "love and lovemaking ... children, marriages, and lives ... could happen anywhere"?

These questions notwithstanding, Crace once again dazzles readers with a fresh, wry slant on something that does indeed happen anywhere and everywhere, day after day, eon after eon: new life.

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