Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Pesthouse

I like dystopian novels, the kind set in the not too distant future where everything has gone to hell. Jim Crace's The Pesthouse falls into that genre. It is set in the United States, presumably a few hundred years in the future. All technology and such has been lost, and the people are living much as they did in the medieval Europe. As in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, no reason is given for this state of affairs. McCarthy's world is a post-apocalyptic hell, and it seems from hints in the book that it was a result of a nuclear holocaust. In Crace's book, there has been no apparent apocalypse. It just seems that there has been this catastrophic decline, leaving a bleak world behind.

In The Pesthouse, people are migrating en masse toward the East Coast, where they believe that they can find passage across the ocean to a better life. Two of these emigrants are Jackson and Franklin Lopez. They arrive at Ferrytown, which is on a river near its source in a large lake. Franklin is having trouble with a balky knee, so he remains in the hills for the night, while his brother goes down to the town to check things out. Though Franklin doesn't know it, he's bedding down not far from the pesthouse. This is a shack to which the sick are banished until they are well. They are shaved from head to toe so that folks will know to avoid them, and condemned to life in this pesthouse until they die or their hair grows out. At the beginning of the novel, Margaret is the sole occupant of the shack as a result of the fever from which she is suffering. During the night in which they are up there in the hills, an eruption of toxic gas kills everyone in the town. This impels the two of them to join up and follow the migration. The Pesthouse is the story of their journey.

Franklin and Margaret make their way eastward, suffering a number of misadventures on the way. They are separated for a time when Franklin is captured by slavers, who do not want Margaret because they fear that she has a plague, though her fever has passed. She makes her way to a town on the coast where she is finally reunited with Franklin, who manages to escape his captors. They are, of course, disappointed by the prospects there, and decide to head back west, mainly to escape the slavers, who will be seeking out Franklin, who stole a couple of their horses in his escape attempt. When the novel ends, they are back at the pesthouse, where they are staying for a while, with every intention of proceeding even further westward to the homestead of Franklin's mother.

It sounds like a grim story in summary, but they are full of hope at the end and the reader gets the sense that they will be able to make a life for themselves in the end. Not so fast, kemosabe. I'm not buying it. Throughout the novel, they are constantly worried about thieves and outlaws. Whenever they camp at night, they are loathe to make a fire because they fear they will attract the wrong kind of attention. Their fear is justified, given that Franklin spent several months in the hands of slavers. So, how are they going to settle down anywhere and build a life for themselves? Sooner or later, a band of unsavory characters will show up and destroy what they have built. The only way that people can defend themselves from such depradations is by building a community. There's safety in numbers, folks. However, Crace's characters are pretty much loners. Franklin and Margaret want no one but each other. As such they are inevitably doomed, and in not suggesting this, I think Crace is failing the reader. If he wanted to give his characters a reason to be hopeful about their prospects, he should have put them in circumstances where such hope is possible.

One thing I would like to make clear. This sounds like some piece of sci-fi, but it's not. It's literature and Crace writes unusually well, so I would not want to scare anyone off from this book. In spite of my misgivings, I think that it is well worth reading.


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