Crace’s “trick of fiction” (logs! donkeys!) is bizarre in a way that Twitter, home of the quirky non-sequitur, often embraces. It is the kind of thing I might have retweeted. But the truth is that I was tired of not understanding Jim Crace. Mired in Harvest, I needed this tweet to do more than titillate—I needed it to elucidate.
“Craceland” is notoriously—probably intentionally—hard to navigate. With the exception of only two books, Crace’s novels take place in a nameless, timeless, and sometimes charmless geography. The scenery of Harvest is agrarian and remote, a tiny village catalogued in exhaustive detail but surrounded by a vast unknown full of mysterious menaces. It is probably somewhere in or near England. When the book takes place is even harder to tell. The Man Booker website confidently says it’s the 18th century; one reviewer guesses the 16th century, while another suggests a mauve garment dates it to the second half of the 1800s.
Harvest’s tour guide is protagonist Walter Thirsk, an unlikely migrant to this secluded haven, where everyone else has been around for as long as memory holds—and has blonde hair and big bones to prove their stock. Walter takes the reader through his master’s manor house and his neighbors’ huts, to the acres where barley is sown and the marsh where dead bodies are discarded. And he narrates in measured tones as the insulated village is threatened by outsiders and begins to go up—quite literally—in flames.
So one thing I do understand about Crace is the trickiness of his fiction. Readers must plunge into a world that is at once obsessively specific (it’s hard to pay attention to each stalk of barley Crace describes) and troublingly vague (it’s hard not to wonder about the whole wide world Crace decides to leave out).
This is where the tweet comes in: 69 characters that might explain what Jim Crace is up to. The snippet comes from a long and insightful interview with The Paris Review. As Crace tells it, he discovered “the trick of fiction” while traveling in the Judean desert and researching Quarantine, which reimagines Jesus’ 40 days of wasteland wanderings. One morning, Crace remarked to his Bedouin guide that he had slept like a log.
“As I said it,” he recalls, “I saw his eyes narrow and I looked over his shoulder into the desert. Not a single log! All I could see, maybe a kilometer away, was an old tumbled thornbush.” Meanwhile, the guide happily reported he had slumbered like a “dead donkey”—a much more familiar image in log-less terrain.
The simplest takeaway would be: Make sure you get your facts—and your words—right. Logs must morph into donkeys to ensure an accurately rendered (and resonant) fictional world. This is the line of thinking I once heard from a novelist who was determined to find out whether grocery bags in the 1950s had handles or not: Her characters had to be credible at the supermarket, too. What’s strange is that this isn’t Crace’s philosophy at all. He puts it bluntly: “I don’t want facts.” He constantly invents trivial details, like the names of a tool or an animal—things a reader would neither suspect as inaccuracy, nor register as fantasy.