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Quarantine ()

Whitbread Prize Winners (1997)

    And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty
    days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
        -Gospel According to Mark 1: 12-13

This novel is the latest installment in a sub-genre of literature where the central conceit is to tell a story from the point of view of the minor characters in a famous tale, with the more renowned stars of the originals taking in subordinate roles.  Previous examples have included, Wide Sargasso Sea (derived from Jane Eyre), Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet), Man Friday (Robinson Crusoe), Jack Maggs (Great Expectations), and so forth.  But Jim Crace has set his sights even higher than those classics; in Quarantine he tells the story of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, but with Jesus shunted to the periphery, in favor of several other pilgrims.  In particular, the novel focuses on a trader, Musa--dishonest, loutish, and brutal--whom Jesus almost incidentally brings back to life from an apparently fatal illness.  In turn it is only Musa, despicable as he is, who realizes that there is something extraordinary about this young man from Galillee.

The novel is only partially successful, in large measure because this structural technique falls flat.  While Crace succeeds brilliantly in evoking the harsh atmosphere in which the quarantine takes place, the narrative comes to a screeching halt whenever Jesus is absent.  Musa is simply too unpleasant a character for us to care what happens to him and none of the others really grab our attention.  Nor can their stories hope to compete with the action we know to be taking place away from center stage.

Crace's demystification of Jesus is not very effective either.  On the one hand he portrays Jesus as merely an overly pious youth, estranged from his family because of his bizarre behavior, and says of those who undertake this desert ordeal :

    This was the season of the lunatics: the first new moon of spring was summoning those men--for
    lunatics are mostly men.  They have the time and opportunity--to exorcize that part of them which
    sent them mad.  Mad with grief, that is. Or shame.  Or love.  Or illness and visions.  Mad enough to
    think that everything they did, no matter how vain or trivial, was of interest to their god.  Mad
    enough to think that forty days of discomfort could put their world in order.

The fact that Musa turns out to be such an unsuitable candidate for resurrection, defrauding his fellow travelers and finally even raping one young woman, is probably intended to be an ironic comment on the nature of "miracles."  And the torments sent by Satan to test Jesus are revealed to be nothing but petty annoyances foisted upon him by Musa.

But even with all that, the demands of Crace's own plot and very the things that drew him to this story in the first place work against this kind of debunking.  The epigraph to the novel notes that a man could not live past thirty days without food and water, and yet Jesus does.  The world might have been a better place without Musa, and yet Jesus did revive him.  And Jesus may have been a lunatic, but his "discomforts" did indeed bring a new order to the world.  There's a reason we only recall one of the folks who was in the desert for those forty days; Messiah or not, he's the one who mattered.

This then is a novel that is certainly interesting, and sometimes quite powerful and even transporting, but in trying to play up the experience while diminishing the experiencer it  gets at cross purposes with itself.  For me at least, it just didn't quite work.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Quarantine by Jim Crace
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Being Dead by Jim Crace
    -ESSAY : How I Write (Jim Crace, E)
    -ESSAY :  Which is the book that has taught you most about what life is really like? Continuing our series, the novelist Jim Crace chooses Orwell's  Homage to Catalonia (Jim Crace, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE FALCON'S CLAW :  A Novel of the Year 1000.  By Chet Raymo (Jim Crace, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : You've got to have faith : Quarantine, Jim Crace's novel about Jesus in the desert, won the Whitbread Best Novel Prize. Ben Payne thinks he can turn it into a good play. Chris Arnot talks to both of them  (April 17, 2000,  The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : THE ORANGE ON THE TABLE : An Interview with Author Jim Crace (Fionn Meade, The Stranger)
    -INTERVIEW : with Jim Crace (Sally Vincent,  August 25, 2001, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE : JIM CRACE (Minna Proctor, Bomb)
    -PROFILE : The reluctant storyteller : Jim Crace talks about why he used to feel that fiction was a cop-out  (Nicholas Wroe, July 8, 2000, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE : He controls the string but needs the wind to blow : His stories are different from the bland, middle-class angst churned out by some contemporary British authors. Jim Crace attributes his fondness for imaginary landscapes to laziness. (ONG SOR FERN, Straits Times)
    -ARCHIVES : "Jim Crace" (Guardian uk)
    -ARCHIVES : "jim crace" (Mag Portal)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Quarantine   by Jim Crace (St. Martin's Press)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine by Jim Crace (Frank Kermode, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine (Bruce Bawer, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine ( R.Z. SHEPPARD, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine (Gary Kamiya, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine : The Devil Inside :  David B. Livingstone finds some religious revisionism going on in Jim Crace's Quarantine (Spike)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine ( JULIET WATERS, Montreal Mirror)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine ( Jelena Petrovic, City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine (Shy David's Higher Criticism)
    -REVIEW : of Quarantine (ROGER K. MILLER, Constant Reader)
    -REVIEW : of ARCADIA By Jim Crace (1992) (Phillip Lopate, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BEING DEAD By Jim Crace (2000) (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of BEING DEAD By Jim Crace (2000) (Jim Shepard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (JOHN CROWLEY, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead by Jim Crace (Carey Harrison, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead by Jim Crace (Michael Arditti, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Gary Krist , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Carol Birch, Guardian uk)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Adam Begley, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead ( Lachlan Mackintosh, FFWD Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Amy Rea, Literal Mind)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (JOHN CROWLEY, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Christopher Bertram, New Mass Media)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (J. Uschuk, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (DAVID GARZA , Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead (Alison Rowland, Gay and Lesbian Humanist)
    -REVIEW : of Being Dead by Jim Crace (Jonathan Shipley, Book Reporter)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : Crace, Jim  Being Dead (Catherine Belling, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of SIGNALS OF DISTRESS By Jim Crace (1995) (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE GIFT OF STONES By Jim Crace (1989) (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of CONTINENT By Jim Crace (1987) (Robert Olen Butler, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace  (Paul Bailey, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of  The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace (Jason Cowley, booksonline)
    -AWARD : Whitbred Award Winner (1997) : Quarantine by Jim Crace
    -AWARD : 1997 Booker Prize Shortlist : Quarantine by Jim Crace
    -ESSAY : THE 1997 BOOKER PRIZE WINNER : Popularity pays off for Roy (Dan Glaister, October 14, 1997 , The Guardian