Simon Baker

Anything for a quiet life

Jim, Crace’s latest novel, All That Follows, marks a deliberate change from past form.

Anything for a quiet life
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All That Follows

Jim Crace

Picador, pp. 320, £

Jim, Crace’s latest novel, All That Follows, marks a deliberate change from past form.

Jim, Crace’s latest novel, All That Fol lows, marks a deliberate change from past form. Gone are the musical, metaphorical sentences and the fanciful narratives, and in come realism, character and dialogue. It’s not all completely new, in that the novel is set partly in 2024, and partly in Bush’s Texas in 2006; but then again the 2024 of this novel is merely the present day with even more governmental nannying and some unlikely-sounding ‘telescreens’ (which sound like a view of the future as conceived in the 1950s).

The protagonist is Leonard Lessing — one cannot call him ‘hero’, for reasons that will become clear — an indecisive and timid Englishman who turns 50 during the novel. Leonard is a well-regarded saxophonist currently taking an injury-enforced break. While feted for his avant-garde bravery in front of an audience, however, he is a mouse in real life. Unfortunately, when he sees the face of a hostage-taker on television he recognises an old friend, Maxie, with whom he was briefly political and idealistic two decades earlier — although Leonard’s newly found idealism at that time was principally driven by his passion for Maxie’s girlfriend.

Leonard must decide whether to become involved in the situation. At first, when he meets Maxie’s estranged teenage daughter, he agrees to join in with her idea of faking her kidnap so that her father will, in his turn, agree to release his own hostages. However, he backs down from this, and there follows a good deal of hand-wringing, and much turbulence between Leonard and his wife, Francine, who is frustrated at her husband’s spinelessness and actually quite keen to become embroiled in trouble.

Jim Crace has stated that he wanted to write a book that his politicised, 17-year-old self might admire. It would be easy to mock that ambition, to say that it explains the vanilla politics and overall lack of success. But that wouldn’t be fair: Salinger and countless others wrote novels that speak primarily to peeved teenagers but which resonate for the rest of us just as clearly. It’s a perfectly reasonable ambition, if not one shared by many other writers. The problem instead is the utter flatness, which is something Crace hitherto seemed incapable of. Given the excellence of his previous novel, The Pesthouse, a post-apocalyptic story set in an America that has lost all technology and history, it seems baffling that All That Follows should be so devoid of energy. Recollections of gigs that Leonard has played maunder on for pages and pages, freighted by jazz-jargon and repetition:

He seals a tight, single-lip embouchure around the reed as carefully as a beginner might, judging how best to allow but still constrict a note, readying his tongue, his jaw, his pharynx, larynx, glottis and his vocal chords.

Leonard wanders around, or sits around, thinking about what to do, making decisions (and then unmaking them), being insulted by Francine, and reflecting on the past. When something does happen, as when he meets Maxie’s daughter and initially agrees to her fake-kidnap plot, or as when in 2006 he joined a political group and took part in a caper that ended with Laura Bush’s nose being bloodied, it happens without plausible build-up. There are good moments, no question, but on the whole it’s unsatisfying, and technically the 2024 and 2006 sections are awkwardly woven together.

If we are to believe Crace, this is his penultimate novel: he is now writing what he claims will be his last fiction before retirement. One doesn’t often hear of novelists retiring — there’s probably an ‘old novelists never retire, they just. . .’ joke out there somewhere (‘just lose the plot’, perhaps?) — but it seems fitting, if disappointing for his readers, that this undemonstrative author, who lives modestly away from the limelight in Birmingham, should be thinking of retirement in his mid-sixties, just as most people outside the arts are. If his next book is indeed his last, it will conclude an often brilliant career which gave us some wonderful fiction, best of all Being Dead (2001), his lyrical, backwards-moving story of a murdered couple, which left many (not least me) slack-jawed with admiration. But let’s hope it moves away from All That Follows — an understandable yet failed experiment — and back to what Crace does best.