We can never know our own death, only that of another.

Discuss how and why contemporary writing has sought to represent death. Death is a theme which constantly recurs in contemporary writing, and there seem to be varied and contradictory opinions about what follows. I have chosen two texts which look at death in very different terms, Being Dead and Hotel World. The latter takes a traditional view, creating a world of ghosts still conscious and cognisant whereas the former takes a more atheistic stance that death is the ultimate end of both bodily and spiritual life, however there are some undertones in Crace s novel which lead to an ambiguous conclusion. Violence comes in to play in both novels, as could be expected to follow the theme, and the narrative style strongly contributes to the effect of the novels. Alongside the theme of death run the memories and emotions of different characters, both dead and living. By looking into these two novels and how they deal with death, insight may be gained into why death is such a pertinent topic in contemporary times. Being Dead is a novel whose chief concern, quite clearly from the title, is death. It seems primarily to be interested in the violent and graphic beauty of death and nature, over the traditional prospect of an afterlife. The bodies of Celice and Joseph are not glorified in heaven , eternalised as ghosts or even recognized to have spirits. They are dealt with as a zoologist would deal with a specimen under observation ( the bone caved in like shell... 1), and statements such as her defunct brain... began... spilling all its... stored immersions of passion, memory and will, on to her scarf... 2 and the absolute forgetfulness of death 3, make it painfully obvious that death is seen here as the ultimate end: the mind and body perish as one. In addition, the narrator s discussion of Celice and Joseph s death in this factual, almost scientific style mimics how they themselves think. With this in mind, a pattern becomes evident that the narrator follows when describing all events, not just death. When Joseph is ...looking down along the cotton and the flesh towards the hollows and beacons of her armpits and her chest, her blemishes, her moles, the rib bones of a woman thin with age 4, this could be a scene of magical romance, yet it is grounded in a grotesquely genuine and graphic reality. The factual style of the narrator when dealing with death now becomes merely the factual style of the narrator, imitating how the external world is looked at with scientific detail and indifference. The lack of spirituality becomes a recurring theme in the novel, bringing with it a sense of the insignificance of life, and thus also of death. Throughout the book characters talk of natural deaths such as that of the sprayhopper as if that s life 5, they only eat and hop and die 6, and it becomes clear that they can see the same futility in themselves: when every human being... has perished... there will still be insects 7. The opinion sings through the novel that humanity is a mere visitor to the landscape, reliant upon the greater scheme of nature as much as the now absent sprayhoppers . This is a cold and distant view, alienating the reader from the narrator so they must process death in isolation.

J. Crace, Being Dead, Penguin, 2000, p6 Crace, Being Dead, p7 3 Crace, Being Dead, p188 4 Crace, Being Dead, p179 5 Crace, Being Dead, p92 6 Crace, Being Dead, p83 7 Crace, Being Dead, p93



The narrative itself resembles the cycle of birth and death, and nature, moving between the present, the distant-past and the immediate-past to create a rhythmical text, imitating the ever-returning inevitability of life. When the narrator s tone is looked beyond, however, and the subtler indications are unpicked, there grows a sense of underlying spiritual recognition. Although never stated outright, the narrator implicitly shows a predestined, fate: if her husband hadn t been so keen to reach the coast, she would have died in bed ; Baritone Bay before Festa s death sounded like men in churches, exercising their voices before a funeral 8. Mythical lore also seeps through the text saying death likes blue skies , good weather brings bad luck 9 as well as the funeral-speaker s belief in the tree of choice 10, and Fish , the Grim Reaper of fishermen. The word resurrected is repeated throughout the novel, implying that perhaps there is an afterlife. There is also a sense of entwined fate between the death of the beach ( in recent years even the peace and quiet... had been destroyed... 11), and the condemned 12 protagonists. With these momentary lapses in the narrative, there is a glimmer of hope that something more is waiting for the couple after death. The scientific style of the narrative dominates the text, with added details of species ( Pseudogryllidus Pelagricus 13), place names ( Baritone Bay ), and historical culture ( quivering ), but all of these scientific specificities are in actual fact fallacies. The heavily indulged frosting of fake description leads the reader to disbelieve the science, treat it as a facade of lies, and return to the spiritual concept. This contradictory way of dealing with situations is common in the novel. The narrator starts by explaining that Celice and Joseph would not get a quivering, and yet the penultimate chapter says this has been a quivering 14. In addition the quivering is said to help the dead enter heaven unopposed 15, but if the narrator does not believe in an afterlife, then should not a quivering be pointless? The reader is pushed towards the narrator s implicit observations of death s ladder to the underworld 16, and the spiritual. The text also deals with the cost of death for the living, showing the effects of Celice and Joseph s death on their daughter Syl, and of Festa on Celice. The latter is said to have tormented Celice as she blamed herself for almost 30 years . Syl on the other hand seems quite unperturbed by the loss of her parents, at first saying she felt nothing 17, but when she finds her milk teeth 18 she is reminded of how much she was loved, and it seems to make her more connected to her parents. The implications that the dead are not required to make sense of their deaths 19, and of the last chapter that the dunes could have disposed of 20 them in a more splendid manner than a proper burial , initiate the idea that perhaps

Crace, Being Dead, p183 Crace, Being Dead, p95 10 Crace, Being Dead, p64 11 Crace, Being Dead, p181 12 Crace, Being Dead, p172 13 Crace, Being Dead, p81 14 Crace, Being Dead, p204 15 Crace, Being Dead, p3 16 Crace, Being Dead, p87 17 Crace, Being Dead, p195 18 Crace, Being Dead, p196 19 Crace, Being Dead, p192 20 Crace, Being Dead, p207



the funeral, the quivering , the afterlife and the spiritual death are better seen as ways of making sense of death for the living, instead of truth for those who are dead. Hotel World also deals with the effect of death on the living. Primarily the grief is focused around Sara Wilby s family, the saddest people... 21. When confronted with her ghost they all react differently, with disbelief, fear and sadness, and obsession, exploring the different ways that those left behind cope with bereavement. From this perspective it seems that at the least we cannot know [the grief of] our own death , for although Sara Wilby does know she is dead, she is not grieved except for her sense of taste 22. Hotel world makes more of an inconvenience of death, ( now that I can t just reach out and touch, it s all I want 23) and even personifies the two elements traditionally thought of as body and soul, allowing a meeting and conflict between the two: I irritated her 24. This shows a completely different take on death to Crace s novel, not only grounding the novel in a belief in an afterlife, but creating a world of ghosts, shown in brief segments in the final chapter: call the ghosts of a thousand middle-aged ladies back to linger... 25. The novel also takes an indifferent tone when describing the fall for the ghost cannot feel pain, saying the ceiling came down... my back broke, my neck broke, my face broke... and my heart... jammed into my mouth 26, but the details are not nearly as graphic as those of Being Dead. Instead the horror of the death comes from the suddenness of the unexpected accident ( I climbed in, to prove I could 27), and the incompleteness of the victim s life. Also unlike Crace, Smith does not impart a sense of predestined fate to Sara s death, and in fact the opposite; when it is learned of her unspoken love and the return attraction, the reader feels sympathy for the hopeless impossibility of anything to ever transpire. This causes a sense of the rapidity of life, and its fragility, not to dissimilar from the feeling of insignificance experienced in Being Dead. Hotel world differs in as much as it makes the individual life feel small, rather than humanity as a whole. Time plays a big role in Hotel World. It seems to jump about between the past when Sara died and after, the present at the hotel, the future of Lise in bed, and the first section of the final chapter moves between seasons like sentences28. In addition Sara and her sister become obsessed with how long her fall took ( you were fast...less than four seconds 29). Time also plays a big role in Being Dead with the last day of Joseph and Celice played in reverse and interspersed with sections of past and other memories. Nadeem Aslam states that shocking or stressful events and incident are said to concentrate the consciousness to a single point and that slows down time. Dying, over in seconds, supposedly takes forever. 30 The perception of time and its alteration at death appear to be of high concern with contemporary writers, creating texts which do not move lineally in chronology, but sporadically in varied directions. The narrative shifts in time recreate in the reader s mind a similar blurring of acuity as


A. Smith, Hotel World, Penguin, 2002, p10 I would give anything to taste. - Smith, Hotel World, p5 23 Smith, Hotel World, p6 24 Smith, Hotel World, p15 25 Smith, Hotel World, p226-230 26 Smith, Hotel World, p6 27 Smith, Hotel World, p6 28 Smith, Hotel World, p225 29 Smith, Hotel World, p220/1 30 N. Aslam, Maps For Lost Lovers, Faber, 2005 (2004), p80


believed to be experience by the dead or dying, mimicking the state to enhance the reality of the situation. Death is brutal and hard-hitting, immediately engaging the reader s emotional centre with the fatalistic inevitability that the protagonist is going to die or is dead. It provides the opportunity to delve into the past, and access memories and their recurrence, and creates an immediate epicentre for a journey of exploration into the human emotions. Being Dead displays an uncertainty about death and the afterlife, discussing them scientifically with an implicit undertone of the spiritual, but appears to show most clearly that the rituals of death and the belief of an afterlife are inventions to comfort those left behind: there is nothing more after death. Hotel world takes the opposite view, characterising a ghost and defining body and spirit as two distinct forms which die separately. Both texts show the insignificance of life and the effect death has on family and the living, whilst each holding in their own way a quivering for the dead, remembering their last and important moments and resurrecting them for a brief period of time.


Bibliography: J. Crace, Being Dead, Penguin, 2000 A. Smith, Hotel World, Penguin, 2002 N. Aslam, Maps For Lost Lovers, Faber, 2005 (2004)


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful