The Pesthouse by Jim Crace and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
10 December 2007
Post-apocalyptic dystopias are all the rage with contemporary British writers this year. Go into any bookshop and you will spot at least one: perhaps Jim Crace's The Pesthouse (Picador) or Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army (Faber and Faber) or, most likely of all, Jeanette Winterson's new novel, The Stone Gods (Hamish Hamilton). Listening to the attendant hype, or reading the innumerable interviews with the authors in the mainstream press, you would be forgiven for thinking that the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it was more topical in 2007 than it has ever been before. Which isn't true, of course. These stories of the end and what comes afterwards are heirs to some of the founding narratives of Western culture. The anticipation of humanity's impending doom is deeply ingrained in our psyches: it is the front-page story that will not die. Terrorism, climate change, nuclear war—these are just the latest in a long line of potential catalysts of the end times. Once we feared God's almighty capacity to destroy us; now we fear our own. But the stories we tell about it have hardly changed at all. Open any of the above novels and what you will find is basically a variation, for better or for worse, on Noah's Ark.
The Pesthouse is Jim Crace's eighth novel and I had the highest of hopes for it, imagining a post-apocalyptic narrative as offbeat and emotionally provocative as Quarantine (1997) or Being Dead (1999). But although it begins with a brilliant and darkly poetic prologue—"Everybody died at night"—it rapidly devolves into a bizarre and boneless travel-romance, the most inexplicable and optimistic dystopian narrative it is possible to imagine. Picture the distant future: America is fragmented, an amorphous geographical mass without any discernable form of government or administrative structure. It has regressed to a pre-industrial state, analogous with that found in traditional fantasy novels: small communities of laborers and artisans engage in subsistence agriculture, husbandry, and barter, supplemented by a little low-level trade. The remains of our huge cities and highways, destroyed in some forgotten cataclysmic disaster, are the archaeology of a past about which no one is particularly curious: "debris fields of tumbled stone and rock, stained with rust and ancient metal melt. Colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands" (p. 118).
There is disease (the "flux") and hunger, of course, but nothing truly devastating in this future—the land is still fertile, the water is still clean, and fertility levels are normal. Indeed, the America of The Pesthouse bears a striking resemblance to an idealized colonial past, a rather mild vision of the seventeenth century "with its smoke and smells and the clamor of voices, livestock and tools" (p. 34). Nevertheless people are leaving (or attempting to leave) in droves, trekking across the breadth of the country with their families and possessions in the hope of a better life in some unnamed land (presumably Europe) across the Eastern ocean.
Brothers Jackson and Franklin Lopez are two such hopeful emigrants. Having left their mother and their prairie farm for reasons never properly justified, they have trekked as far as Ferrytown, a settlement just two weeks from the coast. As the novel opens, however, they are about to be permanently separated. Franklin injures his knee on the descent into town, and Jackson leaves him to rest on the hillside while he goes ahead to get help and supplies. Deciding to stay the night, he is amongst the thousands of Ferrytowners killed when a landslide causes the release of a cloud of toxins (its effects suggest carbon dioxide) from a neighboring lake. This swift and rather arbitrary natural disaster leaves Franklin alone on the hillside, one of only two survivors. The other is Margaret, a young woman sick with the flux who has been quarantined in the Pesthouse, a cabin located high above the town. The two inevitably meet and throw in their lot—what else can a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman do after everyone else is dead?—and decide to continue into the east together. Banal adventures ensue on the road, during which the duo fall in love, are parted, reunited, and even, in a saccharine moment of familial completion, adopt an orphaned child. Eventually, having suffered trial and torment (though none of it particularly devastating) they decide that America isn't so bad after all and turn round to go back home to the Lopez prairie:
That was a shock to realise that he did not truly want to leave America. His dream was not the future but the past. Some land, a cabin and a family. A mother waiting on the stoop. (p. 249)
Essentially, Crace has written a novel about the yearning for a utopian past in the vague guise of a dystopic future, a manual for advocates of the American dream in the modern world. It simply doesn't work.
Admittedly I have been spoiled by having so recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a vision of America that left me trembling, and perhaps I am also jaded by a lifetime's education in the dreadful promise of the future, but The Pesthouse does not seem the stuff that great narratives of survival and resurrection are made of. There is no danger to it, no tension, and certainly no real emotional weight. There is just a conventional love story and the slightly mouldy premise that you can go on a long journey only to find yourself back where you started. The press release from Picador calls the novel "an ongoing expedition towards a radical sense of joy" and I can see what they mean by it. Crace's novel is unrelentingly optimistic, cloyingly so, and its happy ending is never really in doubt. In other words: it is nice, it is comforting, it is about how dreams really do come true.
But this coziness never feels earned. The novel's disasters and dramas are classic deus ex machina rather than convincing threats. The rather silly noxious cloud of the opening chapter, designed only to free the two leads from their cumbersome familial ties, is a case in point, and the story is filled with similarly unrealistic trials. Early on Franklin is taken hostage by a band of thieves who put him to work in a chain gang; this allows Margaret to demonstrate her pith and pluck, and serves to develop their mutual attraction—absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that. But he escapes readily enough a hundred pages later when the plot demands it and, serendipitously, in front of Margaret who happens to be in the same place at the right time. No harm done. In the meantime she has been threatened with rape, only to escape by hiding all day in some tall grass (with a fractious infant, no less), and survived a long hard winter in pleasant comfort after taking refuge with a weird but ultimately harmless religious sect, the Finger Baptists. Thus every obstacle they face is easily surmountable; every outcome dreadfully and positively agreeable. Oh for a little real grief or trauma or loss! Even Crace's prose, which is essentially sound if not dazzling, couldn't save the novel. Admittedly, towards the end there were some sweet passages about the sea, which Margaret experiences for the first time—"The sea was like a great lung, but exhaling and inhaling water rather than air" (p. 236)—that struck me as worthwhile. But they were far too little too late.
All of which makes for an entirely different reading experience to Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army. Her novel is the real thing: hard, unrelenting, and unforgiving, even disturbing, yet still tender and, in parts, lovely. It envisions a post-capitalist, post-terrorism, post-global-warming Britain, gone authoritarian and gray under the weight and pressure of basic survival. The population, now dependent on foreign aid handouts for its subsistence and organized into menial work units, is overwhelmingly urban, living within the confines of closely policed cities. Those who live outside of the conurbations are unregistered, making them ineligible for aid or medical care, and entirely dependent upon their own meagre resources.
Our narrator, Sister, is a determinedly nameless prisoner awaiting trial for insurgency against this state of affairs; her official statement, recorded on a series of tapes—some complete and some corrupted—is our story. She recalls how she came to be a member of the extremist faction of an all-women's community at Carhullan in the Lake District: how she willfully changed herself from a factory prole fitted with a compulsory contraceptive device into a lean ideologically driven soldier admitting no constraints on her freedom and anxious to overthrow the government. The Carhullan Army is a novel of revolution and civil insurgency rather than of destiny and dreams (although there is a certain millennial rhetoric at play) and is, I think, peculiarly British in its outlook. It invokes our long history of civil insurrection against absolute power, and the grass-roots rebellions that pepper the centuries: the Northern resistance of 1069—71, the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, the many plots against the Tudor Queens, the Civil War of 1642—51 and the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745.
From the beginning Sister is an heir to these movements, an activist with a clearly defined voice and nationality. Morally and politically questionable as she may be, she possesses the kind of attractive personal frankness that both Crace's narrator and his characters lack:
My name is Sister.
This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can't remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister.
I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan. (p. 5)
She is a gifted storyteller, calm and unabashed, and Hall writes her with a devastating plainness, which turns out to be entirely admirable, as she develops a narrative style that is both disconcerting and fluid. In this it is entirely different to The Electric Michelangelo (2004), Hall's previous novel about a tattoo artist, which was short-listed for the Booker prize and so ornately verbose as to be Baroque. Though showing enormous talent it was not really to my taste—too much ornament, not enough substance—while in contrast The Carhullan Army, its stylistic opposite, seems perfectly conceived.
Fundamentally, for Sister at least, it is a story about personal freedom vs. state control, be it ideological, economic, or emotional, centering on an individual's fight for self-determination (although it is always ambiguous about how these categories should be defined, how they may present themselves and how they can be balanced). At the same time it is about women, and the age-old dialectic between equality and difference, as well as the conflicting merits of integration and isolationism, all filtered through the loaded gendered schematic at the Carhullan commune.
Sister first hears of Carhullan at the age of seventeen when its community of women start to trade their organic farm produce in Rith, the town in which she has lived all her life. This is before the catastrophic collapse of the economy, but after the start of Britain's inexorable decline, and from the beginning she is attracted to them:
They were a strange group, slightly exotic, slightly disliked [...] Their dress was different, unconventional; often they wore matching yellow tunics that tied at the back and came to the knee [...] They were always friendly towards other women, joking with them over the wicker trays of radishes and cucumbers, giving out discounts and free butter. With the men they acted cooler; they were offhand. (p. 47)
Like all women-led movements through history they inspire suspicion and derision amongst the local populace, who label them "nuns, religious freaks, communists, convicts. They were child-deserters, men-haters, cunt-lickers, or celibates. They were, just as they had been hundreds of years ago, witches, up to no good in the sticks." (p. 48) Which only makes the commune more fascinating to the young Sister—she begins to collect clippings about it from newspapers and especially pictures of its founder, Jackie Nixon, an enigmatic ex-army officer. No doubt it is partly the taboo of the idea of Carhullan that makes it magnetic, but it is more than that which sustains her interest. A decade and a half later Sister is still hoarding her newspaper clippings, and plotting a real escape to the mountains and the commune. This is partly because she has been gradually radicalized by the oppression of government authorities, and made desperate by her loveless marriage; but mostly it is because her memories of the women of Carhullan are of cooperative sharing, sisterly love, and inclusion. It is as much what she is running towards as it is what she is running from that motivates her over the long miles.
Nevertheless, the crimes the authority has committed against Sister's body, against her capacity for procreation and her right to make choices about it, have left a deep well of anger in her. It is this anger that Jackie Nixon can tap in order to motivate her to take violent retribution. Sister's impulse to revenge herself proves stronger than her desire for the quiet and satisfying life she initially seeks. As a female citizen in Rith she has been fitted with a coil, a compulsory device that nips closed the neck of her womb and dangles from the mouth of her vagina. It becomes the essential and special symbol of her repression as a woman—one of her first experiences at Carhullan is its painful removal—and sets the tone of her disturbed attitude towards sex and sexuality in the remainder of the novel. Sister figures the mechanics of its insertion as a form of rape, and associates it by extension with violation by men:
The procedure took ten minutes. It was a male doctor that came into the surgery, fingering into his gloves, and I asked if I could have a woman doctor instead but he said there was no one else available. I lay back on the creased paper sheet, wishing I had taken a painkiller [...] Afterwards I came back to the quarter, nauseous and cramping. All I could think about was the doctor who had rubbed cool lubricant inside me ... (p. 28)
Overcoming this experience, or using it as a source of righteous anger, is the most important of her transformations at Carhullan. Jackie uses it to tutor her in conquering her feelings of victimhood, and to stir the other women into addressing their own. Later Sister is able to indulge in a violent fantasy in which she is nearly raped but fights back: "In it I was standing over the man, heeling him in the face until it split and came apart like marrow. And it was clearer to me, this second image; it was the stronger of the two possibilities, if only in my mind" (p. 21).
It comes as no surprise that Sister chooses to have only lesbian relationships at Carhullan (although there are a few men close by, willing and available), or that she takes a great pride in erasing her femininity (which is closely associated with her victimhood), or that she is joyful to commit acts of violence against the "dismal salvaged thing that the administered country had become" (p. 21). She admits that following a leader like Jackie Nixon, who is so uncompromising in her ideals, means losing her identity as a woman, but she gives it willingly:
She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. (p. 187)
Of course, the inevitable irony of Carhullan's insurgency, and of Sister's membership of its "army," is that it leads her to repress others against their will, and even to kill in her turn. She becomes party to another administration of terror, and a willing subject of a dictatorial regime. Whether this terror, driven by Jackie's autocratic paranoia, is necessary or justifiable is left unanswered; the answer being, of course yes and, of course no. It is the embodiment of an essential dilemma, perhaps the most pertinent of our time: is it more courageous to passively follow your principles unto death, or is it your duty to use the tactics of the enemy, however disgusting, to overthrow them? Is it acceptable or reasonable to use the methods of tyranny in the name of restoring or protecting civil freedoms and human rights?
Either way, Hall understands that this dilemma is not an abstraction; it is the central difficulty of Sister's existence and lies at the very heart of life at Carhullan. In the process of exploring it she makes and destroys and remakes Sister over and over again. Like us all, she is a malleable creature, eager to be inspired, happy to be galvanized to action, begging for a role to play in the world. The novel is an incredibly tender and multi-faceted portrait of her troubled journey, concerned almost entirely with the mechanics of her reasoning and her understanding of her cause. This is why, no doubt, Hall omits to describe the novel's main scenes of violence and conquest—Sister's narrative tapes are "corrupted" at all these critical junctures—but instead focuses on the tension of the long road to a short and bloody aftermath.
Finally, unlike The Pesthouse, The Carhullan Army is full of real danger and real desperation. Sometimes it is hopeful—Sister's first weeks on the farm, when she is drawn into the rough camaraderie of the women, are the perfect example—but it is never whimsical and is always ruthless. Whimsy rarely has a place in writing about such devastated futures. The point of such novels is that they are a warning, a big red X across the door of our imagination. They're meant to be frightening, reassuring us of some kind of survival at the same time as warning us that we should never let the big IT, the end-of-it-all, happen. They are cautionary tales, and we are compelled to read them partly out of morbidity and partly out of an awareness of our incredible vulnerability. If they tread softly, softly, then they fail us in an essential way: If you don't think the flood is coming you will never build the ark. The Carhullan Army and The Pesthouse make a perfect comparative study of the genre—one gets it very right, while the other gets it entirely wrong.