Maybe it’s natural, in the early years of a new millennium, for our writers and artists to turn their thoughts toward what the future could hold. After all, we’re in the 21st century now: the future’s already here. While Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance looked at the near future, however, and predicted where we might end up if the current political climate continues, Jim Crace takes us several centuries further into this brave new world. Except it’s not so brave, and not even so new. In fact, it’s positively medieval.
The Pesthouse is set in America at an indeterminate point in the future, although all the hints suggest that it may not be quite as far away as we would like to imagine. Rather than being a sparkling, technological dream – or even the tarnished urban sprawl of Bladerunner – America has lapsed back to a pre-technological state, where metal objects are rare and valuable, and ancient metal vehicles rust by the remains of cracked highways. Not only has scientific thought regressed, but society itself has reverted back to a feudal state. Matters aren’t helped by a viral epidemic that’s sweeping the country: known only as the Flux, it carries echoes of the bubonic plague in the stories of pus-filled sores and agonising death. The only known defence is to shave all your hair from your body, and isolate yourself in a smoke-filled hut.
Into this brutal world Crace introduces his two protagonists. Franklin Lopez is travelling with his brother Jackson to the eastern shoreline, hoping to join the crowds there buying, cheating and sneaking their way onto the ships bound for Europe. In this time of decay escape is the best that anyone can hope for. His knee won’t stand up to much walking, however, and Jackson goes ahead to Ferrytown, leaving Franklin behind. Margaret, one of the residents of Ferrytown, is showing all the early signs of the Flux, so her family shave off her bright red hair and send her up to the pesthouse, an isolated cabin in the woods. When Franklin and Margaret meet there by chance, it feels like destiny. When it emerges that the rest of the population of Ferrytown have died inexplicably overnight, they have little choice but to become travelling companions.
In many ways The Pesthouse sits comfortably within a well-trodden genre. After all, there have already been countless stories of dystopian futures where man has regressed, including childhood classics like John Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy or Peter Dickinson’s The Changes trilogy. All of them depict a return to medieval values as society goes into decline, whether that decline be due to disease, war, or plain old climactic change. Crace does nothing more than hint at how his fictional world came about, but it fits neatly into the pre-existing genre mould. There are even surviving artefacts from more advanced times (in this case a pair of binoculars) to remind us that this could be our fate if we don’t heed the warning.
This novel is far more than a simple, moralistic warning of things to come, however. Yes, its starting point is the implied failure and collapse of modern society, but Crace is careful not to dwell upon the issue, or to theorise too closely on how it might come about. This crude, brutal future is taken for granted, and then he moves on. The Pesthouse’s main concern is not how the world it depicts came about, but – as in all good fiction – is instead the drama that unfolds between its protagonists. It soon becomes clear that Franklin and Margaret are falling in love, but the world they inhabit is not an easy one for would-be lovers. Their own survival is frequently at risk as they join the stream of travellers heading for the coast, and the ghost of a chance at freedom, security and a better way of life.
Anyone who knows Jim Crace’s work will already be aware of his considerable writing talents, and this novel feels like a major work in every sense. It may not be the most accessible of his books – you have to buy into a whole new view of the world before you can begin to appreciate the story, after all – but once things get going it becomes almost impossible to put down. The fact that he reveals the details of this projected future with such a delicate hand quickly enables the human story to take centre stage, and in Franklin and Margaret’s tale there rests something more than a dystopian fable – there are more lessons here about the nature of human wants and needs than any futuristic story has given us since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The future may not be bright, but Crace shows us that while there’s still human life, there will always be a spark of hope.