Jim Crace can be a perverse writer. In Being Dead the two main characters are dead and decomposing. In Quarantine a young, half-addled man around 30 AD irritates pilgrims in the desert. His name is Jesus. So I expected something of the same perversity in his latest novel, The Pesthouse. Instead, Crace surprises. This is a surprisingly warm and human story about two people, Franklin and Margaret, falling in love and struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic America.
The novel is not entirely without the character of the earlier books. The first several chapters describe with fond attentiveness how the population of a small settlement, Ferrytown, dies when overcome by lake gas stirred up by a landslide. And there is no shortage of corpses elsewhere in the novel. But for the most part the focus falls on Margaret, a young woman in her 30s, and Franklin, who is around 20. Franklin and his brother Jackson are making their way to the coast, hoping to take passage to another country across the sea where they plan to find work. When an injury forces Franklin to rest for several days, his brother goes on to the nearby town and succumbs to the gas along with everyone else.
Franklin comes across Margaret in a small broken-down shack (the “pest house”) where she was taken by her family when she showed symptoms of a disease they call the “flux.” They take her there so she can recover or die - they don’t want her to spread the illness to others; they also don’t want potential ferry customers (the town’s main livelihood) frightened away by disease. Once they discover what has happened in the town, Franklin and Margaret decide to travel together to the shore, where they hope to find passage like everyone else.
Although this is a post-apocalyptic story that takes place in an indeterminate future, it often seems like a medieval narrative. The culture and technology of the ruined nation is forgotten. People cannot read, they live in small communities isolated from other communities, and they fall periodically victim to whatever marauders happens to be passing by. Communication is by word of mouth. Transportation is by foot, horse-drawn carts, or boat. Society has collapsed. Most people who are able are traveling towards the shore, hoping to escape to another country. America is becoming increasingly depopulated. It is a broken, abandoned land.
The Pesthouse never explains the cause of the apocalypse that destroyed America. It was probably a nuclear war, but there is no evidence of radioactivity. Whatever the event might have been, it probably occurred at least a century or more in the past, judging by the state of the ruined cities and the general lack of information about or memory of the past. Margaret and Franklin travel through an empty land. Everyone is trying to leave. Cities lie in ruins. Marauding gangs murder, rape, kidnap, and lay waste. On the coast, a large settlement has grown up around the shipping industry. It teems with those who are trying to leave. No one remembers the past - faint shreds of memories, rumors, legends, stories. Margaret treasures a few Lincoln-head pennies, though she doesn’t know who Lincoln was. Franklin and his brother Jackson carry the names of famous American heroes that no one remembers; Margaret’s family had a dog named Jefferson. These relics are all that remain of the past, and other than describing the ruins through which the pilgrims pass, Crace spends little time musing over or providing information about the lost republic. What is most clear is that it is lost.