All That Follows
By Jim Crace
Picador £16.99, 276 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59
Jim Crace is a magician among contemporary British novelists. Written in a spare but resonant prose, his fiction investigates a range of fantastical subjects, from the temptation of Jesus Christ in the Judean wilderness to a shipwreck off the Cornish coast in the 1830s. The Pesthouse, his previous novel, unfolded amid the badlands of post-industrial America, and had a hallucinatory clarity all its own.
Crace’s 10th novel, All That Follows, continues the American theme, being set partly in contemporary Texas. Otherwise the book is a departure for him. A political thriller, it has properly rounded characters. But this comes at the expense of the author’s trademark poetic allegory. Crace’s most celebrated works – Quarantine, Signals of Distress, The Gift of Stones – are fables with a metaphysical cut. His new novel, by contrast, is more conventional.
It opens in England in the year 2024 with news that the last of the Rolling Stones has died. An out-of-work jazz musician, Lennie Lessing, is meanwhile tormented by a sense of inadequacy and failure. With his marriage apparently on the rocks, he is left “gimpy and irascible” as his 50th birthday approaches. Francine, his wife, tries in vain to distract him from the computer screen and his morose cogitations on death and ageing; he is filled instead with a maudlin nostalgia for his glory days as a jazzman.
On one level, All That Follows is a chronicle of a mind in crisis, as it minutely registers Lennie’s emotional state and bickering with his wife. In his self-pity, Lennie yearns for some purpose in his life and fantasises about fighting fascists in the Spanish civil war. On his rare “screen-free” days he plays old tape-recordings of himself on the saxophone – music from happier times, when Lennie believed he could make it as a musician. His mental and physical decline (“I’m getting portly”) is relentlessly and mockingly recorded.
With a few deft strokes, Crace conjures Lennie’s self-doubting despondency as he tries to rekindle an extinguished desire for Francine. But his wife, carping and exasperated, can only upbraid him for his perceived moral turpitude and lack of backbone. To top it all, her teenage daughter Celandine has been missing for some weeks and is now presumed dead. As a portrait of marital disintegration, All That Follows is grimly affecting but also tender in its empathies: while Lennie has no children himself (Celandine is his stepdaughter), he yearns for the stability of family life.
In many ways, Lennie is emblematic of bourgeois English liberalism. Though outwardly leftist in his politics, he is too polite and hesitant to be readily militant on the streets, yet craves action and a clarion-call to arms. One evening, unexpectedly, he finds it while watching the news on television.
A group of political activists has taken a family hostage in their own house a short drive from Lennie’s. The hostage-takers are unknown to the police but, to his shock, Lennie recognises their ringleader from the blurred photograph shown on the news. It is Maxim Lermontov, a Russo-American anarchist whom he had last seen 18 years previously in Texas. Should Lennie tell the police? He feels empowered and excited by his secret knowledge.
Though he doubts the wisdom and motives of “Maxie” and his disciples, he has an old twinge of sympathy for their leftist cause. In a sequence of flashbacks, Crace brilliantly reconstructs Texas in 2006, where Lennie had taken part in a “madcap plot” to protest against George W Bush by sabotaging the president’s wife’s speech at a children’s book fair. In the fracas that ensued, Laura Bush had ended up with a bloody nose. At the 11th hour, typically, Lennie had flunked out of the so-called “AmBush”; he was in Texas chiefly for Lermontov’s beautiful girlfriend Nadia, whom he desired.
In the late 1960s, Crace was a documentary filmmaker in Sudan and much of his work has a cinematic quality. The Texan landscapes in All That Follows, with their “wooded valleys” and “light-efficient, black-leaved trees”, are very precisely drawn. And, purposely or not, the jazz-savvy rhythms of the Texan chapters recall the Bob Dylan of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“Nadia is tearful at the window”, Crace writes, “Maxie’s at the street door waiting for the rent”). In these American chapters, Crace shows real edge and distinction in his writing.
For all that, the book lacks the vertiginous assault of Crace’s debut, Continent, or Arcadia, a mid-career work of exceptional narrative verve. Swathes of the American dialogue sound a clunky note (“That dude is half a bubble outta plumb”) and, for a thriller, the plot lacks the requisite knuckle-whitening suspense. Nevertheless, All That Follows remains a blindingly good read in parts, both for its mesmeric story-telling and the matchless quality of its prose. Crace’s is a unique voice still, and we are lucky to have it.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘The Dead Yard: Tales of Jamaica’ (Faber)