JUNE 27, 2018
JIM CRACE’S EXTRAORDINARY 12th novel, The Melody, begins with a tantalizing, fabricated epigraph attributed to Alain Tancred’s One Hundred Towns of Character and Charm that reads:
… but we are by now weary of the piety and galleries and the gaudiness of churches. Instead, we stroll along the Avenue of Fame, where, among the busts and bronzes of little distinction, we find the life-sized statue of a naked boy, placed there through the benefaction of a will in 1939. Our guide assures us that the boy steps down from his pedestal at night and causes trouble in the town. He has witnessed it himself, he says: the trouble and the pedestal, though not the child.
Though an invented citation, it is neither frivolous nor irrelevant.
Crace has concocted such false opening quotations before. In his 1986 debut novel Continent, he began this pranking tradition with a quote from the entirely fictional Histories of Pycletius. The Toronto Star believed Pycletius to be a Greek historian and geographer. The New York Review of Books fell for his trickery, too, buying that Sir Harry Penn Butler, the acclaimed author of the epigraph in Crace’s The Gift of Stones (1988), was a real archeologist.
The Whitbread Award–winning Quarantine (1997), a brilliantly imagined retelling of Jesus’s 40-day fast in the desert, opens with a quote allegedly from The Limits of Mortality. It disputes how “[a]n ordinary man of average weight and fitness” could survive more than 30 days without “divine help” and notes that “[h]istory, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it.” Being Dead (1999), an account of two deceased zoologists decaying in the dunes of Baritone Bay, starts with a lengthy poem, “The Biologist’s Valediction to His Wife,” from Offcuts by Sherwin Stephens. The poem and the book do not exist.
These are not incidental quotations. They are often integral to the plots of the books.
In a February 2018 interview with the Financial Times, Crace explained:
My books dislocate the reader rather than locate them. The coastal town where The Melody is set combines elements of several places, but I want it to feel real enough that the reader feels they could go there.
The made-up literary references are crafted with similar purpose. Crace feels the same way about the customary end-of-book thank-yous and handles them accordingly: “I find real acknowledgements so self-congratulatory that they blunt the fiction. I’m allowing fiction to seep in the front and back of the book, so that everything is entirely invented.”
Perhaps Crace is channeling the poet Marianne Moore. In her classic poem “Poetry,” she writes about presenting “for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” about demanding raw material in “all its rawness, and / that which is on the other hand, / genuine,” about discovering the genuine in “[h]ands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must.”
Crace seeks and finds the genuine.
In The Melody, Crace’s imaginary garden is a picture-postcard town by the Mediterranean Sea where sixtysomething Alfred (a.k.a. Mister Al) Busi, once a renowned singer and pianist, lives by himself, his wife of more than 30 years, Alicia, having died two years earlier. He has slipped from celebrity to obscurity by way of grief and loneliness.
Alfred’s seemingly pellucid biography, which includes a bronze bust on the town’s Avenue of Fame, is conveyed by an unidentified (until late in the novel) first-person narrator. This resident, who acts as the town’s voice, recounts the details of a key assault Alfred suffers, a singular event that affects both Alfred and the town for the remainder of the novel.
This is where Crace’s “real toads” come in. One night in May before he is to be honored for his achievements, Alfred hears a cacophony of sounds coming from his rubbish bins. Armed with something “not quite a cudgel but stouter than a walking stick,” he goes to investigate what he assumes are animals hunting for food. The sudden sound of “dainty Persian bells” stops him near his larder. Alicia would often, in the middle of the night, rummage around for a snack, in the process setting off that same tinkling. Distracted, Alfred senses a “pungent, lavatorial” smell like a “a mix of earth and mould and starch […] potato peel.” A creature sinks its teeth into his hand and claws at his throat, leaving cuts and bruises on his face. He is certain his attacker is a naked child, an inhabitant of the “twanging shrub and scrub of the bosk, back beyond the hill” near his seaside villa.
The bosk, part of the “progress-defying remnant forest,” and the surrounding environments play a significant psychological role in the novel. According to the Bohm & Hanne Travel Guide, the bosk includes “Poverty Park,” where it is rumored that only the most primitive survive. The guide teases that participants on wildlife tours may “spot one of the rarest humans in the world, the last neanderthals perhaps.” Alfred wonders if it is one of these Neanderthals that has bitten him.
This conjecture is pounced upon by a headline-seeking yellow journalist named Soubriquet, who takes liberties at the urging of his editor. He is told to “make something of it,” and make something of it he does. He turns Mister Al into “the symbol of a city fearful of attack,” embellishing the assault and painting the town as under imminent threat of “a tribe of snarling city savages.” Soubriquet believes that the town would be best served if the entire population of the forested grounds were evicted.
But the inhabitants of the bosk are not the only potential risk to the villagers. The entire area is in jeopardy from land developers, who have engaged in an underhanded negotiation with one of the town’s own. It’s a plot that allows Crace to explore the devastating consequences of poverty’s losing battle with profit.
On the night of the attack, Alfred is at a loss about whom to call. Eventually, he summons Alicia’s sister, Terina, with whom he had an intimate encounter before marrying Alicia. In fact, the townspeople gossip that her son, Joseph, is actually Alfred’s. It is Joseph who, unbeknownst to Alfred or Terina, is undermining the town’s safety and security. As a trade and timber baron, Joseph wants to replace Alfred’s villa with a group of “liner-built apartment houses,” turning the bosk into an ocean-side complex with “balconies and prows lined up like some great flotilla.” It is clear that the interest Joseph shows in Alfred’s well-being (suggesting he arm himself with a shotgun) is actually more a concern for maintaining the villa’s value.
As Alfred contemplates what recourse he may have against the developers, he is attacked again, this time by a garden-variety mugger. He feels this attack is worse than the first because it is “unnatural, unneighbourly, unkind, beyond the realm of even beasts,” and it makes him question the benevolent nature of his fellow souls.
He finds solace with a neighbor, a young woman named Alexandra who lives in the only other remaining villa by the sea. (She goes by Lexx because she likes “the drama of having kisses in her name.”) They strike up a friendship out of curiosity and common decency. Thinking she will find “an old and interesting man who only wanted company,” she discovers someone “wounded and derelict.” After sharing his travails, Alfred feels that Lexx has “restored his buoyancy.” Together they face the changes that will inevitably occur in their town and in their lives, and when Crace jumps the narrative ahead six years it becomes clear just how little progress has been slowed, prompting elegies for the villas, the park, and, finally, Alicia, the lost melody of the title.
The Melody is an elegiac ode of its own that confronts the evanescence of life. What begins with a memory jogged by the soft tinkling of bells becomes a haunting refrain of enduring love. In underscoring Crace’s genuineness, the novel champions the benefits of friendship and community in the face of inexorable progress and change. One must still tend the garden, Crace seems to be saying, even if all the toads are gone.
Robert Allen Papinchak’s literary criticism has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.