It is peculiarly disarming to open a book titled GENESIS and find a
number "6" instead of the expected "1" above the first lines of the
first chapter. Either Jim Crace has begun his eighth novel with
Chapter 6 or he has titled the first section simply "6." In a
sense, both possibilities are correct: Each chapter details the
events surrounding the conception of each of the main character's
six children, beginning with the last, then beginning again with
one, proceeding chronologically to five, and ending with six
So GENESIS begins, appropriately, with a revelation: Felix Dern's
second wife, Mouetta, is pregnant. She shares the news during a
movie and must wait until the credits roll for his reaction. Felix
is an actor and demands silence during films as "professional
courtesy." In the meantime, Crace gives us the circumstances of
conception. Felix and Mouetta live in an unnamed Eastern European
city --- possibly Vienna or Prague --- that is in the midst of
decades of political turmoil. On their second anniversary, they are
detained by military police within the city and unable to return to
their home. So they pull their car into a secluded park and, with
mixed motives and emotions, have sex in the car.
Felix --- or Lix, as is his suggestive nickname --- has sired five
previous children. In fact, "Every woman he dares to sleep with
bears his child." So from 6 Crace takes us to 1: Lix's first child
and his first sexual experience, with a stranger he has spied
through binoculars. The next chapter documents his month-long
affair with Freda (Mouetta's cousin, incidentally) during their
student-revolutionary days. Their son, George, is conceived after a
botched kidnapping of an American businessman.
He produces Children 3 and 4 with his first wife, Alicja, a plump
Polish activist. The elder, Lech, is created on a balcony
overlooking their flooded city, which everyone has evacuated except
them. They conceive the younger, Karol, on the eve of their
divorce, after they have grown distant and cold.
Lix's fifth child is with Anita Julius, an actress who plays his
lover in a romantic comedy called The Devotee. Their tryst,
carried out onstage in an empty theatre, is quick and passionless,
the same night he meets his second wife, Mouetta.
In the past Crace has proved himself a master of this type of
schematic structure and chronological manipulation. His best novel,
BEING DEAD, a classic of forensic fiction, began with a couple's
murder and from there moved simultaneously forwards and backwards
in time, detailing their marriage and courtship while documenting
the rot and decay of their undiscovered bodies. In GENESIS,
however, the structure becomes quickly tiresome, a bit fussy and
more than occasionally constricting.
Crace designs each of his chapters similarly: each story is
foreplay leading up to the copulation that produces Lix's child.
Crace proves fatally patient, too willing to caress the reader with
his supple language for pages and pages before hurrying through the
act in a mere paragraph or two, leaving readers unsatisfied. Just
like sexual teases, textual teases must be carried through.
Furthermore, Crace's typically graceful prose is too ordered here,
too controlled and too calculated to approximate a lover's touch
and depict at all adequately the abandon of passion, the trajectory
of lust, the glorious messiness of sex. His sentences should
contain the literary equivalents of crumpled clothes strewn across
the floor, bunched sheets at the foot of the bed, furniture
toppled. But Crace despises such clutter in his writing and keeps
everything neat, tidy, unsullied.
Finally, despite some intriguing --- and largely unexplored ---
insights into the differences between men and women, GENESIS is
simply too enumerative to be erotic or even emotional. Crace counts
off these moments of conception, but he only hints at the massive
waves of desire that drive Lix into these women's arms.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 22, 2011