Jim Crace’s Man Booker-nominated Quarantine sees four travellers enter the Judean desert to fast and pray for their lost souls. In the blistering heat and barren rocks they encounter the evil merchant Musa. Yet there is another man, a faint figure in the distance, fasting for forty days, a Galilean who they say has the power to work miracles.
Years ago, Jim Crace visited a hostel for patients with mental health problems in the Birmingham suburb of Mosely. Amidst rooms that were hardly large enough to let him stretch his arms, Crace thought of the premise for the novel that would eventually become Quarantine: “How does a community of people, all living on the edge, secure some comfort, resolution and transcendence in … a godless universe?”
It’s the burning question of the 20th century, isn’t it? It’s on the minds of millions of people at this very moment. It may very well be on yours. In Western society, we’re becoming less and less reliant on myths and religions all the time, and in the wake of that seismic change we’re forced to sweatily ask ourselves, “What the fuck are we even doing here?”
Crace was right to pose the question, but in this reader’s opinion, he posed it in the wrong way, with the wrong story.
In an attempt to explore transcendence in a godless universe, Crace chose to feature the most divine character in Western mythology: Jesus. In order to do that, though, he stripped him of his divinity. And so Crace’s Christ isn’t the Christ at all, he’s simply an overzealous worshipper in a desperate search for God. And he finds nothing.
Why use such a (traditionally) magical figure to explore an (apparently) un-magical existence? By de-mystifying Jesus, is Crace making the strongest statement possible for a logical, godless universe? What exactly is gained here by not just making Jesus a flesh and blood man, but a fallible, desperate failure?
After reading Quarantine, I still don’t have the answers. Mostly because Crace’s novel isn’t very good.
Three Men and a Woman-With-No-Baby
Following in the recent tradition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Man Friday, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Quarantine tells a famous story from the point of view of minor characters. While the frame of the tale is Jesus’ 40 devil-thwarting days in the wilderness, Crace tells his story through several pilgrims on the periphery:
- Shim, a blond-haired Greek whose quarantine is focused on denying himself food and water as a spiritual test. (“Pain and enlightenment are twins.”)
- Aphas, an elderly Jew who has come to the desert with the hope that God will cure his cancer.
- Marta, a barren wife of ten years who is taking one last stab at proving herself to God.
- A badu, or a Bedouin, who remains nameless and speechless throughout the novel.
Then there are Miri and Musa, a wife and husband abandoned by their merchant caravan after Musa becomes ill. A loutish, brutal wretch truly deserving of death, Musa is tended to by Miri outside the pilgrims’ caves during his last hours on Earth.
But after a brief brush with Jesus, Musa miraculously recovers. In a strange turn, it is the devilish Musa who becomes the Galilean’s biggest supporter after he comes to believe that there is something extraordinary about the young man.
It’s a gripping setup, but that’s what makes Crace’s handling of the final two-thirds of the novel so frustrating. The rest of the story focuses mainly on evocations of the harsh desert atmosphere and the toll it takes on their bodies, the pilgrims’ attempts to lure Jesus out of his cave, and the disgusting actions of Musa, who bullies, beats, and rapes his fellow cave dwellers.
Jesus, What Are You Doing, Crace?
Despite being nominated for the Booker, Quarantine fails in three important ways:
One, the novel plays up the experience while diminishing the experiencer. Crace goes into nauseatingly minute detail about the geography of the Mount of Temptation (as history knows it), while ignoring the character we’ve all come to see. Jesus is the third-, fourth-, or even fifth-fiddle in this story. The descriptions of the desert and its effects are done with a master’s hand, to be sure, but the longer Jesus is absent the less we care about anything that’s happening. That’s because…
Two, Crace stuck us with an altogether disgusting character unworthy of spiritual resurrection. It may have been some sort of ironic commentary on supposed miracles to have Jesus save Musa’s life only to have Musa rape and pillage his companions for the remainder of the story, but I for one am not thankful for the experience.
Three, Crace’s Jesus is an utter disappointment. He is a disappointment within the narrative itself, and as a reader I was left underwhelmed at his depiction. I am all for mortal portrayals of Jesus. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Crace rewrote Jesus’ personality and story to the point where the source character isn’t even recognizable. This is Jesus in name only. Crace truly could have called him Phillip and nothing about the novel would have needed to change. That is unforgivable. Why use Jesus as your hook if you’re not really going to write the story of Jesus at all?
Crace’s Jesus is devoid of charm. He’s actually estranged from his family due to his overwrought spiritual intensity. Even his priest finds him too much to deal with, and tells Joseph that he needs to distract him with manual labour to take his mind off God (hence, Jesus becoming a carpenter).
He ignores the suffering of his fellow cave dwellers, believing they are temptations by the devil. Since he wants to help them more than anything in the world, that must mean their suffering is the test God wants him to endure.
Crace making Jesus a mortal man isn’t what bothered me. What bothered me is that he made him a fucking idiot.
Jesus dies before completing his quarantine. He dies. Not only does Crace depict Jesus as all-too-human, but he’s so human that he doesn’t even survive the trial that is supposed to transform him into the preacher who may have actually changed the world.
So, in Crace’s version of the story, Jesus is essentially exiled by his family before going to the desert to earn God’s attention. He revives a dying sadist (who proceeds to murder and rape those around him). He ignores the suffering of his fellow men because he believes their pain is a trick of the devil. And then he dies, naked and withered, in a hole.
If Crace’s goal was to ponder how a community of people secure some comfort, resolution and transcendence in a godless universe, then is answer is this: they don’t.
This is, undoubtedly, a beautiful novel in terms of prose. Crace is a writer of unquestioned skill. But this simply wasn’t his story to tell. He missed the boat. He didn’t even bother to show up for it.
As I always do with novels about Jesus (especially ones where he’s portrayed as a mortal), I’m going to recommend you skip Quarantine and read Nino Ricci’s Testament instead. You’ll feel like you’ve taken Crace’s bland offering of water and had it turned into wine.