THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Take the nay train

Missteps trip up tale of an ineffectual jazz sax player in Big Brother future

Jim Crace’s novel is plagued by incessant digressions and slow-starting plot. Jim Crace’s novel is plagued by incessant digressions and slow-starting plot. (Andrew Bainbridge)
By Eugenia Williamson
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2010

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Jim Crace is our foremost bard of rot. I refer you to the gloriously rendered decomposing bodies in “Being Dead’’; his loving takes of ruined machines in “The Pesthouse’’; the anthropomorphic spoiled food of “The Devil’s Larder.’’ “All That Follows,’’ his 12th book, turns Crace’s gaze toward putrescence of a different, animate sort — of agency and character, personal and otherwise. For this treatise, Crace has constructed a novel that sometimes buckles under the weight of its aims. Incessant digressions and a slow-starting plot weigh heavily on a book that could have been an incisive comedy of manners but instead is an uneven take on activism in an age of surveillance.

Crace successfully manipulates our sense of place. The book’s action is set in London roughly 15 years from now, but Crace provides scant details about how this future world differs from our own. We are half-told of murky political events, that people wear identification lanyards, watch television on their computers, and have driving restrictions. Crace does not belabor these mundane changes, thus stirring feelings of vague inhibition and systemic menace.

Crace’s protagonist, Leonard Lessig, is a product of his age. He is a saxophonist turned television obsessive derailed by a bum shoulder and a crippling preoccupation with what others think. Like the reader, he is a spectator; he exists to make us squirm in uncomfortable recognition of our own passivity.

He also exists in order to allow Crace to overwrite about jazz. The novel is marred by Lessig’s lengthy soliloquies about the nature of improvisation and performance. Crace beats the metaphorical possibilities of these activities within an inch of their lives. “All That Follows’’ teaches us that music is a journey; performance, like life, is a series of character-driven blind decisions; and playing the saxophone (and writing about someone thinking about what it means to play the saxophone) can be an onanistic enterprise.

Lessig’s internal escapades stall the plot, which begins with a claustrophobic scene of watching a hostage situation on the news. Lessig recognizes an as-yet-unidentified hostage-taker as his old acquaintance, Maxim Lermontov, who shares a last name with a Russian novelist whose famous hero is a combative Romantic. Seeing someone Lessig knows on television stirs something within the old couch potato. He wants to get involved.

As Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’’ This dictum shapes the chain of events that unfold when Lessig, an inveterate bystander, takes action. The plot borrows equally from another tenet, recently driven home by the film “Greenberg’’: Middle age isn’t too much fun. We learn early on that Lessig is “off the fleshy pleasures’’ — meat, fattening food, and sex. Days away from turning 50, he is thwarted at every turn by habit, inertia, and bodily decline.

The setup itself is thwarted by too much writerly riffing. Like Rick Moody on a bad day, Crace teases out too many associations from the words he uses. He delights far too much in twisting Lessig’s name into plays on inadequacy and Maxim’s into reflections on excess. That Crace alerts us to his awareness of this device does not help. Intentionally feeble wordplay can be cute or devastating when Lorrie Moore does it; here, it merely distracts.

The novel is saved by its second act, when Crace flashes back 20 years. The year 2006 finds Lessig a somewhat less spineless young jazzman in Austin, Texas. He has followed a sexy professor to America, where he hopes to woo her. Instead, he comes up against the charismatic brawler Lermontov, her live-in lover. The weak-willed Lessig finds himself reluctantly agreeing to help them disrupt Laura Bush’s speech at the Texas Book Festival.

With a savage portrayal of what happens when an Englishman encounters Texas bombast, “All That Follows’’ finally reaches its comic and dramatic stride. The events in Texas are miracles of brutality and betrayal that almost make up for the novel’s slow start. Through Lessig’s middle-class diffidence, Crace lets loose on vegetarians, fatsos, literature fans, rednecks, and panty-waisted liberals. This provides a more-than-welcome respite from preceding chapters filled with constipated despair and self-indulgent riffs on saxophoning.

Thoroughly recovered, Crace brings us back to Lessig’s present just as the action is getting underway. Happily, the final act finds little of Lessig’s previous navel gazing, wrapped up as he is in the fast-approaching, fittingly ludicrous denouement. The end will please those who derive grim satisfaction from the existence of a T-shirt of Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. For the rest of us, it will deliver the unique despair of the false high note.

In reviewing the novel’s events, Lessig remarks that they have been “too much of a farce, maybe, to justify how smug he feels.’’ It seems to me that this is an inaccurate assessment. Farce redeems the novel from occasionally reading like a depressing game of literary connect-the-dots, presided over by a pedant. And, after all, we live in a time when a smoking diplomat’s droll retort can shut down a major airport. A little more farce would have served “All That Follows’’ very well indeed.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and critic, living in Cambridge.

ALL THAT FOLLOWS

By Jim Crace

Nan Talese, 223 pp., $25.95