All art comes down to sex and death, as the famous maxim says. And sex never fails to interest. We seem to have an endless interest in the sexual lives, real or imagined, straightforward or grotesque, of anyone put before us. Truth be told, we’re more interested, if we’re honest, in the titillating, but normal will do, too. And in Jim Crace’s novel, Genesis, we certainly get normal.
Genesis tells the story of Felix, or “Lix,” Dern, a man whose only distinguishing characteristic lies in his ability to impregnate every woman with whom he has sex. This sounds a lot more eyebrow raising a premise than in turns out to be in this enjoyable but not fully satisfying story.
In his very normality, Lix seems an odd protagonist. He fantasises about sex. Occasionally he has it. And then he fantasizes about it again. It’s hard to know why the story follows this particular man until the final sentences reveal that, indeed, we could be following anyone, that he is not so much exceptional as he is representative: “You think, but this could happen anywhere. It does.” The problem is that the novel sets him up as uncommon: a well-known actor who has gone far beyond the often stifling confines of his Eastern-European city and country’s geographical and cultural borders. He has even appeared in Hollywood movies—a sign of making it, if ever there was one.
And then there’s his fertility: having impregnated every woman he’s ever slept with, he has six children—one as yet unborn, another unknown to him—wandering the city and globe. He’s cursed, so to speak, with virility. The conceit isn’t that convincing, though. For one thing, Lix isn’t all that much of a Lothario. He’s a well-known middle aged celebrity, a man who has only to say his name and people make way, and yet he has only slept with six women. Perhaps that really is a large number of sexual partners, but just open a celebrity-focused magazine to see how far behind in the game he is on that score. He’s not very smooth with the ladies, either. Most of his relationships—from a brief tryst with a woman whose name he never learns through two marriages—are the result of the women’s actions, his reactions to them.
That’s what’s so infuriating about the character: he’s an actor who doesn’t act. That is, he doesn’t take action. He’s fine on the stage, but he’s all but inert off of it. He’s not that convincing as an actor either; live long enough in places filled with them, as in Los Angeles or New York, and you quickly realize that most of them are always performing. There are exceptions, of course, people who are actors only when being paid, and maybe Lix is genuinely one of them, but that too doesn’t add up. He has an actor’s ego—he’s constantly thinking about himself—but none of the affect.
The sex, though he thinks about it constantly, doesn’t seem to satisfy him. All of his partners disappoint in one way or another, just as he disappoints them. That very disappointment seems, at times, to be one of the points that Crace is trying to make: that sex is not the be-all, end-all. Of experience. But if that’s so, then why link all sex (eventually—it takes years and a failing first marriage to produce his third and fourth children, both boys, incidentally) to procreation. Crace, it seems, is an inadvertent determinist. In trying to explore men and women’s different attitudes toward sex, he ends up saying that the only point of having it at all is to produce children. But the children that are produced don’t make much of an appearance. Lix doesn’t know his children all that well. Nor does he seem particularly troubled by that fact: he uses his “first date” with the eighteen-year-old son he’s never known to hit on the woman who will become his second wife.
The larger picture painted in Genesis is more successful: Lix’s love life flows on the ebbs and tides of his city’s history. Known as “The City of Kisses,” this faded, culturally-rich, Eastern-European town experiences revolution, freaks of weather harsh enough to make its residents reconsider their own lives, and a slow and intermittent opening to the West, complete with all the expected reactions of authoritarian Eastern European governments. In each phase, Lix finds a woman, and through his association with her acquires more experience and bestows upon the world a new child - each one, the book implies, a product of its time. The irony, of course, is that Lix wants no part of the larger forces: he’s glided through life, seemingly untouched by the problems faced by his countrymen, even his lovers. And that’s the way he wants it.
Lix is an inadvertent hero, giving far more than he means to. Which is, in the end, what redeems the book. Because in that quality—focused on himself and his own small desires, walking through life as if all that matters is the quality of his own eros and individual concerns—he really does represent us all and gives us all—every last, narcissistic one of us—a glimpse at what we give to the world, whether we know it or not.
Despite its considerable faults, Genesis is an enjoyable if not brilliant book. There’s no plot to speak of—the chapters episodically relay the circumstances under which each of Lix’s children is conceived—but Crace writers gracefully and fluidly. Perhaps readers expect too much from a writer who has already proven himself a master in such books as Quarantine, about Jesus’ forty days in the desert, and Being Dead, widely acknowledged as Crace’s masterpiece, that tells the story of two undiscovered, decomposing bodies on an English beach. This novel does not live up to those expectations. It’s too thin of narrative and, like its protagonist, is unwilling to take chances, and so ends up too careful, a bit timid. Perhaps it’s a testament to Crace’s skills that the novel seems, almost as if by accident, to pull itself together in the end, to give us a glimpse at ourselves, not as we’d like to be, but as we are.