To obtain the best understanding of Jim Crace's new and ninth novel, The Pesthouse, one must read Jonathan Raban's essay "America's Reality Check: The U.S. Election," which was published on October 31, 2004—and republished in 2006 in his book My Holy War—and opens with these key words: "Most people I know are sick with anxiety about the outcome of Tuesday's presidential election... It's not as if the prospect of a Kerry presidency betokened the dawn of a new age of sweetness and light: The best that can be said of Kerry's stated positions on the war on Iraq and the 'war on terror' is that at least he treats them as two different wars. It is that the prospect of a second Bush administration inspires, among urban liberals, something close to the fear of death itself—the death of America as a civilized and civilizing presence in the world."

On November 8, 2004, that's exactly how millions in America felt: a dread the depth and darkness of which was close to (if not totally) "the fear of death itself." There was no tomorrow, no hope, no reason; like Benjamin's angel, all we saw in the future was a surge of evil and wreckage. That mood, a mood of a death not of the immediate self but of civilized America, is what Crace's novel describes in great detail. The world of The Pesthouse happens after some future catastrophe, a "Grand Contagion," turned the day of the once-prosperous United States into an unending night of toxic clouds, toxic earth, and toxic humans.

The center of the novel is occupied by two characters, Margaret and Franklin. Margaret, who suffers from a plague-like disease called "the flux," begins the story with her family abandoning her in a hut (the pesthouse) on the hills of a riverside village, Ferrytown. Franklin, who has a swollen knee, begins the story as one of the many dreamers heading east to a port with ships bound for the new land of opportunity, old Europe. By chance, he finds Margaret in the pesthouse, and though the disease has done nasty things to her skin, he also finds her beautiful and quickly falls in love. But disaster strikes. A heavy rain looses a mudslide that disrupts the bottom of a nearby lake and releases a cloud of poisonous gas. The death cloud settles on Freetown and kills all the inhabitants. Franklin and Margaret are spared because the cloud does not reach the elevation of the pesthouse.

Though not healthy or fit to travel, they have no choice but to walk to the East Coast. They cross the river by a secret bridge known only to Margaret, struggle for three days through a marshy forest, and come upon the ruins of an interstate highway, known in legend as the Dream Highway. America is a "junkle," an industrial wasteland that's lawless, medieval, and unremittingly bleak. As with all movie plots involving a road trip, the main characters are separated in the third act: Franklin becomes a slave for a master called Captain Chief; Margaret joins a religious sect called Finger Baptists. The result of a violent event is their reunion, and together they reach the port and see the miserable truth at the end of the miserable world.

If you read The Pesthouse as anything else but a prose poem capturing the heavy mood that settled on America in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, you are not reading the book correctly. This is not a work of science fiction—an attempt to imagine the future consequences of current cultural and technological trends. There is no tomorrow in this book, nor anything close to the hard facts of USA today. What Crace describes with striking words and sharp sentences is an inner feeling that's still with us today and will not entirely leave until Bush is out of office.

Reviewing in the Guardian Raban's last novel Surveillance, which ends with a grand catastrophe, Toby Litts writes: "If someone were to come along, dig a moderately deep hole in my garden, give me a metal box, and tell me I had half an hour to put together a 2006 time capsule, Jonathan Raban's new novel is the first thing I'd grab." If I were to put together a mood capsule for the period of time between September 11, 2001, and November 7, 2006, one of the firsts things I'd grab is The Pesthouse. recommended

Jonathan Raban interviews Jim Crace on Thurs May 24 at Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave, 386-4636, 7 pm, free.