|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Unmentionables by Magdalena Edwards
October 23rd, 2011
Illustration: Snow © Alexander Colville 1969
NORMAN RUSH WAS BORN in San Francisco in 1933 and didn't publish his first book, Whites, until 1986, when he was 53. That collection of short stories was followed five years later by his National Book Award-winning novel Mating. In 2003 he published Mortals, his second novel. All three books are set in and around Botswana, where Rush and his wife, muse, and faithful editor, Elsa, were co-country directors for the Peace Corps from 1978-1983.
They were getting ready for bed, at last. She needed more sleep than she was likely to get in the next few days but the problem was that around there it was like a novel. There were white spaces on the map of relationships she was figuring out.
The tension between Ned and Nina - sexual, intellectual, marital — is palpable, and heightened by humor. She has "crashed" the final goodbye between Ned and Doug, and we don't yet know how he died.
What they wanted, [Ray] gathered, feeling pleased with himself, was for their own personal rational deliberation to replace what? ... to replace tradition and custom and instinct, what men called instinct, in arriving at the nine or ten major decisions life presents all of us with. That meant when to mate, of course, but not only when to mate, it meant whether to mate or not, and with which sex even ... what to be professionally and whether to have children. It was banal, but an insight can be banal and radical at the same time, apparently.
Nina's campaign to conceive a child is also new territory; Rush's prior protagonist-couples are childless. The unmarried and nameless narrator of Mating (reintroduced as "Karen" in Mortals) is guiltily reposing from her graduate thesis research while devoting her energies to available men. Once she meets Nelson Denoon, 15 years her senior and an eminent figure in their shared field of anthropology, she struggles with the question of whether to procreate with him:
Denoon was childless, so far as I knew: and that was interesting. But, next question, if the whole issue of repetition is so uninteresting, why was Denoon's childlessness interesting? Was he also waiting for the perfect missing jigsaw puzzle partner to complete his inner wholeness and to release him into wanting to reproduce? That I could be swept out of myself and under the sign of absolute love and into embracing motherhood was something I suppose I was assuming, but this has to be bracketed with the population question, on which I'm a fanatic, still.
By the end of Mating, the narrator returns to the question of "repetition" or reproduction in the context of Denoon's convalescence as he recuperates from his days lost, almost dead, in the desert. Her inquiry into mating and maternity, still conflicted, occurs on much more visceral terms:
I wanted a rule made that no one could come into the room other than Kakelo or me unless I said all right. This was connected with desperate fantasies I was having vis-à-vis his seed, assuming the worst had happened. It humiliates me to admit that I was wondering if I could get him erect and then get over him and capture his seed.
She sets this project aside and decides to leave Denoon in the hands of a young, beautiful State Department intern named Bronwen so that she can return to Stanford and complete her graduate studies. In Mortals, Denoon is in a wheelchair, mostly speechless and easily tired, while Karen, now his wife and still childless, has taken over the role of public speaker, solar democrat, and visionary. She is needed more as his maternal caregiver and the promoter of his life's work, she decides, than as mother of his children. The narrative perspective in the novel is that of Ray Finch, whose day job as a Milton scholar and real job as a contract agent for the CIA do not prevent him from studying his wife, Iris, obsessively:
They disagreed about her breasts, but she was wrong. She had never nursed. They had no children. Small breasts are best for the long haul. Even if it was nobody's fault that there were no children he felt guilty because not having them had left her perfect for him. Their sex had zeal in it. He didn't mean zeal, he meant something else. Their life together was erotic in a longitudinal way, he meant. The erotic was always there, not sporadically there in little segments set aside. At least that was the way it was for him, and unless it was an incredible act, it was that way for her too. But why should it be an act?
When Iris's sister gets pregnant and has her child as a single mother (the father is in the periphery, mostly unavailable) and Iris travels from Botswana to Florida to be with her, Ray rethinks their life together. They talk on the phone, and he listens carefully. Iris tells Ray how much her sister "needed this child" and how, prior to her pregnancy, she was "volunteering to baby-sit for all her married friends and she was falling in love with their children," including one "twenty-one-month old holy terror" in particular "who would go through the apartment dismantling it." He finds this reassuring. "So far, her attitude to the new baby wasn't alarming. It was unromantic." But when Iris asks Ray for help coming up for a name for Ellen's new daughter, he tries to avoid it, because "the last time he'd been engaged in baby-naming exercises was during one of Iris' false pregnancies, long ago." Iris is adamant:
[P]lease help us Ray. Think about it. You have good suggestions. Anything with a little literary feeling to it would be welcome to Ellen. She's getting the most absurd suggestions from her friends here. I hate them. That's another subject. I'll tell you later. Just rebarbative is what I'd call the whole bunch of them. But there seems to be a trend going to find a name that's got trashy associations like Lulu or Lola or Ruby. I don't understand it. Or she'll be enthusiastic over a name that's just plain weird, like Merle. Of course there was Merle Oberon...
Ray wants to have a completely different conversation. He wants "to hear that she was keeping her personal footing in all the upheaval around having a baby, particularly as the proposition might apply to her. He [wants] her to miss Botswana, if that was possible." He wants her to miss him and their life together, to affirm her longing and need. He also needs "to know if there was any chance she had been in contact with Morel," the iconoclastic and handsome holistic doctor recently arrived in Botswana via Cambridge, Massachusetts (where he grew up with a black, Harvard professor father and a white, Boston Brahmin mother). Iris has started seeing the doctor to uncover the sources of her unhappiness, and the doctor doesn't believe in conventional doctor-patient relationships.
Nan looked to the rear. The women were lost. She covered her face with her hands. Then she lowered her hands and seized the water bottle from Tess, who was holding it. She shoved her window open and hurled the bottle out onto the bank. She lunged toward the front, grasping for anything else she could find to throw out of the vehicle.
Gareth slams on the breaks when Tom reports that Nan has thrown the water bottle out of the window. When she asks him why they have stopped, Gareth says, "One of us must collect the bottle. Simple enough." Because of the delay, the Land Rover is caught in a sandstorm. The group must wait until it clears before pushing ahead.