Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies

By Jenny HendrixSeptember 9, 2013

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies

Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush

TO A STRAIGHT WOMAN, the phenomenon of inter-male friendship possesses a certain anthropological interest. Yet the tendency, I’ve found, is — quite in contravention of scholarly norms — to be at once jealous of it and somehow touched; to falsely exoticize it, in other words, viewing it as an unattainable utopia of uncomplication and purity, as we might succumb to viewing some remotely primitive tribe. Jealous because we feel the need to fill this role for our lovers or husbands, to be total besties, as it were, as well as romantic and sexual partners, and also because we’re sure (we are!) that we’d do a better job at it than any man would do. Touched, possibly, tear in our eye, by its being so mysterious, and, well, maybe noble in some utterly incomprehensible way. So imagine this reader’s delight upon hearing that it’s this very mystery into which Norman Rush delves in his long-awaited third novel, Subtle Bodies, and that — hosanna, as one of his characters puts it — he’s given us a female perspective, too. Specifically, the novel nudges at the question of what happens to male friendship when men are no longer equals — to solve, even more specifically, for “x” (women are, for once, the “y”) in the equation of friendship plus time, a calculation involving both the limitations of sympathy and its consequences.

The plot of Subtle Bodies will no doubt, superficially, remind people of The Big Chill. Ned and Nina are trying to conceive. Nina is ovulating, and thus is enraged when Ned, upon learning that an old friend has died in a lawnmower accident (yes, really), abruptly departs, depriving her of his services. This friend, Douglas, had been the ringleader of a collegiate gang of self-described wits who lived in a railroad apartment at 71 Second Avenue in New York (an address once occupied by Rush and Elsa, his wife and muse) while attending NYU, and who, as Nina understands it, “were going to be social renovators of some unclear kind, had been the idea, by somehow generalizing their friendship.” Despite having lost touch over the years, the surviving members — Ned, Gruen, Joris, and Elliot — gather at Douglas’s vast estate in the Catskill Mountains, to reminisce and bury him. His widow, the superb Iva, attempts to stage-manage what becomes something of a media circus, and here Nina arrives, angry, irrepressible, and curious, trying to fill in, spy-like, the “white spaces on the map of the relationships she was poring over.”

The novel is briefer, in every sense, than Rush’s previous two, and this is bound to raise some issues for him, critically. The difference, though not one of genre, feels on the order of a genre shift — as though a recognized tragedian had produced a drawing room farce. The truth is that the truth, which Rush’s fiction has told “excessively and beautifully,” to borrow a phrase he coined in a 1995 essay, is somewhat less excessive here. Likewise the tone is more direct, delivering more of a “such is such” and “this is that” than the reader of Rush may be used to. The obvious question is whether Rush is succeeding less completely at being himself as a writer, by employing shorter sentences and less of the linguistic brio he’s become known for, introducing and yet not exhausting a series of characters and plot elements along the way. A more charitable, and accurate, formulation, if one is to believe what the author has said in interviews, is that he has challenged himself with brevity. (In fact, the challenge came from Elsa, according to a profile in The New York Times Magazine.) For one thing, the language of this novel, which is plainer than the language in either Mating or Mortals, is truer to the minds of the Californians who alternately lend their point of view to the book’s short, numbered chapters; Ned, an activist involved in the organization Fair Trade, and his wife, Nina, a nonprofit accountant with a two-year college education, are both linguistically less adventurous than the animating forces behind the earlier two books, though they certainly have their moments. And in its brisk way, the language in Subtle Bodies is remarkably buoyant with wit: subverted clichés (“Everything was a fount of sadness”), word games (“[A] bouncer was an excort and graffiti artists were ulterior decorators”), and pastiche, via a few magnificent poems. Ned and Nina, and especially Nina, are playful people, linguistically and otherwise, enjoying what the narrator of Mating called the private “idioverse” of married couples: “Take blubalub, for example,” Ned thinks:

Blubalub was a conceit of Nina’s. One summer they had stayed for a month in a cottage near Stinson Beach. And the cottage’s Dutch door had opened directly on the driveway. So once when he was coming back from the mailbox she had opened the top section of the Dutch door and stood there topless and invited him to put his face between her breasts and nuzzle side to side, which she referred to as blubalub … So then she said blubalub was something for the UPS driver.

There are moments of supreme attention elsewhere too, many of them concerning character: Elliott describes how a prostatectomy had deprived him of the “stupid imaginary availability of the women you run into” — a revelation — and a singular detail about Douglas comes to light: he so loved Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson that he stopped reading at page 847 in order to have more to read at an unspecified later date. So here is truth told beautifully indeed.

Like Mortals, Subtle Bodies is told in the third person, though Rush is, as always, such a masterful writer of prose that his indirect narration often ends so close to the first-person narrator that the presence of an “I,” always flickering behind it, occasionally bursts fully into view. In fact, from Douglas’s tower, Ned observes

[v]iews left and right — calm prospects, no crags, just the matte grandeur of tracts of trees sweeping up to plucked-looking ridgelines, marred, if that was the word, here and there by isolate slumping-limbed firs resembling incorrect ideograms. Scenery is probably good for your blood pressure, he thought.

This is vintage Rush — gorgeous — though this level of lyricism is relatively rare here. Still: that “no crags” gleams. So easily passed over unremarked, it describes not just the view but, crucially, the expectations of the one observing it, an observer whose intelligence we can sense — “if that was the word” — constructing, then reading, the description itself, and then finally arriving, as Rush’s sentences so often do, in the realm of pure and idiosyncratic thought. For instance again:

Nina realized she didn’t know what she had been eating. Everything had been so delicious but her mind had been elsewhere. If she had to compliment Iva she wouldn’t know what to compliment. She told herself grow up. She thought, We had butter lettuce salad cups with something in them and clam appetizers and green bean casserole and lobster risotto.

The “we” is so deeply implied, there’s little need for that “she thought.”

Because see how masterfully Rush captures the repetitious rhythm of thought, without announcing the fact: “He would be dumbfounded when he realized she had sprung after him, done it, like that, like a savage beast dropping everything herself, the same as he had, like a child, an adolescent, a child.” In the repetition of “child” we have Nina’s anger, insistent, as well as unreasoned, like a child — the word also, coincidentally, reminds us of her preoccupation with getting pregnant. (I can’t say for certain, but it’s possible that Rush is often clever this way, and it’s fun to catch him in the act: David Gruen, for instance, is observed to be “plump” and then, in the next sentence, “acting stately,” a conjunction that can’t but summon the ghost of “plump, stately Buck Mulligan” and that hero of Rush’s, Joyce. Later, a turkey is described in those same words.)

Adherence to the movement of thought likewise allows Rush to shake apart the narrative present into its minutest layers:

Gruen was lying down again, again shrouded to the top of his head. Ned decided to erect a card table at a considerate distance from Gruen. Ned had brought him a cup of tea. He retrieved the empty cup from inside the blanket cave Gruen was keeping himself in. Nina continued to not answer.

The amalgam of tenses, like much of Rush’s writing, strikes one as almost mathematical, generating an urge to diagram, the way one might when learning another language, something like 1) the continuous act of both Gruen’s lying there and Nina’s failure to answer; 2) the short, present-tense acts of retrieving and deciding; 3) the assumed, unannounced act of dialing a phone; 4) the completed act of having at one time delivered a cup of tea; and 5) the implied but uncertain future act of setting up, or having set up, a table. Time is both compressed and separated, showing actions, like the strata in a chunk of clay, that are at once present, remembered, continuous, and projected. It’s an achievement of geologic proportions, and accomplished so smoothly that one may not even notice, being so naturally the way reality is.

Still, if one were to begin tabulating the things there are less of in Subtle Bodies than in Rush’s previous efforts — which it’s only half-fair to do — one might begin with the landscape. The Catskills exist (“regular trees in their last leaf, intermixed with unwelcoming, bristling evergreens”), but do so less forcefully than Botswana once did, so that the gathering might have taken place anywhere. Tensions — Ned’s uncertainty about his eulogy for Douglas, Nina’s possible pregnancy, various shadowy side plots involving Douglas’s dealings and those of his son Hume (who, it’s imperative to note, Douglas had begun claiming he’d named after the actor Hume Cronyn, and not the philosopher David Hume) — these are done away with rapidly, so that we are left with people sitting, Agatha Christie–like, in a room, or, more to the point, with someone sitting just outside the room, a step yet further removed. The same emptying effect is accomplished by setting the novel on the eve of the Iraq War. Ned is fairly passionate about the need to stop it, and yet his passion is defanged by our sad knowledge that he cannot. What remains, once the content of Ned’s political will has, in this way, been essentially neutered, is a sense of political engagement that is — as one of Rush’s protagonists might well have put it — pur sang. It is as important to Ned that the war be stopped as it is that his friends — all of whom are resistant — sign his petition against it, because they need to have signed it, because there is no failure like indifference. Events, here, are less important than outcomes.

Event-wise, though, it’s Douglas, dead before we arrive, who fills the role of disruptive charismatic, like Nelson Denoon before him. A lifelong provocateur, he nonetheless has failed, deeply, in more ways than one. Part of this failure, as Ned sees it, is in the simple fact of his death:

Douglas’s death was bound to bring out all the anxieties that go with looking back and summing up what the verdict of a life came down to, the choices made, what the verdict would be if life ended suddenly without any warning or chance to do the things that were left to do that could improve the judgment an existence got.

Part of this judgment has to do with the meaning and purpose of friendship — why had Ned so loved a man who, according to Nina, had consistently undervalued him? Ned’s answer is that it was the so-called “subtle bodies” of the clique among which the bonds of friendship formed: “And the question was still there of whether their true interior selves — the subtle bodies inside — were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them.”

Which is to say that, far from being spiritual as the title might imply, the question of friendship becomes a political one. This is an old and interesting mixture, echoing out of the writings of Coleridge, or, even earlier, out of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, in which the Englishman found in the French Revolution hopeful proof that “man, were he not corrupted by governments, is naturally the friend of man,” that the “natural” bond of friendship trumps the “artificial” bonds of society and status, and that, free of the “necessary evil” of government, friends find themselves political equals. There are shades of anarchism to this, and Nina makes a sport of calling her husband “Bakunin, but crypto.” Note too in Rush’s novel the presence of a Frenchman (he is called Jacques, of course), an actual anarchist and possible moon-landing denier who greets Nina with the slogan, “Liberté, egalité, maternité.” Fraternité, again, is implied.

And so Subtle Bodies ends in examining friendship as much in terms of its personal resonance as in its potential contribution to humanity’s future. Ned’s protest refrain, “a day of streets like rivers of fists,” is taken from a poem by the obscure Australian communist poet John Manifold. It begins: “Three men came talking up the road / and still ‘tomorrow’ was the word.” Like Ned’s friends, the poem’s first two speakers wax pessimistic: tomorrow will bring either death or more of the status quo. The third — it’s too easy to say he is Ned, but one might — is something of a revolutionary of hope: tomorrow, in that “river of fists” men will be “treated as human souls,” he says. There are hints of this too in Rush’s evocation of Boswell, who appears several times in the novel and gets something like the last word. In quoting him, Rush doesn’t get quite as far as the following, but it’s there:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes the heart run over. It will not do to divide the objects of our attention into minute parts and think separately of each part. It is by contemplating a large mass of human existence that a man, while he sets a just value on his own life, does not think of his death as annihilating all that is great and pleasing in the world.

Instead of this passage, Rush gives us a sort of coda: it’s February 15, 2003, the day of the Convergence, and Ned stands on an awning, contemplating, and cheering, the large mass of human existence below.


Jenny Hendrix is an un-Google-able freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Jenny Hendrix is an un-Google-able freelance writer living in Brooklyn.


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