OCTOBER 23, 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.
Ann Close, Rush’s editor at Knopf, told me she met the Rushes at a dinner hosted by the late poet and science fiction writer Tom Disch. When she got home that evening, she dug through her stack of New Yorker magazines and found his recently published story “Bruns,” told in the distinctive voice of a lapsed anthropologist, a white woman in Botswana, a story which appeared in the April 4, 1983 issue and opens Whites. Close calls “Bruns” a perfect short story, and her enthusiasm for the author’s work led her to broker a two-book deal with his agent, Andrew Wylie. She considers reading Mating, in which the narrator of “Bruns” reappears, one of the best experiences of her life.
Rush began to write full-time in 1984, but until then he supported himself and his family as a teacher and rare books dealer. In a 1995 essay, he speaks of his commitment to writing “serious fiction,” fiction where “we are able to enter disarmed and to open ourselves to the healthy subversions produced by the truth told excessively and beautifully and from vantage points different from our own and different from one another.” He counts among his influences Rabelais, Balzac, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, and Joyce. While Rush’s politics are left-leaning (he spent nine months in prison in the fifties for conscientious objection to the Korean War), his writing cannot be reduced to ideology or a specific message, political or otherwise. His work is replete with acrobatic language, high comedy, characters navigating complex interior and exterior worlds, and plots that encompass the political and the personal.
Rush’s third novel, Subtle Bodies, is scheduled for publication in spring 2013. Close says that Rush has promised her a book of 300 pages or so, considerably slimmer than the almost-500-page Mating and 700-plus-page Mortals. It is his first novel not set in Africa, taking place, rather, in the Catskill Mountains on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It is a post-September 11th novel that Rush has contextualized in more than one interview thusly: If Mating is about courtship and Mortals is about marriage, then Subtle Bodies is about friendship. The following passage offers a preview; the two main characters are Nina and Ned; Nina is on the ovulatory stimulant Clomid and, in her campaign to conceive, has flown across the continent to be with Ned, who is preparing a memorial service for his oldest college friend, Doug:
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.
He happened not to like the underpants she had on. They were plaid. He called them grandma panties. Watch him say something, she thought, as Ned came back from flossing in the bathroom they were sharing with Karl and Gruen. He was looking at her underpants. She had no preference whatever when it came to his choice of underpants.
“May I say something about your unmentionables?” Ned asked.
And that was another thing that was getting to her and that she absolutely should not go into. In the seventies, the boys had lived in a jokey plenum. Now a kind of fitful replay was emerging among them, extending even to Karl, who had a brain. They were mixing up friendship with the stupid things the friends had done at a particular point in time. She was beginning to hate friendship. I am your friend, you idiot, she thought, I let you into my perfect body, for Christ’s sake.
“Why do you hate plaid so much, do you know?” Nina asked.
“I just don’t like it.”
“And why do you hate the word ‘valid’? would you say.”
“Because people use valid when they’re too chicken to say if something being asserted is true or false…”
“Oh bullshit. People may misuse it but you can just as reasonably apply it to a piece of evidence offered in a debate. And why would you bother to hate people who say ‘feisty’ or ‘vibrant’? Only because Doug did, and now you can tell me if Doug happened to have an opinion about plaid, perchance?”
“Okay he did.”
“Based on what?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Well don’t make that face and don’t look defeated. That’s not what I want.”
She pushed her panties down, stepped out of them, and tossed them at him. She threw herself into bed.
Ned joined her under the covers, saying, “I have come here directly from the tent pole factory.”
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.
The theme of male friendship is virgin territory for Rush, but the basic framework of the protagonist-couple and their idioverse is a Rushian staple; Ned and Nina parallel couples from the earlier novels (Nelson and Karen Denoon from Mating, and Ray and Iris Finch from Mortals). And here again there is conspiracy afoot, as we have come to expect in Rush’s novels. What does it mean when Nina says that instead of sleeping (all of Rush’s leading ladies seem to be insomniacs of one sort or other) she will devote herself to figuring out “the white spaces on the map of relationships”? The landscape is unclear; is Ned keeping things from her, instead of helping her read their surroundings?
The forces at hand are different than in previous books: friendship and marriage seem to be pitted against one another, at least in Nina’s mind. Questions of possession, truth, and loyalty abound, the social circles circling, our newest leading lady very much like the women inMortals, rising in a sea of social and cultural shifts:
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.
Children are mostly absent from Whites as well, except for the story “Near Pala,” which opens with two couples in a Land Rover, wives in back and husbands in front. Nan, pregnant, tells Tess, who is ovulating, that she is tired of discussing her pregnancies and wants to leave the topic aside. The women discuss vacations in Greece and elsewhere, then life in Africa with Africans, while the husbands, Gareth and Tom, discuss crime and the horrible roads in Botwsana. In the final, harrowing scene, Nan yells at Gareth, her husband, and then Tom, to stop and help two girls and an older woman with an infant who are chasing the Land Rover in a desperate attempt for water. The men refuse to stop.
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.
In Subtle Bodies, Nina’s campaign to conceive is related to the invasion of Iraq, when fathers and mothers and 18-year-old child-soldiers are headed to war. How will children, or the lack of children, figure in the characters’ lives, thoughts, desires, and regrets? Are friends the family that we wish we had had, a chance to repair the disappointments and torment of childhood? And what are children? A gift, a project, a relief? We shall see what Rush’s characters in Subtle Bodies tell us, which secrets they divulge, and which ones they keep to themselves.