Norman Rush is both a grand old man and a hot new novelist. Nearly 70, he can lay fair claim to being America's brainiest and most substantial writer of fiction—on the strength of Mating, his first novel, which won the National Book Award over a decade ago, and a short story collection, titled Whites. Mating may be the strangest very-good-book in recent American fiction. It's the story of a radical anthropologist, Nelson Denoon, who founds a feminist cooperative in the Kalahari Desert, as narrated through the field notes and reminiscences of a grad student who falls in love with him. Adrift in Botswana, the narrator is pedantic, glib, unreliable, allusive, high-strung, and politically correct. She is simultaneously very sexual and icily calculating; simultaneously self-hating and arrogant. She is a hell of a character—I find her repugnant, but I'm in a minority of readers on the matter.
On the strength of one novel, it was hard to be sure whether Rush was achieving his extraordinary effects through mastery or sleight-of-hand. First, the desultory, diaristic organization of Mating—which could pass for experimental if it were someone's fifth novel, say—looked suspiciously like a trick forced on Rush by limited aptitude for narrative. Second, the political and intellectual obsessions of the two main characters crowded everything else out, until one suspected that these were merely the author's obsessions, arbitrarily distributed between two voices.
Only after reading Rush's second novel, Mortals, can one satisfactorily resolve these worries about Mating. One Point 1: Mating was structured as it was out of necessity, not for experiment's sake. On Point 2: Rush's worldview is not identical to that of the characters in Mating. In fact, he has a powerful character-generating imagination.
Mortals is a far better book than Mating. In fact it makes the first novel, impressive though it is, look like an apprentice work. This may not be obvious at first sight because Rush is writing in a more rigorous, classical (i.e., 19th-century) idiom—one that adds many deep satisfactions, but also makes the novel's surface shortcomings harder to disguise.
This is a novel of ideas—mostly religious ones—but let's leave those for tomorrow or Thursday. It is also a big, suspenseful story of a man caught in an avalanche of bad breaks. Ray Finch, a CIA contract agent in Botswana, dotes on his wife, Iris, but she is bored and looking elsewhere for love. He is content in both parts of his job (the spying bit, as well as his cover as a Milton scholar), but the end of the Cold War has driven his handlers over the edge.
Ray discovers that an alternative-medicine enthusiast, Davis Morel, has moved to Botswana from Cambridge to proselytize against Christianity. Suspecting that Morel is some kind of charlatan "sexologist," he asks to write Morel's profile for the agency. But a sadistic new station chief, Chet Boyle, who revels in the "pulp" side of his job, distrusts Ray's literary bent and forbids the profile-writing for which he is beloved within the agency. Instead, he insists Ray persecute an idealistic young native named Samuel Kerekang, who is preaching against cattle fetishism in the countryside. Problems mount. Ray's younger brother Rex, whom he despises and resents, encourages Iris to view herself as badly married. Iris, in turn, falls in love with her doctor—Morel. Ray is sent on a spying-and-sabotage mission against Kerekang that drags most of the book's characters into the middle of a pointless armed conflict.
As I say, a classical novel will show up a writer's weaknesses. I hope we can talk about two of them this week. First, the flatness of the depiction of Ray's wife, Iris—breasts here, repartée there—is a big problem, since her self-discovery drives the book's action. (In general, there is a maleness to all Rush's females that we ought to address.) Second, Rush's use of dialogue. Outside of the academic/expository idiom, he can't reproduce it credibly. But what a gift he has in that idiom! Rush uses long (40-page, 100-page) chapters to allow his characters to do intellectual battle, as in The Brothers Karamazov or the novels of Roger Martin du Gard. Morel's religious disputes with Kerekang remind me of Naphta and Settembrini's dialectical battles over faith and obedience in The MagicMountain. I'd argue that this is as worthy a use of dialogue as Raymond Carver–esque realism.
Among Rush's outright strengths are 1) Ray's extraordinary family relationships, particularly with his brother—manipulative, but increasingly worthy of our empathy; 2) a real sense of (black) humor, as opposed to the frequently complacent punning of Mating; and 3) as always, Rush's intelligence.
Rush took a big risk in writing this book. To my mind, it has paid off and proved him as a novelist in a way that Mating did not manage to. What do you think?