Norman Rush's Mortals

Humane Mortals
New books dissected over email.
June 11 2003 8:58 AM

Norman Rush's Mortals

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Dear Judith,

I had been planning to talk about plot and a specific problem that Rush has with women (i.e., that they have men's voices), but you have brought us so quickly to an irreconcilable difference in taste that I must address it.

We disagree about Karen (of Mating) and Ray (of Mortals) diametrically.

Ray has the soul of a poet. Driving across the Kalahari on his mission, Ray is reminded of something he'd forgotten: that he had passed through a very brief suicidal period in his youth. "The Kalahari was bringing it back because the Kalahari was saying something to him. It was saying to die, actually." This is wit. What Karen has is something else, something striven for, strained, self-interested—a repertoire of pedantic tics she mistakes for wit.

Karen has the soul of a lawyer. She never plays with her intelligence, always deploys it to beat others, to allow herself to feel superior to them. Where Ray uses literature as a consolation (and, granted, a cocoon), Karen uses it as a credential. (From Mating: "As we were eating, my face got hot when I realized that I had come within an ace of saying Yes, Silone, the fascist or profascist. I had been thinking of Céline.")

The moments when she and Denoon play their games of literary one-upmanship are the hardest of the novel for me. At such times, Mating seems to have no characters in it—only ideologies and IQs. This is the first novel's greatest limitation; it stunts character growth, making Mating a much smaller book than Mortals. But this very limitation may redound to the earlier book's literary prestige because it creates an overlap with the class interests of people who review books. I am not saying that those who praise Mating were wrong to—I myself liked it. But for readers who don't quite realize they are reading a novel (always a majority of readers, in any social class), Mating makes a low appeal to a kind of patriotism of the nation of academia. Most readers are "rooting for" Karen's opinions.

The uxoriousness you mentioned in Ray can frustrate the reader, I'll grant (on which more tomorrow), because it is a source of blindness and blown opportunities for knowing. But it does not leave him more blinkered than Karen's hardness, snideness, and snobbery do. (Regarding her reappearance in Mortals: Nothing in the book delighted me more than to learn that she was born Karen Ann to a mother named Dooley, but that her mother gave her a new surname—Hoyt—because it reminded her of "hoity-toity.") There are a couple of passages in Mating in which this snobbery blossoms into a self-satisfaction that is positively eerie: "Honeymoon is the word that inevitably comes to mind, but it certainly doesn't apply: we were both working all day every day, normally, and also without saying it we both knew we were superior to the term." Later, Karen excuses her reading of other people's personal papers because she's an anthropologist: "Anyone who could see into my heart would exculpate me and realize I was doing it pursuant to my consuming interest in the mystery of the world."

Karen's interest is a purely intellectual one. Ray is entwined with other human beings, whereas Karen relates to others primarily through her academic and political prejudices. That Ray can say, "I was wrong" makes him the more human of the pair. His sudden revelation, under torture, that the favoritism his mother had always shown toward Rex was due to her diagnosis of Rex's vulnerability to suicide—combined with his sudden certitude that his brother is dead­—is one of the most searing, moving things I've read in recent years. I cannot imagine Karen reversing any similar opinion about anyone. Ray is, like Kerekang in the earlier part of the book, essentially a tolerant person; his receptivity is the mark of a literary imagination. Listening to a secretly gathered tape of one of Morel's camp meetings "brought home to him how little interest he had in changing anyone's mind on any subject, any important subject." Karen is an extremist, an ideologue, and (in her own description) a fanatic. She has, like Morel in Mortals, a very anti-literary obsession with not lying: "the first thing to be proved is that nobody is lying, nobody lying, nobody wanting to lie, nobody lying—my utopia and good luck to me."

This is not, need I add, an argument that Ray is a better-drawn character than Karen. But he is a human being, capable of growth and transformation (which makes him a more interesting person to traverse a novel with), and she is (I hate to say it) monstrous. The extent of our differences on this matter fascinates me and leaves me thinking that Rush is an even better novelist than I took him for before your last posting.

Best,
Chris

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