Norman Rush's Mortals

Overdosing on Neuroticism
New books dissected over email.
June 11 2003 2:54 PM

Norman Rush's Mortals

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Dear Chris,

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Let me clarify one thing: I never meant to say that the sort of self I idealized in my late 20s and early 30s was any good. I'd be the first to admit that the ego ideal represented by Karen—the woman who lets herself be hurt by nothing, who has a snippy comeback for everything—is chilling and that having lived through another decade has better equipped me to appreciate, as a personal quality, the sort of vulnerable humanity exhibited by the 48-year-old Ray. Karen, I agree, can be arrogant and defensive and status-conscious and shockingly self-absorbed. (It must be said, however, that Rush accounts for this by giving her one of those agonizing shame-filled and guilt-ridden childhoods to overcompensate for—the shame being that she had a monstrously fat and socially awkward mother, the guilt being that she was disloyal enough to have noticed such failings.) Ray is humbler, more compassionate, more perceptive. He is by far the more self-aware of the two. But all his moral superiority cannot change an implacable literary truth, which is that Karen is charismatic and tartly funny and Ray, for all his fine insights, is, I still contend, a bore.

What makes Ray so tedious? It sounds odd to put it this way, but I think he's the victim of an excess of authorial empathy and verisimilitude. Let me give a somewhat convoluted example: Ray's relationship with his brother, which takes up almost as much airspace in this book as his relationship with his wife. Ray is a spy; Rex is a free spirit. Ray is solidly employed; Rex makes his living making pungent and ironic cultural observations and floats from writing gig to writing gig. Ray is happily married to Iris; Rex is unhappily gay and devotes a great deal of time to a correspondence in which he seeks his sister-in-law's sympathy, much to his brother's chagrin. To be crudely reductive about it, in the political allegory that can be teased out of this book, Ray is the principle of order, of the status quo, of nation-states and the progress toward enlightenment and development; Rex is the principle of anarchy and indeterminacy and cultural subversion.

Rush, however, is far too clever a writer to let allegory stand as such; instead he buries it deep within this extremely neurotic fraternal competition. Ray hates Rex, with a fierceness that defies clear emotional explanation. His hatred of Rex strikes the reader immediately as unjustified. It makes him faintly despicable. All this would be a fine way for Rush to complicate Ray's character and to make him interestingly unreliable, were it not for one thing. Ray, being unable to explain satisfactorily his rage at Rex, acts like a genuine neurotic, returning to the Rex question again and again and again. And we as readers lose a little more patience with him each time he does so, until we can't help but tire of him. It's like being stuck at work at a desk next to an otherwise lovely man whose one flaw is that he can't stop complaining about some family matter that was never fascinating to begin with and has made him utterly repugnant by now. And this is a shame, because, as you point out, Ray is a helluva character, fully worthy of our loyalty and affection. Rush has made the simple tactical mistake of placing us so far inside Ray's head, giving us such an accurate account of the ebb and flow of his obsessions, that less than a third of the way into the book, we scream to be let out.

Lest I be accused of something similar, I will stop here for today and leave till tomorrow your very interesting question of whether Rush's female characters sound like men in drag. Naturally, being a Karen acolyte, I have many theories about that.

Yours,
Judith

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.