Norman Rush's Mortals
"I had been working my tits down to nubs" is the sentence in Mating that first alerted me to this problem of women with male voices in Rush. No human being would ever say this: It is a purely male type of verbal organ-display with female features substituted for male ones. And it doesn't seem to mean anything, either. It defies all the laws of metaphor.
You're right to note that Ray's uxoriousness is "mind-numbing." It needn't be a problem, provided the object of this uxoriousness provokes it plausibly. Unfortunately, she does not. Iris exists in only two dimensions: first, her body, described again and again in a litany of treacly tropes — "Your breasts are perfect." ... "The fact is that I am talking to the most beautiful white woman in southern Africa." ... "Her hair was perfect." ... "I am burning with love, what can I do?" Second, her wit. As it happens, I love her wit ("If I drink that I'll be up all day," she says when offered coffee at breakfast). But it's a very male kind of wit, simply stuck onto her like a "Hi, I'm ..." sticker, and it clearly arises from Rush's privileging of intelligence over verisimilitude. (Not necessarily a bad thing.) Another proof of this: Iris and Ray have identical vocabularies. It's true that married couples' speech patterns converge — but they don't converge that much.
Rush thinks hard about his words, but not as hard as James Joyce (whom the character Ray despises mostly) does. Sometimes this is a matter of laboring for the mot juste, as when he describes Ray's cell at the Ngami Bird Lodge: "The place was windowless but a pittance of light came in." Or in this description of a phone conversation going bad: "She disliked the silence he was making." These moments persuade one to cut Rush a bit of slack during his regular flights of tarted-up syntax, as when he tells us that Iris had lost interest in arts and crafts "synchronous with the Germans' seizing commercial control of basketmaking." (Why the allergy to the word "when"?)
And now you've opened another abyss of taste between us. You think Ray's hatred of his brother Rex will strike the reader immediately as unjustified. But Rex struck me as so villainous from the get-go—and in the get-go, remember, Ray pretty much alleged he had driven their father to semisuicide by threatening to publish a list of Crimes of This Family of Finch—that I had a hard time forgiving him even when Ray began to. Tout pardonner did not come a moment before tout comprendre. That incident of the toy rocket ship that Ray used that Rex stole, just because Ray seemed to care for it, was infuriating. (Bad childhoods are all over Rush's fiction, and I think Ray's is the best of them—grim, plausible, and evoked with mastery.)
I don't want to sign off without mentioning some of the joys of this one-of-a-kind novel, the most ambitious I've read in a long time. One is the pot-boiling plot, and not just because it keeps you turning the pages. Secrecy and crime reveal surprising and sometimes beautiful things about human nature, as when Ray gets Pony to attend Morel's meetings. "What was important was that they both have an un-sordid rationale they could coexist in respectably with one another." (Which could be applied to Ray's marriage.) The plot does nothing to slow the author's powerful, subtle, speculative intelligence. Maybe Rush is one of those writers like Dreiser or Melville or Mann, whose novels, among other things, provide the framework on which the author feels he can hang his social and metaphysical theories.
It has been a delight to spend a few days wandering through the Kalahari with you, Judith.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.