SEPTEMBER 9, 2013
IN THE EARLY PAGES of Norman Rush’s debut novel, the National Book Award-winning and much-beloved Mating, the book’s narrator, a PhD candidate in nutritional anthropology, has an avocational epiphany:
I would be a docent, presenting Botswana as an institution with obscure holdings. It was clear I was perfect for addressing a true need. Whites in Botswana needed to feel they had come to an exotic place. After all, they were in Africa. But Botswana is frustrating. […] The culture looks familiar but feels alien. The Batswana are not what you would call forthcoming. […] There are barriers. Americans suffer the most. They come to Botswana wanting to be lovely to Africans. A wall confounds them. Behind it is something they sense is interesting. I could help them.
This woman — unnamed throughout Mating — is qualified for this makeshift position by the simple fact that she is in Botswana: her thesis work has brought her here. Her confidence, while remarkable, is not undeserved, but what is most striking about this job description is how closely the responsibilities resemble, almost to the point of euphemism, the authorial responsibilities that Rush has assumed for himself, and admirably fulfilled, in his first three books. Whites, the compact collection of short stories that was Rush’s first book, his second novel, Mortals, and Mating each rely heavily upon Botswana as both a setting and a plot engine — each detail, by turns assiduously and equivocally, the “wall” that “confounds” those new to the country. And, with the central “whites” as occasional stand-ins for Rush’s Anglophone readership, each book satirizes the ignorance that underpins expatriate goodwill while half-confirming the exoticism that the whites expect, elucidating some of the country’s “obscure holdings” while recognizing the inviolability of others.
Rush was not living in Botswana at the time that any of these books were completed — after a significant tenure as co-director, with his wife Elsa, of a Peace Corps mission there, he returned to the states years before Whites was published. There was at first no reason to expect that the African country would exercise such an enduring grip on his literary imagination; yet because his reputation is now so tied to his role as a docent of that country, there is no reason to expect that this grip should show signs of loosening.
That Rush’s new novel, Subtle Bodies, bears not one mention of Botswana is one of its many surprises. It is, in all senses of the word, domestic. Set largely in upstate New York, Subtle Bodies features a landscape that is by turns idyllic and droll, bucolic but familiarly so, as though its perception and summarization by other white male American writers, some of whom are Rush’s contemporaries, have rendered it relatively uninteresting. Shortly after his arrival there, Ned, the novel’s protagonist, considers his surroundings:
Views left and right — calm prospects, no crags, just the matte grandeur of tracts of trees sweeping up to plucked-looking ridgelines, marred, if that was the word, here and there by isolate slumping-limbed firs resembling incorrect ideograms. Scenery is probably good for your blood pressure, he thought.
Despite its “grandeur,” the landscape demands no docent; rather, it lacks the frisson of what Mating’s narrator would call the “alien.”
And yet there is another possible reason for the gray, abject treatment of the area. Ned is there, as if by some bizarre reflex, to honor his late friend Douglas, whose sudden and accidental death has reconvened Ned’s collegiate social group. Ned, a full-time activist in the Fair Trade and antiwar movements, lives in San Francisco with Nina, his wife and fellow activist, who is incensed by Ned’s sudden and solitary departure and who dispatches the narrative framework of the novel in a short telephone conversation with her mother:
“Anyway, the bandleader of this wonderful group died suddenly and his widow, also known as the most beautiful woman you ever saw, begged Ned to come. So he went. Because she was upset. Everybody from the group was going, so he called me at work and I was out so he left a message informing me, Ma. And we’re working on a baby […]”
This elliptic last complaint is the unmistakable source of Nina’s frustration with Ned, and it is this complaint that compels her to follow Ned to Douglas’s sprawling Ulster County estate, where the group of buddies — all straight-male alums of NYU — has gathered to remember its ringleader. The centerpiece of the estate is what Douglas once termed his “woodbutcher’s palace,” a craftsman structure that everywhere bears his signature; hence “everything” there being “a fount of sadness.”
The group, which, in its days of youthful insolubility, consisted of Douglas, Elliot, Joris, Gruen, and Ned, now boasts the generic marks of attrition: weight gain, children, health worries, ever-tenuous involvement in one another’s lives, divorce. Such marks can either induce sentimentality in those afflicted or disable it, and a marvel of Subtle Bodies is that they can delicately do both. Recalling the group’s glory days, Ned considers
his own private image of that time. He saw himself looking back, down a very long road, at night, and seeing dimly lighted establishments spaced along the road — but at one point, far back, a gathering of bright lights, was something like an arcade or a carnival, red and gold lights and shreds of music came from that location only. It was cheap.
To anyone prone to such personal constructions of increasingly distant pasts, the image, like the book itself, is at once relatable and stirring. The image’s mawkishness is incidental, of course, and cannot arrive unobserved; by noting its “cheapness,” Ned is thereby able to submit to the current of his own nostalgia while recognizing the submission as an indulgence.
The friends spend much of the novel pooling their less overtly metaphorical remembrances, which reveal Douglas to be a polymathic, abrasive, compulsively comic man, his lovability nowhere evident in the text but nonetheless taken as an article of faith, a convincing consequence, one can only imagine, of firsthand exposure to him. That Douglas was renowned for “debunking forgeries, significant forgeries” intimates and allegorizes his essential difficulty, his pedantic attachment to authenticity, and the extent to which his achievements were predicated upon others’ disappointments. Douglas’s widow and teenage son—two of the man’s surviving disappointees — lurk at the periphery of Ned’s awareness, where they are registered almost obsessively, as though out of the corner of Ned’s watchful eye, in the manner that family members of the newly deceased so often are, as ambient bodies that speak infrequently and, when they do, tersely.
Providing a portentous backdrop to all of this, the impending Iraq War threatens to undermine the ongoing appreciation of Douglas. This penchant for such recent-history frames is not new for Rush: though published in 2003, Mortals is set during apartheid, a distant storm cloud whose rumbling intrudes and recedes unpredictably. The opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is hardly comparable to the fight against apartheid, yet both contend with morally corrupt institutional forces, forces that can enable, in their opponents, a charged, Manichean construction of reality. Rather than chart the difficulty of staking a clear ethical position in the wake of apartheid, as J.M. Coetzee has done so powerfully, Rush opts to position his characters in relation to an extant, identifiable evil whose ultimate success or failure only Rush and his readers can know. (One exception to this rule can be found elsewhere in Mortals: after the conclusion of the Cold War, Ray Finch, a CIA agent and Milton scholar, is seized with a rudderless despair.) Rush catches his characters right when they are most eager to don or distance themselves from the mantle of justice, and their eagerness, despite or because of the reader’s knowledge of history’s verdict, makes for some compellingly hefty ideological self-presentations, in Subtle Bodies particularly.
Ned’s quixotic effort to get his friends to sign an antiwar petition is, however unexpectedly, the novel’s most suspenseful, gratifying motor, largely because Rush negotiates the disjunction between the characters’ and the readers’ respective historical moments with grace and rigor. When Elliot counters one of Ned’s many entreaties to sign with, “‘Ned there isn’t going to be a war’”, he comes off as blandly glib. And yet the remark becomes complex when assisted by the reader’s knowledge of the subsequent years: does the imminent invasion vindicate Ned here or embarrass him? Put differently, did passivity such as Elliot’s permit the woeful outcome or is this passivity retroactively permitted by the outcome? A different resistance to the petition is voiced by Joris, the “married-woman fetishist”: “‘But here’s what: they are going to do it, whatever you do. The government decides what it wants. The State sings the Song of the State.’” This fait accompli argument has cynical traction in the year 2013, when the song has indeed been sung, the fact accomplished. And yet this argument is deeply sad, now redolent of death. The care that the friends show in taxonomizing the then-pending military action — the refrain of “‘the war, sorry, the invasion’” becomes, then, a kind of bleak comedy, the scrupulous distinctions between “war” and “invasion” worthy of laughter only because they are so irrelevantly semantic.
As momentum gathers behind the Bay Area antiwar protest that Ned is organizing, a bittersweet optimism seems to build beneath the text. The collective will to avert the war appears massive, as indeed it was. In this section of the novel, the fait accompli is not quite what it seemed to be — previously the invasion, but now, just maybe, the prevention of the invasion? — and Ned’s actions take on a notional efficacy. We know how this ends. Until Subtle Bodies, the goodhearted white male characters of Rush’s novels have thrived in environments that seem created simply by and for their own heroism. Here, Rush gives his Ned something humbler, something encapsulated in a quick bathroom trip, with Ned’s precarious self-regard tempered by the content of his achievement: “[Ned] was pointlessly a little proud of the thick, shaggy limb of urine he produced.” One senses that Ned — modest, good, self-effacing — would die if this urine stream ever became an apt metaphor for his own existence, and yet one also worries that Ned — in his modesty, goodness, self-effacement — already believes it is.
As Ned’s time in Ulster County comes to a close, he asks, and then answers, that indefatigable cliché of a question, “‘Why am I here?’ […] He meant several things. One was why he was giving this time to his meaningless personal history when the country was getting ready to burn people to death in large numbers.’” Were he equipped with a foreknowledge of the coming years, he might better be able to answer that question.
At the time of Mating’s publication, Rush received much attention for his persuasive depiction of one woman’s mind. When I talk to people about the book for the first time, it is invariably this aspect that is quickest to rear its head. As Mating’s narrator fashions herself a docent of a land in which she is an interloper, so Rush has fashioned himself a docent of a gender that is not his own. This lamination of hubris would be more problematic if the writing were not so astonishing, so self-aware. Still, these issues remain thorny, and they are collectively bound up with the legacy of colonialism. In his Botswana fictions, Rush demonstrates a deep preoccupation with this legacy, both globally and as it pertains to sub-Saharan Africa, and he often finds clever ways of acknowledging his fraught position as a straight male with white skin writing about the region. (One soft example: the narrator of Mating expresses her wish to visit Victoria Falls, to “stay there in splendor at the Vic Falls Hotel, the way the colonial exploiters had.”)
In her seminal book, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt identifies an integral figure in colonial-era travel literature, the “seeing-man”; the seeing-man is, according to Pratt, “the European male subject of European landscape discourse — he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess.” Whether Rush would cede a postcolonial variation of this term is anyone’s guess, but he undoubtedly recognizes the connection between the territory and perspective that he in some way “possesses” via writing. Ray Finch, the protagonist of Mortals, bears a clearer resemblance to the archetype of the seeing-man and to Rush himself, and the decision to write Finch this way registers almost as a sort of disclosure: Finch’s employment with the CIA makes him complicit in a variety of ghastly imperial projects, and his manner tends toward the bellicose and the vaguely misogynistic.
Rather than continuing to explore these issues in increasingly dramatic terms, Subtle Bodies largely declines to take them up. (Ned’s determination to prevent a modern-day colonial misadventure attests to this fact, as does the highly egalitarian free indirect narration, limited to the coupled consciousnesses of Ned and Nina.) Though the surrendering of the expansive canvas is surprising unto itself, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of Subtle Bodies is how perfectly the tight canvas suits Rush.