The novel is a medium of endless permutations, but in the end there are three broad ways that it can be great. The first and lowest is on the level of sheer craft. Pride and Prejudice, The Fault in Our Stars, Madame Bovary, Jurassic Park—simply as machines, all of these are close to flawless. They pull the reader through their structure remorselessly; their characters serve their stories; they’re filled at once with surprise and inevitability.
On a different plane is the third, highest way in which a novel can be great: it can teach us something about existing as a human being in the world. I don’t think there’s much point in elaborating on this idea, because while we mostly start out with the same names—Proust, Mann, Tolstoy—each serious reader refines this definition of genius individually, in a sense even privately. Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice have it, for me.
Then there’s the second way.
Last year the great American novelist Norman Rush published a new book, Subtle Bodies, his fourth. Unlike the first three—Whites, Mating and Mortals—it is not set in Botswana, where Rush and his wife Elsa were Peace Corps co-directors from 1978 to 1983, and perhaps that missing edge of novelty is one reason why there’s been a tone of civil disappointment in the critical response. Nevertheless all four books are of a piece, sharing a pair of central concerns: geopolitics, specifically with regard to issues of structural injustice, and the nature of a long and extremely intimate marriage.
On those first and third levels of the art of the novel, Rush is only an equivocal and intermittent master. Passages of his books, particularly Mortals, are beautifully plotted, but none of them could be called compulsive from first to last solely by virtue of their story. As for his vision of the world, fascinating though it is, it has limitations of perspective that the best and most dispassionate novelists (even seemingly inward ones, such as Kafka) have been able to transcend. To be specific: few of the humans who populate Rush’s books ever seem quite as real as the husband and wife who recur again and again as central characters, bandits traveling under different names each time, and who form the twinned consciousness of his art.
But the second, intermediate level of novelistic greatness has to do with neither technical nor visionary genius. Instead it occurs within the sentence-to-sentence life of a book, in the enormous linked series of thoughts and gestures that make up any novel. Rush is an example of an artist—Iris Murdoch and Robert Musil are others—whose excellence is clearest not in the gestalt of those thoughts and gestures, but in the midst of them, as the pages pass. When critics speak of his genius (James Wood has called him “the most neglected major writer in America”) they are testifying to the power and unexpectedness of the hundreds of essayistic accompaniments that proliferate across his work.
These kinds of observations run into every corner of Rush’s books, almost too profuse to record as they pass:
● And as for French, he couldn’t wait for it to become a dead language, since no nation, a nation of peacocks, had ever deserved it more. It was coming, they knew it and were hysterical about it, but adieu, adieu.
● I have a certain inordinate feeling toward revolutionaries who wear glasses, because there is the sense of how easily they could be unhorsed in the slightest physical confrontation with the enemy just by someone flicking their glasses to the ground and stepping on them. So you assume such people have unusual amounts of courage.
● What did the Batswana find funny? What? He was at a loss. He did know they thought it was funny to say of a man married to harridan that he ate his overcoat. … It was conceivable that a whole people would find nothing funny in the jokes of their what, their oppressors, their colonial masters, their laughing master … It was possible there was nothing universal about humor.
● He pitied serious writers. The best that 99 percent of them could hope for was a glancing appearance in a survey course at lengthening intervals. Even Milton was dropping to survey status more and more, even at the graduate level. It was true. And the next step down would be the collateral reading in a survey course, the books only the strivers got around to … and then it would be down to a footnote in a title in the collateral list. And then what, some academic trivia game. And then nothing.
Realizing the primacy of simple opinion in Rush’s work, of analysis and declaration, makes the nature of his particular gifts easier to articulate. By such a reading, he seems not the heir to whatever thwarted tradition of the novel one might hazard (Dostoevsky, Conrad, Greene); nor does he seem to have very much to do with Roth or Updike, despite sharing with them a generational identity and plenty of bedroom voyeurism. Instead, he would descend from an older, alternate ancestry, one belonging to the aphorists and essayists of world literature: Pascal, Leopardi, Montaigne. None of those writers are novelists, of course, and part of what makes Rush unusual is that he’s successfully embedded their legacy of interpolation, their faith in lateral thought, into classic realist fiction—a risk that many novelists have rightly been reluctant to take. The reward is that in Rush’s novels there is the constant possibility that the next sentence is about to tell us something new.
One of the many unusual things about Rush’s career is that he didn’t publish his first book until he was 53. The book was Whites (1986), a collection of stories about quasi-colonials in Botswana, whites without the full reach of colonial power, mostly attached to aid and governmental organizations. Its first story, “Bruns,” was published in the New Yorker, and immediately won Rush a powerful agent, Andrew Wylie, and subsequently a contract at Knopf. Five years later he published Mating (1991), the story of a love affair in a planned feminist community in Botswana, and twelve years after that another novel about the country, Mortals (2003), this time involving a CIA agent and a local insurrection. Rush has a reputation for working slowly, but in fact it’s these three books, all set in the same place, all concerning the same social milieu, and all published in the brief range between his fifty-third and seventieth years, that have given him his titanic reputation.
Why did his career take so long to begin in earnest?
Rush has described his early work on several occasions. “At Swarthmore I published some gnomic poems based on little-known events in the tragic history of the democratic Left,” he’s said, and later, “I wrote agonizingly experimental stories that simply baffled editors.” In the 1970s he found some success with short fiction but not with a novel, Equals, about an experimental college. For much of his adult life he was a rare-book dealer and a political activist. (Rush’s roots are in Oakland, and there’s a Lebowski-ish note to his pre-Africa life, noble but comic: “I was for years on the boards of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the War Registers League, and was active in CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.”)
It was going to Botswana that changed Rush, aerating his fiction by liberating him from what seems as if it was a passionate but cramped worldview. Tellingly, he burned all of his early writing in 1978, the year he left. That he went at all was an accident. As he tells the story:
Botswana was a fluke … We knew Sam Brown, an antiwar activist, whom Carter had appointed head of ACTION, the umbrella agency for the Peace Corps. But I didn’t know of his appointment at this dinner party where Sam and Elsa and I got into a political argument … We must have impressed Sam as being qualified, though I don’t know how … he set up a day of interviews for us in D.C. We figured we had no chance but that the interviews would be fun. They wanted people with Ph.D.’s in economics, or development studies, or at least some work overseas … We had nothing to lose, and so we killed all day … The question then became where we should go. Because we each had had six years of school French, they planned to send us to Francophone Africa. We proposed Benin, but were mistakenly delivered to a different B desk, the Botswana one. The Botswana desk officer liked us, and unbeknownst to us, put in a request as soon as we left.
This immense aleatory change in Rush’s life—a dinner party, a mix-up of desks—is exactly the kind of incident that fills his fiction about the country where he and Elsa moved, and where at once life seems looser and less reliable, more chancy, but therefore also fuller. (The opening line of Mating is famous: “In Africa, you want more, I think.”) The move gave him a subject for study other than his own anguished opinions, and a language—fans of Rush will carry certain words (rra, mealie, Batswana, gosiame) to the ends of their days—to at once sharpen and loosen his prose. “It was nerve-racking, exciting and it was nonstop,” he told the Paris Review. “I returned to America with cartons of material.”
And yet his opinions are still what matter about Rush’s fiction; the external shock of moving to Botswana, and of the arduous work he did there, merely freed them from their moorings in sixties radicalism. His moral and anthropological sense of the world finally had a vehicle to bear it into written thought.
The works that show it best are Mating and Mortals. Now that Rush is 80, the shape of his career seems to make that plain, with Whites, for all its brilliance, a mere warning shot signaling the two huge novels he would write, and Subtle Bodies a problematic contrail. In assessing him I think it’s worth considering Mating and Mortals most closely—the first for its perfections, the second, after a thirteen-year silence from the author, both for the reemergence of those perfections and for a theretofore unseen set of associated limitations.
The narrator of Mating (1991) is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century fiction. In the course of a very long novel she never names herself. An anthropologist from Stanford doing fieldwork in Gaborone, her language is erudite, dry and full of proud self-taught texture. (A partial list of the Latin phrases she uses, some dozens of times each: id est, cumo grano salis, ultra vires, suave mare magno, inter pocula. Or of her stranger words: anorectic, lustration, megrim, undsoweiter, ruck, cryptomnesia, urticarial, vitromania.) She yearns for love too, however, and finds the potential object of it quickly—Nelson DeNoon, an older anthropologist, famous for his past academic work but now engaged in a secretive communal project in the Botswana countryside.
The narrator sets out alone to find DeNoon in the first third of the book, and her solitary voyage across the desert, filled with moments of danger and hallucination, is a transcendent passage of fiction. “Anyone who thinks crossing the Kalahari by yourself is boring is deluded,” she says. “It’s like being self-employed in a marginal enterprise: there’s always something you should be doing if your little business is going to survive.” Later she loses one of her donkeys and begins to face real trouble. “I dawdled breaking camp because I wanted to give any lions there were a head start at getting torpid. Lions are torpid during the day, was a key part of my lore package.”
The brilliance of this character—in Mortals we learn that her name is likely Karen—is that she’s literate without being literary. (It must have taken Rush restraint to write lines like this: “Whoever said he had measured out his life in coffee spoons was talking about me that day.”) Instead her voice is that of a social scientist’s, giving cover both to Rush’s literary aims and to the character’s own weaknesses and fears, which emerge with exquisite and unliterary unhurriedness. There’s the anxiety of her language, for example. In addition to all that Latin, the words “naturally” and “obviously” and “of course” recur, signaling a haste for self-identification as intelligent which is rooted in class memories, as this aside, heart-wrenching from a person we know to be so practical and illusionless, conveys:
Status in my high school came from how infrequently you wore the same clothes, and especially how infrequently you wore the same sweaters. In my humble opinion life shouldn’t be more painful than it has to be. I remember all the desperate improvisations and camouflages it took to disguise the dreadful brevity of the little cycle of clothes I had to wear. This still has the capacity to freeze my heart.
That need for self-proof is also what sends her after DeNoon, and when she finds him the book finds communion with its author’s greater political energies, to spectacular effect; DeNoon’s planned community, Tsau, is a stroke of brilliance, because it allows Rush to lay out, organically, his hundreds of small theories of human society, human love.
Some of these are charming—for instance, every house in Tsau has a lantern outside, which when lit indicates that its inhabitants would like to receive guests that evening. More often, however, the theories are driven by a will toward redress on behalf of women, who run the village and are the only citizens permitted to inherit property. (DeNoon loathes with particular fury the “the idea that women are just pontoons for the various male enterprises coming down the pike.”) In a less subtle writer the representation of such a mission might become hectoringly meliorist, but Rush has too sophisticated a sense of human balance for that; as Mating moves forward many of the women of Tsau, and indeed the narrator, gradually begin to cede their institutional power to men—on behalf of the impulses of love, that is, of mating. This is the doubleness we ought to seek in a writer: when Rush is most persuasive about Tsau’s vision of the possibilities of civil progress, he is also relinquishing some of his claims for it. Ideas in fiction are more potent when they don’t come armored against their own contradictions.
The ideas in Rush’s second novel, Mortals, are as subtle and rich as those in Mating. But there is something slightly diminished in its ultimate effect by comparison; unlike the earlier book, Mortals is written in the third-person, and it is perhaps in this transition that a glimmer of trouble appears. Every mode of narration has its virtues and defects, of course, and there may be readers who find the first-person of Mating claustrophobic. What it offered Rush, however, was concealment—a means of expression for his own fascinating, intercalating, uniquely essayistic voice, which nevertheless, because a reader could ascribe all of its decrees to the narrator, existed naturalistically within the novel.
The free indirect voice offers Rush some shell for this style, but not enough. In Mortals it becomes a minor problem; in Subtle Bodies, very nearly a fatal one. That’s the blemish on Rush’s career, perhaps, an inability to recede behind his characters. The constant interruption of opinion into his work means that he never quite vanishes into the third person and therefore never achieves the fluid multivocalism that gives each character equal weight, what Bakhtin praised as polyphony. Rush’s natural pendant, another white-bearded novelist of lower Africa, J. M. Coetzee, is by contrast exquisitely skillful at self-concealment, at the neutral clarities of third-person fiction. By either method there is some price to pay. In Coetzee’s case it’s a chilliness; in Rush’s, a diminution of realism. Rush’s loss may be the greater.
But before returning to this problem it’s worth describing what Mortals does seriously and uniquely and well, which is to assess American morality within the context of Africa’s post-colonial history. The book’s hero is Ray Finch, a professor in Gaborone who also works undercover for the CIA. He’s married to a woman with whom he’s ardently in love, Iris, and though she loves her husband too, she’s not quite happy in Botswana, and comes under the sway of an African American doctor named Davis Morel. Morel has come to Botswana, armed with literature, to preach to the locals against Christianity.
The first half of Mortals is about Ray’s dawning suspicion that Iris may be sleeping with Morel; the second half is about a bloody, terrifying political insurrection into which Ray and Morel are drawn, together, north of Gaborone. This summary sounds dry, but the insurrection itself is thrilling—the scenes are full of basic, practical problems that Ray and Morel are forced to solve together, but which are constantly shadowed by their personal and spiritual conflict with each other. In their exhausting bloody action, these passages become a kind of silent rebuke to the American cultural ideal of emancipation through action and violence (which Rush himself has associated, without much enthusiasm, with “the vitalist tradition” of writers like Crane, Mailer and Robert Stone). War is a physical, not a soteriological, experience. The consequences of it live on in individual bodies, first and foremost, and then in long-term civic fracture, which outlives by centuries any fleeting sense of personal liberation.
Rush lets the significance of that message in an African setting—a setting whose historical proof it is—dawn on the reader slowly, and therefore devastatingly. Mortals is the fullest expression of his ideas about Africa, which are deeply structuralist, absorbed with the patterns by which community and nationality subdue individual agency. “A true holocaust in the world is the thing we call development,” Rush writes, by which he means “the superimposition of market economies on traditional and unprepared third world cultures by force and fraud circa 1880 to the present.” Are the whites of his books (he told the New York Times that it was essential for him to write about Africa by way of “Americans and Americanity”) replicating this holocaust, or repairing it? Mating offers an anthropological assessment, and Mortals offers a political one, both deeply persuasive.
What remains intact in the later book is Rush’s voice, whose sheer contour of thought is again an overwhelming success. And yet it contains forewarnings, too, of what makes Subtle Bodies so much less successful than the work that preceded it.
All three of Rush’s novels are about the relationship between a woman in her thirties and a man at least a decade older, and in all three the pair are overwhelmingly, consumingly in love. (It’s part of their lore package that Norman and Elsa Rush are, too.) In Mortals, this has the effect of making the book seem slightly gaga. Iris’s physical beauty is constantly reiterated, and takes on an almost Ayn Randian conflation of attractiveness with quality of character—Ray thinks at one point of “someone at her level of physical beauty dealing with people so much more nicely than she should be,” and later is conscious that he is “talking to the most beautiful white woman in southern Africa, outside of the movies.” And on and on.
The cost of this deep focus on a single couple is that, like Rush’s interjecting voice, it works toward the exclusion of other characters, so that for instance Davis Morel and the heroic Kerekang of Mortals never quite seem like more than externalities of the marriage at the heart of the book. Was it the experience of being alone with his wife in Botswana for five years that pushed Rush so far into his wife’s mind and spirit, giving a faint dreamishness to everyone except the Adam and Eve he models in his last two books? Perhaps. As Ray puts it, more poignantly, “It was the fear of being left alone in Africa, where nobody loved you.”
Whatever the reason, by the time we get to the central couple in Subtle Bodies, Ned and Nina, they have narrowed so far into each other, and into their love, that the reader is left with nothing outside of them. It feels like a book in which the author has lost the sense of distance that ought to exist between himself, his characters and his readers. Its universe of secondary characters— they’re gathered in upstate New York for the funeral of an old college friend of Ned’s—collapses into itself, until Rush’s observations, which were integrated so seamlessly into Karen’s voice in Mating, and which were mostly attributable to Ray Finch in Mortals, come to seem almost wholly freestanding, nothing to do with the texture of the novel’s marriage-story. It’s true that those observations remain sharp—a shrewd recapitulation of what many people felt during America in the 2000s. (Ned has a “revenge fantasy” that every time George W. Bush tells a joke for the remainder of his life, “stinking bloody arms and legs and heads and feet would fall on him.”) But the familiarity of those politics makes even the most intelligent take on them feel less fresh than anything in Mortals or Mating. Those gnomic poems, that novel about an experimental college and this book—it may be that Rush did need Botswana to write effectively, after all.
As he was composing Subtle Bodies, Rush told an interviewer:
I must love big novels, because that’s what I’ve written … In the book I’m working on now, though, I’m trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts. Dostoevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s like a knife in my heart that he didn’t.
This quote, with its explicit anxiety about the decision to shape Subtle Bodies differently from its predecessors, brings the book’s flaws into clearer sight: Rush has so much to tell us (that side word about Dostoevsky is quintessential) that even when he aims for brevity, all of his opinions, his puns and palindromes, his digressions, force their way into the text anyhow, whether they belong or not. (Whites is an exception because many of its stories are closely focused on single incidents.) In Subtle Bodies, his first short novel, that surfeit becomes a defect rather than a virtue for the first time.
But an author’s failures can be instructive. Cervantes believed his best work was The Labors of Persiles and Sigismunda, a romance whose characters are flat enough that they could have won Don Quixote’s affection. By overcrowding a short novel with his own thoughts, Rush shows, inadvertently, how essential the form of the long novel was to his development.
One of the glories of the long novel is that as it progresses there’s less and less space for fakery. In a short novel, verve and cleverness can stand in for the actually meaningful—think of Paul Auster, tossing out free-ranging signifiers without taking responsibility for what they might signify, or César Aira and his charming but maddening fuga hacia adelante. Obviously there are numerous short novels without an ounce of fraud in them, but it’s also true that the further a novel extends, the more obvious any vagueness of intention or thought becomes. Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace are correctly revered because of their ability to sustain for far longer than most writers a simultaneous pitch of enigma and lucidity.
Stylistically, then, the long novel is ideal for an author whose most essential mission, regardless of subject matter, is honesty—is disclosure. “I love demystification inordinately,” the narrator of Mating says, and later adds:
I hate the mysterious because it’s the perfect medium for liars, the place they go to multiply and preen and lie to each other. Liars are the enemy. They transcend class, sex, and nation. They make everything impossible.
It might seem that Rush’s preference for small generalizations, his essayistic style, would muddle the intelligibility of his novels, but in fact precisely the opposite is true. There are few more mystified places than Africa, and few more mystified subjects than love; Mating and Mortals gain their marvelous strength from their fusion and subsequent demystification of the two, which is exacted in part by their gradual but continuous rejection, over many hundreds of pages, of cant. There are many novels that offer a more encompassing vision of life than Rush’s, but few so insistent upon clarity, upon transmission.
This insistence on clarity is a trait that belongs both to Rush and to his most successful characters. There’s a moment in Mortals when Ray fears for his marriage and is tempted to ignore his suspicion but then thinks, in a spasm of moral bravery that seems to the reader (who knows Ray’s incredible passion for his wife) as substantial as any of the book’s acts of physical bravery, “Thought looks into the face of hell and is not afraid.” That single line defines Norman Rush’s ethic, I think—and given the granular energy of his novels, their thousand discrete interrogations of the world, it describes too both the consciousness and the courage he demands of his readers.
Art credit: Ian Martin, from Kranshoek Township series, 2005