by Jennifer Acker Shah
The novels of Norman Rush are full of sharp-eyed, straight-talking men and women who are fearless in the pursuit of ideas, but who don’t forget to have fun. And though they love arguing most of all, they’re also passionate about sex and adventure.
Rush, now 80, is the author of four masterly, unique works of fiction. The first, Whites, a collection of taut, voice-driven stories published in 1986 when Rush was 53, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Five years later, Rush emerged with his debut novel, Mating, which won the 1991 National Book Award, and his novel Mortals followed in 2003. Just shy of 500 and 800 pages, respectively, these two novels are expansive, exuberant narratives set in Botswana (also the setting for Whites), where Rush and his wife of 56 years, Elsa, co-directed the country’s Peace Corps program from 1978-1983. Thick with meditations on matters scholarly and literary, political and psychological, these books feature delightful wordplay.
Rush’s most recent novel, Subtle Bodies, was released in September. It’s his first work set entirely in America, and it’s a mere 230 pages. While much more compact than his previous novels, this fiction has lost none of Rush’s signature style nor his deep interest in human relationships—particularly marriages—and political ideals. These qualities, along with the ambition of his narrative structures and the penetrating elegance of intellectual thought woven into characters’ talk and action, have made critics swoon and generations of younger writers dive into his dense works as if they were barrels of jellybeans. In 2006, a body of more than one hundred writers and critics polled by the New York Times Book Review declared Mating one of the best American novels of the past quarter-century.
Particularly striking in Rush’s books is the rich development of both action and thought. His stories are stuffed with what the author calls “thought episodes.” Norman Rush’s idiosyncratic, strong-willed people act and think for themselves—an independence of mind scarce in contemporary literature.
By combining our two most powerful forms of explanation, narrative and argument, Rush has successfully created that rare and most valuable art form, the novel of ideas.
Rush excels at two forms of hard-to-achieve novelistic thought. The first consists of the rich mental description we might call Jamesian, most evident in works like The Portrait of a Lady. James Wood titled his review of Mortals, “Thinking,” for the book whose “central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language.” Consider the opening paragraph:
At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.
This passage shows Ray thinking, in wonderfully penetrating detail, about thinking. He’s both trying to identify an elusive problem and reflecting on the ways in which one comes to know something. He realizes that, because he has noticed that something is wrong, he’ll come to the knowledge of the wrong thing sooner. Ray is trained to notice; he is a spy. He is also a most uxorious husband. This passage invests the reader in learning what the problem is with Iris—we want Ray to stay with Iris in the house that he loves—and in tracking precisely how he discovers it.
Though Rush wrote stories from an early age, from self-publishing at age 11 to completing a “non-violent thriller” during the nine months he was imprisoned for conscientiously objecting to the Korean War, it took him years to master Mortal’s acute, free indirect style. For a long time he wrote abstract pieces populated with inactive talking heads. When his first critical success came in 1971—his short story “In Late Youth” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories—Rush was consciously working to write simpler tales and, as he said in a Paris Review interview, “to sync thought more closely to a character’s actions.”
Mortals demonstrates how supremely Rush has accomplished this. Yet while Ray’s recursive self-examination adds depth, comedy, and poignancy, it also slows down the story. Wood doesn’t see this is as a detriment—“a high level of analysis never insults the hospitality of storytelling”—but not all critics agree. John Updike wrote that Ray, “a control freak, a fussbudget, a tireless ruminator and annoyance-nurser [most of whose] overflowing mental energy goes into an anxious gloating over his happy marriage,” is “perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.”
While I don’t share Updike’s level of irritation, I do find considerably more compelling the inner life and intellectual urgency of the unnamed female narrator of Mating. A nutritional anthropology grad student, she falls hard and fast for a “Serious Man” named Nelson Denoon, an intelligent do-gooder who has established a feminist utopian village in the desert. After abandoning her dissertation and dating several minimally desirable men, she takes off, solo, across the Kalahari to throw herself at the feet of Denoon and the sui generis village of Tsau.
The anthropologist’s barrel-scraping, yet somehow joyful, journey toward love and self-knowledge is propulsive from the novel’s early pages. Her attractiveness stems in part from her peculiar diction, which combines high-register Latin, French, and academic phrases with vulgar formulations. Here she explains her fierce desire to visit Victoria Falls:
I not only wanted to go to Victoria Falls but to stay there in splendor at the Vic Falls Hotel, the way the colonial exploiters had. This was less greed per se than it was wanting to visit or inhabit a particularly gorgeous and egregious consummation of it. I was convinced that under Mugabe accommodations would be democratized and establishments like the Vic Falls Hotel would cease to exist, which of course was only one of a number of things that didn’t happen under Mugabe. I had a fixation on seeing the greatest natural feature in Africa and seeing it at the maximal time of year, which was just then, when the Zambezi was still in spate. I might be going back home to exile in the academic tundra, but I wanted to have seen the world’s greatest waterfall from the windows of an establishment amounting to a wet dream of doomed white settler amour propre.
We’re eager to follow our anthropologist—and her piercing thoughts—wherever they go. Unlike worrywart Ray, her introspection and argumentation are infused with a contagious joie de vivre.
A novel of ideas is driven by both story and thought. The kind of fictional thinking illustrated above is crucial, but it’s not enough.
A true novel of ideas must also have arguments, the second kind of novelistic thought at which Rush excels. Ideas, just like places and people, create a vibrant fictional world and fuel its stakes: what do the people in this world believe and why? What do they want to understand, and what do they ignore at their peril?
A contemporary novel of ideas must not only investigate topics of intrinsic interest, but must also render flesh-and-blood characters who vigorously and clearly express these ideas—who care about and challenge them.
How does one integrate argument into narrative? It would seem the two forms of explanation are at odds. Though both require precision, argument is pegged only to logic, not to time. Narrative, on the other hand, depends absolutely on chronology and can be bogged down by too much explanation. When Rush would show to Elsa, his first reader and most rigorous editor, early pages too thick with explanations, she’d respond: “Consider maybe that there are some extremely smart people out there who are not interested in stories that require a seminar.” His tendency is to be exhaustive, he explains in the same Paris Review interview—“to show the human project of trying to reshape the world, in all its particular guises and methods.”
One technique Rush exploits well is argumentative dialogue occurring at high-stakes moments. In Subtle Bodies, male college friends gather for the funeral of their former ringleader Douglas. Ned, a respected activist in the Fair Trade movement, tries to convince each jaded friend to sign his petition protesting America’s impending war against Iraq. Their jousting is energized by knowing how much it means to Ned that his friends support him and that he prove himself able to convince them on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds—thereby escaping, finally, Douglas’s shadow.
But surely argument can happily exist outside heightened moments of battle. In life, arguments are sustained over time. “I like to discern an unstated, but illustrated, argument in a novel,” Rush says. “I mean, I like to become aware of an embodied view of a particular moral-slash-philosophical problem or circumstance. With my novels, I want readers to argue about my argument, at least in their heads. While writing I am very conscious of it.” Mating exemplifies how argument can be embodied throughout a novel’s entire arc. Our anthropologist is desperate to know if equality in a male-female romance is possible, given all the cultural and biological factors working against it. Her desire to understand something abstract is converted into her real-time relationship with the exalted Denoon. Tsau, a community built from scratch upon feminist and socialist ideologies, is also put under the microscope. The whole action of the novel tests whether either of these utopias is viable.
While Rush beautifully embodies arguments in circumstance, he does even more than that, as a true novel of ideas should. Real people think about more than what’s immediately in front of them. They argue about free trade and two-party political systems; the virtues of television versus reading. Arguments that examine, broadly, how we should understand and reshape the world are just as much the necessary and joyful and fascinating stuff of life as the things that happen to us directly.
Rush therefore also imbues his novels with abstract arguments that extend to the larger world. At the dinner party where the narrator of Mating first meets Denoon, he gives a long lecture on development in Africa, which includes five reasons why socialism will not succeed there. The whole novel is told in hindsight, and this lecture, too, is related after the fact. The lecture reads like a play. The narrator’s interpretive notes are interspersed in italics. This may sound cumbersome, but it works cleanly. We get Denoon’s arguments in his own words, as presented to his live audience. For example:
Let us say you want to clear away private ownership of productive property and put everything under the state. Well and good, but then you must be prepared to pay five surcharges, very heavy surcharges. These are permanent recurrent costs that never go away. They are intrinsic to your system.
At other points, the narrator summarizes Denoon, often because she’s impatient or dissatisfied with the way he puts things:
[Point] Five was a mess. He couldn’t get it schematic enough, and during it some people got bored to the hilt. My notes, which I made when I went home that night, say that there are two ways to extract the social surplus–
Additionally, as Denoon speaks, the narrator speculates about how and why he’s arrived at various formulations. She explains a particularly circuitous set of remarks thus:
This is intellectual loneliness showing, I thought. …I had no idea who he had with him out in the bush, but this scene suggested that they left something to be desired as discussants. The same sort of hysteria was familiar to me.
Naturally, she has a solution: she should become his mate.
Rush’s Knopf editor, Ann Close, was worried this long exchange would bore readers, but Rush felt it was crucial “to prove to the reader that Denoon was an intellectual of a certain caliber.” Indeed, we have to see for ourselves that Denoon is not a charlatan. We’re to experience through our anthropologist’s eyes and intelligence, for another four hundred pages, people and places we’ve never or rarely encountered and ideas we perhaps haven’t thought much about. It’s also imperative that we trust the intelligence of our narrator. We must know she’s not been hoodwinked by Denoon’s status, charisma, or beauty—all of which he has in spades.
Among Rush’s three novels of ideas, Mating is the most successful. Although it does occasionally give us too much of a good thing, by piling on more argument than can be absorbed, ideas are given life by a torrentially passionate narrator for whom it’s clear how deeply ideas matter. Developing her unusual, entertaining language was important to Rush not only in order to create a fully realized, never-before-seen character, but also because her linguistic prowess empowers her.
The narrator, in her vocabulary and her attitude toward language, is like several people I have known who considered themselves underclass and at a disadvantage socially, but who were smart and discovered that knowing how to use language better than the people oppressing them was a form of power.
Ned’s wife Nina in Subtle Bodies has fewer years of education than Mating’s anthropologist (who is in fact closely modeled on Elsa Rush), but Nina is similarly bold, innovative, and articulate in her use of language.
When asked in a recent interview in Tin House, “Will your next project find you returning to a longer form?” Rush said, “Dude, I’m 80.” He hopes to write more short stories, though he recognizes that despite Elsa’s “extraordinary forbearance” during his long-gestating novels, it may be time for the couple to spend more time on pursuits other than writing. These days Rush also worries about the value of fiction writing in a world that would benefit more from advocacy and political action than another novel. In an August 2013 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Rush dispiritedly admits to himself: “You’re an artist. You’re not a nuclear engineer, you’re not a statesman, you’re not the head of the World Bank, you’re nothing, really, in terms of who pulls the strings of the world. . . . None of your acts are designed to change things.”
But Rush’s argumentative impulse clearly hasn’t subsided, so one hopes for another opportunity for adventuresome intellectual love, which our anthropologist describes like this:
the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court.
It’s a description that could be aptly applied to the experience of reading Norman Rush’s body of work—with the exception of the word “lazily.” His scouring mental searchlight prompts questioning and reflection and, most of all, it makes you want to argue.
Jennifer Acker Shah is Editor in Chief of The Common. Her stories and essays have appeared in n+1, Guernica, Ploughshares, and Sonora Review, among other publications. She teaches creative writing, literature, and editing at Amherst College and NYU Abu Dhabi. Learn more about Jennifer and her work at http://www.jenniferacker.com.