What Are They Reading?
By Norman Rush.
Vintage Books. 480 pp. $15 (paper).
I've been bashfully mute amidst the chatter over Norman Rush's new novel, Mortals, because he wasn't on the modest list of Writers I Know About. My ignorance might have had something to do with Rush's slender (but profound) output. He published a collection of short stories, Whites, in 1986, followed by Mating in 1991--putting me at age 11 when his last book appeared. Upon Rush's recent return, I wanted to know what the hubbub was about, so when I heard Mating was about Africa, development and love, I knew I had to read it.
Mating is an amazing book. The narrator is a thirty-something anthropologist struggling with a deflated thesis on the fertility and gathering behavior of Botswana tribes. (We never learn her name.) Her Africa is intimate: "In Africa, you want more, I think," she tells us immediately. As a travel-writing junkie, I find this narrator takes us beyond Conrad's exotic and Naipaul's disdained Africas. To her surprise (oops), the villagers don't roam much but are mostly stationary, inexplicably equipped with canned food and cornflakes. Her options are either return to, ugh, America, with neither direction nor completed thesis, or make life otherwise meaningful in Botswana. What ensues: the strenuous pursuit of a romance with the older Nelson Denoon--the god of her academic field and the man responsible for a remote, solar-powered, women-run utopia called Tsau.
To locate Denoon in Tsau (she was never invited to go), the narrator traverses the grueling Kalahari Desert. And though the threat of ravenous lions is thrilling, the propelling tension in the narrator's expedition is her indefatigable mind. There the relationship has been unraveling from the start: She drops tidbits about Nelson's boyhood trauma and the rigorous "intellectual love" the two will share. We sense how worthwhile the desert-crossing is, but that the narrator's time with Denoon is unaccountably fated to end.
The village itself is remarkable: Solar-powered Tsau glitters with mirrors and panels, and rainfall is a blessing the people capture with myriad devices. But for the narrator and Denoon, the "true entertainment was arguing." This is exhaustingly true. The couple never tires from debates on religion, Marxism, development. But the narrator can be merciless, too, as when she prods Nelson's childhood for his present-day motives. "Can't anything be innate?" he asks. "Why do we have to be swamped in narrative? Our lives are consumed in narrative."
What most consumes our narrator is "reconciling my supposed nobility and independence with the requirements of my campaign to get Denoon." We all have our paradoxes--she's a feminist who begrudges the patriarchy of the American "cultural mechanism" and human biology, yet her love for Denoon prevails. When the drama escalates, she longs for the sounding board of a close girlfriend from home. But there are two Westerners in this African village, and the other one is her lover/tormentor. It seems that this is what love does, throws two people into a wildly remote space, blurring all points of comparison outside the love itself. And this narrative--how to love, how to compromise but also retain your varied selves--is the one Mating most compellingly tells.