Norman Rush’s first novel, Mating (1991), opens with a nervous but gripping epigram: “In Africa, you want more, I think.” The speaker, an unnamed American anthropologist who doesn’t want to return to the United States, quickly explains what she means, or rather who she means. “Obviously I mean whites in Africa and not black Africans. The average black African has the opposite problem: he or she doesn’t want enough.” She should know better–she does know better–than to think of “the average black African,” but she is trying to get started and she needs to simplify. “There are more whites in Africa than you might expect,” she tells us a page or so later, and they all want something, they all want more. They are development experts, fugitives, diplomats, anthropologists, hunters, members of the Peace Corps, colonials who can’t go home. Africa is never just an allegory in Rush’s work. There is too much local, untranslatable detail for that: too much heat, too many snakes and insects, too much immediate history and politics, too many nicely noted speech patterns and minutely recognized individual people. And there are too many diverse Africans for the books to be just about whites. But a series of white experiences of Africa, and especially of the Kalahari Desert, a place where the soul is scoured and searched, dominates the adventures Rush recounts. These people want more than they would in another continent; and frequently they lose everything in their attempt to get it. It is only a slight exaggeration to say they are, in the words of a character in his new novel, Mortals, “at their wit’s end every minute.”

Rush is not afraid to evoke and to practice what, in a 1992 lecture, he called “the high art of the serious novel.” It offers, he says, along with the equally high art of the serious short story, “the least constrained representation of life achievable in any communicative form.” The implied constraints are those of genre and formula, since “serious” in our literary lexicon has come to mean lacking obvious or rigid rules. Of course, the word “representation” does leave a lot of leeway, and in the same lecture Rush speaks of “imagined lives” that are “variously angled, cropped, elongated, arranged with aesthetic cunning.” In his first book, Whites (1986), a collection of six edgy short stories, he angles and crops, mainly; in his two novels, Mating and now Mortals, he angles and elongates. There is a certain amount of aesthetic cunning everywhere, but it is paired with a curious and attractive indifference to the milder preoccupations of art: elegance, consistency of tone, tidiness of shape. Some readers may feel the sheer sprawl of Mortals is a disappointment after the earlier work, but my sense is that the attractions and slippages of Rush’s writing, at least in the novels, are a single package: You have to admire the verve and scope of the enterprise, but you can hardly ignore the waves of what looks like silliness.

High art for Rush is entirely compatible with cheerful low jokes; and his serious novels are full of frivolities. What’s serious is how much these jokes and frivolities matter to the characters, and how intensely Rush is prepared to document whatever matters to them. If, like the hero of Mortals, you were a man who had lost his much-loved wife, you might well, when you were not obsessing about her lover, worry about who is going to tell you when your nose hairs need cutting, and you might also–rather more of a stretch, this–think with gratitude of her constant care of her teeth and yours, going so far as to call her, in memory, your “fantastically flossing beloved.” Teeth are important in Mating too. The already quoted narrator is identified as a smart person because she knows what bruxism is (“grinding your teeth at night”), and boasts about her dental hygiene. “I attend to my gums,” she says. She is also good at slicing onions. “I slice very thin and I slice very fast. It’s a gift I have.”

Is this comic? Not quite. But it is unruly and uncensored. Rush likes his characters to say whatever they think. They never stop thinking, and they don’t think only of their teeth. The man so keen on flossing also considers the fate of Africa, the end of the world and the many forms of human hell. The woman in Mating who is so proud of her gums also speaks several different languages even within English, inhabits different idioverses, as she would say: “What I was suddenly afraid of was that this moment was our perihelion, the closest we would ever approach or be, and that everything after this would transpire between bodies farther apart.”

Reading Rush is like riding a rhetorical mystery train: You never know what register his characters will turn to next, and they often sound like a novelist allowing himself to talk. This is a risky procedure, and could lead to disaster. It doesn’t, because the characters are defined by their intelligence and their compelling needs rather than by their linguistic consistency, but it does create the powerful sense of a gamble in each book. Are these people going to live up to the license given to their garrulous minds, and will the plot provide enough historical or material resistance to test or reconfigure these athletes of consciousness? The answer is yes, but the hovering question, fully settled only relatively late in each novel, is part of the reading pleasure.

The narrator of Mating is looking for love, although she is afraid she may just be looking for a man. Not just any man; a great man. This puts her in the position of the heroines of a number of famous novels, notably Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, but with two differences: She knows there is something retrograde about such a quest in the 1980s, and she finds her man. He is Nelson Denoon, a charismatic Irish-American inventor of remedies for underdevelopment, author of Development as the Death of Villages and founder of a utopian village community in the Kalahari where only women own land and vote. The novel recounts, in addition to most, maybe all, of what is going on in the narrator’s head, her pursuit of Denoon; their ideally poised life together; a devastating conflict that arises in the women’s village, provoked, it turns out, by a spy from a neighboring South African bantustan; Denoon’s descent into spiritual passivity; and the narrator’s return to America. She can live without him, but she can’t escape the thought of his thoughts–he “filled the skies of my mind,” she says at one point–and as the book ends she seems set to go back to Africa and Denoon.

In Mortals both she and Denoon, married now, appear briefly as guest lecturers in Gaborone. They have been working together in India, and Rush decides to finally tell us her name: Karen. The women’s village in the Kalahari is doing well commercially because it sells a much-wanted tuber to the Germans. It’s a sort of “German plantation”; it’s “a little like a company town on the order of Hershey, Pennsylvania.” This is not the Denoons’ own description, but we are meant to imagine that this is not quite the utopia they had in mind.

There are other utopias, though, and other dreams of equality. “My utopia is equal love,” the narrator of Mating says, “equal love between people of equal value.” She wants to believe it is possible and she wants to know why it is so difficult. The narrator of Mortals is already inhabiting such a utopia, or thinks he is, and must learn that he isn’t and then watch his world crumble. His male equivalent of Karen’s bilateral project is this: “It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy, as best you might.” There are all kinds of tilts and spots of priggishness in this plan (“pick out,” “first-rate,” “deserving,” “make her happy”), but it is not a despicable ideal, and Rush wants us to think about it not in opposition to the noise of history and politics but in combination with them. This is why Ray Finch, through whose consciousness everything that happens in the novel is filtered, is some sort of hero in spite of most appearances and much of his own history.

Ray is a CIA agent in Botswana whose cover is his job as an English teacher. He is something of a Milton scholar, so the cover is not all disguise, although Ray and Rush actually seem keener on Yeats, especially his poem “The Second Coming.” Various incarnations of rough beasts move their slow thighs in these novels, and one of Ray’s most brilliant bad jokes involves his pretending to misquote from “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”: “below” for “above,” and “these clods” for “the clouds.” “I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among these clods below.”

Elsewhere he quotes the poem correctly, and makes the immediately following lines a motto for his relation to the United States and the agency: “Those that I fight I do not hate,/Those that I guard I do not love.” Ray’s wife, Iris, ten years younger than he is, is perfect if a little underoccupied. Ray celebrates her perfections endlessly–she is funny, beautiful, kind, courageous–but also begins to worry about a new sadness in her. She takes up with a black American doctor, first as her therapist and then as her lover. The doctor, Davis Morel, has come to Africa on a crusade–he wants to rid the place of Christianity, as a prelude to doing away with religion altogether. Religion, for Davis, is the enslavement or abdication of the will, a form of organized groveling. Ray calls him, in a sharp coinage, a “panacean,” a person who has “a universal diagnosis for the world’s ill.” Ray is more of a pragmatist. “Of course something was wrong with the world, clearly. But what was wrong was hardly just one thing.” Ray thinks of his work with the agency as containing harm rather than doing any, and he tries not to think of his colleagues’ brutal work in other places, like Guatemala. The other player here is Ray’s gay brother Rex, dying of AIDS in Oakland, who writes letters to Iris and finally entrusts to Ray his magnum opus, a book of anecdotes and epigrams called Strange News, or Bright Cities Darken.

For a while it looks as if the immense intellectual conversation among these four emblematic characters–spy, wife, black, gay–is all there is going to be. This would be pretty high-powered, but the air might get a little thin. But then another, physically only intermittently present, character takes on a leading role. He is Samuel Kerekang, an educated Botswanan who has ideas about the redistribution of income. He has organized a movement–ISA is its name, which means “to make happen”–that goes from symbolic acts of violence against cattle owners to open war in the desert against Boer-controlled paramilitaries operating out of Namibia–operating with the aid of the agency, needless to say, but until the very end without Ray’s knowledge of his employer’s involvement. Ray takes off in search of Kerekang, hoping to help him rather than hinder him, gets caught, beaten and imprisoned by the paramilitaries and is then joined in his confinement by Davis, who has come to look for him, at Iris’s request. In the darkness of their prison they share their thoughts on Iris, Milton and much else, and Ray realizes fully that his old life is over, that he can never go back to what he and Iris were, or to where they were. “Iris had been his pope,” he thinks, “or something like it. He had believed in Iris, in her goodness, her patience.” Davis would say a man without a pope was free, and Ray himself, however painfully, comes to a similar conclusion as he starts his new life, along with Kerekang, as a schoolteacher and nothing else, in Mandela’s South Africa. Both Ray and Davis turn out to be persons of terrific endurance and even nobility under stress, and the (temporary) defeat of the paramilitaries is the stirring stuff of old adventure stories. It would not be true to say there are no bad guys in Rush’s fiction, but there are very few, and they are all on the margins of the moral action.

How are we to put all this together: Africa, the desert, progress, reaction, the agency, religion, love, marriage, fidelity, adultery, macho battling, male bonding, sibling rivalry, homosexuality, the absence of children except in school? This is “hardly just one thing,” as Ray would say, but Rush is inviting us to think about the whole multiple package as if the parts had something to say to one another. Rush likes to fling out unresolved contradictions and tautologies and leave us hanging. “It could be done but it couldn’t be done.” “He hated Boyle, but not really.” “He couldn’t bear sitting down to eat with Iris because it reminded him of sitting down to eat with Iris.” This is very effective, and suggests we have to hold things together in our heads in spite of ordinary logic rather than through it or because of it. But there is a larger logic, and we need to remember that Rush has a lot of “aesthetic cunning,” after all, and offers plenty of patterns of connection.

The larger contradictory logic is about secrets and stories, about our ruined but not negligible hopes of getting rid of them. About the secrets Ray keeps from Iris, the secrets she helps him to keep, the secrets she keeps from him. About the stories everyone tells, about the need for lies and the need for truth. Ray says his work involves him in “an established lie,” and one of his better throwaways tells a long tale: “He was not, himself, very good at games. He was very good at games no one knew he was playing.” Davis, on the other hand, in Ray’s view, wants to save people from “drowning in false narratives,” but can he do that? Rex’s bleak epigrams and commentaries help us here because in their literary way they work much as Ray imagines the agency working, in its ideal mode, in the world of politics: “bringing out into the light designs that…certain people wanted kept hidden.” “Life is a sexually transmitted disease,” Rex writes. “Life, passages of Sturm interrupted by sequences of Drang.” “[I’ll] be there for you,” Rex says, means “that the promiser will lounge lovingly in the vicinity of the person who is in terrible trouble but without undertaking anything as concrete as lending money or driving him to the clinic from time to time.” Hiding and bringing out into the light: That is what everyone in the novel is up to, and they are usually doing both things even when they imagine they are doing only one. At one point Ray gets dizzy over the phrase “false pretenses”–as if there were some other kind.

The truth is a version of utopia in Mortals, pictured as both available and unavailable, welcome and unwelcome, the object of all kinds of obscure longings and aversions. It won’t set us free, but refusing it when we can have it may imprison us. It may be hell, as Ray repeatedly says, when he finds it lurking in his marriage and in the appalling conditions around him in the world. But even then, Rush is suggesting, in Africa, if you’re white and perhaps if you’re not, you want more.