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.”