From “Another Disappointee” through “A Datum,” pp. 5–29
Here are a few of the things we learn about the narrator of Mating in the novel’s first twenty-five pages: She is an anthropologist manqué in Gaborone, Botswana. She has a good waist and voluminous hair. She’s dreamed, since preadolescence, of becoming an intercultural confidant, someone in whom the people of many nations are willing to confide. She’s been having irregular periods. She loves the sun. She hates baboons and TV. She speaks good Setswana. She’s a gifted mimic and a mnemonist, or something near enough. She doesn’t go in for free will. She wants, and in her opinion genuinely deserves, a lifetime companion.
Her voice—this brilliant, chatty, canny, imperious, cerebral, earthly, frivolous, pretentious, earnest, glib, fluent, funny voice—is the engine of the novel, and it entices (or repels) a first-time reader almost immediately. Our narrator is, simply put, strange. Her style is singular enough that it becomes, as with the best first-person fiction, a kind of motivator, an element of suspense: we’re reading to find out who’s talking. It’s not that she’s unreliable. On the contrary, after just a few voluble pages of her company, I’m prepared to open a joint bank account with her, even if I don’t know her name. What I do want to know is, Who is this person, who tosses off such phrases as “echt mama’s boy” and “naughtiness-based lustral seizure,” who has such a firm grasp of human relations and whose life, nonetheless, is steeped in loneliness?
Rush has said in his Art of Fiction interview that the narrator is a kind of outsize version of his wife, Elsa: “Her fearlessness of thought; her determination, almost to the point of parody, not to be deluded, tricked, deceived; her comic sense of life, and a totally empirical kind of intelligence.” What compels me about her, I think, is a series of tensions. She’s assured, sometimes to excess, of her intellect and her keenness of eye; at the same time, she’s insecure about her role in the world and eager, too eager, to flaunt her mind. She’s convinced of her place in the intellectual firmament but suspects that no one else sees her up there. She’s far too worldly and self-sufficient to desire a mate, but she wants one anyway, the best one.
This discord is borne out in her prose style, which might be, in its suppleness and oddity, the novel’s greatest achievement. She offers long, prolix sentences full of unwieldy constructions (“See this as perfect is what I was trying to make myself do”) next to simple declaratives (“I was excited”); she litters ten-dollar words (tonus, rubiconic) among colloquialisms (“Their main man was a guy with a Wild West mustache”). High and low registers are made to sit at the same table. As befits her sense of openness, she has an aversion to quotation marks, colons, semicolons, em dashes, hyphens, and especially commas. Words as words are given no special treatment. Direct dialogue is used sparingly, and denoted only by a capital letter: “I remember I said Speaking for my fellow colleens I am outraged.” Together, these choices are energizing: the sentences, with their brisk cadences, push you. She thinks in double time. I want to call this style a hyperactive reverie, but people who are hyperactive are out of control, and our narrator is in very much in the driver’s seat; people in reveries tend to be lost, and our narrator assuredly knows her way. The cumulative effect is inviting and well worth however many aneurysms it produced among the copy editors. (There are moments where you can practically hear Rush shouting, STET!)
We join our narrator at the start of a new phase in her life, one she calls “guilty repose.” She has an exploded thesis on her hands (“It was unso,” she says of her central argument) and, as a result, plenty of free time. An American, she lives among mostly white expats, all of whom—and she includes herself—are afflicted with various forms of “avidity,” a kind of acquisitive lust, a need for surplus. (Not coincidentally, back in America, Reagan is soon to be elected president.) Our narrator’s greed takes the form of sexual alertness—she extends her visa for a year and resolves to “circulate,” to move through Gaborone as a kind of hedonic medium.
She starts by pursuing, or allowing herself to be pursued by, Giles, whom she meets at a party full of Canadians. A photographer and a paragon of sexual confidence, Giles has a “self-consciously leonine” beauty around which the world cannot help but array itself in graceful patterns. After all,
Very goodlooking people are as a rule more forgetful than the median. Their mothers start it and the world at large continues it, handing them things, picking things up for them, smoothing their vicinity out for them in every way.
That’s a typical aside. Our narrator is prone to sweeping pronouncements, especially on race and gender—you want to take issue with them, as one does with generalizations, but they’re almost always too correct for that. (Another contends that men need sleep while women are “basically insomniac.”)
In a tactical, uncomfortable transaction, our narrator makes it clear that she won’t sleep with Giles unless he takes her to Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, for the plain reason that she’s always wanted to go. The apex of these first pages must be the scene in which she finally lays eyes on the falls. This was the moment I knew that I was going to want to evangelize for Mating, to stand touting and thumping it on street corners. This is a scene that absolutely, positively should not land: a woman having a profound experience, recognizing a kind of absence in herself, as she gawps at an enormous waterfall. It’s dangerous, these days, to commune with nature in fiction. We’ve all communed with it in real life, of course, but decades of cheap travel-agency ads and saccharine entertainments have all but beaten it out of our fiction: on the page, to have a meaningful interaction with a waterfall is to court banality. And yet, as the narrator says, “The falls are something you could never apply the term fake or stupid to.” Her experience of them is self-aware but unabashedly animist—and she offers a sort of phenomenological report, having absorbed them like a drug:
The roar penetrates you and you stop thinking without trying … You resonate. The first main sensation is about physicality. The falls said something to me like You are flesh, in no uncertain terms … I had no idea I was that sad … I know that schizophrenics hear people murmuring when the bedsheets rustle or when the vacuum cleaner is on. The falls were coming across to me as an utterance, but in more ways than just the roar. There seemed to be certain recurrent elongated forms in the falling masses of water, an architecture that I would be able to apprehend if only I got closer. The sound and the shapes I was seeing went together and meant something, something ethical or existential and having to do with me henceforward in some way. I started to edge even closer, when the thought came to me If you had a companion you would stay where you are.
I stopped in my tracks. There was elation and desperation. Where was my companion? I had no companion, et cetera. I had no life companion, but why was that? What had I done that had made that the case, leaving me in danger? … Each time I thought the word companion I felt pain collecting in my chest.
She’s shown us, before now, how shrewd she is, how observant, but this is our first glimpse of her longing. You might call it pragmatic sentimentalism, or empirical romanticism, or something along those lines: a deep, humanistic need for love and companionship, provoked through close, almost clinical observation of the world. This is the moment when the scales fall from her eyes. Instead of asking how she can accrue as much data as possible about the world and its inhabitants, she’s beginning to ask the questions of ideal love, of the necessity of love, that will propel the rest of the novel.
There are those, I know, who would dispute her conclusion here—who would object to this claim that one’s life is incomplete if one lives it alone. Even so, it seems an exemplary depiction of the kind of bone-deep loneliness you can feel if you step off the grid for even a few moments. It attaches a basic significance to people and their ability to help one another. Or, as Mark Leyner puts it in his story from our new Spring issue: “Life’s a harrowing fucking slog—we’re driven by irrational, atavistic impulses into an unfathomable void of quantum indeterminacy—but, still … it’s nice to have a friend, a comrade, a ‘paracosm,’ whatever, to share things with.”
Mating’s narrator boasts a daunting lexicon. We’ve looked up some of the more abstruse words so you don’t have to.
Passim (p. 12; “I was going to be hedonic, think passim about my life”): (of allusions or references in a published work) to be found at various places throughout the text.
Tonus (p. 15; “which showed also in the tonus of the grandiose parties”): the constant low-level activity of a body tissue, especially muscle tone.
Batiste (p. 17; “He was wearing a sheer batiste shirt”): a fine, light linen or cotton fabric resembling cambric.
Proconsular (p. 21; “his appearance was against him because he looked so classically proconsular”): a proconsul is a governor or military commander of an ancient Roman province, or an administrator in a modern colony, dependency, or occupied area usually with wide powers.
Crise (p. 24; “intruding on me in my crise or whatever it should be called”): a moment of risk or crisis.
Rubiconic (p. 26; “it was somehow rubiconic for me”): a bounding or limiting line; especially one that when crossed commits a person irrevocably
Diminuendo (p. 26; “I may have been into the diminuendo already”): a musical passage to be performed with a decrease in loudness.
Dan Piepenbring is the Web editor of The Paris Review.
Norman Rush will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize at this year’s Spring Revel.
Next, on Thursday: Miranda Popkey on pp. 30–55, including the infamous “working my tits down to nubs” line.