From “A Fête Worse than Death” through “A Great Reckoning in a Little Room,” pp. 59–71
This is the third entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.
In their opening salvos to this celebration of/cerebration on Norman Rush’s Mating, it seems only reasonable that my virtual clubmates, Popkey and Piepenbring, have focused on the voice of the novel’s nameless first-person narrator. Without question, she’s a unique creation. Piepenbring calls her, approvingly, “strange,” a strangeness that Popkey would have us appreciate for a believable femaleness. I concede, as Popkey documents, that since Mating received the National Book Award for fiction, in 1991, it has been a point of debate, among critics and readers, to assess the degree of plausibility of the femaleness of Rush’s narrator (a nameless narrator who, in Rush’s third-person second novel, Mortals, has a brief walk-on part in which we learn both her pedestrian forename and her satisfying surname).
Setting aside here the question of a male novelist’s capacity to imagine female prose (whatever that is), it seems to me that a deeper challenge, and the one by which we might measure Rush’s capacities, is his ability to imagine a character with a complex, plausible intellectual life. Though the human heart tested to its limits is amply central in the history of the novel, a human mind functioning at the peak of its powers is less well represented (and, when amply charted, is more typically criminal: Charles Kinbote and Humbert Humbert, for two). As such, I’m less concerned about veracity of voice than I am with memorableness of mind. No one I know talks like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in him. And no one I know takes in the world quite the way the narrator of Mating does.
“It became the kind of scene,” Mating’s narrator tells us at the outset of the novel’s second part, “that makes you want to be a writer so you can capture a transient unique form of social agony being undergone by people in every way, the observer excepted.” I love her “transient unique form of social agony” both for the conceptual punch delivered by the comma-free collision of adjectives and for marrying “social” and “agony”—that eternally codependent couple. I also like Rush’s boldness, as we’re walking into this huge party, in giving his narrator the claim that what we’re about to get is the kind of scene that a writer should be able to capture. Rush is raising his own bar and claiming he’ll clear it. It isn’t bragging if it’s so.
The narrator is at a party being held by local directors in Botswana of the USAID mission. She’s there because of the man she calls Z., “my last relationship before Nelson Denoon.” A British spy with a terrible comb-over, Z. has gotten the narrator into this grand house under the expectation that there is a chance that Nelson Denoon—the man who, as my compatriot Popkey puts it, “has been hovering on the novel’s margins since its very first pages”—might be in attendance. So while Z. goes off in search of a beer, the narrator, who has up until now been navigating us through the lively but perilous precincts of Gaborone (Gabs, she calls it) wanders through this fine house, a sudden shuttle into high society (think Kitty’s arrival at the ball in part one of Anna Karenina—such high hopes!). Mating’s party isn’t that splendid, but there is an Anna-and-Kitty vibe: the narrator notices, as she looks for Denoon, “pretend[ing] a fixation on seeing every piece of chinoiserie there was, which naturally took me off the beaten track and into the private rooms at the back of the house,” that a woman is following her:
She was following me because I was American and seemed so at home and she was looking for someone she could impose on for something. Underneath the extremis she was in she was the way you would die to look at forty, forty-two. Sorority person, I said to myself. She was in a couture version of safari attire, which she had to know was a mistake. The invitations had specified formal and she was barely touching smart casual. She definitely looked rich, which made me not sisterly toward her. I have a vulgar marxist reaction to the rich, which is part of me. Not that I’m a marxist of any kind. I would have made a wonderful marxist if I’d been born into it, probably, which is the only way it could have stuck. Too bad for marxism.
I love the way Rush has of shuttling between the narrator’s eye (“a couture version of safari attire”) and her mind (“I have a vulgar marxist reaction to the rich”), all the while advancing us to the moment when the narrator and the woman collide:
She was about to be a spectacle, unless I helped. Her eyes were red and her left hand looked like one of those claw feet on nineteenth-century furniture clutching an orb, except that the orb in her case was composed of damp Kleenex. I realized that her safari coatlet was in fact perfect for her situation because of its accordion pockets. Even as I watched she reached into one for yet another Kleenex, which she passed across her nostrils before adding it to the orb she was creating. My first act was to gently relieve her of her collection and force it into a stoneware urn.
I want to go to my husband, she said. But I—
What? I said.
But I, they—
What? I said.
These men. There are men.
Be more consecutive, I said. I don’t know why I was so butch with her, but she elicited it, and she also seemed to respond to it. She seemed unsteady. Thank god the shrimp tree is empty, I thought, because it looked as though she might collapse into it.
Would you go with me? she said.
For a second I could see something a little ulterior in her distress, but I lost my grasp of it when she said she was Grace Denoon. Instantly I was her sister.
And suddenly we’re hooked into the hugeness of what is about to unfold: Denoon!
Mating’s narrator boasts a daunting lexicon. We’ve looked up a few of the more abstruse words so you don’t have to.
Proleptically (p. 60; “He had toothpicks with him and handed me some proleptically”): prolepsis is the anticipation and answering of possible objections in rhetorical speech. The narrator seems to like this word—she uses it often.
Cui bono (p. 63; “Looking for the cui bono or materialist explanation is nearly always correct”): Latin, of course—“To whose benefit?”
Arboricola (p. 68; “a big potted arboricola near the door”): a flowering plant native to Taiwan, better known by its common name, the Dwarf Umbrella Tree.
Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and teaches at Bard College.
Norman Rush will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize at this year’s Spring Revel.
Next: Joshua Cohen on the Solar Democrat himself, Nelson Denoon.