4: “Here Was the Famous Voice”


The ‘Mating’ Book Club

“A Farce Written in Human Blood,” pp. 70–89


This is the fourth entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

So here he is, after all this setup: Denoon—the anthropologist beyond anthropology, the man who until this chapter had been kept behind the margins as if in the wings, behind a curtain. Because his entrance here, now, is a stage entrance—he’s going to give us a performance.

Here we have a party whose entertainment consists of an anthropologist’s lecture costumed as an anthropologist’s debate—with politicians, about politics—in the thickly caked makeup of a play: “A Farce Written in Human Blood: THE DESTRUCTION OF AFRICA ACCELERATED BY HER BENEFACTORS, PRESENT COMPANY NOT EXCEPTED.” The caps are Rush’s. Then there’s this heading: Act II. But where was Act I? Did we miss it? We did. Our unnamed narrator gives us access to Denoon only after he’s finished (verbally) demolishing capitalism (rather, “excoriating the capitalist development mode for Africa”)—socialism is next.

But before we get into Denoon’s “objections to the socialist remedy for Africa,” let’s ask a question: Why did Rush write this section as a drama? Why not as a thoroughgoing narrated scene?

One answer would be to avoid extended stretches of dialogue. Because dialogue takes us out of Mating’s true setting (the true setting of every first-person book): our narrator’s head. When characters talk—and this is the book’s talkiest section—Rush eschews quotation marks; as if the words of others were the narrator’s own words; as if to say, all of life can seem like a play atop our mental proscenia.

Another answer might be that drama (or the typographical appearance of drama) allows Rush to bring consciousness to action, like a guest brings a bottle to a party—a particularly enlivening bottle. Consider this: In most books, especially in most first-person books, when the characters talk, interiority dies. A narrator can natter on and on, strut and fret across the boards of her own intellect, but then once she’s out in the world and forced to socialize, as our narrator has been for a dozen pages now, she’s subject to others (in the social sense); she has to make room in her brain, and so on her page, for those supporting cast creatures called Other People, those spear-bearing supernumeraries who keep trying to assert themselves by wanting, needing, doing—saying.

So, the page must be shared: other brains must be admitted. Our narrator is no attention-hog, or she has to prove she isn’t. Her desire to give evidence of this is … desire. But to write (to permit) the traditional back and forth of dialogue would be to cede too much time, too much ground. So Denoon’s claims (“socialism is a rhetorical solution to real problems”) are interrupted—broken up. Our narrator comments on his comments in interpolated stage-directionish text, in italics.

Just as Denoon announces that he’s about to outline his five objections to socialism (he had nine objections to capitalism, we’re told), our narrator—delaying the listing of them—gives voice to her Inner Font:

Thank god, I thought. I felt for him because up to now he had been having trouble getting the right level of discourse going. One problem was that he had too much to say. Also I could tell he liked the idea of proceeding by having enemies, manipulating people into goodnatured enmity toward him. I was on to him. Also showing through, I thought, was that he liked the people he was trying to jockey into antagonistic self-definitions. Also he was dealing with a very mixed group and was essentially uninterested in communicating with the most sophisticated members of it, for the obvious reason that their minds were already made up—yet he needed to retain their respect and was resorting to little tricks of allusion to show that he was only using some portion of what he knew or could say. It was the youth he was going for, but there were pitfalls in that.

This technique preserves the primacy of our narrator’s intelligence, even as the party—an address to and about the Party—unfolds.

What of that address? It begins smartly enough: Socialism won’t work in Botswana—in all of Africa, perhaps—because:

  1. Full employment by the government will lead to an unsustainable bureaucracy with the most talented people becoming useless bureaucrats (“[…] since you have lost the use of the market, which allocates everything gratis, you must set up a mechanism to allocate things by command. And you must pay people to do that, a lot of people.”).
  2. Botswana will still have to rely on capitalist countries to provide the bulk of its military/industrial equipment and consumer goods (“[…] you are going to have to lay aside money to buy technology, ever newer and better technology, from the market states. And forever. Because under socialism unfortunately there is no invention, that is to say innovation.”).
  3. The opportunities for graft would be too numerous and the cost of its prosecution too high (“This is a cost superadded to the costs of dealing with general crime, which has not gone away yet in any socialist country. I am referring to the cost of suppressing a novel class of activities designated as economic crimes, such as giving people the death penalty for speculation or hoarding.”).
  4. Botswana will still have to rely on capitalist countries to provide the bulk of its food (“One reason you’ll have to import food and pay cash for it is that as a socialist country you’ll only get gift food if your people sink to the point of starvation as they have in Mozambique.”).

And five?

Five was a mess. He couldn’t get it schematic enough, and during it some people got bored to the hilt. My notes, which I made when I went home that night, say that there are two ways to extract the social surplus—confiscatory via the state, or individual and voluntary, whereby people sweat and compel themselves to save […]

I just want to say—

More cries, including “Ow!” and the word “Menshevik.”

Comrades, I just want to say—

If I search my mind for permanent marks I left on Denoon rather than vice versa, this is one I can be sure of: I made him stop overusing the intro “I just this” or “I just that.” I convinced him that it was always taken as preapologetic. I warned him especially about beginning phone conversations that way. He got the point and after a couple of false starts completely stopped.

Rush’s playlet is now doing a very unplay-like thing: operating on multiple time lines. Though once the future is gestured at, our narrator stops—she’s gone too far, too fast. What Denoon continues with seems relatedly shaky, off the mark.

He begins advocating for “solar democracy,” yet never quite explains what that is. Rather, he proceeds from explaining renewable energy—“Heating, cooling, cooking, transport, water pumping, any process you might name, could be run directly or indirectly from this great tireless source”—to a vatic grandiosity that’s unsettling:

“You could be the first nation to give its people lives of freedom to devote to art, science, scholarship, sport if you like that.”

“Your villages could be like the great universities of Europe during the dark ages, and there is now a dark age of its own kind: your villages could be like suns or stars shining, because you could teach the use of the sun to the rest of Africa and beyond.”

What is he, then—this Denoon? Is he brilliant? Or crazy? Just another lakhoa, here in Africa to enslave again, but now with “liberal” “progress”?

He is, at least by training, an anthropologist—and our narrator is, too. Anthropology is the study of people, or perhaps a better definition would be that it’s an occasion in which a person studies Other People while trying not to impact or influence them—trying but ineluctably failing.

A woman remaining still and silently attentive while the men act out: perhaps the best definition of anthropology is “theater.”

Joshua Cohen’s novel Book of Numbers will be published in June.

Norman Rush will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize at this year’s Spring Revel.

Next week: Mark Krotov on Denoon’s ex and our narrator’s uric faux pas.