From “Grace Acts” through “Grace, Again,” pp. 90–116
This is the fifth entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.
“So here he is, after all this setup: Denoon.” That’s how Joshua Cohen began his post last week, and the moment when we finally confront our “genuinely goodlooking man” does feel exactly that dramatic. It’s a strange kind of meet-cute: girl meets boy at furtive political symposium; girl is foisted on boy by boy’s not-quite-ex-wife.
This section takes in two run-ins between our narrator and Denoon: the first inside the guesthouse of the USAID director’s opulent home, the second near the outhouse on the Tutwane family plot in Old Naledi. After this, our narrator shares a meal with Grace, the not-quite-ex, at the humble Carat Restaurant, “which was doomed to fail because they gave you too much food for your money.”
Cohen wrote that last week’s one-act “operat[es] on multiple time lines,” but so does the novel as a whole: our narrator writes from an undefined future, looking back on life pre-Denoon until we “plunge into Denoon and what followed.” As hints accumulate of the disagreements, passions, and disappointments ahead, our expectation grows fevered, even as the details of the meeting itself remain wonderfully unknowable. Even though we’ve been working our way toward this encounter, and even though we know that this is where the story truly begins, the moment still feels wildly significant. The narrator speaks of “a feeling of fatedness”: “The feeling was that this was supposed to happen, according to the stars in their courses.”
If I overdwell on this it can’t be helped: love is important and the reasons you get it or fail to are important. The number of women in my generation who in retrospect anyone will apply the term “great love” to, in any connection, is going to be minute. I needed to know if I had a chance here. Love is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous … Of course even as I was machinating I was well aware I was in the outskirts of the suburbs of the thing you want or suspect is there. But at this moment in my life I was at the point where even the briefest experience of unmistakable love would be something I could clutch to myself as proof that my theory of myself was not incorrect. Theories can be reactionary and still be applicable.
Dan Piepenbring divided this book’s prose, roughly, into “long, prolix sentences” and “simple declaratives,” and the latter here seem particularly apt—fated, even. We are moving quickly. Indeed, in this section, it is love—more so perhaps than Denoon himself—that constitutes the main event. Mating is no longer a love story told in past perfect. Love seems to clarify our narrator’s wanderings, to give them shape after the fact. Everything snaps into focus. Because this is, with apologies to Sade, “no ordinary love”:
What beguiles you toward intellectual love is the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court. The searchlight confirms you. I’m thinking of Nelson’s comments on the formerly famous Norman O. Brown, or on deconstructionism, although all this came much later. Denoon was an answer to something I was only subliminally aware was really bothering me, namely the glut of things you feel you ought to have a perspective on, à la core-periphery analysis or the galloping hypothèse Girardien.
“Lazily” is doing some beautiful work in that first sentence. It’s precisely the self-directedness of an intellectual lover’s mind that makes it so seductive—that mind can “confirm” all kinds of things you wanted confirmed not out of stridency or intention, but because its movements harmonize so well those of your own mind. Here is intellectual partnership at its purest.
The story’s multiple time lines make our narrator something of a mystery in this section. She speaks of this love as if it’s already grand, but the victories themselves are provisional at this point: they’ve only just met. And it’s not as if the strangeness of the circumstances fails to make an impression. The narrator knows that Grace, as Denoon’s former beloved, is about as nondisinterested a party as one can imagine—and that Denoon’s impression of her is contingent on this most unlikely Cupid. (“Was revenge in it somewhere or was she trying to involve me with him in order to get some legal advantage? This was my realpolitikal lobe speaking.”) Yet:
Of course, Grace was drunk. It was crystalline. I had led a drunk to this occasion but not seen it until now. How I had missed it was a case study in the effect of motivation on perception. He would have to be feeling that without me she would never have been there. [emphasis mine]
A few lines down:
It was now awkward or impossible for us to say anything to each other, unless I could come up with something.
These moments threaten “fatedness,” yet the narrator doesn’t dwell on them. Nor—in her second meeting with Denoon, when she (well, her urine) jeopardizes the fate of third-world agriculture—does she dwell on her spectacular uric faux pas, to use Piepenbring’s phrase. And why should she be coy? We know, by now, that she and Denoon will get together; to affect suspense on this point would be misleading. But then, when Denoon flexes his intellectual muscles, our narrator wonders:
No question he was showing off for me with this—but why, if any further association with him was as out of the question as he seemed to want me to understand?
This is a strange bit of aporia, no? She knows why!
To be clear, I find this considerably less disingenuous than the alternative approach Rush could’ve taken—to lead us through these meetings with a false sense of uncertainty. Reserve and steadiness aren’t always more appealing than self-doubt, but they are here. And they’re more honest, too. It’s just a little cheeky, is all.
I’ve exceeded my word count, but I’ve missed so much! The second run-in with Grace, for one thing. (Is Grace “stupid or just drunk”? She is neither or she’s both, but she understands, perhaps before the narrator does, how successful her speculative matchmaking has proven to be.) And Meerkotter, Grace’s highly unpleasant rebound—Colonel Joll with a stronger sex drive. Not to mention all of the miraculous, tossed-off insights (a grim word, but that’s really what they are) I’ve failed to honor. So, in partial atonement, an especially juicy one:
British anti-Americanism was hardly worth noticing because it was just one more facet of the larger phenomenon of British self-worship.
Mating’s narrator boasts a daunting lexicon. We’ve looked up a few of the more abstruse words so you don’t have to.
Noli me tangere (p. 90, “since my middle name is noli me tangere”): a warning or prohibition against meddling or interference.
Celerity (p. 103, “The celerity with which people recognize something”): swiftness of movement.
Tout pardonner (p. 106, “I developed a more tout pardonner perspective”): all is forgiven.
Bolus (p. 107, “Anthropology: a bolus, incidental”): a small rounded mass of a substance, especially of chewed food at the moment of swallowing.
Thews (p. 112, “He was very proud of what Edgar Rice Burroughs would have called his thews”): muscles and tendons perceived as generating physical strength.
Norman Rush will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize at this year’s Spring Revel.
Mark Krotov is a senior editor at Melville House.