From “Kang” through “Music,” pp. 116–140
This is the sixth entry in our Mating Book Club. (Sorry for the wait!) Read along.
This latest portion might be dubbed “The Critique of Pure Boredom,” especially given that our narrator name-drops Kant in the midst of it. Early on, she declares, “One attractive thing about me is that I’m never bored, because during any caesura my personal automatic pastime of questioning my own motives is there for me.”
Lest we doubt her, she goes on to wonder whether the journey she intends to undertake to Tsau is the byproduct of certain deep unconscious maternal longings, or something else. She dismisses any neo-Darwinian and Freudian interpretation of her behavior, wrangles with the question of that behavior in relation to Denoon’s childlessness (interesting, she notes), and the overpopulation problem, plus her sympathy for abandoned children globally. And she winds up wanting her decisions in the realm of relationships to be not only deliberate, but “deliberative,” which is where Kant enters into it. Slow and steady.
Yet in the world outside her head, she’s on a flatbed truck that’s flying at hair-raising speeds for 250 miles, with cornmeal, mail, and a “fiendish shavenheaded adolescent at the wheel.”
Indeed, “The idea is to go … so fast that you’re touching only the tops of the ruts, in effect making them a continuous surface. Your intense speed is supposed to carry you through the intermittent tracts of pure sand.”
I think here of the early pages of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, where she describes skiing:
You wanted to be traceless. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges …
Kushner’s Reno goes on to say that “the two things I loved were drawing and speed, and in skiing I combined them.”
Mating’s narrator, of course, is no partisan of speed; rather she is, if anything, a connoisseur of slowness, a World Heavyweight Champion of Lingering. Reading Rush is so often a celebration of the experience of time slowed down, such that even when we are physically moving at a pell-mell pace, full throttle, as we do here through the outer landscape, we’re constantly mired in the sand of thought—rarely do we elide the ruts by riding atop them. But it is precisely these ruts that are the wellsprings of so much of the pleasure of the journey, whether it is in the meditations on repetition compulsion or the failure of pets and infants to speak, or a delicious coinage like postlion.
This notion of introspection as a sort of insurance against boredom feels downright alluring in a 2015 wherein we are veritably bombarded with stimuli, where search terms and algorithms offer themselves up as viable, monetizable alternatives to memory and decision making, where distraction feels like the default state and contemplation a bit like a museum piece that we might indulge on Sundays if we can still get tickets. If anything, though, rather than feeling quaint, Rush’s preoccupation with boredom connects him to us. The boredom in question is not markedly different from that which David Foster Wallace was exploring in The Pale King: a profound, existential boredom, at once characteristic of our age and, furthermore, perhaps of the human condition. Wallace stalks his prey everywhere, from detailing the parking problems at an IRS branch office to wondering whether test-taking anxiety isn’t linked to a fear of silence and stillness above all. He describes “negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes.”
Mating’s narrator, though, seduces us by example, being the living, breathing proof that boredom isn’t inevitable. Part of Mating’s own negotiation is the question of what happens when two people who are preternaturally antiboring come together—can they remain dynamic to one another? Will they destroy each other, either by combusting or neutralizing one another? The narrator refers to the “1001 Nights” of their relationship—Scheherazade is perhaps the example par excellence of never boring your listener, though here we have two of them. And while sheer narrative and cliff-hanger are Scheherazade’s tools-in-trade, Denoon’s and the narrator’s are aside, observation, aperçus, wordplay, and neologism, theory, and the like (there are veritable manuals contained in this section—Games to Play on Long Road Trips (And How to Win!), How to Prepare for a Trip Through the Desert, How to Cope with Lions). Of course, relationships in their nascent moments are notorious for adding a certain gloss to the beloved’s most petty or irksome qualities, making them seem somehow not only forgivable but endearing. Would Denoon’s stories about how he’d keep tricking his brother in a game where they’d choose the lowliest, shabbiest house for each other to live in seem as charming and resonant as they do here if one was subjected to them for twenty years? Or would they seem like picked over scraps, leftovers too oft-reheated?
Boredom and silence: Look upon their works, Ye mighty relationship, and despair!
But all of that will arrive later. For now, we are still on the journey to Tsau, by way of Lobatse and Kang. En route, we are drawn into various ruts. It is worth noting that Rush has already rehearsed the driving scene here, with the fear of getting stuck and stranded in the sand, in his brilliant story “Near Pala,” which can be found in his collection Whites. I use this story to teach dialogue, which, along with physical description of the landscape and four characters, is about all the story consists of. It is stripped of not only the digressive, churning mental acrobatics of Mating, but bereft of any internal point of view whatsoever. It’s a story that a behaviorist might approve of. We get, simply, two couples driving from point A to point B. The men are in the front, including, of course, the driver’s seat, and the women are in back. In a marvel of compression, Rush not only reveals the fissures and fractures between these particular husbands and wives but manages to distill power relations between expatriates and natives, particularly the Baswara, along with relations between men and women in general. (If you read “Near Pala,” from Whites, after reading Mating, you’ll be shocked that this, too, is Rush.)
In Mating, the car does get stopped at one point—“The breakdown kit, when it was extricated, surprised us by containing only a spare carburetor—no shovel, no sand mat of the absolutely reliable and time tested kind they use all over the Sahel, no first aid kit.” They are reassured by their drivers that they will “get … out through sheer experience,” and indeed they do, eventually, but not before the passengers are asked to retrieve the bars of soap that have become “distributed down the road behind us in a large array.” This is a surreal moment—the drivers looking on like bosses overseeing manual labor—made all the more so by its context, shortly after we’ve heard Denoon’s critique of both socialism and capitalism in one fell swoop.
Kang itself becomes a sort of a rut; like Odysseus on Calypso’s island, the narrator becomes too comfortable here. She manages to bore the nuns, the Sisters of St. Mary, by declaring herself an anthropologist. She finds the silences here “almost lyrical,” the music of “the susurrus of wind in the thorn trees … highly occasional, not predictable.” Silence, rather than precipitating boredom, is here rich and full, Cagean. Fortunately the water is wretched enough that she is impelled onward.
At some point in here the narrator vows to “be more synoptic,” and so should I. In the last part of this section, she travels with a couple of donkeys that she refers to as “the guys,” braving lions and the desert’s increased risk for brain-melt: hallucination, murky thinking, and outright derangement. Here she remarks that “anyone who thinks crossing the Kalahari by yourself is boring is deluded,” explaining that “it’s like being self-employed in a marginal enterprise: there’s always something you should be doing[.]” There are snakes, and lions, and the desert as an “organism or totality” that is “trying to make [one] … become part of it, as in surrender to it.”
And this, finally, is one of Mating’s great undertakings, I’d argue: where Wallace attempts to confront boredom by mimicking it, entering fully into its flesh and its couture, charting its anatomy and its antinomies, Mating assiduously refuses to surrender. If boredom sings a siren song, Mating itself holds out hope that we can transcend it, maybe sing right back to it, harmonize or modulate its key or tone, trick it into becoming something else. Indeed, this section ends with our narrator singing—to her “guys,” to herself, to us. And next up is “Serious Trouble.” I mean, who in their right mind could possibly be bored?
Tim Horvath is the author of Understories and Circulation. He teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and currently he is working on a novel about contemporary composers.