From “Serious Trouble” to “Wayposts, No Garlic,” pp. 141–165
And so our narrator has entered the desert in search of Denoon’s Xanadu, the village of Tsau. Last time Tim Horvath left us, after an excellent discussion of boredom, at “Serious Trouble.” Our narrator explains the nature of that trouble: it “began on the fourth or fifth day out. It happened because I was doing a thing I had been warned not to do in the desert: I was reviewing my life.”
Isn’t it always this way? The real difficulty begins when we peer into the labyrinth of ourselves. “The trees were clotted with mud nests, weaverbird nests, sometimes six in a tree,” she explains of the desolate scene:
But there was no birdlife. The nests were dead. Not only were there no birds but there was none of the mild almost subliminal background shuffling caused by animals like springhares and lizards you become used to sensing. I kept yawning, for no reason.
The longueurs of our narrator’s trek across the desert—before the wondrous realities of Tsau appear—allow any sense of illusion to fall by the wayside. In the Kalahari, where “you are on display for miles in every direction,” we see her clearly, and she, even writing in retrospect, seems to see herself clearly, too—even restively. “I wanted to know why my life path had led me into such a frightening place,” she writes, “if I was as intelligent as I was supposed to be. It was because of a fixation on another human, a male.” We already know, of course, that things with Denoon won’t work out. Her tone, here and elsewhere, has made that clear. This is a remembering, a grasping to understand the great mystery of failed love. But our narrator isn’t one to allow herself to wallow, at least not without dissecting it:
It was about now that I noticed with disgust a trace of elation in my reaction to what things had come to. Apparently I was furtively pleased that the level of difficulty had gone up. I reject this tendency in humanity. I had always seen it as a specifically male pathology, yet here it was, even if dilutely.
Rush uses the slow pace of the desert to the story’s advantage: we’re treated to a set of previews in which we glimpse our narrator and Denoon’s intellectual rapport. Thus we see her in dire straits, walking to Tsau, and in rare form, especially in her conversations with Denoon about his childhood, where she examines, always with the wry voice of an anthropologist, her conceptions (and misconceptions) of the female and male psyche. And what to make of perhaps the most telling part of this installment: the story of Nelson as a boy and the bottle pyramid he created, destroyed by his alcoholic father?
For pages, our narrator recounts how Denoon’s father, an alcoholic, tosses his empty booze bottles out the window where they land beyond a hedge in a gully. They collect there, giving proof, shameful proof, of the quantity of alcohol his father consumed. His parents were inside people, Denoon says, and so this bottle dump became the epic secret playground and raw material for him. He builds a pyramid of bottles and inside it wires up a light. Denoon’s father discovers the contraption, this monument to ingenuity, takes it as criticism of his drinking, and clumsily tries to destroy it with a wrench and then a pickaxe. But he’s drunk; he makes a mess of it. Ultimately Denoon retrieves the pickaxe from a dark gulley for his father so his father doesn’t hurt himself trying to retrieve the wrench amid the broken glass of the still beaming prism.
Why is it, I asked him more than once, that when I hear this story I feel worse than you do? He once went so far as to say that it might have been worse: his father might have made him demolish the structure himself. So it goes among the males.
So much of Mating is about the inexplicable differences between the sexes. In a sense, this becomes the long awaited thesis of our anthropologist— Denoon and herself, their relationship, the symbiotic needs of males and females. This chapter, and indeed the whole book, are littered with these sharp, focusing lines. “So it goes among the males.” We’re never permitted the certainty that comes with a real conclusion, though; in our narrator’s head, we must circle back, always reexamining our premises.
All I could think the first time I heard this story was if you marry you will regret it, if you fail to marry you will regret it. This was one of the few things I was able to bring to Denoon’s already topheavy intellectual armamentarium. He had somehow missed reading the great Either/Or of Kierkegaard … And what I was thinking, of course, was if you have a father you will regret it, If you have no father you will regret it: I was thinking of myself.
This is a kind of origin story, and its telling is plainly a major moment in their courtship: this is one of those stories that causes our narrator to fall in love with Denoon, a moment of real intimacy in which he reveals a fairly gaping wound in his psyche. And yet we also see in this flashback the gentle miscomprehension, the dissonance, between Denoon’s world and our narrator’s. By nature and profession they are both searchers, explainers, and yet the worlds they perceive are divergent. Their conclusions can never be identical. Love, our narrator seems to say, can also be a Xanadu—a pleasure we lust after only to see it revealed as a desert mirage.
And it’s here, at the gates of Tsau, that I leave you. The mythical experiment and the savior-complex male we’ve glimpsed only from afar, will now come center stage.
Geoff Bendeck’s essays have been published by the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Electric Literature, Men’s Journal, and The Rumpus, among others.