FROM THE STACKS OCTOBER 24, 2013
The plot of Norman Rush's novel, his first, has the appealing simplicity of a fairy tale or a chivalric romance. A person of prepossessing strength and vigor and single-mindedness ventures alone into the desert and comes upon a forbidden, magical village. There that person courts and wins a mate of prepossessing purity. Usually the quester is male, his prize a female paragon. But in Mating, the quester is a woman, a lapsed doctoral candidate in nutritional anthropology, who goes unnamed throughout the novel. The desert is the Kalahari, in Botswana, and the magical village is Tsau, an experiment in matriarchal, self-sufficient, communal living created by the narrator's ideal mate, a man called Nelson Denoon. Denoon's purity is neither spiritual nor sexual (though he is celibate when the story begins). It is ideological, the only kind of purity that counts in black Africa, where every white face is the sign of a political theorem.
But Mating is not a fairy tale or a chivalric romance. It is an extremely sophisticated dramatic monologue, one of whose many theses is that only a woman has heart enough to search for heroic love. A man like Denoon practices instead the erotic force of withdrawal, which is his form of heroism. He retreats, he isolates himself, and his purity increases, though as a man his notion of love is completely non-abstract. "Love," says the remarkable narrator, "is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous. What I say is if you find yourself condemned to wanting love, you have to play while you can play. Of course it would be so much easier to play from the male side. They never go after love qua love, ever. They go after women." There is no taking sides while reading Mating. You are not for the narrator and her obsessive quest for love, nor are you for Denoon: you are for the struggle between them, for the sexual game itself, so complex and artful and comic does it become.
The story begins "within the embassy penumbra" in Gabarone, Botswana, a world where the indifferent audience of black faces forces whites into postures even more ridiculous than the ones their bureaucratic or commercial affiliations force them into. (This was the setting for several of the stories in Rush's first book, Whites, including "Bruns," which was told in the voice of the same anthropologist who narrates Mating.) Out of the disappointments of African life, says the narrator, greed arises, and her greed is for intellectual love. Throughout Mating, the reader expects to come upon some kind of detailed flashback from the narrator's childhood. It never happens (a sign of Rush's alertness to his narrator's voice), but you learn enough to know that for the narrator intellectual love is both a way of reworking the inadequacies of the past and a way of doing her homework.
"I grew up clinging to the idea," she writes, "that either I was original in an unappreciated way or that I could be original—this later—by incessant striving and reading and taking simple precautions like never watching television again in my life." It is hard to miss the compensatory note in this: she is the daughter of a mother (her lone parent) whose physical debilities—the narrator calls her "the colossus of Duluth"—mirror her emotional debilities. The narrator's search for intellectual love is a search for some ideal, non-historical version of herself. And it is also, plainly, a means of compensating for the intellectual unease that a person with a lapsed dissertation, who happens to be striving for ideological purity, is likely to feel. "What beguiles you toward intellectual love," she says, 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.... You are barely able to take note of the earthshaking novelties people are producing before they are swathed in bibliographies to be gotten through.
The narrator works up to intellectual love in stages, through Giles, a British photographer, through Martin Wade, an ascetic South African exile, and through Z, a spy. With each of these men she conducts a kind of sexual barter, though, as she says, "I'm against what I did." The rate of exchange is clearest with Giles. In return for a rather languid sexual promise, Giles takes her to see "the world's greatest waterfall from the windows of an establishment amounting to a wet dream of doomed white settler amour propre." Wade, under constant South African surveillance, offers her the attractions of danger and a first stab at ideological purity. And Z? Z tells her where to find the elusive Denoon.
Denoon first surfaces at a usaid mission party in Gabarone. Beyond the rooms full of inconvenient food and "all the Brits with ludic names," beyond the maid "drizzling liquid incense onto light bulbs with an eyedropper," Denoon is holding an informal seminar in the guest house. The narrator is ushered into the roomful of men by Denoon's ex-wife Grace, who later presents the narrator to Denoon as something delectable, someone already sold on his stardom. And indeed his stardom is apparent. He holds the audience in his grasp. Against the narrator's internal commentary ("This man needed editing. I wanted to scream at him to give us the five sins of socialism or sit down"), Denoon unfolds his ideas on the nature of village development in Africa. He is neither daunted nor impressed by heresy or paradox. He indulges in what one of his listeners calls "suigenerism." He has a famous voice.
The effect of it all on the narrator is erotic. "Is it erotic or not," she asks, "to be in the ambience of someone who offhandedly confutes the two systems that are dividing the world, is fairly convincing about it, and has in reserve something entirely his own and superior? Is it erotic or not that he is even diffident about going into it?" This is gray-matter eroticism. It is not completely incorporeal, but it's close. The narrator's appraisal of Denoon's appearance, the substratum of most eroticism, has a rather chilling, cerebral quality about it: "His superficies were good. The whites of his eyes were models of whiteness ... and I could tell that his gingivae were as good as mine." Here is the narrator's idea of an erotic outburst: "He was so interdisciplinary! Economics, anthropology, economic anthropology, you name it in the policy sciences, not to mention development proper and being in actual charge of a sequence of famous rural development projects in Africa!" And yet it is real eroticism, the kind that plays on her nerve endings and makes her buzz. When Z first raises the possibility of finding Denoon, she says, "I was so labile it was ridiculous. It would be about as hard to read me as being in the kitchen and noticing when the compressor went on in the refrigerator."
Clearly Mating is no ordinary love story. It is serious romance refracted comically through the mind of a startlingly individual narrator, a narrator on a campaign of intellectual self-betterment and self-analysis that will not quit. Her faculties do not form a democracy; she subordinates imagination and emotion to her analytical passion. Her responses to the world ripple down from a lexical center somewhere deep inside her brain, a lexical center where a bomb of sorts seems to have gone off, spraying shards of academic speech into the everyday streets around it. In the disarray of her self and her intellect, the narrator has set aside any notion of linguistic decorum, of the pigeonholes that govern diction. Her language is razor-edged, rambling, loony. She is delightful to quote, especially when she is talking about herself: "I see myself as quite perfectible. It always surprised me how few pygmalious, polymathic men ever had been interested in sprucing me up, given that I'm so interested and available, and that, as everyone notices first about me, I remember everything." She somehow misses the fact that almost no one is polymathic enough to be pygmalious toward someone so bent on perfection.
She herself is pygmalious toward her men. In her character there is no room for lounging, even in the intervals of intellection. She remembers everything and she sees everything. She zooms in close, magnification set on high. She has thought everything onto the level of theory. When she and Denoon first embrace in Tsau ("the omphalos," she says, "of my idioverse"), she delays the clinch itself with a small dissertation on its ideal form: "The best standing-up embrace is like that one, slightly off center so that you have his leg and not his actual temeraire up against you, one hand on the base of your spine, and you are brought in against him but not mashingly. His cheek is at your ear but not occluding your actual ear canal." Her powers of observation, on the sexual level, have their politics, too. "Men," she says, "are like armored things, mountainous assemblages of armor and leather, masonry even, which you are told will self-dismantle if you touch the right spot, and out will flow passionate attention." She loathes "the plague of little moth kisses from men just planting their seniority on you."
Because of the range of the narrator's attentions, Mating manages to be many kinds of novel at once. Chiefly, it is a sexual comedy, of course, but it is also an academic satire, on the Lucky Jim level, despite the bush-bound status of the narrator. You cannot hear her say, "He had toothpicks with him and handed me some proleptically," without also hearing the patter of jargon that falls on the university these days. When she begins to fear, in Tsau, that she is losing Denoon's attention, she reacts instinctively, i.e., academically:
I was going to lose Denoon because I wasn't acting intelligently.... And I was failing to understand [him] because the situation of trying to learn while I was in the act of living with him recapitulated my difficulties in absorbing material in lecture settings as opposed to absorbing material from a text, from something I could reread and underline.
By the time things have gone this far between them, she is so cathected, to use a word of her own, toward Denoon that she decides "to cull and put together under the right headings everything I had on Nelson so far," to turn him into a text, from which she quotes abundantly during the course of her story. "This," she adds, "did not seem bizarre to me in any way." Denoon's equally instinctive decision to absent himself for a time on the pretense of business is, under the circumstances, proleptic.
At the novel's end, as she tries to decide how to read an ambiguous phone message from Africa, possibly from Denoon, the narrator has taken herself firmly in hand. "I've done what I do best," she says, "made an academic study of myself centering on the last two years, made myself a field of academic study with only one specialist in it."
I have been praising the narrator of Mating as if she, rather than its author, were responsible for the book. But that is how reading the book feels: as if you were looking directly down the coal-chute of the narrator's mind, where everything is mediated so thoroughly by her training that, in true academic fashion, it feels third-hand, though it is no less comic for being so. Immediacy, for her, is a dirty word. When emotional self-knowledge fails her, she blames it on the shortcomings of her discipline. "Basically the reason I don't know why I felt the way I did," she explains, is because unfortunately we don't know what we are, anthropology notwithstanding, even though the reason I clutched anthropology to my bosom was because I believed that academic disciplines did what they said they were doing rather than being hotbeds of dominance behavior where disagreeing on the simplest point gets you into a Gotterdammerung with somebody or his disciples."
The only mistake on the author's part is Tsau, the magical, matriarchal village in the Kalahari. It is not quite utopia, but it takes almost as much explaining as utopias usually do. Every structure in the village—social, architectural, financial, mechanical—needs describing, and it falls, of course, to the narrator to do it. This squanders her abilities. She is fascinated by Tsau, and yet to her (a woman with no reason to love the mater in matriarchy) its ideological attractions are faint compared with those of Denoon. You pause often to admire the ingenuity that has gone into inventing Tsau, but it is the author's ingenuity showing through at last, as something completely distinct—manifestly clever—from the brilliantly self-defining idiom of the narrator's voice.
And it is in the sections of the novel set in Tsau that it occurs to you to wonder whether Norman Rush, who has ingenuity to burn, has not in some way taken sides himself, whether this woman's attentions do not, somehow, start to feel like an onslaught. In Tsau's world of non-aggressive, rather distant women, portrayed by the imposing woman who says to Denoon, "I revere the level of argument you impose on others," there is only one significant male. As Denoon withdraws himself from Tsau and from the ever-widening inquiries of the ever-probing narrator, you wonder whether he is not exchanging winks with the novel's only other significant male, its author.
In the end Denoon withdraws more completely than he means to. On his way to Tikwe, to start a sister village to Tsau, he suffers an accident, alone, in the Kalahari, and experiences a vision that leaves him nearly mute, caught up in the kind of transcendental raptness that gives the narrator gas. It had been an axiom of their relationship that "intellectual love is for the secular mind, because if you discover that someone, however smart, is—he has neglected to mention—a Thomist or in Baha'i, you think of him as a slave to something uninteresting." Suddenly Denoon is that someone. He retreats into a silence toward which, the narrator is well aware, she had been driving him with her "too concentrated and cathected soundings re the books in his life," but to which he is also assisted by eleven days alone in the Kalahari with broken limbs, watching death come nearer and nearer. To the narrator, Denoon's new sense of spiritual communion with the universe ("Consciousness is bliss," he says) is nearly unforgivable. Back in Gabarone, she unloads him on a beautiful young woman named Bronwen ("People were arranging what they had to do so they could rest their eyes on her ... I was nothing despite my superior bosom") and returns to the United States, where life is "like being stabbed to death with a butter knife by a weakling."
During her last days in Tsau, while she is pondering whether to go off into the Kalahari in search of Denoon, the narrator suffers what she would call a regression re anthropology. It dawns on her that throughout Africa the watchers are really the watched. "I am mentally asking you not to surveil me," she imagines saying to the residents of Tsau in her distress, "which is the most boring thing you can either do or be subject to. All over the world in the privacy of their huts anthropologists are turning up their hands and saying this is boring." After she had found Denoon, when he is being his most cryptic, she quotes Denoon to himself: "Thought looks into the face of hell and is not afraid. That was you, wasn't it, from Bertrand Russell?" But her point is that thought looks into the face of hell and is not bored.
The heroism of her search for love was premised upon the gigantic contours of Denoon as he was, before he fell into the banality of bliss. She scaled Denoon like an Alp and was enlarged in so doing, until she, not he, was the hero. The note of lamentation in the narrator's voice at the end of the novel does not resolve itself; it is scarcely lamentation at all. ("I can get sex. My celibacy is known and is highly exciting to certain oaves on my periphery.") The note of lamentation remains suspended, ironic, in hope perhaps that Denoon's desert epiphany is but one more tactic on his part, one more way of being "so famously sardonic! So heretical!" It remains suspended because Mating is a modern comedy, which ends not in marriage, the solid reckoning of love, but in the merest possibility of love's continuance.