• Email
  • Print

Good Intentions

Mating

by Norman Rush
Knopf, 480 pp., $23.00

Brazzaville Beach

by William Boyd
Morrow, 316 pp., $21.00

In both Mating and Brazzaville Beach, a smart young female scientist comes to Africa to do field research, encounters an older man who is an academic celebrity, and finds her life radically altered by the experience. These are of course timely matters: post-colonial anxiety in the white West, the tribulations of women in patriarchal professions, current debates about scientific dishonesty and the authority of science itself. But these books are quite different in effect, if only because each author has a different sense of Africa. William Boyd, an Englishman still in his thirties, was born in Ghana; two of his four earlier novels—A Good Man in Africa and An Ice-Cream War—considered the ironies of white rule at its zenith and in its twilight. Norman Rush, an American in his late fifties, served in the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983; his much-admired collection of stories, Whites, drew on his experience there, and, like Whites, Mating, his first novel, examines Western good intentions in a non-Western world.

The narrator and heroine of Mating, who appears earlier in a story in Whites, is a Ph. D. candidate who came to Botswana from Stanford in 1980 to work on her dissertation in nutritional anthropology. Her project, to show that the reproductive rate of gatherers is affected by the foods they can find at various times of year, fails miserably, since there no longer are any gatherers in Botswana, where the native peoples now eat canned goods, cornflakes, and surplus grains sent by relief programs. Africa, in fact, is a disappointment generally. In Gaborone, the capital, which looks like a college town in the American Southwest of the 1960s, white expatriates compete fiercely for the limited supply of crème fraîche, while the Batswana themselves, except for the politicians, seem to want too little and generally take things easy.

In a book rich in circumstantial detail this interesting woman never is named. She is a brilliant creation particularly in her language, which captures the unquenchable flip-hip patter of her skeptical generation and subculture, as well as the worried seriousness which that patter, far from concealing, expresses all the more poignantly. When she visits Victoria Falls and feels “enormous sadness” at its intimation of her own mortality, she remarks:

I think the falls represented death for the taking, but a particular death, one that would be quick but also make you part of something magnificent and eternal, an eternal mechanism. This was not in the same league as throwing yourself under some filthy bus. I had no idea I was that sad. I began to ask myself why, out loud…. One sense I had was that I was going to die sometime anyway. Another was that the falls were something you could never apply the term fake or stupid to. This has to be animism, was another feeling. I was also bemused because suicide had never meant anything to me personally, except as an option it sometimes amazed me my mother had never taken, if her misery was as kosher as she made it seem. There was also an element of urgency underneath everything, an implication that the chance for this kind of death was not going to happen again and that if I passed it up I should stop complaining—which was also baseless and from nowhere because I’m not a complainer, historically. I am the Platonic idea of a good sport.

Later she speaks rather approvingly of her “personal automatic pastime of questioning my own motives,” and such scrupulous self-consciousness is what makes her response to the falls impressive. At least since Wordsworth, virtually no one of any literary sensibility would not think at least dimly of self-extinction in such a presence; a few might yield to it and jump, some would draw back but preserve the memory for future depression, nightmare, or poetry, most would shrug and get back to work. But she questions her first reaction, finds categories to consider it in, summons up counter-motives of aesthetic or intellectual fastidiousness (“some filthy bus,” “fake or stupid”), personal resentment (the remarks about her mother), or self-mockery (“the Platonic idea of a good sport” is something less than a real one). Her literary culture is spotty, but though she has never heard of William Empson, ambiguity is her métier. Later she says she hates the mysterious “because it’s the perfect medium for liars, the place they go to multiply and preen and lie to each other,” and her response to the falls acknowledges a dangerous truth about nature in terms that allow her to survive it without calling it something it is not.

At Victoria Falls she learns that she needs a “companion,” and after some unpropitious sleeping around she finds a man who can adequately occupy her narrative powers. This is Nelson Denoon, a world-renowned policy scientist and specialist in Third World rural development, who has for eight years been quietly devising a self-sustaining community at Tsau in the Kalahari Desert, governed by Batswana women, based on solar technology, and pursuing not economic gain but cultural self-development.

Denoon is a handsome, witty, charismatic man in his late forties, venerated in advanced academic circles even by many of the Marxists whose ideas he scorns. (“Socialism is like knitting with oars” is one of his famous epigrams.) She herself is working-class by birth but no Marxist, though she sees that she has the right temperament for one; for her Denoon has been “the theorist you hate to love” because she resents his fame, his grantsmanship, and his aloofness to mere apprentices like herself. But when he turns up at a USAID reception to debate development policy with the local pols and intelligentsia, she’s impressed, even though she notices some defects. The public Denoon tries to say too much too cleverly; his timing is bad; what she takes to be a residual elitism keeps showing through. “This man needed editing,” she concludes. But she likes his wit and his gums (oral hygiene being one of her concerns), and he does think like a genius. Clearly he’s worth impressing, and she makes an effort: after hearing his speech she tells him “I love a tirade” and then addresses him in her fluent Setswana. His first reaction is non-committal, but she soon finds out that he has noticed and remembered her even though he declines her offer to come and work as a volunteer at Tsau.

But the onset of “intellectual love” drives her there anyway. Her ensuing experience of Denoon’s solar democracy in action, the larger part of the book, is a remarkably full and exact account of how a Utopian community might function—Rush doesn’t fake this; like Defoe he has imagined every small detail. As a “radical decentrist” who dreams of villages that are “engines of rest,” Denoon designs his ideal community for the pursuit not of wealth but personal freedom and enjoyment for destitute Botswana women. At Tsau, women own the land and its produce, property is inherited through the female line, women govern the settlement (by elected committee) and set its very attractive social and decorative styles. At the same time. Denoon is a practical thinker who neglects none of the economic and technological bases a utopia would require—how the copious desert sunlight is to be harnessed, how water is “harvested” and used, how sanitation is ensured (Denoon has devised an advanced latrine), how a “voluntary labor credit system” based on scrip can coexist with private barter and the parallel use of the official Botswana currency, how a sensible dependence on locally grown vegetables and meat can accommodate some trade with the outside world.

Though Denoon aims to avoid a great pitfall of “development,” that of ruining an agricultural economy by turning it into an industrial one that substitutes expensive new technology for native invention and competence, the narrator sees and voices a serious concern about his plans. Since Tsau has thus far relied on the benevolent influx of surplus capital from outside, can it hope to escape its dependence on charity and become truly self-supporting? Even so, she finds it a remarkably congenial place to live and work, and its inventor a remarkably attractive man. Among the other things it is, Mating is a convincing representation of love between two highly cerebral yet thoroughly human and likable people, the best rendering of erotic politics, I think, since D.H. Lawrence, not that there have been many competitors.

Denoon offers her access to “the glut of things” serious people now feel they need to know about; his information is encyclopedic, all the way down to his observation that lavatory door signs on South African airliners say “Beset” instead of “Occupied,” and he has fascinating if (to her taste) sometimes too Blakeian theories about everything he knows. For Denoon, she provides the fearless, resourceful, and vehement critical opposition—“You’re so strict,” he murmurs at one point—that his theorizing needs if it’s not to become glib or fraudulent. And their intellectual love soon comes to include personal tenderness, strong sexual attachment, and a liking for each other’s jokes.

The eventual failure of Tsau, or its natural transmutation into something not originally intended, involves the introduction of guns and male hubris into this ideal, invented matriarchy, along with a sense among the Mothers themselves that Denoon is increasingly irrelevant to the new culture he has created. When he determines to found a sister colony some distance away, he goes into the desert alone, nearly perishes of broken bones and dehydration, and is profoundly transformed by the ordeal. He’s now oddly tranquil, passive, silent; he will eat no meat, wears white only, has lost his sense of humor. She is outraged that he even suggests they might get married and start a family.

Since the Denoon she loves is no longer there, she returns to Ronald Reagan’s America, the land of “Duplicrats” and “Replicans.” Though for her “being in America is like being stabbed to death with a butter knife by a weakling,” she prospers there as an academic editor and lecturer on Tsau to women’s groups. But when a vague, second-hand message arrives suggesting that things may have improved for Denoon and his project, she makes a final decision that’s surprising and, for her and the book, exactly right, to go back to Tsau.

Mating is a marvelous novel, one in which a resolutely independent voice claims new imaginative territory. Rush’s heroine knows and uses the idioms and categories of contemporary high-flown thinking, noting both its folly and the decent motives that make even such folly bearable, but she is in no way the prisoner of her vocabulary. Rather, she exploits what they can say in order to find a way of saying more. “My story,” she notices when halfway through it, “is turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents, but I feel I should probably say everything.” Everything is more than enough, the reader may sometimes feel, but even in its narrative excess, its cheerful willingness to say too much in order to say as much as one can, the voice of Rush’s narrator is immediate, instructive, and endearing in ways that may encourage comparison to Walt Whitman’s or Huck Finn’s. In his first novel Norman Rush commanded my attention as few other contemporary writers do.

In Brazzaville Beach William Boyd presents us with a young British academic, Hope Clearwater, who has come to an unnamed African country that sounds like Angola to conduct postdoctoral study in primate behavior at a famous research center. Hope is attractive, recently widowed, fiercely ambitious; she recounts, in both the first and third persons, the parallel stories of her disastrous marriage and her disastrous research career.

At Grosso Arvore her observations of a chimpanzee band that has mysteriously broken away from the main group get her into professional trouble. The center’s founder and director, Eugene Mallabar, is an elderly, gracious, manipulative ethologist whose books The Peaceful Primate and Primate’s Progress have made him an academic and television superstar and attracted heavy financial support. His chef-d’oeuvre is almost ready for the press, and he anticipates new major grants to make up for the disruptions of a long civil war in the country. When Hope finds reason to think that “her” chimps are killing and devouring their young, Mallabar is dismissive and reproachful, evidence disappears, and Hope’s field notes perish when her tent burns while she’s away. Though other explanations seem possible, she becomes convinced that the author of The Peaceful Primate simply will not tolerate any deviance from his own professional views.

Mallabar’s behavior points beyond issues of scientific dishonesty and vanity. “Chimpanzee,” we learn, meant “Mockman” to the Angolans when Europeans first encountered the creatures; chimps can learn to enjoy alcohol, they can (like the famous Washoe) learn to communicate with humans in sign language, they use and teach the use of tools, their DNA differs only marginally from ours. At an unguarded moment Mallabar refers to them as “family”; that he finds theirs to be an essentially benevolent society is to imply something hopeful about human nature itself. But to find in them, as Hope does, a capacity for infanticide, cannibalism, organized warfare for the possession of females, and gang murder is obviously less cheering. Is it accidental that Mallabar, to whom life has been so good, has invested so much in a possibly romanticized idea of primate nature, while Hope, whose life has been pretty awful, finds awfulness even in creatures she feels fond of?

What has been most awful about Hope’s life is her marriage. As a graduate student she pursued, and caught, John Clearwater, a brilliant older research fellow in mathematics. At first theirs was a happy marriage, but gradually Hope, whose interest in knowledge extended beyond scientific work into a taste for snooping into other people’s secrets, found her inability fully to understand John’s work irritating, and then deeply frustrating, especially since he had no trouble understanding hers. And as she began to fear that she could not remain “the main focus of his thoughts,” he in fact did begin to change, switching his professional interest from game theory to “turbulence,” developing a manic need to dig ditches and holes to stimulate his mathematical speculations, giving up alcohol and taking up adultery. Finally, after they separated and he underwent shock therapy, he drowned himself in a rural pond.

Mathematics is obviously a radical version of scientific rationality, one unusually remote from the conditions of ordinary existence. Musing on what she can understand about the calculus, Hope mistrusts its offer of elegant subtlety:

Its key defect, it seems to me, is that it cannot cope with abrupt change, that other common feature of our lives and the world. Not everything moves by degree, not everything ascends and descends like lines on a graph. The calculus requires continuity. The mathematical term for abrupt change is “discontinuity.” And here the calculus is no use at all. We need something to help us deal with that.

Though I doubt that mathematicians would be much impressed by this—what she means by “use” has nothing to do with them—abrupt change is undoubtedly a problem in Hope’s life, as in anyone’s. When Mallabar is given visible proof of the viciousness Hope has found in the chimpanzees, he hysterically blames her for somehow causing it (“What have you been doing to them?”), just as John Clearwater irrationally blamed her for the decline of his conceptualizing powers, a decline common in mathematicians at his time of life.

The usually suave and courtly Mallabar assaults Hope with his fists and a stick when they see male “Mockmen” nearly kill a female after murdering one of their fellows. The hostility between the two then becomes overt. When Hope denies that she has contributed to the chimps’ aberrant behavior, he shouts, “Shut your fucking mouth!” Her life has been full of personal and intellectual competition with older men—her actor father, her thesis director (“Professor Hobbes”), John Clearwater, and other colleagues besides Mallabar—and the gynephobia in Mallabar’s fury is clear enough to her. Even so, we don’t suppose that he would welcome contradiction from a man either—Hope’s young male colleague who suspects that chimpanzee society centers not around dominant males but dominant females has sense enough to keep quiet about it, and even he shrinks from the anthropocentrism of seeing primate aggression as a kind of Trojan War. And though Mallabar is clearly a scoundrel—he incorporates Hope’s discovery into his great book with only a vague footnote acknowledging her “invaluable work” and pays her off with an administrative job safely distant from the center—Hope’s own confessed contempt and hostility toward most of the men she works with is part of the picture too.

Brazzaville Beach is of course not a treatise on sexuality or scientific ethics, or anything else. It’s a novel, and Boyd can’t be faulted for retreating after Hope’s confrontation with Mallabar into a serio-comic story of her abduction by a squad of amiable teenage revolutionists, formerly a volleyball team. This allows her to hear a non-Western voice, that of a sage old guerrilla leader, suggesting that “the pursuit of knowledge is the road to hell.” But in a way even this deflection warns that no one reading of a case, not even Hope’s, with its careful balancing of subjective and third-person perspectives, can quite determine its equities. Hope’s need to know damaged her marriage and her career, but John Clearwater and Eugene Mallabar were damaged by knowing too; knowledge, perhaps, is fully adequate, if at all, only to the mind of a particular knower, and the Socratic tag that provides both the book’s epigraph and its last line, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” stresses the activity of examining more than its product. Beyond this Brazzaville Beach seems reluctant to go, but it’s a lively and very intelligent treatment of issues anyone does well to take seriously, the most accomplished novel this interesting writer has yet produced.

  • Email
  • Print