A pivotal scene in Norman Rush’s first novel, Mating, begins at a reception given by a USAID official in Botswana, a man whose wife, “the leading malcontent in the American community,” is notoriously inhospitable. Watching the partygoers gaze longingly at a few pitiful skewers of sate, as candles in hanging paper lanterns drip hot wax on “selected prominent people,” a graduate student in anthropology notes with cool delight that the “human comedy” she is witnessing “makes you want to be a writer so you can capture a transient unique form of social agony being undergone by people who have it made in every way, the observer excepted.”
By the time this bleak occasion ends and the last guest has gone home, readers will have concluded that the sort of writing the narrator of Mating imagines is only one of several kinds that Rush has dexterously melded into a single novel. Mating combines social satire, politics, philosophy, a love story, and a literary travelogue in which a version of Joseph Conrad’s monomaniacal Mr. Kurtz rules over a private kingdom deep in the jungle. In Mating, that charismatic figure is Nelson Denoon, a celebrity academic with a celebrity academic’s disdain for academia, who establishes a utopian female community in the Kalahari Desert. (It’s typical of Rush’s balanced and charitable view of his characters that his monomaniac is full of himself, full of hot air, but essentially well-intentioned.)
Like Rush’s three previous books (these include a second novel, Mortals, and a short-story collection, Whites), Subtle Bodies monitors the bad behavior of people inflicting transient social agonies on one another. But their accidental and intentional insults and slights, their minor sins against strangers and friends, are not merely recorded and gently mocked, but also examined for clues to the inner lives of the people who commit them. Without being heavy-handed or undermining the importance of the fictional dramas he is staging, Rush can make us view (and measure) temporary social discomfort against the darker background of the more serious and enduring nastiness transpiring beyond the diplomatic enclave, the luxurious country house. Reading Rush’s human comedies, we may feel that we understand more about what it means to be human, but are less certain (and less facile in our assumptions) about what it means to behave badly, or well.
Set in New York’s Hudson Valley, Subtle Bodies is the first of Rush’s novels to take place outside Africa, where he and his wife spent five years as codirectors of the Peace Corps in Botswana. As in his earlier books, the men and women in Subtle Bodies are acutely aware of politics. They debate the merits of socialism, the evils of greed, the possibility of effecting social change. Yet even as his characters preach (and occasionally rant) at one another, Rush’s readers don’t feel as if they are being preached to. This is partly because Rush endows …