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 his fictional creations with so much intelligence, complexity, and depth that we remain genuinely interested in their conversation; partly because he writes so well and is so often funny; and partly because he baits enough narrative hooks—What dark secret will be revealed about the absent host? Will the bewitching former girlfriend reappear and ruin everything?—to draw us through the book without our feeling encumbered by the weight of what his characters are saying and thinking.
One might suppose that matters of politics would seem less urgent beyond the borders of a relatively new and still-restive African nation. But Rush sets Subtle Bodies during the immediate lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, a period when political passions ran unusually high in this country. Halfway through the novel, two men argue about whether the war can be averted, whether it’s futile even to try. Each makes his case so persuasively, and the dialogue rings so true, that many readers will hear echoes of the debates they had with their friends—and themselves—during that time.
“You know what?” says the more jaded—or realistic—of the two.
The government loves it that you put on big walks and demonstrations, as big as hell, and you know why? Why is because it keeps up the lie that you can do something about it, that the government can be touched in its heart. And wars don’t lose you elections, either. When the draft was on it was a little bit different, but not now. And don’t forget they lie. And you can’t prove it’s a lie until thirty years later a scholar might and by then nobody cares.
How smoothly Rush has imported his concerns from one continent to another, how deftly he convinces us that the people watching the rain fall in Woodstock and their counterparts in arid Botswana are pondering the same questions. In the Kalahari and the Catskills, they mull over the responsibilities and rewards of activism, the pleasures and demands of love, sex, family, friendship. They want to live moral, reasonably happy lives. But given each individual’s unstable chemistry of virtues and flaws, and their collective penchant for getting everything wrong, acting with simple decency poses a daunting challenge.
In addition, Rush’s characters (the women more than the men) want to fall in love and be loved in return, to laugh and enjoy themselves. Their quirks, opinions, compulsions, and the cruel or considerate ways in which they treat their rivals and allies are all aspects of the personalities that keep us engrossed in Subtle Bodies—along with the clarity and precision of Rush’s sentences, the freshness of his observations, and our awareness that we are reading something quite rare: a remarkably nonjudgmental novel about people who are perpetually and often harshly judging themselves and one another.
The novel’s tone and diction vary depending on which character is thinking or talking. And Rush is masterful at depicting the minute adjustments one’s consciousness makes in response to every new impression, every slight infusion of information. His ear for how differently people sound in more or less intimate circumstances—the language of a couple joking around in bed vs. that of a group of male friends getting drunk on sambuca—can make reading his fiction feel faintly voyeuristic. And an incident of actual voyeurism in Subtle Bodies may make us uneasily aware of how closely we have been watching, how shamelessly we have eavesdropped on the most private conversations.
We can clearly visualize whatever Rush describes: a waterfall, a sun porch, an old-fashioned general store run by two men so well drawn that we half expect them follow us out of the store and into the rest of the novel:
A bald, youngish man, very heavy, was seated behind a workbench in a slot punched into the middle of the back wall. Ned crossed in front of him and nodded. The man was repairing a fly rod. As he slumped back in his chair to notice Ned more comfortably, and as his chin sank into his fat throat, his dense, short-cropped yellow beard presented as a sort of Elizabethan ruff along the bottom of his face. Ned thought he had an intelligent look.
His arms were lavishly tattooed…. Ned couldn’t help but be curious about the tattooed images the young man was displaying, which led straight to a question of etiquette, which was whether it was polite to look at the demons and crosses and daggers decorating his giant arms. On the one hand, they were put there to be noticed, and on the other hand, it would make you look gay. If that bothered you. It was best to treat it like wallpaper.
Subtle Bodies takes off from a familiar premise: a group has been brought together by the death of a loved one, and those who are left behind attempt to understand what the dead person meant and will continue to mean—for them. Inevitably, these questions turn more broadly existential: Who were they during the time when they were close? Who are they now? And what did their relationship signify?
At the core of Rush’s band of mourners are four men who met as students at NYU and formed a “cult of friendship” with its own catchphrases, jokes, opinions, and rules, most of them formulated by the alpha jokester, Douglas, the fifth friend, the one who has died. Rush lets us see that the antics they remember as having been hilarious (passing a group of sanitation workers, they call out “New York’s Tidiest” and have some sort of filth thrown at them in response) were in reality puerile, shrill, not even remotely funny. Yet we are also persuaded that this is precisely how these guys would have acted at that age. Didn’t we all know people like that in our early twenties?
As the novel begins, the middle-aged friends, some of them out of touch for years, have assembled at the Woodstock estate where Douglas lived with his wife Iva, a seductive Czech beauty and former gossip columnist, and their troubled adolescent son, named Hume by his ironist dad. Douglas has made the fatal mistake of driving his lawn mower too close to the unstable edge of a ravine. In its unexpectedness, without the gradual decline that might have allowed his survivors to make peace with and even pity him, Douglas’s muscular demise has strong-armed the others into facing how far they have come, what they have accomplished, how much or how little time they have left:
Douglas’s death was bound to bring out all the anxieties that go with looking back and summing up what a life came down to, the choices made, what the verdict would be if life ended suddenly without any warning or chance to do the things that were left to do that could improve the judgment an existence got. That was the downside of sudden death. A downside, he meant.
The rustic splendor of the house and grounds are the fruits of Douglas’s international success in the “questioned documents” business”:
He’d proved that some sensational papers revealing that Alfred Dreyfus was in fact guilty of espionage were right-wing forgeries. And then someone had forged Milan Kundera’s so-called Love Diaries, and Douglas had shot that down.
Douglas’s reputation (his competitive friends console themselves by noting that he’s mostly known in Europe) and his glamorous, lucrative, and perhaps shady financial dealings have turned the tender reunion and the subsequent memorial service into a media event, crawling with European journalists. The proceedings are being orchestrated by the group’s most take-charge member, the handsome, impeccably dressed Elliot, a media-savvy stockbroker who has advised Douglas and Iva on their finances—unwisely, as it turns out. The most well-liked of the friends is Gruen—overweight, a good soul, he owns a company that produces public service announcements for TV—while the darkest and most Byronic spirit inhabits Joris, a maritime lawyer who has wrecked his marriage and has decided never to remarry because he refuses to give up his fetishistic predilection for prostitutes and other men’s wives.