Finally, there is Ned, a respected figure in the world of nonprofits. A secular Jesus, his wife calls him. Even his id is nice. He works with an organization named Fair Trade and is currently organizing an enormous, nationwide demonstration protesting (and, he hopes, stopping) the imminent invasion of Iraq. Perhaps he’s made less of a splash than his pals, but at least he is married to the pretty and personable Nina, who loves him, and whom he loves. More transparently than his peers, Ned is at once his present mature self and the unsure young man he was with the group. And all his youthful insecurities surface in the desperation of his desire for his friends to sign his antiwar petition. They may have earned more money, but he will have saved the children of Iraq!
Ned and Nina take turns observing (in close third-person narration) the dramas surrounding the planning of Douglas’s memorial service. Nina is the sort of woman we meet occasionally in life but far more rarely in fiction: she’s smart, kind, funny, astute, confident, and forgiving. Norman Rush has been widely praised for his ability to construct strong, intricate, appealing female characters. And that praise is well deserved. In a 1991 interview in The New York Times, Rush wryly confessed to the “hubris” of writing Mating from a young woman’s point of view because he wished to create “the most fully realized female character in the English language.” If there are still readers who believe that writers cannot invent “fully realized” characters of the opposite gender, Nina (like the narrator of Mating) may change their minds.
Nina has been working as an accountant at a nonprofit organization, but her biological clock appears to have been wired to a time bomb that has exploded. When Ned leaves their California home for Douglas’s house in Woodstock, Nina follows him without having been invited or even informed. She’s ovulating and determined to get pregnant with Ned’s child.
Another thing that happens more rarely on the printed page than in life is that our initial impression of a person turns out to be dead wrong; such is the case with Nina. When we meet her, on the plane from San Francisco, she is in a frenzy of rage at Ned. All those hormone injections for nothing! But once she gets to Douglas’s, and has sex with Ned and calms down, she turns out to be a very different person from the estrogen-addled figure of fun we might have mistaken her for.
Her affectionate patience for the spacey New Age utterances of her mother, a sentimental Communist and professional astrologer, is not an indication that Nina shares Ma’s view of the cosmos but rather a sign of Nina’s relaxed and generous nature. She truly loves her mother, and sees beneath Ma’s airy fluff to its more substantial nuggets of wisdom—one of which provides the novel’s title. Nina’s mother believes that there is
a mystical “subtle body” inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example.
Later, Ned uses his mother-in-law’s notion to reflect, in a somewhat muddled way, on the past:
The question was still there of whether their true interior selves—the subtle bodies inside—were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them. He meant something like that…that when they had become friends it had been a friendship established between subtle bodies, by which he meant the ingredients of what they were to be…
One of the novel’s delicate ironies arises from Ned’s anxiety about the impression that Nina will make on his friends—a worry that the reader can’t help seeing as a flaw in a person who considers himself to be above pettiness of every sort and holds himself to the loftiest and most high-minded standards. Ned’s vice is vanity; he’s self-conscious about his clothes, his hair, the chance that his intelligent wife might be perceived as saying something stupid. But Rush goes easy on his hero, recognizing (as Ned does not) the impossibility of moral perfection.
In any case, Ned needn’t worry about Nina, who emerges as the novel’s most sympathetic character—the funniest, the sharpest, the most attuned to the suffering of the others, the one who always “seemed to have needful things with her, like aspirin or Neo-Synephrine,” the likeliest to glimpse the ephemeral “subtle bodies” of the people around her. Nina adores her husband; she is protective of his dignity and his health, and concerned, with comic result, about his spiritual well-being:
She wasn’t religious herself, but for some reason she had pushed Ned to go with her to a couple of Quaker meetings. Society of Friends. She was attracted to what they called themselves. But it hadn’t worked. It had to do with the silence at the end of the proceedings where people are supposed to speak as the spirit moved them. The spirit had moved Ned to argue with some of the things the spirit had moved other people to say. And that hadn’t been appreciated.
Nina is also the only one who truly cares about, and is able to help, the newly orphaned Hume, a tormented teenager who spends much of the novel running through the woods, sleeping in the open, and peeping in other people’s windows. She has the least patience for, and the most objectivity about, the cult-like veneration of Douglas:
Everything she knew about Douglas was irritating. He even had his own term for the effect they were going for: perplexion. So elegant. And there was his legendary pensiveness, the way he would sometimes hold up his hand in a certain way to signal the group to stop talking so he could finish a thought he wasn’t sharing. Then he might jot something down on a scrap of paper or he might not.
It’s Nina who ferrets out the concealed histories and buried tensions beneath the group’s public, even theatrical, confessions and confrontations. And it’s Nina who, in a touching and quietly powerful scene, tells Ned what to say at Douglas’s memorial service:
You can just stand up and say what it was like when you knew him as a friend, forget everything since, just what he meant to you at that time, and that you’re sorry he’s dead, this mixed creature, like all of us, and you honor his good works. And then you sit down. Look at me. And swear to me that you are going to leave out all your murmurings about the connection between personal death and social death and so on into the night. Swear to me.
We want Ned to follow her advice, even though, like Nina, we know that he won’t.
The novel’s ending is spectacular. We catch up with Ned at the antiwar demonstration that he has coordinated. He is exultant about the turnout:
He felt drunk with gratitude and the conviction of victory. He thought, You can’t control everything…but this we can control. There would be no war. In part because of them there would be no war in Iraq.
And the book concludes before Ned discovers what Rush’s readers know all too well: how those protests failed to prevent the invasion. Ned’s ignorance of the near future functions as a sort of unwritten coda, extending the narrative and reflecting back on everything that has gone before.
In a less accomplished and thoughtful novel, this might seem like a trick: the book ends with its hero entering the dark house where we know the killer lurks. But Rush uses the disjunction between the character’s knowledge and the reader’s to explore and illuminate the gap between desire and fulfillment, between what we want and what we get, between our best intentions and the momentum of history.
This resolution (or lack of it) accomplishes something that fiction does better than life, which is to transport us back in time. Reading the description of Ned marching in the parade, through the “streets like rivers of fists,” we may recall our own emotions at that historical moment, our arrhythmic fluctuations between faint hope and dread. And it makes Ned’s faith in the march’s success seem less quixotic, more admirable—at once more credible and painful.
Subtle Bodies reminds us that it is possible to be simultaneously admirable and quixotic, that few things and fewer people are wholly one way or another, that we are all, as Nina says, mixed creatures. Rush understands how bewildered we may feel about the most important questions: Ned jokes that he can’t decide whether or not he’s ambivalent about fathering a child. Perhaps a bit late, Rush’s characters move toward accepting the difficult truths we associate with adulthood: that ambiguity and uncertainty are givens, that our stories are unlikely to have happy endings, that our most cherished convictions may be subject to revision. All of which makes Subtle Bodies seem—to paraphrase Virginia Woolf’s description of Middlemarch—like one of the few novels written for grown-up people.