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.
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.