It’s hard to say whether Arcadia Hearne, the narrator of The Rules of Engagement, Catherine Bush’s suspenseful, minutely observed second novel, is suited to her job as associate director of London’s Centre for Contemporary War Studies. On the one hand, she is obsessed with bloodshed, having 10 years ago weathered its freakish eruption in her life. In the mid 1980s, in her native Canada, two male students fought a pistol duel over her. On the other hand, she seems unable to process violence as anything but an abstraction. Her degree, she boasts, is in “War Studies”—not “Defence Studies or Conflict Studies”—but you won’t find her in a combat zone, “gathering stories about human suffering” or entertaining “hot-blooded, sex-starved young men . . . [in the] Sarajevo Holiday Inn.” So thoroughly has she distanced herself from actual blood that she refuses to learn the outcome of the duel.
The Rules of Engagement weaves together Arcadia’s past and present: her panicked flight from the world of risk-taking and her cautious, deliberate return. It was through Neil Laurier, the lover with whom she betrayed her unstable, duel-minded college boyfriend, that she first savored “the sweet, bright taste of danger.” Through a new lover, Amir Barmour, an Iranian exile with his own messy history, she learns to savor it again.
Arcadia was taught to intellectualize danger (her current coping strategy) by her father, Benedict Hearne, a “fantastically intelligent, potentially lethal” nuclear engineer who specializes in “drawing up procedures for monitoring radiation-emission levels” and “conducting risk-assessment studies.” As she evolves beyond this strategy, she discovers that it has also failed him: His calculated radiation exposures may have wrecked his health. But there is one legacy of Dad’s that neither Arcadia nor her sister, Lux, can shake: their resonant, if pretentious, first names. He believed that a person’s every attribute should “mean something.”
Nearly all the book’s characters fixate on “meaning,” and on a way of obtaining it. Unable to “intervene in all conflicts,” they must determine their “zones of responsibility,” and choose their risks accordingly. This helps ensure their gambles are meaningful. Without this constant emphasis on meaning, Rules of Engagement might have been just another thriller. With it, the book becomes a sort of secular humanist manifesto. I say secular humanist because oddly—in a book that deals with war and violence—not one single character ever thinks or talks about God. Even when it is sanitized into “Intervention Studies” war still raises profound questions about belief and justice, of the sort that, say, Robert Stone and Graham Greene have explored in their war novels. But there are no theists in Bush’s foxholes.
What is more, Bush clearly intends for the reader to notice this absence. Her entire plot is driven by coincidence. Bush’s characters may believe they have enough control to make “meaningful” choices, but, in fact, outside forces determine the major events in their lives. By chance, through her itinerant TV-show-host sister, Arcadia meets Amir. Nor does she plan a second date; she bumps into him while walking. Later, she can’t back out of a date she regrets: “Having forgotten, in the flurry of embarrassment . . . to take his phone number, I couldn’t ring him up to cancel.” Even her reconnection with Basra Alale, a political exile for whom she takes a life-changing risk, occurs through chance. A taxi driver, whose cab Arcadia randomly hails, brings them together. You don’t have to be a mystic to see a pattern. It’s almost hard not to connect the spiritual dots.
Bush is such a graceful, literary writer that one wants to overlook such conceptual inconsistencies—or assume that they are a deliberate paradox rather than an authorial shortcoming. Through rich language, she makes her characters and locations vivid. She doesn’t shy away from the link between sex and war. Lolling on “tilted flagstones of [her] patio, legs entwined,” she and Amir spend a postcoital moment discussing war. The setting is peaceful: “Delphiniums swayed in mauve spires. Pillars of gnats spiraled through the air above us like complex molecular structures.” Yet she moves effortlessly from sex to slaughter: “In previous wars,” she observes, “there were far greater numbers who misaimed, or simply failed to shoot. These days, they’re trained, and conditioned, to kill more efficiently.”
Still, the luscious language isn’t enough. Questions the plot raises about belief and justice are never adequately addressed. It isn’t that I want Arcadia to be spiritual, or that I want all the ends tied up. I just felt cheated by the characters’ stunted notions of meaning. Bush’s evocation of love, for which people in the novel risk things, seems almost antitranscendent; its categories include sexual, romantic, and familial. Even if it involves anger at God’s seeming betrayal, or an assertion that there is no God, where, in a consideration of violence and death, is the divine?
Minus Time, Bush’s first novel, about the relationship between a rudderless, dropout daughter and her highly focused astronaut mother, was also aggressively secular. But Bush got around the dryness through “wonder,” what one character perceives when she looks skyward on a starry night. Though not labeled as such, it could be the expansive feeling associated with the numinous.
Of course, many readers may find the godlessness of The Rules of Engagement to their taste. Such people will have no problem with the solutions Bush poses to “the ark question,” a hypothetical moral dilemma raised in the novel. The problem goes like this: You are in a lifeboat with a group of people but there is not enough food or water for everyone. Will you split what little there is, or throw some survivors overboard?
If those two options—kill or be killed—strike you as enough, you will probably like this book. But, Bush continues, “Unless you’re actually in the boat, actually facing those particular dangers, trying to decide what risks to run, you have no way of knowing what you’d do.”
I know what I’d do: pray.