How can Norman Rush’s 1991 Mating rank among the great 20th-century novels? Let me count the ways. With all respect to Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, no male modern has imagined a female protagonist as vivid and complex as Mating‘s unnamed lover-anthropologist-adventurer. Few if any white novelists have written so easily about the underrepresented turf of Africa. In an age of realpolitik rampant, Mating has the courage to posit a plausible utopia: Tsau, a fabricated matriarchy in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert (yes, the action includes many political meetings). Add the bonus of the book’s finest moment, an indelible account of the heroine’s perilous one-woman trek to Tsau that lets us taste Rush’s facility at bravura description. And then there’s the touch that at bottom Mating is about what it says it’s about—not animal sex, though that gets its due, but, oh dear, conjugal love.
Now 12 years later comes Mortals, at 715 pages half again as long if slightly less magnificent. Mortals isn’t about what it says it’s about, except as a bonus. Instead it’s about conjugal love again. Makes you wanna holler, Shape up, man—you’re turning 70, you started late and write slow, better move on to the serious stuff toot sweet: infinite epistemological regression, the buzz and tangle of information overload and futile compromises of human connection. Granted, Rush does give alienation a fair shake. Where Mating‘s Nelson Denoon was a visionary progressive, Ray Finch is out of Le Carré: a pushing-50 CIA operative-cum-literature professor in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. But though he’s good (and moral) at both jobs, in neither does he find much human connection. That part of his life, as well as all the rest, he devotes to “the most beautiful white woman in southern Africa,” his 38-year-old wife of 17 years, Iris. And here’s where Rush will run into trouble. Iris isn’t just beautiful—she’s also kind, funny, intelligent, and sexually uninhibited as well as sexually inexperienced, childless, unemployed, and depressed. Yet sophisticated readers are sure to doubt Ray’s passion, or find it comic somehow, and doubt too that it’s worth 715 pages. What else is sophistication good for?
Partly to counter such objections, but mostly to give Ray’s love a chance at another 17 years, or 34, Rush mixes in two more major characters—both of whom, as it turns out, found their callings in the fallout of ruined marriages. Davis Morel is an African American physician who emigrates to Gaborone with big plans to rid Africa of the scourge of Christianity; Samuel Kerekang returns to Botswana with smaller plans to teach his people cooperative agriculture and Victorian poetry, with a heavy emphasis on Tennyson and William Morris. Iris falls for Morel, Ray’s pig of a boss targets Kerekang, and the plot is in motion. Rush has said the subject of Mortals is Kerekang’s accidental jacquerie—a word I didn’t know (introitus is another good one) meaning a doomed rural uprising that leaves the power structure stronger than ever. And maybe that’s what he intended. But the love triangle weighs obsessively on Ray (and Morel) even when Iris leaves the stage for 300 pages while the three men take care of politics up north. Although the politics are substantial and intrinsic, what’s most meaningful about them formally is how they inflect the marriage that gives Mortals its originality.
Exactly how original I lack the authority to say. If marriage hasn’t been as central to the post-war American novel as one might expect, it’s certainly been favored by chroniclers of suburbia one would rather not waste time on. Me, I avoid Updike, Beattie, and their well-spoken nieces and nephews like I avoid boîte singers, and thus can only surmise that most of them share the belief that marriage is at best a glass half-full and at worst a hideous prison. A friend observes that the guy who invented this idea was Flaubert. I would add, surmising again, that Flaubert’s template is badly worn, and note the coincidence (or is it?) that somewhere in the Kalahari Ray burns a copy of Madame Bovary.
That Rush treasures marriage doesn’t mean he’s palmy—he has no illusions about permanent bliss. We know from Mortals that the couple in Mating, 8,000 miles apart as the novel ends, marry after it’s over; we also know their union is radically diminished by the failure of a subsequent project, yet heroic nevertheless. As for Ray and Iris, early on there’s a two-page embrace so uxorious you just know Rush is still in love with his wife of nearly 50 years. Any man who’s ever adored a woman will find it exalting. The 40 pages that precede the final chapter are equally acute, however, and they’re agony, capturing the horrible day-by-day crawl of a doomed relationship that for scheduling reasons hasn’t yet physically broken apart. But in both books, the domestic details—the wordplay and long talks, the carnal knowledge and habits of support, the empirical verification that for living lovers there’s usually something new around the bend—lift the couples out of the morass of failed imagination in which so much fictional marriage carps, glowers, and grinds.
Part of the secret is a lucid, luminous, proudly literary prose that aspires to neither pomo pyrotechnics nor the dogged clarity of Iowa-school convention. The marriages are alive because the writing is. But it’s not palmy to conclude that Rush’s political concerns nourish his commitment to sustainable romance. Well before the jacquerie, Morel and Kerekang enter a spectacularly well-informed argument about the uses of Christianity that makes the erudition of Rushdie or Franzen seem show-off frippery by comparison. Doubly spellbinding in a moment when fundamentalism is eating at the polity worldwide, it’s as urgent as the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Much later, Ray gazes at the faces of bivouacking Batswana and Bushmen and thinks: “Everyone around the fire was serious. They didn’t know that was remarkable.”
And though Ray has learned the limits of his parity with black Africans, such seriousness is key—because Ray and Iris have it, their marriage is remarkable. By this point Ray has decided that bringing down the Soviet empire and denying Taiwan the bomb don’t counterbalance CIA evil in Guatemala; he’s also helped destroy a squad of Boer mercenaries by weaponizing a manuscript. Iris has wanted him to quit for years, and soon he will—not so he can save a marriage he despairs of, but so he can be truly serious. Morel has said that he longs for “a place where the rude fact that we are all dying animals transfigures every part of life,” and Ray has reached that place. He has no time to waste. He’s accepted the basic logic that if you’re going to put marriage first in your life, you’d better have more in your life than marriage. And maybe, just maybe, he can make that logic work.