You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Norman Rush Has a Woman Problem


There is no other voice in contemporary fiction like the narrator of Mating, Norman Rush’s first novel. An American graduate student doing anthropological work in Botswana, she speaks in a fragrant mix of high and low: polylingual slang and bons mots, academic jargon, allusions to Freud and Shakespeare, an unsqueamish earthiness. She spells out id est. She uses “It was unso” to contradict a claim. “Oh la” is her preferred exclamation of dismay or delight. “The question is why I didn’t punch her, since my middle name is noli me tangere if it’s anything,” she says of a woman who grabs her without permission. Admiring her lover, she muses that “I would have liked to touch his beautiful sternocleidomastoids as thick as backpack straps.”

The language of this character—she remains portentously unnamed throughout the novel—is prima facie ridiculous, as she herself might put it. A great insecurity is evident in her showing off; she is constantly demonstrating how intelligent and funny she is. But the language can swing from preciosity to brilliance in a single sentence, at once absurd and revelatory. This is a person rigorously educated, sophisticated, bursting with observations and reflections. And her language is the motor of Rush’s novel, which unfolds at the stateliest of paces, pausing to microanalyze anything in its path. (Guards at an embassy party are “spaced like caryatids” around the room.) At its best, this language reaches an almost Joycean level of precision and originality, as in this passage in which she riffs on the practice of certain villagers who strike “a thing like a glass sashweight with a ball-peen hammer” as a signal:

The notes produced were pleasant and musical, and did carry. What a genteel way to get somebody’s attention, I thought, although it seemed to me you would have to be on the qui vive to pick out this particular line of sound amid the general aural glitter of Tsau—the jinkling of the wind chimes, the cowbells and goatbells and dogbells, the drivel of birds and poultry, and all the other as yet unidentified ingredients in the sinfonia domestica playing from sunrise to sunset in this intricate place.

“Aural glitter,” “jinkling,” “drivel”—a metaphor, a coinage, a perfect expansion of meaning, all in a single sentence. 

While Mating is a novel about love, about this woman’s determined pursuit and seduction of Nelson Denoon, the man she chooses to be hers, it is also, more fundamentally, a novel about language, and about expressing love by means of language: not in the conventional way, but by the intense and singleminded dedication to observing all the details of a person’s being and getting them down on the page in a way that honors that person. There is, naturally, something suffocating about this kind of love, and at times Mating threatens to stifle its reader. But it achieves a literary grandeur that is finally life-affirming.

I dwell on Mating because it is the existence of that book—and to a lesser extent Mortals, its less remarkable but still very fine successor—which makes Rush’s newest book so bewildering. Were it the work of anyone else, Subtle Bodies (even the title is beneath him) would be simply a failure: a novel that never quite gets moving and still feels incomplete, with an unsubstantial plot and characters who are either too weird or too banal to merit the time spent contemplating them. But the fact that it is a novel by Norman Rush makes it an interesting failure, not only because it shows how even a great writer can take a terrible misstep, but because it reveals the problems inherent in his fictional method.

The first sign that something is wrong is the length. Rush has previously written big novels: Mating runs to nearly five hundred densely printed pages, Mortals is just over seven hundred. Subtle Bodies, at a fraction of their size, sputters to a halt before it has begun. “It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe,” Rush said in an interview with The Paris Review several years ago, in reference to the length of his works. He went on to say that in his new book he is “trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts.” There is nothing wrong with brevity. The problem is that Rush has written a short novel that uses the same techniques as his longer ones—the adagio pace, the manic attention to detail, the indulgence in clever apothegms purely for the sake of cleverness—but does not allow them space to unfurl. We watch the wind-up with anticipation, but no pitch follows.

Rush’s novels always begin by plugging the reader directly into a human consciousness, and this one is no different. But the book’s first lines are painfully symptomatic of the debacle that will follow. “Genitals have their own lives, his beloved Nina had said at the close of an argument over whether even the most besotted husband could be trusted one hundred percent faced with the permanent sexual tensions the world provided. It was the kind of conversation that went with the early days of a marriage, of their marriage.” We are in the mind of Ned, forty-eight, a political activist from California, who is on a plane heading east after the sudden death of Douglas, a friend from his college days. The two were part of a group of five men who have since largely gone their own ways. Now they are meeting at Douglas’s estate in the Catskills—he made a fortune as a debunker of “significant forgeries”—to memorialize their friend.

Why, then, does the novel open with Ned’s reflections about his wife and her genitalia? Primarily, it seems, to demonstrate to the reader that we are in that least likely of novelistic scenarios, a happy marriage. Like Ray and Iris Finch, the couple at the center of Mortals, Ned and Nina are the lucky pair whose mutual sexual intoxication has not slaked. Unfortunately, as was also the case in Mortals, these characters refuse to let us forget how lucky they are—especially because Nina herself is on another plane, several hours behind, in hot pursuit of her husband. She is enraged (so the novel tells us) because the couple is trying to conceive—Nina is in her late thirties, the clock is ticking—and Ned has disappeared at the crucial moment. And so, desperately desiring a baby, she and her ovaries come running after him. Genitals have their own lives, indeed.

Meanwhile, unaware that his wife is about to crash the reunion, Ned is getting reacquainted with the group, who do not seem to have done much with their lives. Ned has worked for some time in a food co-op and is now coordinating a grand march that he calls the Convergence, uniting various political groups to protest the Iraq war. (The novel is set in early 2003.) Elliot, the closest to Douglas and the organizer of the memorial service, is a banker. All we know about Joris is that he left his wife and twin sons because he could not get over his fetish for married women, and now seeks sex only with prostitutes. About Gruen, the fifth member, we learn basically nothing.

But at NYU these five were “the bonny boys of 71 Second Avenue,” inseparable, going to movies (“we were so cineastic”), throwing dinner parties, playing invented word games. “We were a cult, but not exactly a cult, a cult of friendship,” says Joris. And the cult revolved around Douglas. Without him, they “would have made ordinary connections like everybody else does passing through college and not noticed anything particular about that.” The private world of their friendship is what made them exceptional.

The dynamics of such private worlds have always been one of Rush’s deepest interests. In Mating, the narrator calls it an “idioverse”: the common intimacies and understandings out of which a couple, or less often a group of people, construct their own way of being. It can take the form of language, as when Elliot greets Ned with “Ahoy, polloi,” an old catchphrase of theirs, or when Ned thinks of a certain kind of novel as “uppermiddleclassics,” a term originated by Nina. It is the expression of an aura: as Nina’s New Agey mother puts it, “there was a mystical ‘subtle body’ inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and … if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. It was all about attending closely enough to see them.”

Attending closely, of course, is the task of the writer as well as of the lover. And Rush’s ability to express that “subtle body” in the form of language is his greatest gift. There is virtually nothing that is too insignificant to be described. Here, for instance, is Ray in Mortals, contemplating a plate of food:

His breakfast was royal. There was streaky bacon, the only cut in that part of the world at all like normal American bacon, two strips of it cooked as crisp as it could ever be gotten to be. There was an egg over easy, and two heated buns. He had switched from sunnyside up to over easy during their time in Botswana as a way of lessening the starkness of the daily encounter with the unnatural amber color of the yolks of the local eggs. There was a ramekin of chopped parsley he was expected to strew on his eggs. That was Iris’s idea. She admitted it was notional. She’d awakened from a dream with the absolute conviction that eating parsley at every meal would guarantee extreme longevity. They had laughed over it together. But parsley was making suspiciously frequent appearances as a garnish. There was a tumbler of pear nectar, not chilled.

Ray is embedded so stickily in his marriage that the presence of a dish of parsley by his plate is enough to lead him into a chain of musings about his wife, to remind him of her enduring presence. But equally striking is the precision of the language, from the streaky bacon to the unchilled juice. John Updike, reviewing Mating, commented not entirely favorably on the “fanatic thoroughness” of Rush’s language, a quality often shared by Updike’s own novelistic diction. The detail of the eggs, with the switch from sunnyside up to over easy, initially feels like such an instance of fanaticism, of taking things too far. Yet the uncanny brightness of that amber yolk is an enduring image. More than that, it leads one to wonder: if Ray deals with the unwelcome sight of his egg yolk by covering it over, might there be other aspects of his life in which he hides what does not please him?

But in Subtle Bodies such details do not lead anywhere; they are dead ends. We get observations made for the sake of making observations, dots that do not add up to a larger picture. Several pages are spent in the beginning of the novel on Ned’s attempt to buy eyedrops in the shabby general store in Douglas’s town (“the Visine he found was actually Murine”), with a grumpy shopkeeper and a vast assortment of porn, none of it for any evident narrative purpose. Later Ned reflects as Elliot speaks at length about his personal history:

It was not a supremely well-organized presentation they were getting. He had never seen a Windsor knot as monumental as Elliot’s. The emphasis was on the physical, the medical, all of which was depressing and a lot of it new to him. His own life had been lived on the West Coast, away from the scene. He was feeling bad.

If there is meaning to be discerned in that Windsor knot, I cannot discover it. But worse: “He was feeling bad”? Is there any clearer sign that a novelist has given up? 

Prose that lazy did not appear in Mating or Mortals. But in Subtle Bodies the banalities are everywhere. “She had to get to Ned. And she had to look good.” “Sex with Nina was so … great.” (The ellipses, sadly, are in the original.) “Ned was looking at her in a nice way.” “Nina was eating raisins from a little box.” “They should probably clean up the kitchen before they left for the tower. There was plenty of help associated with the place, but still. He didn’t feel like it.” There is a line break before that last sentence, as if the information it contained was of such gravity that we needed to pause before hearing it. Or this cringe-inducing exchange:

“Sit down. I’m not quite through talking anyway. But first I want to say that I hate it that they’re serving these heirloom tomatoes.”

“Why? They’re delicious.”

“That’s why. Because when you go back to regular tomatoes it’s like eating with plastic silverware.”

This sort of thing is awful to read. It does nothing to develop character or, heaven knows, to advance the plot. (There is, essentially, no plot; the major drama is whether Ned will be able to convince the others in the group to sign his petition against the Iraq war.) It is just writing; superfluous writing. Aren’t these characters witty? Isn’t everyone just exceptional? That is so true about heirloom tomatoes!

Illustration by Sam Wolfe Connelly.

These bizarre lapses in the prose would be forgivable, perhaps, if there were human drama to distract us. But there is no traction in the relationship between Ned and Nina. Her alleged fury at having been abandoned at the moment of ovulation dissipates at the sight of him, never to be spoken of again. (Could it be a sign of deeper tensions in their relationship that he vanished without discussion during her time of peak fertility? Alas, we will not find out.) We know these two are in love only because they assert that they are, repeatedly, and because they do things like affectionately fondle each other’s genitalia even when they are not having sex. “Labia, the little devils, were like nothing else on the outside of the body. He could use any endearments he felt like with crazy Nina, his Soft Gem.” These bodies are not especially subtle.

There is a constant weirdness in all three of these novels in their attitude toward women and their bodies. It raises a peculiar kind of discomfort when a writer has his male characters exclaim over and over about how wonderful women are, yet that praise focuses on their genitalia. These women have little novelistic agency, little actual power; they are, quite literally, vessels for the male ego. (There are more euphemisms in these novels for the vagina than I ever imagined possible, including the exceedingly unappealing “introitus,” a word I have never come upon before in this context and hope never to encounter again.) 

For all the talk of how marvelous is the marriage between Ray and Iris, it is impossible not to notice that Iris is absent for the greater portion of Mortals—either conveniently sent off to America or else back at home while Ray journeys epically through the countryside. She exists in the novel essentially as a sex object. Ray admits as much in the book’s most telling image: “the right woman is a locket,” he muses, “or not a locket a jewel box, a jewel box full of something so beautiful and rich and rare, and yet men fixate on opening the catch, the lock, the word wedlock was wrong, but opening the lid and leaving the lid just open, failing to throw back the lid, turning to something else, satisfied. It was poesy and it was true, wasn’t it? But it was useless. It was too ornate. It was too ornate.” How perfect the stream of consciousness is, down to the helpless, despairing repetition of the last line. But really, a jewel box? Freud could not have said it better. Could this be what Rush meant when he said, in The Paris Review, that “the discourse I was most deeply interested in ended, I’m afraid, in 1925 or so”? Nina at one point even tells Ned that she admires his id.

Nina, too, is an open womb, ready to receive. So eager is she to become impregnated that, ludicrously, she uses her fingers to hold her vagina closed after intercourse, so that the sperm will not spill out. Later she claims to feel a “faint prickling sensation” in her “inner sanctum.” She worries, “on behalf of her baby,” that the hot dogs at dinner contain nitrites. In the novel’s coda, it will turn out that she is indeed pregnant: how remarkable, her sixth sense! Meanwhile, Nina’s profession is only glancingly mentioned (she is a CPA); we do not find out where she is from, or where she went to college, or if she has any friends. (She does speak on the phone to her mother, mostly about her desire to get pregnant.) What we learn about Nina is what she looks like, what she is wearing, what she eats, and what she loves about Ned.

But wait! How can one charge with sexism the author of the only major contemporary American novel by a male author written wholly in the voice of a woman—a woman who is by no means a cipher, but who is passionate, humane, and above all else frighteningly intelligent? The answer is that for all her uniqueness, for all her dazzling particularities, the narrator of Mating is not meant to be an actual woman. We know this because she does not have a name. Nameless, despite all her idiosyncrasy, she remains abstract, ethereal. To give her a name would be to pin her down, to insist that she be a singular being inhabiting a particular body. (It is notable also that we are not told what she looks like.) How anticlimactic it is in Mortals, when she and Nelson Denoon—now her husband—make a cameo appearance and we are told, quite casually, that her name is Karen. All that mystery—for Karen?

The Mating narrator, too, is a vessel—a vessel for the novelist’s consciousness. We know this because images and even exact phrases from that first novel twitch with life again, like tics, in the later books. Searching for those eyedrops, Ned longs for a mirror in which to check his bedraggled appearance before facing his friends—reasonable enough, except that the narrator in Mating had precisely the same longing, expressed virtually verbatim. The five friends liked to pass the time on subway platforms with clever invented word games, such as Filling in the White Spaces in the Dictionary (coming up with words that are missing in the English language) and rhyming games, “like the Hollywood stars gave a picnic and Bogart brought the yogurt.” All very clever, but again we have seen them before. And when the same words and ideas pop up over and over in a writer’s work, we know that we are hearing not the characters speak, but the author. 

One final puzzlement. why is the major drama of this novel the signing of a petition and the planning of a march to protest the Iraq war—a war that the characters repeatedly assert will not be permitted to take place? Politics have always been an important motivator in Rush’s fiction, primarily the actions of Americans in Africa (the anthropologist, the sociologist, the CIA agent) and their effects on the social climate. But the politics are secondary, always, to the human drama, and serve primarily as a reflection of it. Here, however, the signing of the petition is the human drama, as Ned browbeats his friends into acquiescence. Each has a different reason for initially declining. Elliot believes the administration will not go ahead with the war, and thus there is no point in protesting it. Joris insists that the war is inevitable, and thus there is no point in protesting it. Gruen, the Zionist among them, is worried that Saddam Hussein is developing nuclear weapons but, in one of the least convincing scenes in this entirely implausible book, is quickly won over.

In these discussions it becomes apparent that Ned evinces a form of philo-Semitism that is also widespread across Rush’s work, and which has more than a little in common with the worshipfully objectivizing attitude toward women. In Mating, the narrator bizarrely tells us that one reason she does not want to spend the rest of her life in Africa is the lack of Jews there: “All of my best friends were Jews.” (Really, she says this.) Ned’s feelings are similar. When he was a youth, his father advised him as a youth to “Stick with the Jews, meaning to emulate Jewish rationality and book worship.” In his discussion with Gruen about the Iraq war, we get a glimpse of Ned’s own tortured feelings about Zionism:

There were too many factors that had to be left below the surface when it came to Israel. The main one was the rightness or wrongness of asserting a right to have a state dedicated to one religion only. It was hard to be fair, very hard. And another problem was the general demographic apocalypse that Jews worldwide were facing through assimilation and low birth rates, which made it all the more urgent to get rid of the criminals who were going out of their way to speed up that process through terror, by terrorizing Israel. Ned had his own dubious solution for the Arab-Israeli problem. It was to let America be the homeland for all Jews, any Jews, from anywhere, right of return, and let the UN take over all the holy sites for Jews and Islamics alike over there. Then the world would see what the Arabs did with the place. It had no oil and the Dead Sea was evaporating.

The fact that Ned even entertains the idea of America as a Jewish homeland and therefore a “dubious solution for the Arab-Israeli problem” shows how little he understands about it. Dubious, indeed. Why on earth should we take this person’s political opinions seriously? (This is to say nothing about his bewilderment over the “fairness” of Zionism, which he does not seem to realize has been debated at length.) “We can never make it up to the Jews, anyway,” he tells Nina in one last harangue in reference to work Douglas may or may not have performed for the Mossad. The logic here seems to be that crimes against Jews have been perpetrated by so many people throughout history, even American history—“Benjamin Franklin wanted to deny Jews citizenship”—that one ought to turn a blind eye to whatever methods of self-defense Israel wishes to use. The harangue concludes. There is a pause.

He could tell that there was something else she wanted to say to him.

“Do you remember the first joke you made to me when we were dating, or not even dating, when we were still in the taste-exchanging phase and you asked me what kind of movies I liked and I don’t remember what I said. And then you asked what kind I didn’t like and I said, westerns, violence, and suspense, and you said, Does that mean you don’t want to go with me to see Kill the Horse Slowly?”

He said, “I’m not sleeping in my underwear no matter what you say.”

And that’s it for the political conversation.

The novel conclues with a coda, marked by a date: February 15, 2003, the date of the march, I mean the Convergence. Ned is in ecstasy. “He had been up with the dignitaries and they were going to mention his name at Union Square, at the rally, but he had decided to fade back deeper into the march…. He wanted to continue to feel the march…. He had a rising feeling in his chest like nothing he had ever felt…. Everything was good…. There would be no war. He thought, No war, No invasion, No.” Of course, as we know, Ned is entirely wrong. But there is no pathos in his wrongness. It is simply pathetic, a heroic nothing.

Where is the rest of this book? Where is the part where we see Ned grapple with the fact that he was wrong, and his progress from there? What happens to his relationship with Nina after the birth of their child? Do any of the group of friends ever turn up again, or was this gathering a one-off, never to be repeated? Did Douglas’s funeral affect their lives in any way? And if not, what was the point of the preceding two hundred or so pages? These are questions that a novel by Norman Rush might have confronted. Alas, it is unso. 

Ruth Franklin is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford).