Synopses & Reviews
The greatly anticipated new novel by Norman Rush whose first novel, Mating
, won the National Book Award and was everywhere acclaimed is his richest work yet. It is at once a political adventure, a social comedy, and a passionate triangle. It is set in the 1990s in Botswana the African country Rush has indelibly made his own fictional territory.
Mortals chronicles the misadventures of three ex-pat Americans: Ray Finch, a contract CIA agent, operating undercover as an English instructor in a private school, who is setting out on perhaps his most difficult assignment; his beautiful but slightly foolish and disaffected wife, Iris, with whom he is obsessively in love; and Davis Morel, an iconoclastic black holistic physician, who is on a personal mission to "lift the yoke of Christian belief from Africa."
The passions of these three entangle them with a local populist leader, Samuel Kerekang, whose purposes are grotesquely misconstrued by the CIA, fixated as the agency is on the astonishing collapse of world socialism and the simultaneous, paradoxical triumph of radical black nationalism in South Africa, Botswanas neighbor. And when a small but violent insurrection erupts in the wild northern part of the country, inspired by Kerekang but stoked by the erotic and political intrigues of the American trio the outcome is explosive and often explosively funny.
Along the way, there are many pleasures. Letters from Rays brilliantly hostile brother and Iriss woebegone sister provide a running commentary on contemporary life in America. Africa and Africans are powerfully evoked, and the expatriate scene is cheerfully skewered.
Through lives lived ardently in an unforgiving land, Mortals examines with wit and insight the dilemmas of power, religion, rebellion, and contending versions of liberation and love. It is a study of a marriage over time, and a mans struggle to find his way when his private and public worlds are shifting. It is Norman Rushs most commanding work.
"Some readers may skip the religion debates, others may gloss over the military adventure. But all will find the radiant love story both erotic and hilarious." Hazel Rochman, Booklist
"The richness of Rush's vision, and its stringent moral clarity, sweep the reader into his brilliantly observed world." Publishers Weekly
"A reading experience not to be missed. Another National Book Award seems a distinct possibility." Kirkus Reviews
"[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." Robert Christgau, Village Voice
Rushs first novel, Mating, was magnificent. Mortals, as hard as it is to believe, is even better. Erik Tokells, Fortune
Marvelous...One wants to call Rush the best writer of his generation, but one imagines that he would reject the category. John Homans, New York Magazine
Rush has now produced three books so full of brainwork, contour, sinew and laser light that we dont want to leave home without him. John Leonard, New York Times Book Review
Rush has a canny understanding of Africa, a profound appreciation for the fine points of romantic love, a muscular style of description, and an eye for character [that is] frighteningly sharp. The Economist
Delightful... as Ray and Iris slowly tumble toward the recognition of real trouble in their marriage, the book illuminates them with a playful, intelligent light that any adult will find useful to see by. Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
Absorbing... For readers hankering after a novel of ideas, it doesnt get much better than this. Jennifer Egan, The Observer
Wild and wonderful... Whether the matter under scrutiny is marital wrangling or guerilla rebellion, Rushs observations are brutally accurate and funny. Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"In 1991, when he was 58, Norman Rush wrote his first novel, Mating
, and won the National Book Award. Now, just when he was looking like another of America's great single-novel authors, comes Mortals
, a 700-page detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around. As an investigator of marital relations, he upstages Updike; as a critic of political hypocrisy, he has more wrath than Roth." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. Like all such books, it is not without faults....And the novel has the air at times of a once fatter man whose thinner frame is now making his skin sag a bit: there are abrupt transitions and sudden deposits of information. But big books flick away their own failings and weaknesses, make insects of them. And how much is accomplished here! For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer's own burning; for once, knowledge is not simply exotic and informational, but something amassed as life is amassed, as a pile of experiences rather than a wad of facts. (Botswana is never a backdrop but always the fabric of Rush's fictions, and he clearly knows and loves the country.) And for once intelligence is not mere 'smartness,' but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the novel itself. For once it is novelistic intelligence, for which we should give thanks." James Wolcott, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
Q. Mortals is your third work of fiction set in Botswana. How is Botswana different from other African countries?
A. Botswana is a unique African country. It achieved independence in 1967 through a process of negotiation, not violence, and its first president was married to a white English woman. Each of these factors played a part in the development of Botswana as a peaceful democratically-inclined, pragmatic, western-oriented new country. Botswana has remained democratic throughout all the turbulence in the countries surrounding it Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa as they attained black majority rule. The country has a small population that is largely occupied in cattle raising and very low-productivity rain-fed agriculture. The terrain is very unforgiving. It's flat, mostly scrub savannah, with a vast swamp in the northeast quarter of the country that constitutes the largest unfenced wild game area in the world. It's a poor country, and the problem of inequality between the traditional agricultural sector and the modernized, urbanized sector, is huge. In the 80's and early 90's, Botswana was the most promising country in Africa from the standpoint of foreign aid agencies. Since the scourge of AIDS has struck, it is now probably the most damaged and threatened.
Q. What was Botswana like in 1991, the time frame for Mortals, and how has it changed in the past 11 years?
A. In '91, Botswana was one of the only African countries that always appeared on the world list of certified democratic states. It had successfully exploited its diamond resources for the benefit of the people. The country was distracted by the liberation struggle in South Africa that culminated in those years. Botswana was a frontline state, as those states that gave material support and sanctuary to the liberation forces were called. The prospects in 1991 were hopeful, but as I've said, the magnitude of the AIDS pandemic and its consequences had not yet been grasped.
Also in the years succeeding 1991, Botswana's economy has been hurt by declining commodity prices. And migration from the countryside into the towns has contributed to social problems like petty crime, and pressure on resources like firewood and water and services.
Q. What were you doing in Botswana?
A. My wife, Elsa, and I were the first Co-Directors of a Peace Corps program. In Botswana we were in charge of a program that supported about a hundred volunteers in assignments ranging from teaching to water borehole maintenance to TB control to wildlife management. We were stationed in the capital, Gaborone (pronounced Hab or oh nee), and traveled extensively in the country and the region.
Q. Mortals is both a tale of everyday espionage and an all-consuming romance. It is also a snapshot of the ideological and political changes that have swept the world since the fall of communism. Why was Botswana, at that moment, 1991-2, the right setting for the story you've told?
A. The collapse of world communism came as a deep shock to the nationalist movements in southern Africa. The socialist countries had been sponsors and supporters of the liberation movements, and there was a deep affinity within those movements with socialist ideology. Black majority rule was being achieved in all of the countries of southern Africa simultaneously with the self-destruction of socialism as a live system in eastern Europe. Majority rule was nevertheless very close to becoming a reality. In the novel, this historical moment the socialist debacle has consequences for the central characters in the book, Iris and Ray Finch, since Rays career has been founded on the struggle against communism...and for the heroic Kerekang the Fire-Thrower and his movement.
Q. Please say a little about these characters, all of whom are American: Ray Finch; his wife, Iris; and her doctor, Davis Morel. What has brought them to Botswana?
A. Ray Finch is a contract agent for the CIA operating under cover as an English teacher in an elite Botswana secondary school. His motives for accepting assignment in Botswana are complex some are personal, some are political. As the book evolves, we see that the personal motives have been the stronger.
Iris, Ray's wife, is in a state of increasing doubt about her compliance with Ray's choice, especially as she sees the world political context that ostensibly justified it changing before her eyes. This disaffection prompts her toward (or rationalizes) a traumatic infidelity.
Davis Morel, Iris's doctor and then lover, is an African-American come to southern Africa on a personal mission to campaign against what he considers to be the essential pillar of enduring semi-colonialism in Africa the Christian religion.
Q. Your characters pay allegiance to many literary figures. Ray's CIA cover is as an English teacher, and he is also a Milton scholar; Kerekang, an African with populist ideals, admires Tennyson; Iris is a sophisticated reader of serious fiction; and Ray's brother, Rex, echoes Oscar Wilde. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
A. A question that has preoccupied me might be phrased as What is Literature for? That question gets addressed in various imagined situations in this book. As to my own influences, since I write political novels, I look back to the great exemplars, in particular to Conrad's Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. They penetrated my soul. So did Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. I admire the work of Chinua Achebe. Henry James's Princess Casamassima was revelatory for me. I was, unfortunately, I have come to see, for a long time under the esthetic spell of James Joyce. You can see that I have selected my models from the firmament of literary art, and thus must die unhappy. I do think my books are funnier than those I've mentioned, though, and that's a consolation.
Q. Will we see any characters from Whites or Mating in this novel?
A. Yes, we meet again the narrator of Mating, the formerly anonymous Karen Ann Hoyt Denoon. We see what has become of her, and of her husband, Nelson Denoon. The main character from one of the stories in Whites, Paul Ojang, appears. During Ray's worst ordeal, he encounters an African woman named Dirang. Some will remember Dirang as the animating spirit of the cooperative community of Tsau, in Mating.
Q. It's interesting that the character in Mortals that contributes the voice of dissent toward America is the only one actually living in America. Rex, a gay man dying of AIDS. In fact, he is the only main character to have AIDS in a novel set in Africa, in which a large percentage of the population is HIV positive. Why did you deal with this issue in the manner you did?
A. Rex is a cynic, and is more a satirist than a dissenter. AIDS becomes real for Ray Finch through the cruel fate of his brother. In Botswana, during the period the novel covers, AIDS was gathering force, but the authorities were distracted by the great political drama reaching its climax next door in the Republic of South Africa. Denial and evasion were the initial responses to the AIDS crisis. My character Doctor Morel is in distress at this situation, and is lobbying the Ministry of Health for a change of direction. By the mid-nineties of course, AIDS had become the overwhelming social threat that it is today. Sero-positivity stands at about 34% of the adult population, life expectancy is plunging, children are being orphaned at a horrifying rate.
Q. What is your take on the much-discussed anti-Americanism in the world today? In Africa?
A. During our five years in Africa, what anti-Americanism we encountered derived primarily from perceptions of America's long cohabitation with apartheid South Africa. Even so, anti-American feeling was ambivalent, strongly mixed with admiration for American technology and prosperity. The contemporary phenomenon of Islamist anti-Americanism had not yet declared itself.
Q. Your first novel, Mating, won the National Book Award in 1991. Did that affect your writing of this second novel?
A. Winning the NBA had some contradictory effects. As Andrew Wylie, my agent, said to my wife seconds after the announcement was made, "This changes everything." That was true. Many doors opened to me. It brought a sort of calm into my heart. My first book, Whites, had been a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. But the NBA also stoked certain perfectionistic tendencies I suffer from, and fed a compulsion to do as well or better than I had done with Mating. There was a cost. I took ten years to complete Mortals to my satisfaction, which was too long.