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Mortals
by  Norman Rush

Thinking
A Review by James Wood

Joseph Conrad has had relatively little influence on the contemporary American novel. Naipaul, Greene, and Céline (in Journey to the End of the Night), all keen absorbers of Conrad, were partly prodded abroad by the disintegration of empires, British and French, which offered rich and seedy locales for the observation of politics and motive. But America is its own vast imperium, reducing its satellites to mere moons, and in general American novelists have found quite enough at home to interest them. Philip Roth famously wrote in the early 1960s that perhaps the novel could not keep up with the wild fictionality of American reality. Those American writers interested in non-American worlds, and drawn to the examination of alien politics, such as Robert Stone and Joan Didion, have tended to labor under Graham Greene's easier shadow, rather than risk Conrad's more taxing presence.

Norman Rush is the great exception. Surely the only considerable American novelist who has never yet written about America (though he is very interested in Americans), he has set his three books in Botswana, a country in which he lived between 1978 and 1983. The books, like eclipses, arrive rarely, but tend to impose themselves massively. Mating, Rush's first novel (his first book was a fine collection of stories called Whites), appeared in 1991; Mortals, larger still than the intricate and dense Mating, is only his second novel, and has been at least a decade in the making. It might be said that both these remarkable novels have as their theme the clash of American desire and African politics, and that both are about the eruption into American lives of charismatic seducers. In Mating, the female narrator, an American anthropologist, becomes enamored of Nelson Denoon, a showy intellectual who has founded a utopian community in the Kalahari desert; and the central story of Rush's new novel concerns an American woman's affair with an African American therapist named Davis Morel, who has arrived in Botswana from Cambridge, Massachusetts, ready to go native and to preach a curious blend of militant atheism and self-help healing.

Rush recalls Conrad not only in theme but also in language, even if he does not precisely resemble him. The Conrad of whom Ford Madox Ford wrote that he practiced a "ferocious avoidance" of the ordinary sentence, who would go to great lengths to disrupt and to ornament the standard literary vernacular, must be an example to Rush. One reason that Rush has so excited literary readers — and excited them on the strength, until now, of only one novel — has to do with his extraordinary prose, which could only be American, and which, like Bellow's language, combines high and low registers in greatly unstable compounds. He is very interested in speech, in the slightly barbaric twisting of language that we commit when we speak, or speak to ourselves.

In addition, his American characters are proficient, perhaps slightly glib intellectuals, who enjoy showing off their mastery of the latest technical argot. This argot has thoroughly contaminated their ordinary speech. The narrator of Mating spoke — and thus the whole novel sounded — like this: "This jeu maintained its facetious character, but there came a time when I began to resent it as a concealed way of short-circuiting my episode of depression, because he preferred me to be merry, naturally." (That little rhythmic hiccup at the end of the sentence, closed by the literally feminine ending of the adverb, which seems to stick out over the end of the sentence, is a favorite device of Rush's when he wants to capture the hobbled but speedy pace of talk.) Or: "Undressed he became laissez-faire. He was fundamentally sexually secure." Or: "I was manic and global. Everything was a last straw. I went up the hill on passivity and down again."

In the way of all powerfully narrated first-person monologues, Mating occasionally breeds in the reader the desire to escape the constant intensity and interest of the language, as houseguests sometimes want to escape their over-vivid hosts. It is the price that the writer pays for the immediacy of first-person access. Mortals is told in the conventional third person, so that it distributes its effects more spaciously and calmly, as is proper for such a massive work. But Rush has not lost his interest in spoken language; indeed, he has intensified his study, at once funny and brilliant, of what happens to language when brainy Americans get mixed up with it. Mortals is many things, and does many things beautifully, but its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind's own language. This concern with the insides of our minds makes Rush almost an original in contemporary American writing.

The book's consciousness — we inhabit only his, despite the many other characters — belongs to Ray Finch, a minor (that is to say, unpublished) Milton scholar, who is teaching at a school in Gaberone, the capital of Botswana, and also doing contract work for the CIA. (The book is set in 1992.) Ray is a liberal meliorist, with no great affection for the agency — the type of man who thinks that Americans do great good, that communism was well vanquished, but that Guatemala was a sorry example of American overreaching. He reports to the station chief, named Boyle, whom he loathes. Ray is an involving presence (fortunately enough, given the book's length). He is highly intelligent, a precise noticer (he is trained to notice), with an apparently stable, calm, pedantic, and "relentless" (his wife's word) temperament, given only to outbursts against, as he sees it, female instability and hysteria.

One of Rush's achievements in the creation of this character is to make us believe that he is indeed a Milton scholar, that he loves language, and especially seventeenth-century language. During the course of the book, Ray uses words such as "hellmouth," "pismire," and "slumgullion," all in entirely natural ways. When he complains to himself about his wife, he uses a formulation that has Rush's verbal quirkiness, and yet remains true to Ray's calling as a teacher of literature: "It looked like the universal conspiracy of women, stanza nine billion, on the face of it." That word "stanza" is perfect for the kind of man wielding it; and again one notices Rush's staggering of the sentence, the jumpy rhythm of thought. Later, when Ray again returns to the question of women, and to the idea that women never forget anything, he thinks to himself: "But here it was again, the past that lives forever, in detail, with women, like the women in Joyce, The Dead, ruining everything." The jerky rhythm is there again, with that repetition of "women," but there is also something delicate about the way Rush has Ray think not "in Joyce's 'The Dead'" or "in Joyce's story," but "in Joyce, The Dead," which reproduces the crawling movement of identification by which thought moves.

Ray's way of thinking to himself, or speaking to himself, combines the precision of a spy, the language of a scholar, and the officialese of a bureaucrat. Rush has fun inventing Ray's patois, and the pleasure is contagious. Talking to Boyle, who is a standard-issue CIA type, full of agency folklore, Ray realizes that he "was going on too long and he knew it, but he couldn't make himself stop.... He hated the slings and arrows of staircase wisdom." A little later, he thinks: "Boyle was normally laconic, and laconic at a completely standard middle-class level of word choice." When Ray notices a sheathed TLS, Rush puts it with apt pedantry: "He had two Times Literary Supplements still in their glassine sleeves." Ray's wife Iris is clever like Ray, but unlike him she is witty (she refers to Kleenexes by a bogus Latin plural, "Kleenices"). She, too, speaks an utterly contemporary American discourse, a mixture of the slangy and the overeducated or theoretical: "He can't get rid of the furniture without it being a critique of his own project." Or: "He's a very good writer, but he has an imprimatur problem" (meaning: he is unpublished).

This marriage is at the core of the novel, which is, despite its many interests, a traditional novel of adultery. In a sense, the book inverts Othello. Ray, a white man, suffers excruciating sexual jealousy as he imagines his white wife involved in an affair with the black American Davis Morel. For a good part of the novel, Ray's sexual jealousy, like Othello's, seems unjustified, and it is only when Ray meets Morel in the Kalahari desert that his fears are finally confirmed. Ray is concerned with the perfection of his marriage, to an obsessive degree. At times Rush seems to overdo the vitality of Ray and Iris's marriage, as if to convince us of the horror of Iris's eventual adultery. There is a little too much about how Iris has "perfect parts" and perfect breasts, how fabulous they are in bed, how she would regularly cut Ray's toenails "out of love," and how "Iris could look at him and tell if he was hungry whether he said anything or not." When Rush tells us that Ray had never been able to finish Madame Bovary "because the idea of a wife committing adultery was upsetting to him," one feels that he is throwing too many eggs into his pudding.

After all, Rush has already suggested, much more subtly, that Ray is unstable on the question of his wife, and that his idea of the marriage may be rather different from hers. Ray's reading of "The Dead," for instance, was slightly self-aggrandizing. The idea that female memory, which never forgets, "ruins everything," especially for men, is exactly what the protagonist of "The Dead," Gabriel Conroy, thinks. But Joyce's point is that the over-fastidious Gabriel Conroy is himself a hysteric, and Ray's identification with Gabriel suggests that Ray is also something of a hysteric. He is consumed by visions of female conspiracy, but he of course belongs to that great male club of conspiracy, the CIA. (His work for the agency has come between him and his wife; she is more liberal than he is, and longs for him to disengage.) One realizes that in a novel dominated by a single consciousness there is very little of anything resembling objectivity. Rush's characterization of Ray's marriage is really Ray's characterization of it, and Ray cannot be wholly believed: Iris's eventual unhappiness and infidelity cast doubt on Ray's credibility. He is a first-class noticer, but not, perhaps, of his own wife.

The novel's machinery is properly started when Iris reveals to Ray that she has been depressed and that she has started having therapy with Davis Morel. Ray knows about Morel, because he has tried to argue to Boyle that the CIA should be interested in this seductive African American rabble-rouser, who has recently quit Cambridge for Gaberone. But Boyle has ignored Ray's entreaty, and has instead asked him to keep tabs on Samuel Kerekang, the leader of a grassroots movement that mixes Ruskinian socialism with African nativism. When Ray learns about Iris's sessions with Morel, he is immediately suspicious. His wife has been acting secretively; an affair would explain much. He broods on this question, and the great accomplishment of the novel lies in the way in which we are made to inhabit Ray's brooding.

Rush achieves this with a superb combination of free indirect style — the technical term for third-person narration that is so close to a character's thought that it resembles first-person monologue — and stream-of-consciousness. In order to demonstrate Rush's brilliance, one has to quote at length. Here, Ray is sitting opposite his loathed CIA chief, Boyle, and beginning to drift away. He thinks of how much he loves his wife:

It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy, as best you might, and never be an adversary on small things.... And the idea was to let this single flower bloom without notifying her of what was going on. Because it would be on the order of a present because it was only fair reciprocation for someone who enthralled you and who had incidentally saved you from your demons. Or the idea was to so charge her life with his appreciation that some morning she would sit up and say What the fuck is going on with us, I am so happy. The idea was to let this single flower bloom until it was something monstrous, like an item in a Max Ernst collage, something that fills the room and the occupant says Oh, this is you, this is you, my beloved friend, my love, now I see, something along those lines. He was going to float her in love and she would be like those paper flowers that open up. Water rising around her. She didn't know about him that he could get an erection just thinking in passing about her and that on one occasion he had to claim that he was having a hamstring problem, sitting facing Boyle was when it had happened, sitting facing Boyle and saying Ow and massaging his Achilles tendon so he could sit there until it was decent to get up. Boyle was divorced, or rather separated, since he was a Roman Catholic. He was in some null state with his wife, was the story. A lot of regular officers in the agency were divorced. A divorce would kill Ray. Maybe the evaporation of Russia would make it easier. He wasn't sure what he meant, unless it was that a certain pressure had gone out of that sector of his work. He couldn't believe it was over with the Russians, leaving only bullshit antagonists on the horizon, it looked like now. Maybe they could all relax some. And the joke of it was that Russia had gone up in mist not because of anything we had done, really. The agency had been amazed, startled. All this would probably never lead to a verbal event, where she says Good God, I seem to be floating in love. It would be enough if she just thought it, or something like it. No, he had been too average in his attitude and all that toward her in the past, and now he knew it and so would she, soon enough, although she would feel it before she truly knew it, but he was repeating himself. So this would be his new secret work. It would be like adding, say, potted blue hyacinths, one pot at a time, to a shelf or a ledge in the living room, one at a time, until the atmosphere was paradisiacal.

Reading this fantastical passage — there are many like it in the book; indeed, it is the book's very mode of narration — one recalls what fiction can supremely do with the mind, and how very rare is this kind of mastery, let alone this preoccupation, in current American writing. Look again at the passage: it is both lyrical (ending with the image of the hyacinths) and awkward (that repeated "because"); one sees how easily Ray passes from thinking about his wife to Boyle (who is sitting opposite him), to Boyle's marriage, to the geopolitical status of the world, and then, in what seems like a non sequitur, back to his wife: "All this would probably never lead to a verbal event, where she says Good God, I seem to be floating in love." Notice also how Rush moves Ray's thought from third person to first person and back again: "And the joke of it was that Russia had gone up in mist not because of anything we had done, really. The agency had been amazed, startled." (There is also the oddity of the phrase "gone up in mist," rather than the more usual "gone up in smoke" — precisely the curious way we customize clichés when we pass them through our minds.) And how much, too, this single page of the novel tells us about Ray: not only about his anxious devotion, but also about his secret agent's tendency to control. It is characteristic, after all, that Ray would think of letting the single flower of his wife bloom, "without notifying her of what was going on." Ray may love his wife to death, but we understand, thanks to passages like this, why she might want to escape this mixture of control and withholding.

Rush is a fine manipulator of what Conrad knew as progession d'effet — the steady intensification of plot and meaning as the novel builds towards its climaxes. As Ray becomes more certain that Iris is being unfaithful, his mental thought becomes less a drift than a tattoo, drumming again and again on the unblemished skin of his "perfect" marriage. The passage in which Ray comes up with the vaguely Miltonic word "hellmouth" is a fine example. He begins by reflecting on the childlessness of his marriage:

He had never been captivated by the idea of reproducing himself. But he had wanted it very much, for Iris. He had, despite the fact that children exposed you to hellmouth, which was the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own. It was the mad gunman shooting you at lunch and it was the cab jumping the curb and crushing you. It was AIDS and it was the grandmother, the daughter, the granddaughter tumbling through the air, blown out of the airplane by a bomb, the three generations falling and seeing one another fall, down, down, onto the Argolid mountains. With children you created more thin places in the world for hellmouth to break through. Morel was hellmouth for him. Hellmouth was having the bad luck to be born in Angola anytime after 1960. And hellmouth was Bertrand Russell coming home from a bicycle ride and announcing to his wife that he had decided he didn't really love her, like that. That was hellmouth, too.

About halfway through the book, the story shifts gear. Ray is sent north, to the Kalahari desert, to report on the activities of Samuel Kerekang's men, who have been burning villages and killing livestock. What might be, in another kind of novel, an obvious attempt to splash some action into a rather floating psychological narrative, seems anything but expedient here. The novel's bulk has already so properly ballasted Ray, has made his mind so present to us, and has filled in so many elements of his life, that we travel with Ray rather than travel merely with Rush to the Kalahari. Ray has a job of surveillance to do, but his mind is consumed by his suspicions of his wife. In addition, he has been sent to spy on Kerekang, but unlike his station chief, Ray likes Kerekang, rather approves of him, and enjoys his old-fashioned socialist's devotion to rousing nineteenth-century poetry. He is much more interested in doing surveillance on the suspected adulterer Davis Morel. Moreover, he is thinking remorsefully of his gay brother Rex, whom he suspects is dying of AIDS in California. He has a manuscript of his brother's, a kind of novel, a vast modernist assemblage with the title Strange News. (Rush, who has a gift for pastiche and parody, reproduces pages of this book in all its vivid, ambitious awfulness. It has sections with titles like "All Power to the Country Clubs!," and "Titles," a chapter devoted to possible titles of unwritten books. One of the titles is Out to Luncheon: Notes Toward a More Elegant Mode of Disparagement.) Ray has always loathed and feared his clever, bitchy, somewhat feckless younger brother. At first, he feels the same way about Strange News. But his terrible experiences in the Kalahari change him, and by the end of the novel he is carrying the manuscript around with him, strapped to his chest, as a kind of penance.

The two hundred or so pages in which Rush describes what is in effect a small African civil war seem to me some of the most extraordinary pages written by a contemporary American novelist. Again, one admires the precision of Rush's effects, which keeps his lyricism on a tight budget. For example: "The horizon seemed to be writhing" — a marvelous description of the hazy, sun-battered rims of a very hot country. Or: "cooking fires wagged in some of the lolwapas" (a lolwapa is a traditional courtyard; Rush's verbs are often potent like this). Or: "The blackness around them felt irregular, like a fabric being shaken. It was bats at work, swerving and fluttering their ugly wings."

Ray is captured by soldiers organized and funded by the South Africans and interrogated by a Boer named Quartus. He is thrown into a makeshift prison, and joined a day later by Davis Morel, who has come north, at Iris's insistence, to find out what has happened to Ray. It is in their hut-like prison that the two men confront each other. Morel confirms that he and Iris are lovers, and that Iris wants to leave her husband and live with Morel. Ray must absorb this devastating news while trying to save Morel and himself from death.

The two escape, are snatched up with Kerekang's forces, and fight a fierce battle against Quartus and his irregulars. Rush's writing is tautly exciting; there are tremendous swirls and billows of prose. The Conradian alienation principle is brilliantly employed: when Ray finds himself back in the interrogation room — the compound has now been abandoned by Quartus and company — he notices that the floor is full of "cigarette butts and empty soda cans and, here and there, roses. He was amazed, but only until he realized that the roses were wads of bloodstained tissue." Eventually, Ray comes face to face with his former interrogator, struggles with him, and finally shoots him clumsily, in the hip: "Quartus screamed and let go. His jodhpurs were filling with blood, one leg of them was." Might there have been, in the back of Rush's mind, the famous image in Heart of Darkness, when the helmsman is killed by a spear and falls at the feet of Marlow, who notices that "my feet felt so very warm and wet that I had to look down ... my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still"?

In this gripping second section of the book, Rush blends Conradian action — the warfare is as involving and convincingly haphazard as that at the end of Lord Jim — with his sustained interest in the contents of Ray's mind. His ability to sketch the different political allegiances of Kerekang, of his young supporters — teenagers with Kalashnikovs, of the American quack Morel, of the received wisdom of the CIA chief, and of many others is deeply impressive, since a high level of analysis never insults the hospitality of storytelling. Mortals is above all a novel, not an essay or an ideological thriller (as, say, Didion's political novels are). The book becomes a study of a man finally subjecting himself to examination, and not enjoying what he finds.

It is really the story of a man disengaging himself from conspiracies. By the end of the tale, Ray has decided to leave the CIA. His experiences in the north, his proximity to death, his anger at the way the CIA has bungled what ought to have been an easy task in largely peaceful Botswana, and his wife's terrible decision that she can apparently live without him — all these experiences conspire against him, reduce him, humble him. At last he is on his own, and wants to remove himself from the two institutions that have sustained him, his marriage and the agency: "Ray thought that he would be willing to die if it was going to be pitch black, hell zero, diving through the zero like a clown through a burning hoop and then nothing. He hoped to God the atheists were right. Because if there was an afterlife it would be institutional because somebody would have to run it and he couldn't go through that again. And the only worse thing would be reincarnation and back to the ocean of human institutions again."

Ray returns several times to a glorious line of John Webster's: "like diamonds we are cut with our own dust." "Dust," in Webster's diction, has the sense of death, the dust of death, and Rush clearly wants the line to make resonant the book's title. In the Kalahari, Ray does begin to think of himself as a "dying animal." But Webster's line has a simpler application, too: if we are truly cut with our own dust, then perhaps this means that Ray is really the reason for the breakup of his marriage? And does it not suggest likewise that the CIA tends to create the problems that it wants to solve?

Mortals is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. Like all such books, it is not without faults. Ideologically speaking, Ray, the liberal who eventually leaves the agency, is perhaps too good to be true, so that one wonders about the likelihood of such a right-thinking (or, rather, left-thinking) fellow ever joining the CIA in the first place. 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.

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