Hellmouth

Michael André Bernstein

  • Mortals by Norman Rush
    Cape, 715 pp, £18.99, July 2003, ISBN 0 224 03709 9

Norman Rush’s first novel, Mating (1991), is narrated by an unnamed 32-year-old female doctoral student in nutritional anthropology. It takes the cherished theme of a brilliant and independent woman’s search for a male partner worthy of her, and transplants it to a utopian matriarchal community in Botswana. For a man to recast Pride and Prejudice as a modern, feminist love affair, and then to set it in Africa, is a bold move, and neither the book’s reworking of the conventions of first-person narrative nor its relentlessly artificial language seem to owe anything to Rush’s immediate predecessors or contemporaries. The book’s singularity is still striking more than a decade after it was published, and though many of the narrator’s expressions seem wildly implausible (‘I had been working my tits down to nubs’), or idiosyncratic to the point of absurdity (‘so I’m being rather cum grano salis on these throwaway lines’), they are balanced by moments of power and wit. The narrator rejects vegetarianism, for example, not because she is against it in principle, but because, since the majority of vegetarians are female, she is ‘not prepared to concede animal protein to the striding-around master sex while I nibble leafage’. Some readers sympathise with the narrator while others find her appallingly self-absorbed and demanding, but no one has criticised Rush for his ventriloquism. I suspect this is not because he managed it so well, but because by situating most of the novel in Africa, where he lived and worked for six years, he was shielded by the authority of direct experience.

Rush lived in Africa from 1978 to 1983. He and his wife, Elsa, were co-directors of a Peace Corps project in Botswana. Although its strategic location and pro-Western government have made it an important American interest, Botswana, like most of Africa, has scarcely figured in the American imagination. All three of Rush’s published works of fiction are set there: Mating, Whites (1986), a sharply etched and often wryly comic collection of linked short stories about Euro-American expatriates in Gaborone, the country’s capital, and his new, epic-length novel, Mortals. Few American novelists have located their books anywhere but in the economic or cultural heartland of the global American imperium. Except for Jane and Paul Bowles in Morocco, only Robert Stone and Joan Didion suggest themselves, and neither of them is associated closely with any one setting. On the whole, American writers seem convinced that the vital features of their society are most clearly discernible at its centre, even though it is often on the peripheries that the faultlines of empires first become apparent. Rush’s attempt to see America from Africa, or, more accurately, to understand America and Americans in part through their effect on Africa and its effect on them, gives his writing distinctive resonance.

But the inevitable inner distance of his expatriates from their adopted setting also makes Rush’s Botswana and its native population more of a picturesque backdrop than a thickly realised world. Truly to inhabit Botswana, as, say, Faulkner does the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, would require taking imaginative possession of the place, a colonising gesture for which Rush is much too politically self-conscious – the map at the back of Absalom, Absalom is clearly marked: ‘William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor’. But if a writer is not in some strong sense a coloniser, he risks being only a better informed, more alert tourist, and Rush’s Botswana has increasingly become an exotic stage set rather than a distinctive place whose features determine the story. Perhaps this accounts for the transposition from book to book of the same few colourful local touches – the perilous way the water heater is bolted to the wall above the bathtub, for instance. In Mortals much of the main characters’ domestic crisis of jealousy and sexual betrayal could have unfolded just as easily in South-East Asia (or New Jersey). There may be no way for a contemporary author to permit himself to try to write fully from within another culture, but if it is ethically impossible to negotiate the antithetical traps of writing from abroad as either coloniser or tourist, that is a fascinating problem in itself, and it would be interesting to see a novelist of Rush’s seriousness engage with it more directly.

While Mating dealt with the difficulties of finding a suitable partner, Mortals begins many years into a seemingly successful marriage. The novel is concerned with questions of disloyalty, and a variety of acts of betrayal are anatomised at length. One that isn’t, however, is the author’s carelessness with his own literary gifts. For considerable stretches, Mortals reads like an overwrought gesture at the major work of fiction it tries to will itself into resembling, as though the sheer earnestness of its ambition were sufficient to justify any amount of repetitiveness, slack prose, and the implausibility of much of its dialogue and plot. Still, other scenes have an achieved daring and acuity of perception that few contemporary novels can rival. The riveting and the inept perplexingly coexist in Mortals. It isn’t just a question of the book’s great length, since both the self-indulgence and the brilliance are present from the first pages, interwoven so closely that a much shorter work would probably have exhibited the same proportion of linked failings and accomplishments.

Take the following contrasting variations on a theme:

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.

And: ‘Hell was another man’s cock going into your beloved’s cunt.’

Beneath its forced grandiloquence, the first passage is little more than a series of commonplaces working overtime to disguise their emotional thinness. (What is the function of the references to the Argolid mountains or Bertrand Russell except to distract from the over-familiarity of the argument?) The examples manage to seem simultaneously too arcane and too ready-to-hand, only drawing attention to their distance from anything concretely imagined. Yet the artificiality of these descriptions is part of what makes the lapidary coarseness of the second quotation effective. In much the same way, whole sections of completely unbelievable conversation, especially between the book’s central figure, Ray Finch, and his unhappy and eventually unfaithful wife, Iris, help to give the contrasting moments of pitch-perfect dialogue the shock of unexpected revelation. Mortals is obsessed with hell and self-laceration, whether political, sexual or aesthetic. The ways we make a living hell for others and for ourselves, all the while convinced we are acting from the best of motives, is the novel’s principal concern, and the conflicting attempts to escape from that hell – an escape that in turn causes fresh suffering – drive the most engrossing parts of the narrative. The novel’s cover, a detail from the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (other parts of the same painting provided the covers for Mating and for Whites), signals the combination of the grotesque, the judgmental and the massively ambitious in Rush’s work.

Though Rush never confronts the literary renunciations or betrayals involved in writing as a privileged tourist, he does have two black central characters and speaks in their voices with the same confidence that he does in those of his white men and women. Davis Morel, an African-American holistic doctor, psychologist and militant anti-Christian polemicist newly arrived in Botswana, and Samuel Kerekang, a recently returned, Scots-educated Motswana agrarian reformer, are the most (at times the only) compelling characters in the book. When Iris becomes Morel’s lover after going to him to treat her depression and hypoadrenia, it shatters Ray’s world. But Morel’s race does not figure in Ray’s phantasmagoria of pain, rage and confusion. In the terms of Ray’s particular ‘hellmouth’, the colour of the cock penetrating his wife’s cunt is irrelevant to the outrage of its happening at all, and that irrelevance is one of the novel’s most welcome features. But Morel and Kerekang do more than focus the novel’s political and sexual tensions: their opposing philosophies and rival proselytising generate much of the explicit intellectual debate that fills crucial portions of Mortals. The tension when they engage one another directly makes it all the more baffling that so much of the book is given over to Ray Finch’s interminable account of his disgruntlement with his job and marriage.

Morel sees himself as a crusader of pure reason come to free Africa not only from the burden of Christianity imposed by white colonisers, but from all forms of what he calls superstitious ‘credulism’. There is a wonderful irony, of which Morel himself is necessarily unaware, in watching him, newly arrived in Africa, preach to his Batswana listeners, entirely confident of his mission as the bearer of truth, as though it were impossible for any American, white or black, not to take for granted that it is his role to instruct the natives in what they ought to think. In his own way, Morel is as domineering and self-absorbed as Ray Finch, and in choosing him as her lover, Iris has strayed less far than any of the members of the triangle could ever admit. After 17 years of being married to Ray, the surprise is that Iris has not fled to a shelter for terminally bored wives. ‘You’re confusing two things,’ she tells Ray, ‘one being that I don’t complain and the other being your interpretation of that as how well I’m doing. Those are two different things.’ Although written in the third person, Mortals stays so locked inside Ray’s consciousness that the reader longs to escape nearly as much as Iris does. A 48-year-old failed Milton scholar and dissatisfied contract CIA agent with a transparent cover as a secondary school English teacher, Ray has staked his entire happiness on his wife, whom he still proudly describes as ‘the most beautiful white woman in Southern Africa’. There are innumerable tributes to Iris’s beauty, all of them overripe with superlatives, and if Ray were not so stultifyingly serious – and nowhere more so than when he celebrates their shared sense of humour – you might suspect this was an elaborate parody of domestic uxoriousness. But Ray means every word, and Rush is determined to make us overhear them all, including such panegyrics as ‘her pubic escutcheon grew in a neat compact bar over her introitus, with almost no growth to the sides. It was like art.’ Even less persuasive than Ray’s unflagging sexual obsession with his wife is his habit of telling her details about his past. It’s hard to believe in Iris’s surprise when Ray informs her, after two decades of marriage, that he was named after his father. There must be subtler ways to introduce these back stories; the only possible explanation for such clumsiness is that they are meant as a deliberate challenge to the reader’s investment in novelistic plausibility. Perhaps Rush, like Morel, wants to cure his audience of the ‘credulism’ on which realistic fiction depends, but this seems a curious move in a book so traditional in its structure and concerns.

Iris packs a copy of Madame Bovary for Ray to take along with him when his odious CIA station chief sends him on a dangerous mission into the Kalahari Desert: from the start, Ray’s marriage is as imperilled as that of any 19th-century cuckold, and his inevitable expulsion from the conjugal paradise is foreshadowed – often rather heavy-handedly – in nearly all the early chapters. But Ray is no helpless Charles Bovary. He is by temperament suspicious and by training a professional spy, and he starts to use all the resources of his position to shadow Morel – against the explicit orders of his superior, who wants him to concentrate on Kerekang’s grass-roots reform movement. Rush is excellent on the details of Ray’s tradecraft, and it’s a relief finally to see him do something other than brood and talk. Of course, Ray himself must be shown to dislike his work for ‘the Agency’, if only to retain the sympathy of the book’s presumptive readers, and he plays the part of spy-with-a-bad-conscience with his characteristic internal loquaciousness. Ray offers a variety of explanations for having chosen so compromising a career, including a life-long rivalry with his gay brother, a desire to know what is going on behind the scenes, a readiness to commit small evils in order to prevent larger ones, and, most convincingly, a need to compartmentalise his life so that ‘anyone who judged him as wanting’ in one of his roles ‘would be judging in ignorance’ of the whole picture. ‘Nobody knows who I am,’ Ray likes to say. He needs to see himself as more mysterious and complicated than he really is; one of the best things in the novel is the way he is forced to recognise that everyone in Gaborone, including Morel and Kerekang, has always seen through his cover. Ray is not much more accomplished as a spy than as a husband or a scholar, but rather than treating his multiple ineptitudes with the swift humour they deserve, Rush forces us to attend to them through all the ponderous earnestness of Ray’s own self-regard. As the improbable resolution to Ray’s inner turmoil, we are given an eruption of ferocious CIA-sponsored violence; Ray and Morel temporarily join forces to help Kerekang and his followers defeat a band of brutal South African mercenaries called in by the Agency’s station chief to crush Kerekang. (Ray’s boss, the paranoid and bloodthirsty Chester Boyle, who sees a Marxist conspiracy every time someone mentions reform, is a crude assemblage of loathsome traits.) Ray, stark naked and half-crazed, with his dead brother’s manuscript wrapped round his stomach to look like a bomb, single-handedly turns the Gunfight at the Kalahari Corral in the good guys’ favour.

The book probably could have ended here, but Rush gives us a coda in which Ray, in hiding from Boyle and the Agency, joins Kerekang in post-apartheid South Africa to teach English to small children. Iris, after a last ecstatic bout of sex with Ray by the side of the road into Johannesburg, has returned to Gaborone and Morel, but she and Ray are now exchanging letters; she so approves of his new life that there seems to be a chance they will get back together. His letter to her on the last page is signed: ‘Love, your husband, Ray’. Perhaps they will regain their paradise. Whether the reader could endure hearing any more about it is another matter.