The Basic Couple

Benjamin Kunkel

  • Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush
    Granta, 234 pp, £14.99, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 84708 780 5

When Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch that it was among the few English novels ‘for grown-up people’, she didn’t explain what she meant. It’s clear that the novel looks back critically (and forgivingly) at the moral youthfulness that lands Dorothea in a marriage to an older man whose scholarly seriousness is uncompromised by wit or sexual charm; but Woolf seems to have pitied Dorothea for hanging on to some of the same earnestness in her second marriage, ‘seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what’. Maturity may remain too hard to attain, in life and art, for its fictional representation to have been achieved very often. If novels for grown-ups have been rare in England, it has been doubted whether in the US we have produced any at all.

Or so things stood in 1960, when Leslie Fiedler published Love and Death in the American Novel, four years after Norman Rush graduated from Swarthmore College, where he met the woman whose ‘heart, sensibility and intellect are so signally – if perforce esoterically – celebrated and exploited’ in the novels he would come to write, to cite the dedication to the first of them, Mating (1991). I don’t know whether Norman or Elsa Rush, his wife of 56 years, has ever read Fiedler’s great study of the American novel’s evasion, as Fiedler saw it, of the reality of mature sexual love, from Fenimore Cooper down to Faulkner and Hemingway. In a sense, there would have been no need. Asked by an interviewer from the Paris Review about his early influences, Rush first mentioned ‘D.H. Lawrence. Actually, a lot of Lawrence.’ He has probably been familiar for decades with the argument Lawrence made in the characteristically irresponsible and penetrating Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), which Fiedler – a passionate critic but not above scholarship – more or less adapted and proved: that American fiction amounted to a boys’ literature, tales of adventure and terror fundamentally divided in spirit like a boy who tortures insects with his friends after accompanying his mother to church. In the American novel, a childish moral piety (Fiedler’s ‘Sentimental Love Religion’) vies with a childish diabolism, to use Lawrence’s word for what Fiedler describes as a Gothic fascination with violence, lust, ‘blackness’. (Dark-haired women are frequent pits of iniquity.) In Fiedler’s book, the upshot of many subtle readings is that American fiction turns ‘to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage and child-bearing’ – a significant failing when ‘the subject par excellence of the novel is love.’

Lawrence and Fiedler were right, at least about the male writers they had in mind, and the verdict still holds. From the American novel since 1960 you learn next to nothing about what love between a grown-up man and woman might entail, beyond adultery and alcoholism. The principal exception is Rush. The first of his three novels concerns wooing or courtship; the second, Mortals (2003), is centrally about a marriage; and the third, Subtle Bodies, takes up, not exactly child-bearing, but conception (along with friendship, death, and what Buddhists call right livelihood). No American fiction I’ve read offers as rich a sense of how love might be attempted and sustained, as well as thwarted or jeopardised, between men and women who don’t read self-help books – just the kind who might want or need grown-up novels of love. Here is the female narrator of Mating, a graduate student in anthropology called Karen Ann (as we learn when we glimpse her as a married woman in Mortals), describing her future husband, Nelson Denoon, who has sunk into a mood of diffuse apology:

Then he confessed for the second time that he regretted giving me the impression when we were discussing Middlemarch that he’d finished it. Before I could remind him that he’d already confessed this he was going further, saying he’d never even begun it, that he knew what was in it only from what he’d picked up from women discussing it. But now he was going to read it, he swore.

This is comedy, as at least the woman knows, but not satire. Rush’s men and women in love are Americans in their thirties or forties who take themselves seriously – Karen Ann considers Denoon the rare ‘serious man’ – without often taking themselves too seriously. Love for them is an extended occasion for clever jokes, aperçus and bad puns, but the game is played for stakes. I have met a number of people like this, surprisingly few of them in novels.

Formally, Rush’s singularity has to do with a prose exceptionally adept at registering the speech of thought, as it were. Mating begins: ‘In Africa, you want more, I think.’ The first sentence of Mortals follows the recursive course of another thought: ‘At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realised.’ Both long novels, the former almost five hundred pages and the latter more than seven hundred, are confined, expansively, to the consciousness of a single character – in Mortals, the highly perceptive yet blinkered CIA agent and Milton scholar Ray Finch – and set in Botswana, where the Rushes spent six years as directors of a Peace Corps project. (There is also a fine collection of stories, Whites, from 1986, but Rush’s gift is for elaboration.) In Subtle Bodies, the point of view for the first time toggles back and forth between a man and woman. Here the opening words suggest the way one partner’s speech can become the language of the other’s thoughts: ‘Genitals have their own lives, his beloved Nina had said.’

In Rush’s novels, the people overhearing themselves thinking are intellectuals, more or less: ‘Ned thought, After NYU we were supposed to keep up with the quarterlies.’ The voices of this sort of person haven’t often been unapologetically captured in the country of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield; even Moses Herzog is caught thinking mainly so that Bellow may embarrass him. Rush invites us to laugh with his jokey intellectuals as well as at them, and in his fiction the possession of articulate ideas isn’t the automatic folly that it remains for American writers who prefer the national mannerism of the barbaric yawp. Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Rush are exact contemporaries, born in 1933. McCarthy excels at antique dialogue and rapturous word-pictures of frontier landscapes; likes to portray violence; won’t represent thought; can’t do women; and has denounced Henry James and the semicolon. Among Roth’s mouthpieces is the oracular cleaning lady Faunia Farley in The Human Stain, who corrects the notion of the protagonist, a former professor, that sex is about more than sex: ‘No, it’s not. You just forgot what sex is.’ Her name is Faunia, see. Roth and McCarthy’s best novels may be as good as Mating and Mortals, but primitivist affectations and the big ideas of anti-intellectuals are no country for grown men.

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