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.

In Subtle Bodies, Nina is attracted to Ned because he she finds him ‘verbal looking’. The intuition is correct, about all of Rush’s inwardly and outwardly talkative people. And the unabashed mimesis of thought becoming words – in the first-person narration of Mating or the indirect discourse of the two later novels, as well as in long dialogues like those in Mortals – is connected with Rush’s representation of mature love among educated people. Marriage is a long conversation, Nietzsche said; in his case it was a guess. In Rush, it is simply a fact. ‘He loved talking to her, the sheer talking, whatever the subject was.’ Rush’s husbands and wives enjoy telling each other much – of course, never all – of what’s on their minds, and their minds are both quick and full, as rivers can be.

They are not all talk. Work matters in Rush as well as love, and the work is always in some way political. In Mating, Karen Ann first encounters Denoon when he is giving a talk in Gaborone before a group of Batswana intellectuals on the failure in Africa of both capitalist and socialist models of development. She listens, sceptically, as he proposes an alternative called ‘solar democracy’, yet before long – in one of the half-mad actions typical of Rush’s reasonable and deliberative characters – she is venturing into the Kalahari on foot, with two donkeys, to investigate the experimental village Denoon has set up there.

Tsau turns out to be a solar-powered refuge of some two hundred homesteads for poor, mainly spurned and elderly women, run on democratic and egalitarian lines, with only a peripheral male population. Voting rights and property deeds belong exclusively to women: a local corrective to universal male rule. One of Denoon’s less successful initiatives has been to ‘introduce the lazy susan into household mealtime protocol as a delicate way of promoting a more equalised access to food’, being ‘well aware of the statistics on household males, senior males, getting the first pick and lion’s share’. It’s a suggestive fact that the most convincing novel of love a straight American man has written since the 1960s has for its male hero an ardent feminist.

As always, the air of utopia carries a whiff of the ridiculous. Karen Ann early on asks herself the obvious question: ‘How serious is this place, au fond?’ A thorough and ingenious fictional creation, Tsau is also ironic to its foundations: a collectivist matriarchy in Africa set up (and worked out on the page) by a charismatic white guy from the United States. Yet for the narrator, if not for all readers, the irony qualifies the utopia without disqualifying it. In the end, Tsau comes under threat from religious disputes, the reassertion of masculine prerogative, and the sudden mental frailty of Denoon himself. But nothing in the 1991 novel implies that capitalist folk wisdom is correct and all schemes of deliberate social organisation are doomed to anarchic shipwreck or authoritarian travesty.

What does all this have to with the private business of ‘assortative mating’? Lawrence is only one modern writer to have warned, as Christianity has since its earliest days, that sexual love and love of humanity are antagonistic passions; he simply reversed the traditional polarity. And Mating proposes no facile identification between Denoon’s utopianism and that of Karen Ann who says: ‘My utopia is equal love, equal love between people of equal value.’ Even so, the two seem to reinforce each other. Denoon proves himself a man serious enough to love by means of a political project that Karen Ann, in the end, takes seriously enough to join. Her reciprocal gift lies in sustaining the screwball atmosphere which in Rush’s novels, as in the Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, is the medium of Americans in love:

Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time, but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing … Denoon had early on made it clear I was free to include him and his foibles as ingredients and props in my routine if I felt like it, by not objecting when I did. So he was different. Or was it just that I was dealing for the first time in my life with an actual mature male, a concept which up until then I had considered an essentially literary construct.

The passage, in which ‘pleasure’ and ‘comedy’ reward being ‘serious’ and ‘mature,’ suggests the psychological complexion of Rush’s couples, and the distinct mood of his novels. The couples are people who, their seriousness established, delight in verbal play; and the novels too are manifestly serious, artistically and morally, which may be why they betray so little anxiety to establish their literariness. For an opposite case, recall Fitzgerald’s beautiful but unsuccessful Tender Is the Night, where the wilful effort to accord tragic dignity to a bad marriage between frivolous people fails to prevent the acknowledgment that Dick Diver is ‘no longer a serious man’.

For all that Rush’s characters are unusually literate, his prose is almost entirely unlyrical, even antipoetic. In Mortals Ray Finch’s thoughts borrow from Yeats without Rush ceasing to observe their stumbling rhythms, as when Ray reacts inwardly to his wife’s admission that she feels sexually attracted to the doctor of ‘eclectic medicine’ whose help she has become unhappy enough to seek: ‘He wanted to know if behind all this declared attraction something was moving its slow thighs, something like individual vacations, something middle-class decadent like open marriage, whatever that was. He was afraid of conceptualising what he was afraid of.’

That last sentence is a knot of infelicities: the ugly gerund, the repetition of ‘afraid’, the terminal preposition. Its virtue is that the watermark of an individuated character can be seen behind the print. The sound of Mortals is that of a certain gruff male hysteria. Ray is uxorious, still ‘obsessed’ with his wife’s beauty, goodness and wit after 17 years of marriage; he is arrogant, whether boasting to himself of his exceptional performance on the CIA’s tests for prospective agents or assuring Iris that his penis is unusually large; and anxious, for good reason. Iris adheres to ‘the great man theory of marriage’ – a particularly serious joke – and the question animating Mortals is whether she has fallen in love with a better man. Dr Davis Morel is a social reformer – he wants to de-Christianise Africa – with an encyclopedic mind and a touch of the crank about him. He resembles Nelson Denoon, with the important difference that Morel is black. (Not that race counts for as much as might be feared in a novel where a white woman cuckolds her husband with a black man: something else that might have surprised Fiedler, who thought racial anxiety had disfigured the sexual politics of American fiction.)

If Mating follows (until an uncertain, late reversal) the ever closer union of a man and woman who can and do talk about more or less everything, Mortals follows (until an uncertain, late reversal) the drifting apart of a man and woman who are less and less able to talk. Ray’s occupational secrecy as a spy has been ‘material’ to his wife’s depression, he is told by Morel. Husband and lover first discuss Iris and her affair as inmates of a foul makeshift jail cell, fearing execution at the hands of a Boer-led paramilitary outfit in league with the apartheid government in South Africa and, it emerges, the CIA itself. (The year is 1992.) The exchange concludes with Ray saying to the man who aspires to be his wife’s next husband: ‘If anything happens to me I want to be cremated. I just realised I don’t think I ever discussed it with Iris.’

‘So,’ Ray has said to Morel, the crusader against religious illusion, ‘let’s agree that you have a shall we say certain relationship to truth that’s superior to mine.’ Indivisible, inexhaustible truth is the principle of Rush’s obsessive realism in Mortals, and perhaps the explanation for its inordinate length. The mood is variously but coherently comic, tragic, suspenseful, meditative. There is also plenty of blood, shit, ideas, poetry, politics, psychology, landscape, physiognomy, talk, action. Morally, too, the novel resists simplification. Ray, not an accommodating man, will nevertheless recognise the imposing merits of his wife’s lover and see her adultery as a judgment of his character more than hers – and Rush may mean for readers to take a similarly stern and forgiving attitude towards Ray. An emblem of the book’s strange unity is the indelible scene, more convincing for its weirdness, in which Ray straps to his naked body an enormous, unpublishable manuscript written by his estranged, gay and perhaps recently deceased brother back in the States (‘Rex, poor bugger, I wish I had loved you’) with the crazy notion of pretending to his captors that it is a bomb, a gambit successful enough that Ray and his ‘friends’, including his rival Morel, can escape the Ngami Bird Lodge, though not before Ray has killed a member of the paramilitary outfit in a thrilling episode remarkably free of masculine glamour and sadistic kicks. By the end of the novel, Ray has quit the Agency and is teaching students of modest means at a school in ‘the new South Africa’, where he hopes his wife might join him. The most obvious of Rush’s Lawrentian traits is the supremacy of love in his work; a secondary one is his preference for the hung ending.

*

Subtle Bodies, a fraction the length of Mortals, is in other ways too a much lighter production. Nina and Ned are another couple in the Rush mode: a witty, impulsive, kind woman in her thirties, with an attitude both reverent and teasing towards a man whose feelings for her intensely combine sexual gratitude, moral admiration and pleasure in conversation. Nina, however, subscribes more to the good man than the great man theory of marriage. Ned, aged 48, works with poor farmers to sell their products under Fair Trade terms: a worthy, unheroic occupation. They have been married for three years, and are attempting to get Nina pregnant while also planning a demonstration against the threatened war in Iraq (the year is 2003; the country, for the first time, the US) and attending the funeral of a friend of Ned’s from undergraduate days. The contrast of the dark backdrop with the happiest of Rush’s pairs is more pictorial than dramatic, since neither the survival of the relationship nor its unusual happiness ever seems much more in doubt than whether Iraq will be invaded.

While it lacks the scope and gravity of the earlier novels, Subtle Bodies is more concentrated and – in spite of a relentlessly disillusioning plot – more charming. Most of the action takes place over a few days on a Gothically rain-sodden and baronial estate (the principal house has a tower, if a short one) in the Catskills, where four college friends have gathered, two and half decades after graduation, to mourn ‘the head of Ned’s clique in the 1970s’, as Nina sarcastically thinks of him, ‘the spokesmodel’. The ostensibly heroic marriage in the book has belonged to the handsome, wealthy and, in Ned’s recollection, exceptionally witty Douglas Delmarter – famous enough in later years as an exposer of forgeries (Kundera’s ‘so-called Love Diaries’, for example) for his death to be covered in the foreign media – and the newly widowed Iva, ‘a consensus great beauty’, much as Iris was described in Mortals. It’s as if a quotidian version of the basic Rush couple (we do not even learn Ned and Nina’s last name) were looking at a more typically elevated version, with less and less admiration as the story proceeds. Iva herself has been famous in her native Czech Republic, but merely as a gossip columnist; and in Douglas the crankishness and brilliance typical of Rush’s men were evidently present in inverted proportions. Before being crushed by his ride-on mower when it plunged into a ravine, he would propound eccentric theories in faxes to his old buddies: ‘gradual anoxia was driving mankind crazy, based on the shrinking percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere compared to the higher content in air samples taken from bubbles in ancient Egyptian glassware.’

This is Nina’s language, and Subtle Bodies is in large measure the story of a husband’s coming around to his wife’s sceptical estimate of his most admired friend – and perhaps of male friendship generally: ‘One thing she knew and Ned did not, was that there is no permanent friendship between men, among men.’ (The educated hesitation between the standard preposition and the more correct one is another small instance of Rush’s colloquial interiority.) Before delivering his eulogy, Ned will learn that both he and Iva were betrayed by Douglas and that Iva in turn cheated on Douglas with another of the old friends – more old now, clearly, than friends. Douglas’s son Hume is a semi-feral teenager, averse to schooling and shoes, who spies on Nina and Ned as they’re attempting to conceive a child, and the extensive grounds of Douglas’s estate turn out to be ‘surrounded by collapsing walls of debt’.

Elliot is now a stockbroker – not, perhaps, a very good one, since he’d been the one giving Douglas financial advice – with a manner both officious and furtive. Nor do the other friends come off much better. Joris is a wealthy and cynical practitioner of maritime law, the refugee of a broken marriage in which he discovered that he was ‘a married-woman fetishist, that is, a fetishist for married women except the one he was married to’. Gruen, owner of a company that makes public service ads for TV, is milder than this personally as well as professionally, a plump weak-willed man who can neither resist continual snacking nor, in spite of his conventionally pro-Israel beliefs, signing Ned’s petition against the war. He and Ned are the most nostalgic and grief-stricken. (Nice guys, in Subtle Bodies, give up last.) Yet the nostalgia only goes so far. ‘Nothing was funny that we did,’ Joris complains, and for Ned too the group’s legendary gags seem far less amusing and more obnoxious on reflection than they did at the time. Ned also finds it ‘embarrassing to recall how seriously he had taken the whole thing, the world remade, friendship at the core of everything’. The group had conceived of friendship as a form of ‘molecular socialism’. Atomistic capitalism now seems more like it.

The source of much of the novel’s charm is Nina, at once the most disagreeable and most loveable of Rush’s heroines. Because we are inside the mind of the narrator of Mating, we can no more fall in love with her than with ourselves: the identification is too strong. As for Iris in Mortals, her beauty inspires more admiration than affection, and the same goes for the moral excellence that, in a strange way, her affair ratifies. Nina is a small brunette who doesn’t class herself among those ‘people so physically extraordinary that if they’re for any reason willing to stay with you and be your love you take their shit forever’, and she could fairly be described as querulous, nosy and bossy. But that would be to miss the warmth these traits do nothing to disguise; some sourness is necessary to make the sweetness palatable. Possibly Jewish herself, Nina considers Ned, in his gentleness, ‘a sort of Jesus’: ‘So far as she knew, he had never done a bad thing, except for like a complete asshole going to the funeral of fucking Douglas, the world’s greatest friend.’ As the novel begins, Ned has flown to the East Coast from California without consulting her and just when she is ovulating.

‘A sort of Jesus’ and ‘a complete asshole’ captures something of the tonality of love in Rush. Romantic love, prolonged past infatuation, ridicules the idealisation of the other that will have inspired it but also permits and, if the romance is to continue with the love, requires another sort of admiration, more solid because more sober and – to use a term basic to the criticism of fiction – realistic. Romanticism in collaboration with realism, ongoing courtship plus established intimacy, facing the truth of facts without ignoring the truth of aspirations: formulas like these give an idea of the image of mature love in Rush. And he has a similar relationship to his characters, relentlessly exposing their every aspect, including the petty, ignoble and ugly ones, without ceasing to cherish them or at least to give them a chance at regaining the paradise, as in Rush it always is, of married love. This affection for characters who bear some resemblance to his wife and, worse yet, to himself has confused and even offended critics. (The more decorous thing is to pour insincere scorn on your autobiographical characters and then, the writing day over, discreetly lap up your partner’s adulation of the genius he or she is sleeping with.)

As sensitive a reader as John Updike, in a dismissive review of Mortals that dwelled on his irritation with the involved character of Ray Finch’s thoughts, seemed not to notice either the novel’s mockery of Ray or the smaller but considerable element of self-mockery in the very tone of Ray’s thoughts, as if these could not coexist with Ray’s status as a serious man in desperate circumstances. (Rabbit Angstrom, Updike’s most complete character, lacks all of his creator’s education or intellect – and might not have been so widely accepted had it been otherwise.) Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times denounced Subtle Bodies as a ‘tiresome’, ‘eye-rollingly awful’, ‘totally annoying novel’ for imagining readers might ‘work up any interest’ for its ‘pompous,’ ‘narcissistic’, ‘pretentious’, ‘preening’ characters. Lurking among the synonyms is the feeling that self-reflexive thought and an intellectual pleasure in language are socially offensive in their essence. It’s thus that even sessions of sweet silent thought can be pretentious. Kakutani, affronted that Ned’s friends once said ‘words like “outré”’, fails to mention Ned’s reflection that he hasn’t used the word since 1974, and shudders at Nina’s description of him as a sort of Jesus without allowing that the phrase is immediately undercut. Such things, I suppose, cannot be unsaid, and ‘self-consciousness’, as Kakutani calls it, only adds insult to the original injury. Ostensibly set in the Catskills, Subtle Bodies in fact ‘takes place inside the heads’ of Nina and Ned. When the leading critic of the most cosmopolitan newspaper in the US sees real life as a straightforward phenomenon with which the head shouldn’t interfere, the old national prejudice against the representation of intellectuals’ mental lives suggests a refusal of self-knowledge on the part of our elites. A glimpse into the mind of Benjy Compson or Chief Bromden becomes part of the canon, and mental portraits of any number of recent fictional autistics are praised, but nothing too close to home.

The last we see of Rush’s narcissists, they are demonstrating with some ten or fifteen million others all over the world against the imminent invasion of Iraq, at a march in San Francisco that includes the smaller assembly they have organised. Ned is euphoric:

Everything was good. Two exile Cuban anarchist groups that had been fighting forever were marching together under a common banner saying Frente Libertario. Go, old men! he wanted to shout. He knew some of them. Maybe one or two of them might notice him there. He waved violently … Their eyesight might not be up to it … He wanted to be everywhere in the march. Except with the drum groups, which were unbearably loud. He felt drunk with gratitude and the conviction of victory … There would be no war. In part because of them there would be no war in Iraq … He thought, No war, No invasion, No.

This is at first puzzling: why should the novel end with a conviction that everyone knew a few weeks later to be false?

Surely it reflects the temperament, hopeful to the point of error, that misled Ned about his late friend but also allowed him a pursuit of happiness more successful, and prolonged, than those of the other surviving friends. The ending may also say something about Rush’s view of himself as a novelist. In 2008 he contributed to a symposium in Bookforum on politics and fiction. Though the contributor’s note had him ‘completing a novel set in the Catskills’, his despairing tone seems very far from the final note of Subtle Bodies: the readership for novels is shrinking, and those who do read lack the awareness of history on which a political novelist has to rely. The bigger problem, however, is ‘doomsday’. The ‘environmental crisis’ casts such a ‘shadow over the human arena’ as ‘to make the social struggles traditionally addressed by political novels seem parochial’. Rush concludes: ‘It’s tough, these days, for what Lawrence called the one bright book of life.’ It’s here that optimism and despair, Ned the activist and Rush the writer, converge. Have novelists too marched in an irretrievably lost cause, with the right goals and therefore the wrong hopes?

It would be too bad if the novel in the US found its most adult practitioner, at least in the sense of the one most capable of writing about men and women in love, only as the novel itself were dying – if the bright book of life, American-style, didn’t grow up without having first grown old – but not, I suppose, unlifelike. In bed with Nina, Ned thinks: ‘I need to live for ever.’