Thoughts on Norman Rush

I was thinking the other day about Norman Rush – a man who wrote one of my favorite books of all time – Mating: A Novel – a highly celebrated and award-winning first novel published in the 1980s. Rush’s story is one of those dream-come-true stories for would-be writers. He publishes a couple short stories here and there – nothing major, no attention given them – and then – with his first novel hits a major jackpot.

I have read Mating probably 5 or 6 complete times over the years.

And earlier this year – suddenly – after never publishing ANYTHING after Mating – suddenly Rush came out with a second novel.

I have written quite a bit about Norman Rush in the past. Mating is a book which has engaged my imagination and intellect to a degree that few other books have ever reached. I cannot give you an easy explanation why – and I believe that that is one of the major strengths of the book.

It is a book I can keep re-visiting. It never appears to be the same book twice. I see different things in it each time I read it. Only great books can follow you through your life like that.

Here are some of my experiences with Rush and his writing. The first piece below tries to describe what it is about Mating that means so much to me – and how I felt when I realized Rush had published something else. The second piece describes my response to that long-awaited second novel called Mortals.

Norman Rush’s MATING

Me being me, I have to back up a couple of days to tell the story fully. Actually, this is already inaccurate. I have to back up many years. The journey begins in 1992 when I first read the novel Mating, by Norman Rush. It is one of the most pivotal books I have ever read. It’s become a part of my mental landscape, a part of how I interpret events.

Today, that book is dog-eared from use. The cover is taped on. The pages are filled with underlinings. And in the back, on the couple of blank pages, I have crammed up that blank space with as many dictionary definitions of words found in this book as I could. The vocabulary in the book is, as my friend Allison called it, “daunting”. I agree, and I have a pretty good vocabulary.

ressentiment: rancor expressed covertly against benefactors
proleptic: the anticipating/answering of objective/argument before it’s put forward
omphalog: the naval/a center
copula: a verb that identifies the predicate of sentence with subject — usually a form of ‘to be’. “The girls are beautiful”
syncretist: attempt/tendency to combine or reconcile differing beliefs (philosophy or religion)
bolus: a small round mass. Greek: lump/clod

WHAT? Expanding my vocabulary was part of the fascination of the book.

But the hold Mating had, and still has on me, goes way deeper than that.

The characters in the book (mainly the two leads: Nelson Denoon and the unnamed female narrator) live on in my mind, the way characters like Holden Caulfield do. Or Captain Ahab. Or Anna Karenina. Their life, their potential life, does not stop with the words “The End”. You cannot tell me that Holden does not live. It seems an insult to Salinger’s creation.

There must be an alternate plane out in the ether, with fictional characters wandering about. Not every fictional character, because not every author manages to create a living, breathing, human personality. Actually, “human” is too limiting as well. Because, to my mind, Charlotte the spider (from EB White’s Charlotte’s Web) lives on. She exists on that alternate plane. As does Wilbur the pig. It’s sort of like the plot of The Velveteen Rabbit. Once the rabbit is loved, and loved deeply, it becomes real.

I love all of these fictional characters in that way.

Mating is, on the surface, the story of a love affair. Other themes are: what to do about Africa, the problems with “development projects” and do-gooders in Africa, socialism in Africa, differences between men and women, competition between females for males (hence, the title) – and then, more specifically, an in-depth description of the world of Botswana: the diplomatic community in Gaborone, the issues with “villagization”, the issues with development, how the development community lives high on the hog in Africa – etc. It’s a BIG book, with BIG themes.

The main theme is something the author/narrator calls “intellectual love”. Rush describes a very specific kind of love, and because he did so, and took such care with it, the concept became real to me. He articulated one of my deepest longings in a way I had never before encountered. It was like his words illuminated my own needs. Very interesting. Some quotes from the book in this vein:

My utopia is equal love, equal love between people of equal value, although value is an approximation for the word I want. Why is it so difficult? Assortative mating shows there has to be some drive in nature to bring equals together in the toils of love, so why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity? It has to be cultural. In fact the closest thing to a religion I have is that this has to be cultural. I could do practically anything while he was asleep and not bother him. I wrote in my journal, washed dishes in slow motion if we hadn’t gotten around to them. I was emotional a lot, privately. I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.


He was appropriate for me and the reverse. I felt it and hated it because it was true despite his being around fifteen years older than me. What did that mean about me? I also hated it because I hate assortative mating, the idea of it. One of my most imperishable objections to the world is the existence of assortative mating, how everyone at some level ends up physically with just who they deserve, at least to the eye of some ideal observer, unless money or power deforms the process. This is equivalent to being irritated at photosynthesis or at inhabiting a body that has to defecate periodically, I am well aware. Mostly it comes down to the matching of faces. When I first encountered the literature, I even referred to it privately as faceism. I will never adapt to it, probably. Why can’t every mating in the world be on the basis of souls instead of inevitably and fundamentally on the match between physical envelopes? Of course we all know the answer, which is that otherwise we would be throwing evolution into disarray. Still it distresses me. We know what we are.

A couple of people I recommended this book to were extremely annoyed by the writing-voice, as evidenced in the passage above. I, however, LOVE the voice: cerebral, obsessively psychological, yearning, illogical — It comes from right out of me. I relate. Here’s more. The book is encyclopedic on love.

If I overdwell on this it can’t be helped: love is important and the reasons you get it or fail are important. The number of women in my generation who in retrospect anyone will apply the term “great love” to, in any connection, is going to be minute. I needed to know if I had a chance here. Love is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous. What I say is if you find yourself condemned to wanting love, you have to play while you can play. Of course it would be so much easier to play from the male side. They never go after love qua love, ever. They go after women. And for men love is the distillate or description of whatever happened with each woman that as not actually painful in feeling-tone. there is some contradiction here which I can’t expel. What was moving me was the feeling of being worth someone’s absolute love, great love, even. And to me this means male love whether I like it or not. C’est ca. Here I am, there I was. I don’t know if getting love out of a man is more of a feat of strength now than it used to be or not, except that I do: it is. It’s hideous. It’s an ordeal beyond speech. When I’m depressed I feel like what was meant by one of his favorite quotations: A bitter feast was steaming hot and a mouth must be found to eat it. Men are like armored things, mountainous assemblages of armor and leather, masonry even, which you are told will self-dismantle if you touch the right spot, and out will flow passionate attention. And we know that this sometimes does happen for one of our sisters, or has happened. This comes full circle back to my attitude about kissing, which he never adjusted to. You want kisses, obviously. But you want kisses from a source, a person, who is in a state. This is why the plague of little moth kisses from men just planting their seniority on you is so intolerable. Of course even as I was machinating I was well aware I was in the outskirts of the suburb of the thing you want or suspect is there. But at this moment in my life I was at the point where even the briefest experience of unmistakable love would be something I could clutch to myself as proof that my theory of myself was not incorrect. Theories can be reactionary and still applicable.

And now, here is Rush’s (or his nameless female narrator’s) treatise on intellectual love. Obviously, this page in my book is covered in notes, and underlines. Oh, and I don’t agree with every sentiment here, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t read books to meet people just like me. But it is the concept articulated here, the concept of ‘intellectual love’ which, for me, when I first read it, was like a lightbulb going on, or a door opening. I saw something new. I recognized the longings of my own heart when I read the following passage:

Intellectual love is not the same animal as landing a mentor, although women I’ve raised the construct with want to reduce it to that. I distrust and shun the whole mentor concept, which is just as well since I seem not to attract them. Nelson was not my mentor, ever. I gave as well as I got, with him. But there was intellectual love on my part, commencing circa that night.

Intellectual love is a particular hazard for educated women, I think. Certain conditions have to obtain. You meet someone — I would specify of the opposite sex, but this is obviously me being hyperparochial — who strikes you as having persuasive and wellfounded answers to questions on the order of Where is the world going? These are distinctly not meaning-of-life questions. One thing Denoon did convince me of is that all answers so far to the question What is the meaning of life? dissolve into ascertaining what some hypostatized superior entity wants you to be doing, id est ascertaining how, and to whom or what, you should be in an obedience relationship. The proof of this is that no one would ever say, if he or she had been convinced that life was totally random and accidental in origin and evolution, that he or she had found the meaning of life. So, fundamentally, intellectual love is for a secular mind, because if you discover someone, however smart, is — he has neglected to mention — a Thomist or in Baha’i, you think of him as a slave to something uninteresting.

What beguiles you toward intellectual love is the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court. The searchlight confirms you.

Mating was the context in which I went through the major “love affair” in my past, with a man who shall remain nameless. My friend Mitchell, who also read and loved the book Mating , referred to this man as “your Nelson Denoon”. The similarities were arresting. And when everything fell apart with “my Nelson Denoon”, leaving a nightmare in its wake, that book became even more of an anchor.

In the past couple of weeks, I took Mating out to read again.

It is a first novel, and what a first novel. He has not published anything since. There was a book of short stories called Whites which came out years ago, but besides his magnum opus, Norman Rush has been silent.

Mating was a huge hit, financially and critically, it won the National Book Award in 1991. Rush clearly put everything he knows about everything into that book. It’s about love, obviously, but it’s also about Africa, and politics, and socialism, and the position of women in Africa, and religion. It’s a book dedicated to taking a large view of the issues in Africa – and yet it is still an extremely personal story.

And the ending. The last section, a kind of epilogue, is called “About the Foregoing”. It is very mysterious. It ends on a very ambiguous note.

She has left Africa, and has left Denoon, her great love. Things have fallen apart. She is now trying to get her life together when suddenly she gets a mysterious message, telling her to come back to Africa. It is not Denoon who calls her. It is a woman. She does not know who this woman could be. Or why she has been summoned. She obsesses about it, wondering what to do. Should she return? What would be waiting for her in Africa? If Denoon did not summon her, then perhaps she would not be welcome anymore? The book ends with these two lines:

Je viens.
Why not?

So, the book leaves you knowing she is going to return, but you do not know the outcome.

I have been haunted by this. Then what? Then what? It has been so long since Mating came out. I have tried to reconcile myself to the fact that I need to, a la Rilke, “live the questions”.

The fact that the book ends mysteriously, that it could go either way, confirms for me one of the essential tenets of my life:

You just never know what will happen. Things can always go either way. Also: Things never really end. Not really. They transform, they morph. Love never dies. Ever. I’m not an “I love you I love you – oh you don’t love me back anymore? Then I hate you I hate you” kind of girl. Sometimes I wish I were. It might be easier if love turned readily to hate, but for me, it does not.

So alongside my relatively quiet life now are the vibrant exciting love affairs of my past. They make me who I am today. They do not go away, or submerge into the past for good. They are still very much with me, late and soon.

Literally last week, I became obsessed again by the up-in-the-air ending of Mating. What does it signify? What is the message?

And more than that, on a more literal level, on a more literary level: What happened when she returned to Africa? Are they together now? Out on that alternate plane for fictional characters? I always liked to imagine that they were. It made me happy to imagine so. It made me happy to fantasize that on that alternate plane, all turned out well. Eventually.

It’s a sort of “Somewhere over the rainbow” sentiment. Things may be lonely here on this plane, but somewhere — even if it’s just for characters in a book — things might work out. And this alone gives me reason to hope. Things just might work out — because the ending of Mating doesn’t make it clear whether they do or no. This is the degree to which this book affected me, and the degree to which these characters LIVE on in my imagination.

On a personal note: I used to have these old crazy fantasies about “my Nelson Denoon”, fantasies which felt more like getting a glimpse of a never-before-seen alternate path. I comforted myself, after it was all over, by imagining that on that other plane, down that other path, things might have worked out. Or in another lifetime, although reincarnation and alternate lifetimes are not quite in my belief system.

However, I became convinced that this was not the first time around for me and “my Nelson Denoon”. I would obsess about it. “Were we married in another life? Or … with each successive lifetime, are we coming closer to one another? It just so happens that I am stuck in the lifetime where it doesn’t work out…” I was blithering like that to my patient friend Kate. She listened. And then she said, “Actually, I bet that your Celtic tribe probably slaughtered his Celtic tribe.” We roared.

So I digress. All of these crazy thoughts are very tied up, for me, in Norman Rush’s book.

All of this came up to the foreground again, in the last week, (it all began dovetailing), and I thought, impulsively: “I should just write to Norman Rush and ask him what he’s up to … if he’s working on anything …” He hasn’t published anything else since Mating, so — I wondered — is he chugging away at a sequel? Is he dead? I needed to know desperately.

“Mr. Rush — are you just going to leave me hanging with the end of Mating? Do you know how important it is, how essential it is in terms of my understanding of how the world works, that I know what happened with the two of them? Will I ever know the outcome?”

Wanting to write to Norman Rush was a random fleeting thought. I have written to authors before, so it wasn’t too far-fetched.

Then, a couple of days ago, I stopped off at a computer place to check my email. While there, I visited my SiteMeter for this blog, to check in on my traffic. I saw that someone had gotten to me by typing “Norman Rush” into Google. It led this person to that excerpt. And this piqued my interest. Somebody else is looking for Norman Rush right now? Why? Is something going on?

So I blatantly Googled the man.

The first thing that came up was a Village Voice article dated May, 2003. I opened it, and lo and freakin’ behold, it was a review of his new book. The man has a new book out. Mortals.

I hope I have conveyed how important this is to me. But I am having a hard time finding the words.

It would be like hearing that JD Salinger had suddenly come out of hiding and published a new novel. While Salinger is still alive, there is still hope that he may write again. He just might. And the book might be crap, but that wouldn’t matter. At least not at first. It would be a miracle. To hear from that writer again.

So Rush has a new huge novel out. And again, it takes place in Botswana, Africa. Botswana! The country that Rush made live for me.

Mortals (and I just skimmed the article feverishly … I didn’t want to read any spoilers, no give-aways, nothing that would ruin the experience) is NOT about Nelson Denoon and our beloved unnamed narrator. It is another couple altogether, although Rush again tackles man/woman relationships, only time in the context of marriage. It doesn’t seem to be so much about finding the right mate, and how arduous that process is, how it can break your heart. Rush now goes into the realm of established intimacy, and … what happens then?

And here’s the thing: (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT)

I raced through the book review excitedly and could not believe my eyes: Nelson and “she” DO show up in this new book, peripherally. They ARE characters on the outskirts. And, oh so casually, Village Voice reviewer states: “We learn that they have married.”

What? They married?? I almost shouted out loud for joy.

I didn’t read the rest of the review, I signed out immediately, paid my bill, and hustled my ass down to Barnes & Noble to find the book, which had been published THAT WEEK.

(Okay, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how weird that is. I contemplate writing to Norman Rush, pestering him to write a sequel, and dammitall if he doesn’t have a new book published on almost that same exact day.)

And there it was. A huge book. Hardcover. With a map of Botswana inside. I got a chill of excitement. I felt voracious. Almost sick to my stomach, actually. I wanted to download the entire book into my brain immediately. I glanced through and saw that there was a chapter called “The Denoons”, and I had to restrain myself. Prolong the anticipation, more pleasure that way.

And as I was walking down the street, with my booty in my bag, I suddenly got weirdly emotional.

It was as though I had heard that real friends of mine had finally gotten married after much strife.

It would be like if me and “my Nelson Denoon” ever got hitched (not a possibility anymore). But let’s just say he and I got hitched – my friends, who went through the whole thing with me, would probably jump up and down for joy, yelling, “At last!” Okay? This is the power this book has for me. I felt — well, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I was almost in tears, truth be told.

There have been times in the past couple of years when life has been the cliched howling wilderness. “My Nelson Denoon” remains a kind of monument, a sort of goal. I have tried to knock him off that pedestal, but I have finally accepted the fact that he actually deserves to be up there. Whether I am with him or not. This is a bit more personal than I normally write, but this is my blog, and this is what is going on with me right now.

When things did not come to fruition between us, my baffled thought was: If that didn’t work out, that which seemed so damn right, then what the hell will work out? For quite a long time, my answer to that question was: Nothing. Nothing.

But then … here … years later … walking down the street, knowing that she and Nelson got married — after all that —

I suddenly felt an upsurge of hope. Not for me and “my Nelson Denoon”, because like I said earlier: that is no longer possible. But what I mean is: hope in general.

A word on hope:

Hope for me, now, always goes hand in hand with a bittersweet and rather vague pain. Hope never ever comes by itself anymore. The way it used to when I was a little kid, or a teenager. I suppose that’s indicative of age and experience. It seems so to me anyway. That’s life. I am not saying this exactly as I wanted to. Basically: Hope no longer comes alone.

The sadness and hope I felt, walking down the street, wasn’t about Nelson and the narrator of Mating being married… at least, not only about them. The sadness and hope was also from how I see life now. In terms of mating. I feel like I had my run. It was a good run. I had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. But that all has stopped now. And that’s why hope never comes alone anymore.

I still feel hope, occasionally, but never ever by itself.

So I got overwhelmed by this weird sense of sad hope — a feeling that STILL, after all THAT, “things” might “work out”. For me, in my life. It’s awful when one becomes afraid to feel hope anymore, protecting oneself against the inevitable disappointment. This is a constant balancing act.

I am not a young girl of 22, with a couple of disappointments in my past (like David W. saying no to being my date at the junior prom, etc.) … I am in my 30s, and I’ve been through a lot. Not all bad. Of course not all bad. Like I said: a lot of laughs. Much fun. But now, I just find it easier not to hope … at least in that arena … and focus on other things. My work. My ambition, my plans.

But … but ….

They got married. They got married. What does that mean? For me?

(This is the level to which literature can affect me – if I let it! The Shipping News had a similar impact.)

I am so used to the state of affairs I live in now, since I have lived there now for about a decade. I mean, I have changed and grown, of course, I have moved from city to city, I got my Master’s, I’ve made new friends, it has been a very full existence. But I have been alone the entire time. THAT has not changed. Not even close.

Perhaps a breakthrough is approaching. A breakthrough in how I see all of this. And the appearance of Norman Rush’s Mortals is the harbinger of something good. Or, something different. Something exciting, unforeseen, challenging. That’s what I was feeling as I walked down the street, too. I’m scared of it … and yet. Perhaps it is time. I don’t know. Even as I write that, the logical side of my brain, the side that has all the experience, that knows the let-downs, etc., says: “Yes, but you have felt this before. You have felt this so strongly before. And you were never right.”

But maybe … maybe … Maybe this is it.

There is SOMETHING weird about how all of this has come about:

The book being wrapped up with “my Nelson Denoon”
Wishing the main characters well — hoping they are happy in another reality
Holding onto a weird strange hope that things worked out well, at least for them
Wondering if a sequel was coming
Studying the book over the last couple of weeks
That book, for me, is the monument, the goal
Wanting to write to Norman Rush
Someone coming to MY blog, through Googling Norman Rush …during the very week I was obsessing about Rush, and where he was, and whether or not he was writing
Finding out that Rush has written a new book … published last week … in which we discover the Denoons have married

And so:
Things are not what they seem.

Back to the old painful belief: You never ever know what will happen. You can never tell what the future will hold. Your predictions will all be wrong.

I have tentatively and slowly begun Mortals, forcing myself not to browse ahead, looking for references to the Denoons. I want to savor every word.

I have waited for this day for so long.

Norman Rush’s MORTALS – a sequel to the above

I’m now reading Mortals, the long-awaited second book by Norman Rush, author of one of my favorite books, Mating.

I am having a very hard time getting through it. As a matter of fact, I have stopped reading it completely.

Mating is a special book. Mortals is not. By page 100 I was sick of the two main characters. Norman Rush obviously finds them both very fascinating, and endearing. So every single tangent in the minds of the characters needs to be drawn out for sometimes THIRTY PAGES …

If I had a marriage like those two do, I might have to slit my wrists. Just to escape and get some peace and quiet, for God’s sake.

It is so self-conscious. So pleased with itself. So obsessively analytical. Do these two people ever just sit on the damn couch and NOT talk to each other?? That is my ideal relationship. One that is filled with an inordinate amount of comfortable shared silence.

Another thing Rush does is continuously assure us of how funny Iris (one of the boring main characters) is. He fetishizes her humor. He gives us glimpses of it (or tries to). But mostly he just repeatedly states it, as though it is an indisputable fact. “She was such a funny woman.” “He loved her humor.” “He was going to be losing a funny woman.”

The problem with this goes back to one of the first rules of writing: SHOW. Don’t TELL.

I don’t think Iris is funny. She never made me laugh. And you can’t keep just re-assuring me: “No no no, wait, she is a DAMN funny woman! You have to see her when she’s had a couple of glasses of wine! She is a riot!” That doesn’t work in a book. It doesn’t work in life either. Either something IS, and you know that it IS because it can be SEEN and ACKNOWLEDGED by more than one person, or it ISN’T. Iris ISN’T funny, in my book.

Just saying it is so, Mr. Rush, does not make it so.

He gives us examples of her humor, but … to my mind, it’s all coy stupid little puns. Now I know some truly funny people, people who you describe as “Oh my God, he is so funny” if you are asked “What is that person like?” Humor is undeniable. It’s not like being sensitive, or being kind, or intelligent. You cannot fake humor. Some people THINK they are hilarious, but no one is laughing.

I think I have made my point here.

The good parts of the book are when it goes into the life of a CIA agent … how they live, their relationship to “the agency” — what it meant for the CIA when communism fell apart. What that event did to the psychology of the agency, etc. What it is like to have a job which is, for the most part, invisible. You will never be acknowledged publicly for your work. You cannot talk about it with your wife. All of that, so far, has been very interesting.

There’s also a long sequence where Ray, the main character, is being held prisoner in this warehouse in northwest Botswana. The Boers are involved. He is being held hostage with this other man, an African, who is a psychiatrist, and very anti-Christian. His name is Morel. Morel has lived in England for years and has returned to Botswana on a mission to rescue Africa from the yoke of Christianity. He thinks organized religion is designed to keep people passive, to keep people in a state of waiting, etc. Morel is an African. Morel believes that what Africa needs is common sense, industry, and people willing to invest in THIS life. It’s an interesting question – which is also brought out to interminable degrees in Mortals, but I actually have learned a lot, and it made me think.

Ray is obsessed with the poet Milton. Which is understandable – fine. I am relatively obsessed with Milton myself.

But what I am picking up on, somehow, in the writing of this book, is that it is RUSH who is obsessed with Milton, and has tried to wrestle Milton into this story, in order to express how he, Rush, feels about Milton. And because of that, it doesn’t really work. It reads as very self-indulgent.

An interesting contrast: June 16 is Bloomsday (the day to celebrate James Joyce and Ulysses – which all takes place on June 16).

The entire summer of 2002, for me, was taken up by James Joyce. Joyce Joyce Joyce.

Now you kind of cannot find a more subjective writer, a person more fascinated with his own obsessions, a person who can go off on a tangent for thirty pages just because the subject matter interests him.

June 16 came smack in the middle of my struggling with Mortals, and there are some vague similarities between the books. And yet Ulysses captivated me, challenged me. One author (Joyce) goes off on tangents, and I suddenly find myself looking stuff up on the Internet, calling my dad for information, trying to understand what exactly he is getting at … what is REALLY going on in the book. The other author (Rush) goes off on tangents, obsessed with his own obsessions, and I get increasingly annoyed, thinking to myself: “Shut UP! You’re not the first freakin’ person to discover Milton … Get OVER it…Shut UP! Get to the friggin’ point, man.”

So here’s the difference, the undeniable difference:

James Joyce is a genius.

You should not attempt such a book unless you are CERTAIN that you yourself are a genius.

Here’s where I stopped reading Mortals, and I will eventually finish it, because I still feel a certain amount of obligation toward the writer who brought Mating into my life.

Okay: So Ray (the CIA agent) and Morel (the African crusader) are being held in this warehouse, and are pulled out separately by these Boer thugs to be tortured, on occasion. It is a bad situation. The two of them are enemies, for a very boring reason. It is a plot device, rather than a reality. So they are forced to deal with each other. There is a bucket in the room for them to use as a toilet, and there are two pages, two pages which took two years off my life, years I can never get back, where Morel goes to the bathroom, and he is constipated, so it is difficult for him, and Ray, to relax Morel and also to distract himself from the shitting going on across the room, recites Milton outloud.

I read those two pages. And then I put the damn book down and have not picked it up since.

When I pick the book up again, I am going to have to skip the Milton-recital-during-Morel’s-“evacuation” (a word Rush actually used, and which, quite frankly, grossed me OUT.) and pick up from after that episode. Evacuation? I’m sorry, but that is NASTY.

Now, when we first meet Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, he is eating breakfast with his wife Molly before leaving for the day. He is inwardly anxiously, thinking she has cuckolded him. But before he leaves, he goes into the bathroom and shits. It was hugely shocking at the time … you don’t usually follow characters into the bathroom like that, but Joyce did.

I read the whole sequence, and laughed out loud at the audacity of it … the reality of it … and the thing is about it: there was a POINT. He is bringing us all down to the human level. It may be pedantic to say to ourselves, as a way of reassurance, “Everybody has a crack in their ass.” Or: “Yes, he may be Secretary of State, but he goes to the bathroom like everybody else.” But it is the human condition. It’s the truth.

That’s what I got when Joyce followed Bloom into the bathroom like that. I became overwhelmed by humanity. The tragi-comic nature of our existence.

There was a higher point to the scene. Not to mention Joyce’s desire to really stick it to the priggish censors, and to really tell the truth about Ireland. There is a POINT.

In Mortals, there is no point. And the scene goes on FOREVER.

In Mortals I just got grossed out and now I cannot get the image of Morel squatting over the bucket out of my mind. I wish I could. I need that brain space for other things.

I need to take a break from boring old Ray the CIA agent and his un-funny wife Iris, and the African Morel going to the bathroom in the corner, while Areopagitica is being recited. Jesus. Spare me.

What a disappointment.

My love for the book Mating is untouched, however. Perhaps that was Norman Rush’s one story. Some writers only have one tale in them. They may try to do more, tell other stories – but they fail.

Perhaps Rush is one of those writers.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Norman Rush

  1. Sophie says:

    I loved your article. I am reading “Mating” now and am absolutely captivated. I can’t believe I never heard of it before stumbling onto it at the library this week.

  2. red says:

    Sophie –

    Sorry if I spoiled the ending!

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