The “most fully realized female character in the English language”?
“Exploring diametrical opposites on a personal, political and global scale, Rush’s 1991 novel highlights the disjunction between ideals and realities. From bedroom politics to the exploitation of the developing world by the west, a chaos of misunderstanding is revealed. But what ultimately stands out is a quirkily acquisitive heroine compulsively collecting “new material to be integrated into the study of me”.
“The narrator of Norman Rush’s “Mating” — who through almost 500 pages remains persistently unnamed — opens her sprawling comedy of manners by announcing, “In Africa, you want more, I think.” And she does want more: there she is, 32 years old, a would-be Ph.D. in anthropology with an exploded thesis on her hands, tired of her own company with no one left behind or on the horizon, “feeling sexually alert” and circulating in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, “in a medium of other whites who are disappointed too.”
“…presented in an allusively freewheeling first-person narrative that provides exhilarating evidence of an impressive intelligence at work and play. Readers receive a palpable sense of having their education sternly tested — and expanded — by Mr. Rush’s novel. Geography, history, political science, economics, literature, biology, popular culture and utter trivia — the narrator and her beloved Denoon hash everything out, and in doing so are encyclopedic in the extreme, segueing from bats to Boers to Borges to Botswana.
“…we’re in fast and very self-conscious company with this narrator and her beloved. These are people smart enough, loquacious enough, logodaedelic enough to play games like “Filling in the White Spaces in the Dictionary” (“skreel”: a “neologism for the sound a police whistle makes”), and the wordplay is often of the slyly and pleasingly unobtrusive variety: “Nelson adored glass. Blowing it, casting it, it didn’t matter: he loved it. If I had pressed something home on this subject it might have had a clarifying effect.”
‘The narrative itself represents the heroine’s reconsideration of her relationship with Denoon, her emotions recollected in the shakiest of tranquillities, a strategy that allows for endless asides, digressions, minilectures, documents entered in evidence and, most of all, hindsight. She tirelessly organizes and tries to make sense of her material with mordant titles and subtitles, for which she has a knack: “Of Surfeit One Can Never Have Too Much,” “Gratitude Is a Drug,” “A Fete Worse Than Death,” “This Is How Depraved You Can Become” and “I Love a Demystified Thing Inordinately.”
“Denoon’s utopia, Tsau, surpasses her expectations. Run by women and for women and designed to maintain a “diffuse cultus around the wonderfulness of women,” it is dedicated to — and seems to have achieved — “an amazing equality of condition” to such an extent that it calls to mind Blake’s “organized innocence.” And Denoon himself seems even more clearly the Pygmalion object she would have carved for herself as a mate: a man so politically correct that he occasionally branches off “into an intense static condition of empathy for some victimized group he hadn’t thought about in a while,” so keen that “movies are a bore for him” because he, unlike “the groundlings,” is aware of “that flicker of black between the frames,” and so perfect that for a long stretch the only fault she can find is that “he was sure he’d implied that he’d read Middlemarch, but the truth was he’d only read two thirds of it, or a half.”
“But all of her attempts to, as she puts it, get “inside the moat,” to be embraced by the perfect man and perfect community, only point out to her how problematic the paradox of her position as a feminist is becoming: for all her gifts, she’s relying for happiness and a sense of purpose on a male, and she’s having more and more difficulty reconciling her supposed independence with the implications of her pursuit of Denoon and his utopia. She understands that “women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives” and that “because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.” She understands that “intellectual love is a particular hazard for educated women,” and she sees the dangers of loving someone who “takes a serious tutelary attitude” toward her. She’s afraid that in even “the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions” she can hear “the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity.”
This for me is the novel’s central problem – the female protagonist – written by a male author – is horribly subservient: intellectually and absolutely. She is in a story, that she is more or less writing herself, but instead of being a story about her, it is a story about the man she decides to fall in love with: a man with an idea, with initiative, with momentum, with a meaningful life, in a world where women don’t have ideas, nor can have a meaningful life on their own.
“Not everything that Mr. Rush attempts in this extraordinarily ambitious novel comes off. …A certain amount of rambling does take place; at one point the narrator feels as if her story is “turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents,” and the reader is forced to agree. Every now and then, we’re jolted out of the female voice. And important secondary characters in Tsau, even given the narrator’s focus on Denoon and her own self-absorption, are sketchily drawn.
“If these seem like relatively small complaints, they are. Mr. Rush has created one of the wiser and wittier fictive meditations on the subject of mating. His novel illuminates why we yield when we don’t have to. It seeks to illuminate the nature of true intimacy — how to define it, how to know when one has achieved it. And few books evoke so eloquently that state of love at its apogee — or, as the protagonist puts it, the way in the state of passion one feels oneself the “pale affiliate” of the storm, “acted on at some constitutive and possibly electrical level,” the way one feels the intensity of the nourishment derived and that sense of a great sweetness to everything, that sense between lovers of surmounting all, seeming “to coast over everything, up and over, a good thickness of rushing water between us and the boulders underneath.” At their happiest, the lovers arrive at a personal utopia of equal love between equals, a love exalting in its seeming inexhaustibility.”
I would disagree with the reviewer. The protagonist is horribly flawed, as is her notion of love and a meaningful life. But it is in these flaws that the novel’s merit exists: the narrator is wrong, wrong, wrong. But she can’t help but stumble upon insight after insight, some of which she picks up, and then lets drop, and some of which she fails to pick up on at all, making the reader squirm a little.
“For me love is like this,” the narrator tells us. “You’re in one room or apartment which you think is fine, then you walk through a door and close it behind you and find yourself in the next apartment, which is even better, larger, more floorspace, a better view. You’re happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it’s breathtaking, a surprise, something you’ve done nothing to deserve or make happen. You never intend to go from one room onward to the next — it just happens. You notice a door, you go through, and you’re delighted again.”
This is a novel in which the narrator makes great strides and goes nowhere. I suspect though that it succeeds despite itself, despite the jaundiced and faulty perspective of the protagonist, and despite even the intentions of the author
“I know it sounds absurd, but I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language,” said Rush.
A weird novel, full of intelligence, but infuriating too.