Norman Rush is the best novelist you’ve never heard of. I don’t mean that to be condescending, since I hadn’t heard of him either until I found a copy of his novel Mating in a university bookstore in Baltimore in 2006 – an accident that launched me into one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my adult life. Later that year I read his other novel, Mortals, and I’ve kept my eyes and ears open ever since then for references to his work and found – nothing. Even bookstores that carry his work don’t feature it prominently, on tables marked ‘noteworthy paperbacks’ or ‘staff picks.’ I’ve never once received an email from Amazon or Barnes and Noble promoting his work, and while I’m not the most diligent reader of literary magazines, I’ve never seen a story or essay by Norman Rush published in a periodical. I have no idea why his work is so politely ignored. Oprah ought to be clamoring to put Mating in her book club, and Mortals would make a fantastic movie. Who dropped the ball on this?
Last summer, during my brief stint as a listener to NPR, I did hear in passing that Rush had a new novel coming out. I found its release date online – but, again, neither Amazon nor any other of the many, many book-related businesses that email me saw fit to notify me that this book was being published soon. I read the description of the book online and was a little worried. Subtle Bodies is not set in Africa, I said to myself. Why is it not set in Africa? Sometimes, branching out can be a bad idea – maybe Rush was trying not to get a reputation as an “Africa novelist” (which strikes me as better than no reputation at all, but I digress), but would a novel set in the United States have the same tension and insight as Mating and Mortals? I was worried.
The answer is that Subtle Bodies is very good. I’m not sure I liked it as much as Mating, but I still liked it quite a lot, and it still deserves much more promotion than it received. Subtle Bodies is set in upstate New York in 2003. The premise, which begins in media res, is as follows: Ned and Nina (who are married) are trying to conceive a child and are using fertility treatments. Every month on the designated day, Nina goes to her doctor and receives a shot, and then, exactly 36 hours later, she and Ned screw like rabbits (my cliché; not Rush’s). However, at the beginning of this novel, Nina comes home after receiving her shot to find that Ned has left a message on the answering machine: he had received word that his old friend Douglas had died in an accident and had gone immediately to the airport and caught a flight to New York. Nina is furious and immediately jumps on another flight, pursuing Ned into rural upstate New York, with the aim of having sex at least five or six times. At a funeral.
Nina’s actions here are selfish and single-minded, yes. There will be other ova. Yet I found it impossible to dislike Nina, who is articulate and insightful and witty and the perfect complement to her husband. Both Nina and Ned are beautifully drawn characters – 100% unique without being weird. After the first couple of chapters, I was prepared for this to be a novel about the dissolution of Nina and Ned’s marriage. I thought that Nina would find Ned in New York, demand Round One of coitus, refuse to acknowledge the fact that he is grieving, alienate the other mourners, and – well – alienate the reader too. I assumed that sending Ned and Nina to the east coast on separate planes was Rush’s way of foreshadowing their eventual separation and split – but it doesn’t. From these opening chapters onward, the plot of this novel is entirely organic: it just moves forward the way life moves forward, letting its characters’ quirks and emotions and obsessions determine its resolution.
Nina describes Ned’s group of friends from college (consisting of Ned and the late Douglas, plus Joris, Gruen, and Elliot) as a “clique,” and my first reaction was “Boys don’t have cliques.” It’s a gender-specific term, yes? This is one example of the way Rush uses the dual narration of Ned and Nina (whose third-person limited perspectives alter with each chapter) to communicate feelings and truths that are never stated outright. When Nina uses the language of teenaged girls to describe Douglas as the “leader” of the “clique” – terms that Ned never uses – the reader sees that Nina sees this friendship as somehow unhealthy or controlling. My radar was up for signs of dysfunctional relationships between Ned and his friends.
Douglas lived with his wife and son on a huge tract of land in upstate New York, and he died when he steered his riding lawnmower too close to the edge of a ravine and the earth underneath collapsed. This death is startling and meaningless and, of course, completely unexpected. When Nick arrives at Douglas’ property (an estate consisting of an enormous house often referred to as a “manse,” plus a four-story tower with crenellations like a medieval fortress, plus a small cottage where Ned and Nora have some of their sex and where Douglas’ half-feral son often lives in seclusion), he meets his friend Elliot, who is acting in the capacity of estate manager or personal assistant or some such position of authority – basically, he’s the concierge of the funeral. He directs Ned to the third floor of the medieval tower, where a bunkroom is set up to accommodate guests. Ned is confused by Elliot’s position of responsibility but essentially acquiesces to it, ascending to the bunkroom as instructed (Overall in this novel, Ned is not much of an asker. Nina does the asking in their relationship).
One by one Ned connects with his old friends – Gruen, who has a cold and is usually seen in bed, with blankets pulled all the way up over his head, and Joris, who reveals that he is now a “professional whoremonger” (discussion ensues about whether “whoremonger” is a synonym for “pimp,” but Joris assures his friends that it isn’t, that “whoremonger” can mean either a pimp or a man who seeks the services of prostitutes very frequently). Joris meets the latter definition of the word, and he is also a lawyer.
Ned briefly meets Iva, Douglas’ widow, in spite of the fact that she is being guarded and protected by Elliot as he emcees the arrival of the guests. He eats a few meals in the ‘manse.’ Soon, though, a convoy of media vehicles arrives, along with some vaguely European dignitaries and an army of temp workers to help clean the house for the guests, prepare and serve food, and wait on guests while they are at the funeral. Ned deduces that Douglas is somehow ‘important’ in ways that Ned was not aware – but again, he’s not much of an asker, so we don’t learn definitive answers to some of these questions. It seems, though, that Douglas is something like a member of a think tank, except that he does his thinking in his tower in the woods rather than in an actual think tank. He writes articles and submits them to newspapers and journals, and one of his areas of expertise seems to be the reascension of the far-right in Europe, in the form of fascists and neo-Nazis and other unsavory types. Douglas is sort of a prophet, I guess – not quite a Cassandra, but close – whose job is to warn people that the bad guys are back.
Which brings us to Ned and Nina’s politics. Ned works as a full-time political activist, and at the time this novel is set, he is working on organizing “the Convergence” – a series of massive protests against the invasion of Iraq in cities all over the world. While Ned truly is grief-stricken over his friend’s death, he also finds the time to wander around with petitions, begging his friends, the housekeeping staff, and anyone else he can collar, to sign. While this novel is not written in a comic way at all, Ned’s barnstorming and Nina’s focus on conception are in some ways hilariously funny. Rush doesn’t draw attention to these behaviors as funny, but I couldn’t stop laughing. I also remembered the expression “In the midst of death, we are in life” (which might really be “In the midst of life, we are in death” – I get these confused sometimes, but I digress), which seems like a perfect epigraph for this novel, in which politics and sex exist in the midst of grief and thoughts of mortality.
This is more or less all you need to know about the plot. Conversations are had, and questions are asked (by Nina, not by Ned), and over the course of the novel we learn more about the lives of Elliot, Gruen, and Joris, as well as the life Douglas lived before he died and about Douglas’ wife and son. We are never told exactly why this group of friends (with the exception of Douglas and Elliot) fell so far out of touch after college, although the existence of an additional person – Claire, who dated Douglas in college, Ned after college, and, it seems, Joris shortly thereafter – helps to provide some reasons for bad feelings between the five friends.
But then: the ending. The ending is just wonderful. I know some people (Amateurs!) don’t approve of revealing endings in book reviews, but in this case there is no surprise to ruin. The ending of the novel takes place at the ‘Convergence’ that Ned and Nina have worked to organize – the massive protest against the war in Iraq. We all know how that went, right? So the last chapter of the novel, which is brief, chronicles Ned’s thoughts when he climbs a fire escape ladder and watches from above with almost fatherly pride as a fantastically diverse cavalcade of Americans march past him, determined to change their government’s mind about going to war against Saddam Hussein. I want to copy out the entire chapter here, but I’ll be a little more selective than that. Here goes:
“I love every moment of my life that has brought me here, [Ned] thought. They were going to stop the fuckers. One of the Japanese had a transistor radio. What was happening here was happening across the world. BBC was saying ten to fifteen million in all the capitals, the greatest march numbers in fucking human history ever. Berlin, Paris, London had already reported and the numbers had been astounding. He thought, Today we are treading on the corpse of this war…
He felt drunk with gratitude and the conviction of victory. He thought, You can’t control everything…but this we can control. There would be no war. In part because of them there would be no war in Iraq…No war, no invasion, no.” (233-4)
And that’s it. That’s the end. Rush is using historical irony here: he doesn’t have to tell us how deluded Ned is here (and how little he has changed since he was a college student, maybe) because we all know what happens next. As much as I enjoyed the bulk of the novel – the part set on Douglas’ property – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Ned and Nina, I like the ending better. It’s perfect. And it’s also sad.
Norman Rush really is a master at portraying the subtleties of human relationships. The most fully realized relationship in this novel is between Ned and Nina; Ned’s relationships with his male friends are not as multi-dimensional because there is something in Ned that pulls away from his friends, and we never know exactly why that is. Most of what we know about Ned’s friends comes from Nora’s questions and interpretations. I can imagine a novel in which this is a bad thing, but that novel is not Subtle Bodies. I enjoyed this novel tremendously, and I encourage everyone to read it and to take a look at Mortals and Mating as well.