It took some convincing to get me to read Norman Rush. I expected his first novel, Mating, to be an obvious cross between Saul Bellow and a Victorian romance.
And it is. It just took me a while to realize this: that’s not such a bad combination.
The Bellow half of Mating gives the novel its propulsive drive—the kind coming from what the characters want, not from any external plot point. The unnamed protagonist, a woman whose graduate anthropology thesis is an incomplete failure, finds herself wafting along at the edges of Botswana’s upper crust white society—at a time when nearby South Africa was still practicing Apartheid. She wants a lover. She goes through several of them until she comes across her ultimate challenge: Nelson Denoon.
Denoon broods and uses his intelligence as a weapon. He’s charismatic. What will come of their relationship? Finding out is where the Victorian romance comes in.
Mating is rife with binary opposition—relations between man and woman, between post-colonial whites and blacks, the rich and the poor. I read Mating when I was in college, suffering through a mountain of literary warhorses. Mating made me want to go to Africa and have an adventure. That might be the highest compliment a reader can give.
Others may dislike the book—there’s a lot of throat-clearing, a lot of description, and meandering set-up. Importantly, it’s narrated by a woman (a book written by a man). That choice has been controversial in its day, and perhaps readers will mind it: a man has decided to put the reader into a woman’s mind, seeing what she sees, wanting what she wants. That’s a powerful choice.
Norman Rush will be on the panel for the April 26 Guernica/PEN event, The Diversity Test: Gender and Literature in Translation. I’m hoping the matter of gender will be approached—are others curious why he chose a female voice for the narrator?
Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.