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; he’s that post-war, late 20th-Century man lionized everywhere in our culture.
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. There’s 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?