On Norman Rush's Mating

(The Point, 2021)

“In Africa, you want more, I think.” With that laconic affirmation begins one of the strangest and most sublime American novels of the last half-century. The protracted monologue of a 32-year-old Stanford University anthropologist who is adrift and loveless in Botswana at the dawn of the Reagan era, Mating was published by Knopf in 1991 and went on to win the National Book Award for fiction. John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, hailed it as “rather aggressively brilliant.” It was Norman Rush’s first novel. He was 58 when it appeared.

All through the 1960s and 1970s, Rush, who was born in San Francisco in 1933, had written experimental fiction with negligible success. In 1978, he and his wife Elsa moved from Rockland County, New York,1 where he had earned a living as an antiquarian bookseller, to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, to be co-directors of the Peace Corps in that country. It was to be a time of adventure and productivity. “There were the ongoing dramas of sandstorms, drought for years, and witchcraft in the office,” Rush has said.

Before they left Gaborone in 1983, Rush finished a short story, “Bruns,” that would soon appear in the New Yorker. The first-person narrator is a graduate student in nutritional anthropology who has just completed eighteen months of solitary fieldwork among the Bakorwa tribes in the remote hills of Botswana. She takes refuge at a mission hospital run by nuns in a town that Rush calls Keteng, close to the South African border and dominated by a few wealthy Boer families. The volunteer fleet mechanic at the hospital is a “beautiful” young Dutch pacifist, Bruns: he “belonged to some sect. It was something like the people in England who jump out and disrupt fox hunts.” Bruns detests the feudal power structure of Keteng and decides, in a quixotic gesture, to confront it, for which he is savagely beaten. Bruns subsequently commits suicide, in the watering trough outside the home of his principal Boer antagonist, in an act of moral defiance. The story is a tour de force—a stark, haunting tragicomedy.

“Bruns” anchored Rush’s 1986 collection, Whites, which featured six stories set in Botswana and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps the praise it received—from Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and Leslie Marmon Silko, among others—gave Rush the confidence he needed to compose a long novel entirely in the voice of the young anthropologist from “Bruns.” “Hubris made me do it,” he told the New York Times Book Review in 1991. “I know it sounds absurd, but I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language.”

If only more novelists had Rush’s towering ambition. James Joyce sustained Molly Bloom’s voice in the soaring last chapter of Ulysses, but it is difficult to think of male writers who have inhabited a female voice convincingly in a long novel. Like Ulysses, Mating is a delicate rendering of an intimate relationship between two adults, and it imparts an earthy Joycean humor. (Joyce was a “wondrous and calamitous” influence on Rush.) The sentences of Rush’s novel have a Joycean density and profusion as well. Open a random page and you will encounter a raging argument about Samuel Beckett; a reference to the Danish film director Carl Dreyer; and aperçus of this flavor: “The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading.”

But these qualities alone do not explain the book’s enduring artistry and relevance. With immense flair, Rush creates a utopian community, Tsau, in the Kalahari Desert that is entirely run by African women, to which the narrator goes in search of the charismatic development impresario who founded it, Nelson Denoon. What follows, over nearly five hundred pages, is a multilayered dialogue between political utopianism and private perfection. For the reader of Mating, love and politics, intimacy and justice, are held in perfect equipoise; the pitfalls and possibilities of both are precisely—and thrillingly—explored to their limits.  

* * *

For a novelist, Rush has an unusual fascination with history, power struggles and left-wing ideology; he once remarked to Granta that “Spanish anarchism,” eradicated by Franco, was “the best lost cause.” As a reader, he is drawn to long novels in which ideas are deeply embedded: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. In interviews, he comes across as a peculiar hybrid: old-school socialist intellectual circa 1914; bearded radical archivist; hyper-articulate literary critic; and voracious autodidact. “Too much reading and drinking, and too much perfectionism”—that’s how Rush defined his younger self to the Paris Review.

The narrator of Mating—who is never named—has a droll voice and a wide emotional register; she also confesses to being “stone neurotic” and “selfish.” She is from southern Minnesota and “one hundred percent working class.” She steps off the page in a very distinctive way, and eventually we learn a thousand things about her, things that only novels can impart. When Mating begins, in Gaborone in fall 1980, her doctoral thesis has imploded and she is haunted by Bruns’s suicide. She is “sexually alert” but crushingly lonely and despairing of finding a mate: “Not that I’m so beautiful, unless hair volume determines beauty. I’m robust, shall we say, but my waist is good. I apparently look Irish.” Her mind is restless, agile, well stocked. Not only is she fluent in Setswana and French, but she easily employs Latin. She has read deeply and voraciously: philosophers (Hume, Kierkegaard), poets (Kipling, Bishop), novelists (Eliot, Dickens, Proust, Lessing), biographers (Boswell), even literary critics (“the semi-immortal Edmund Wilson”).

A torpid middle-aged British diplomat—whom she suspects is an intelligence officer and calls “Z”—enters her life in Gaborone. She is a person of the left and, to pass the time, she baits Z: “You are obviously some kind of spy or operative, which is all right, but you are.” He remains tight-lipped. Finally, Z gives in and refers to “the fate of the Bushmen”: “Sad, isn’t it, that the South Africans are turning them into trackers to hunt down guerrillas in Ovamboland?” She recoils: “But I just said that I knew about this because it had been in the Rand Daily Mail, and it was more than sad. Patronize me at your peril, my attitude said, and he got it. So sorry, he murmured.”

Most novelists would have stopped there, but Rush plunges us deeper into the vortex of southern African geopolitics:

Then, Um, did I think there was anything to the stories that the South Africans were bribing certain Kwena chiefs to get them interested in joining up with the five million Kwenas the Boers already controlled through their thug Mangope across the border in Bophuthatswana, thusly threatening to partition and wreck Botswana for being so uncooperative?

This is writing that respects our intelligence enough to submerge us in the swirling complexities of Botswana during apartheid: the “thug Mangope,” a real political figure and a toady of the apartheid regime who died in 2018, will reemerge at a crucial juncture in Rush’s narrative. It is akin to the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses, in which we must decipher Stephen Dedalus’s free-flowing, elusive ruminations (“Of Ireland, the Dalcassians, of hopes, conspiracies, of Arthur Griffith now”) or various sections of Nostromo, Conrad’s novel about Western imperialism in Latin America (“during the long turmoil of pronunciamientos that followed the death of the famous Guzmán Bento, the native miners, incited to revolt…”). Initially enigmatic, these passages can, when read again (perhaps aided by Wikipedia), have a satisfying density. Rather than trying to politicize his readers, Rush assumes we are as curious as he is about southern African realpolitik circa 1980, and the ideological combustions that accompanied it.

Z offers the narrator one electrifying nugget: Nelson Denoon, a lapsed 47-year-old American scholar who has established a secretive women-run community, Tsau, in the Kalahari Desert, will soon present himself at a debate in Gaborone. She exclaims: “So it was none other than Nelson Denoon!” He’s a luminary in anthropology who reviles academia, a figure who has managed the elusive feat of putting theory into practice, a man at the level of “Paulo Freire or Ivan Illich, but nonreligious, totally, therefore not dismissable as a mystic.”

Fittingly, her first glance at Denoon occurs at a boisterous political debate. The topic? Whether Africa, in the 1980s, ought to pursue a capitalist or a socialist development model (the destruction of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison are a decade away). Denoon’s opponent is a sneering young Botswana Marxist.

Wearing drawstring pants and a garish red and black dashiki, Denoon excoriates both models. Socialism, he declares, is like “knitting with oars” and adds: “show me a socialist country and I will show you a net food importer.” But capitalism is a nefarious juggernaut: “the white West or the market system, whichever, was taking down the forests of West Africa at the rate of five percent a year.” His politics, then? It takes her some time to figure that out, but when she does, she says: “He was a radical decentralist the elements of whose system were composed of the odd amalgam of collective and microcapitalist institutions.” She is transfixed. “Here was a genuinely goodlooking man, alas … fullface he looked more Slavic than Cherokee now … serious men are my type.” A woman who notices a great deal, she observes that “Denoon was thicker through the neck and middle than he needed to be. He could be helped.”

The next day she locates him in a Gaborone slum, where he is lodging with a friend before returning to Tsau. Upon arrival, her “accursed female bladder” sends her running to the outhouse. Denoon offers a blunt welcome: “Look, did you just urinate?” She has misused an eco-toilet that Denoon has just installed. “It seems,” she says, “I was the only educated human being who had never heard of the universally known fact that urea keeps feces from composting properly.”

Flirtatious banter ensues, in English and Setswana, and she inquires if Tsau—a closed experimental community—would accept her as a volunteer. “You tempt me,” retorts Denoon, “but I have to say no. Of course what would make you irresistible would be if you know something about cooperage. Or taxidermy, say.” “Sorry, I said.”

She ignores his rebuff and goes to Tsau—a decision that entails a six-day trek through the Kalahari Desert. This section, entitled “My Expedition,” is the most exhilarating segment of writing in Rush’s work. She endures hallucinations, splinters, ill-fitting sunglasses and constipation; she encounters lions, ostriches, dead weaverbird nests and vultures. Halfway through the journey, one of her two donkeys, Mmo, runs away with her tent, most of her water supply and her toilet kit: “Now I was supposed to present myself to Denoon with only the vaguest notion of how I looked, and uncombed.” She arrives in Tsau severely dehydrated but triumphant: “How many women could have done this, women not supported by large male institutions or led by male guides?”

* * *

Rush is a modernist—his novel is saturated with the consciousness of his characters and sly wordplay—but his rendering of Tsau also contains thick description worthy of a realist novel. “In its symmetry and neatness and Mediterranean color scheme,” the narrator says of her first glimpse of Tsau, “it looked like a town in the Babar books.” As conceived by Denoon, it is home to three hundred and fifty women, most of them from northwestern Botswana; some are former prostitutes or have been accused of witchcraft. (Fifty men and forty children live there, too.) The village, she comes to believe, is “a brilliant machine intended to reroute social power to women in a variety of ways.” Women dominate Tsau’s governing council; they are deeded their plots and homes; and, defying tradition, inheritance is channeled through daughters, not sons. (Her workload at Tsau will include teaching English, skinning rabbits, capturing deadly snakes and removing night soil from the privies.) Women who leave the community need not toil as maids and servants: they are trained in catering and other types of work at Tsau and are thereby employable.

The fate of Tsau and the narrator’s courtship with Nelson Denoon: these are the rails along which Mating’s narrative moves. Their relationship is built on intellectual repartee; they forge their own linguistic utopia inside the unfolding experiment that is Tsau—a quietly ingenious structural device by the author; light bounces from one utopian project to the other. Few novels capture as well as Mating the thrill of inspired conversation. Not long after they become lovers, she recalls: “When I got up in the middle of that night to go out to the latrine I inadvertently woke him. As I got back in with him he asked if I felt like talking, being quick to say that it was all right if I didn’t and wanted to get back to sleep.” She is charmed: “Of course it was fine, how not?” When I read the novel as a student in 1991, in a beautiful Knopf hardback that has endured the years, it struck me as a quirky, singular handbook of how two bookish, voluble adults might sustain a lengthy relationship.

Their beliefs are not in perfect alignment, and the resulting friction advances the narrative. She is exasperated by Denoon’s “purity” and his excessively “romantic” assumptions, like his grumbles about travel: “you could rarely if ever get a travel buff to tell you one thing of interest, he would say.” Against Denoon’s utopianism she pits her own cool realism. He has “projects within projects yielding other projects,” the latest of which, she laments, is an “ostrich ranching mania.” She, on the other hand, frequently gazes inward (“I’ve done what I do best, made an academic study of myself”) and worries about her future with Nelson (“Where were we going?”).

But much of what Denoon says in their dialogues strikes her as salutary. On Europe: “There were only two countries in Europe Denoon could stomach, Italy and Denmark, and that was because they were the only ones to attempt to protect their Jews during World War II.” On British imperialism: “By 1898 Japan was the only Pacific country the British had failed to force the opium trade on.” On the worthiest project a writer could possibly undertake: “a convincing essay against violence, against participating in official violence, ever,” to be published in thirty languages.

How to interpret Denoon? Owing to Rush’s sometimes claustrophobic first-person narration, he is entirely refracted through her mind. He has no autonomy as a fictional character, and yet he is a vivid presence on the page—three quarters visionary, one quarter prig. Here’s a man who keeps track of the statistics on dowry bride murders in India and “becomes palpably depressed by a split in some Spanish labor union.” Like his creator, Denoon has his own roster of “lost causes”—the Italian workers who seized factories in 1920; the anarchist cigar workers’ union in Cuba crushed by Fidel Castro, etc. Mating is a requiem for a vanished global left that, in Rush’s estimation, was untainted by Russian-style communism, and at certain moments, in its lower registers, the novel imparts the same melancholy as a composition by Victor Jara, the left-wing Chilean musician tortured and executed by Pinochet’s soldiers in 1973.

* * *

Halfway through Mating, Tsau’s residents are surprised by the sudden appearance of an eccentric actor sent by the British Council. Over a boozy dinner, Denoon and the actor (a right-winger) debate women’s rights. Denoon, in “masterly” form, excoriates “male marxism,” which, generation after generation, has placed the wrong bets: it searched “high and low for the liberatory class that would lift human arrangements into a redeemed state—the proletariat, the students, the lumpen, third world nationalists—in short, every group around except for the most promising one … the mass of women.” Passages of this sort make us wonder if Rush, at bottom, is not a novelist but a pamphleteer; and yet the conversation fits seamlessly into the busy carpet he unfurls before our eyes, one in which individuals develop and correct their ideas, in dialogue with others and themselves, as happens in real life. Rush never allows one voice to speak the Truth, and there remains something slightly suspect about Denoon’s utopianism.

The narrator’s politics are more conventional: “I think probably we should all be liberals.” And yet her own utopia is even more utopian than Denoon’s: “nobody lying … lie to me at your peril.” The clash of these utopias contributes to the novel’s dynamism, as well as to its enduring relevance in a period when the positions of liberals continue to face strong challenges from the left. If the narrator allows Denoon to expatiate on world-historical themes, she won’t allow him to romanticize Africa’s poor. After eight nomadic Basarwa families establish a camp on the edge of Tsau, barter arrangements ensue with the newcomers. Denoon is irked: “unequal exchange, as a general thing, disgruntled Nelson.” That is piffle to her, and she hastens to affirm the complexity of human behavior and the limits of rationalist discourse; Rush seems to be telling us that it is women who must rescue men from the schemes they’ve hatched on the precipices of rationality. She has read V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and lives by its first six words: “The world is what it is…”:

I asked him if he knew that there were Peace Corps volunteers who saved up their worn-out shirts and jeans and then took them on the train to Francistown and when it stopped at Shashe traded their rags, actual rags, for terrific woodcarvings produced by the Basarwa destitutes living in a little colony run by the Mennonites near the rail line. We may be convinced that this is objectively wrong, I told him, but unfortunately the evidence is that the Basarwa are delighted with the deals.

Disputation does not fill all their waking hours. “In the spirit of saying everything,” she informs us, “at first I had to deal with feelings that a smaller penis would have been more relaxing for me.” After she moves into his cluttered octagonal house, she interrogates Denoon about his sex life during his eight years in Tsau: she is seeking a tally of his African lovers. He admits to occasional visits to two or three women in Gaborone “who aren’t exactly prostitutes and are my friends.”

But he has concealed the fact that he is a recovering alcoholic, and when she realizes it (during the wine-soaked dinner with the actor) she feels betrayed, and—yes—lied to. We’ve now arrived at Mating’s emotional core. Her expected fury doesn’t materialize; Tsau has mellowed and matured her: “Never before or since have I felt myself become tranquil so abruptly and causelessly. I can look back and say that it was some physicochemical way station on the road from the state I called acquisitive love to the state of love itself, I suppose. It felt ordained. Something was saying These things are nothing.”

It’s a partial state of repose, however; edginess and insomnia impel her to write everything down, because she knows she has found a man who is “one in a million.” That self-knowledge gives rise to Mating’s most radiant sentence: “I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.” The laser-like attention she once gave to anthropology is now focused on her relationship with Denoon, and her principal thesis, apropos of mating, is this: “Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time, but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing.” Ergo: “And not to venture too far into the underside of our household humor, he also laughed inordinately when I was getting into bed and slightly farted and he said Is that the way you greet me? I replied quick as a flash That’s the only language you understand.”

* * *

In the background of Rush’s novel is the apartheid regime in South Africa, whose tentacles reach into Botswana. Tsau is a fragile entity, and a dissident cabal surfaces, issuing a set of demands: that rifles be permitted; that houses of worship be established. When the cabal’s ringleader vanishes, Denoon is accused of killing him and hiding the body in the desert. Following something akin to a coup, Denoon is imprisoned for two days in the village store. He endures his confinement with a passivity that enrages and puzzles her: this man who can rattle on for hours about the entire history of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism is rendered docile by a few dozen malcontents on his doorstep. One recalls William Gass’s offhand remark about William Blake, who Denoon adores: he “was too utopian to be truly engagé.”

In search of a “sister colony” for Tsau, Denoon journeys 45 miles on horseback to another village to initiate a dialogue; his mission is “to save this place.” But when he fails to return after a week, she unravels with the fear that he has perished. Her intuition was close to the mark. While passing under an acacia tree, his horse had been attacked by two deadly boomslangs; Denoon lay in the desert for a week with broken bones and a few mouthfuls of water; he passed the hours listening to the termites, hearing “their songs.” He is rescued by a group of Herero merchants on a southward journey to sell game meat.

Recovering in Tsau, Denoon is silent, craves little beyond porridge and has lost interest in sex and his cherished issues of The Economist. Only one book interests him: the Tao Te Ching. Their precious conversational electricity has been extinguished; when she half-jokes that he was “saved—through the commercial impulse” of the merchants, he offers a cryptic reply. She fears he has suffered a nervous breakdown and takes him by plane to Gaborone for psychiatric treatment.

The coup attempt at Tsau has deepened the fault lines in their relationship: he wants to remain in the village, to which he has a fierce emotional attachment; she has doubts about a place where scorpions show up in her bedclothes. At which point her own rationality is undone. She wonders if Denoon is deceiving her with his new mysticism and she conspires for him to spend a night with the “beautiful Bronwen Something, a State Department intern.” James Wood, who has championed Rush’s work, has observed that his main characters are “slightly crazy” and that “even when his characters are thinking ‘rationally,’ it’s a very irrational rationality.” As her relationship with Denoon unravels, she despises her own emotional reaction to it: “I realized I was doing something women did only in nineteenth-century novels. I was wringing my hands.” Few of us can expel the fears that invade our minds, Rush appears to be saying, no matter how many books we’ve read, or difficult languages we’ve mastered, or degrees we’ve earned from Stanford. Amid the emotional wreckage, she returns to California.

“Being in America,” she reflects, “is like being stabbed to death with a butter knife by a weakling.” She drops out of Stanford but lingers in the “academic demimonde,” working for a marginal scholarly publisher. Sought after in Palo Alto’s intellectual/activist milieu, where interest in Denoon’s Botswana experiment runs high, she is invited to give talks, the main themes of which are mostly “siphoned from Nelson.” First: “What is becoming sovereign in the world is not the people but the limited liability corporation, that particular invention: that’s what’s concentrating sovereign power to rape the world and overenrich the top minions who run these entities.” Second: “The destruction of nature accompanying the ascent to absolute power of the corporate system.” She adds her “own emendation, a less pessimistic one”—the “jagged and belated but definite rise of women into positions of political authority.” These dialogues are well-received: “They love me for it.”

When the novel ends, she, too, is reading the Tao Te Ching. That she and Denoon are both, at the book’s finish, devouring the same classic work of Chinese philosophical literature is Rush’s way of suggesting that politics—quasi-utopian manifestations included—will never be enough to satisfy our deepest longings; she finds the Tao full of “strange surprising discoveries.” On the last page of Mating, she must reckon with a decision: to endure the butter knife, or return to Tsau?

* * *

In 2003, Rush published an even longer novel set in Botswana, Mortals, but the wizardry was gone. Mating’s intimate first-person narration was jettisoned in favor of a leaden third-person account of Ray Finch, a CIA agent and Milton specialist, who has a tempestuous relationship with his wife. The narrator of Mating makes a brief appearance and is finally named: Karen Ann Hoyt. Her future, and Tsau’s fate, are revealed.

Mortals was demolished by John Updike in the New Yorker, who called Ray Finch “perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.” Updike declared that Rush, after three books, had exhausted Botswana as a subject, and mused: “I would be happy to see a Stateside sequel, no longer than, say, Candide or The Great Gatsby.” Intriguingly, Rush followed Updike’s directive to the letter, publishing, ten years later, a shorter novel, Subtle Bodies, set in the U.S. By and large, it received lukewarm reviews.

Norman Rush is 87, at work, in his perfectionist way, on another novel. He need not agonize over it; he has already given us the best of himself. In her introduction to Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel, Pedro Páramo, Susan Sontag wrote: “Everyone asked Rulfo why he did not publish another book, as if the point of a writer’s life is to go on writing and publishing. In fact, the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book—that is, a book which will last—and this is what Rulfo did.” It’s a towering standard that Rush, too, has met in his intoxicating treatise about romance, community-building and causes lost and won.

This essay originally appeared in The Point