READING NORMAN RUSH'S "MORTALS"

BUY THE DAMN BOOK | January 31st 2008

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"Mortals" is a hefty novel of ideas, starring a narcissistic asshole in a difficult marriage. And it may be the most brilliant book of this new century, writes Lorin Stein. Too bad it has been remaindered ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

 

Most books are fun to read for money. No matter how dry the season, reviewers can be depended on to churn out cheerful--grateful--appraisals of doorstoppers that no one in his right mind will ever read for free. Reviewers like long books. They pay more, they take longer and you can summarise without feeling bad.

That's why it's curious that "Mortals" (Knopf, 2003) should have got mostly bad or tepid reviews. Rush won the National Book Award for his previous novel, "Mating" (Knopf, 1991), another long book and a commercial success. "Mortals" is every bit as exciting as "Mating." It is one of the few authentically great novels of our new century. And yet if you go to Amazon, as of this morning, you'll find first printings going for $5.95.

"Mortals" is one of those rare long books that's fun to read but no fun to review. The characters--expatriates in Botswana, as in "Mating"--are full of ideas (about marriage, Christianity, race, economic development, etc) and you can't tell which ones the author shares. Ordinarily the plot would sort these things out in a hurry. Most novels are justice machines. But Rush keeps you in suspense. Real, uncomfortable suspense--ideological suspense. The kind that reviewers tend to find "messy". ("Rush's attempts to meld political reality with domestic tragicomedy occasionally make the narrative unwieldy," Publishers Weekly)

In fact, "Mortals" is one of the best-plotted novels I've read, partly because Rush's hero, Ray Finch, keeps making excellent guesses about what's going to happen to him next. He thinks like a reader--the way characters in novels used to think. Nowadays, if you want a character to introspect, to think in complex sentences, you have to give him a professional excuse: Ray's a Milton scholar by training. By occupation, he's CIA.

Ray is also a writer born too late. When the novel begins, his controller has just told him to stop writing reports. He must deliver his impressions into a tape-recorder instead--the 1980s equivalent of blogging. Ray's immediate response is to quit the Agency. He doesn't believe in transcripts.

Neither does Rush. His dialogue is nothing like dialogue in other contemporary novels. His characters go on for paragraphs at a time. Conversations that are supposed to unfold over the course of ten minutes take half an hour to read, and would take longer if you read them out loud. The effect is not unrealistic. As anyone knows who has transcribed an interview, we learn much more when we listen--we hear thousands of unspoken words--than when we read a transcript.

Only in the age of electronic recording have novelists tried to render speech in one-line, or one-paragraph, snippets. Eliot, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Meredith--they don't write this way. They knew real conversations seem to contain pages and pages. In "Mortals" they do. (Some "interminable interludes," the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Then there's the question of the hero's likeability. Reviewers like to like the people they write about, and Ray Finch isn't likeable. I don't mean he's a flawed character. I mean he's an asshole. He makes jokes that aren't funny. He's pompous and insecure and in love with the sound of his own voice. He goes on and on about his happy 17-year marriage, which the reader pretty quickly realises has not been all that pleasant for his wife, or even for him.

Plus, Ray is smarter than you or me, which is never endearing in a make-believe person--especially when we understand that person better than he understands himself. It makes us queasy, because it implies that we all live in the dark.

You can dismiss Rush for giving so much air time to Ray ("one of the most narcissistic, self-deluding and defensive heroes to come along in a while", New York Times). Most reviewers did exactly that. For me the big question of the novel, the unsettling question, the really suspenseful thing, was whether Rush knows that Ray's an asshole and--if he does--what he proposes to do about it, plot-wise. On that score, all I will say is that Rush gives every indication of knowing what he's up to by the time the novel ends.

A few critics did right by "Mortals"--by which I mean, they gave a damn what the author thought. They suspected he might be wise. James Wood wrote brilliantly about the way Rush renders his hero's thoughts--then sounded the crucial Holy Shit note: "Big books flick away their own failings and weaknesses, make insects of them. And how much is accomplished here! For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer's own burning."

If I were forced to review "Mortals" myself, I would concentrate on the way Rush writes about happiness. First, of course, I'd give a plot summary--beginning with the double-cross in sentence one: "At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized." Then I would write about the happiness of living with someone you love.

Happiness is notoriously hard to write about. There's a reason we talk about happy endings, rather than happy middles. Happiness is a matter of retrospective judgment. (Aristotle raised the question whether you could declare a man happy until he and his children were safely dead.)

So what does a happy marriage feel like, from moment to moment, when the happiness is still (is always) in question? On Rush's telling, it's a sequence of desire and longing and doubt and jealousy and apprehension and misapprehension and awkwardness and annoyance and disappointment and self-suppression and lust for control--very little of which is pleasant in itself, but which add up, in aggregate, to the kind of intimacy that novelists have been wishing on their characters for the last two-hundred years. It looks a lot like unhappiness, but with hope.

Maybe, if Ray Finch were not an asshole, marriage would come easier to him. But this would almost certainly make for a less interesting, less suspenseful, much more reviewable book.

Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His translation of "The Mystery Guest", by Gregoire Bouillier, is available in paperback from Houghton Mifflin.