Pursuing What Was Meant: Norman Rush's Subtle Bodies
By Patrick McGinty
Few writers can refashion a cliché with the grace and simplicity of a single period. Rush, now 80, is such a writer. A recent New York Times Magazine profile revealed that the short-story collection Whites was recommended by the Pulitzer committee for the top prize in 1986 only to have mysterious back-room dealings derail the coronation. His mammoth first-person African-set novel Mating won the National Book Award in 1991. Critics from monocled literary institutions and upstart online forums alike consider the even larger Mortals to be one of the best American novels of the past quarter-century. Rush’s wide appeal may have something to do with the seriousness of his subject matter and the playfulness of his sentences. “War is the continuation of business as usual by any means necessary,” states an old college friend in Subtle Bodies. Yet with a simple twist of a verb and a small, attentive bit of personification, Rush shifts the tone from lecture to light-hearted: “Visine, he needed....The shoulders of the tiny bottle were coated in grime.”
Writing pejoratively about Mortals in a 2003 New Yorker review, John Updike wanted to “see a Stateside sequel, no longer than, say, ‘Candide’ or ‘The Great Gatsby,’” and in some respects, Subtle Bodies appeases this request. Checking in at just over 200 pages, the novel takes place almost entirely at a woodland stone “manse” belonging to the deceased ringleader of a college group of friends. Rush has stated that Mating was about courtship, Mortals about marriage, and Subtle Bodies about friendship, and in the latest novel he hammers away at his mark early and often: “There is no permanent friendship between men, among men. Something goes wrong, somebody marries the wrong person, somebody advances too fast, somebody converts, somebody refuses good advice or bad advice, it didn’t matter.” Later: “The ghosts of careless drinking days clung to the table, had been invited to cling.” Rush’s signature, equivocating style is on display from the opening page, in which Nina—foul-mouthed, delightful, ovulating and eager—takes the next flight behind her husband, Ned:
“She had to call her mother when they landed, first thing. It’s just that she won’t shut up about my pregnancy, she thought. Her attempted pregnancy, was what she meant.”
Equivocation, the thorough rendering of consciousness, third-person “thought” followed by a clarification of that thought: whatever the name, the technique is a Rush staple. You could think of it as What Was Meant. Just as Nina clarifies her thoughts in the above quote, witness Ray Finch in Mortals circle an idea:
“Their sex had zeal in it. He didn’t mean zeal, he meant something else. Their life together was erotic in a longitudinal way, he meant. The erotic was always there, not sporadically there in little segments set aside. At least that was the way it was for him, and unless it was an incredible act, it was that way for her too. But why should it be an act?”
should warn you that some people really Do Not Like this Rushian style of What Was Meant. Rush characters are extremely well-read and extremely thoughtful, and to hear them badminton their ideas from left brain to right can strike some as tedious. I suspect that a decent chunk of critics will feature the word “navel-gazing” in their reviews of Subtle Bodies (bookies across the literary world are no longer taking bets on the over/under for number of references to “The Big Chill.”) I also suspect that a decent chunk of this decent chunk were well and fine when the badmintonning concerned being an American in Africa and that they now find themselves gazed-out with regard to white upper-class middle-agedness, financial ruin, attempted pregnancy, petitions against the Iraq War, and other subtopics of Americans in America.
I have a question for these gazed-out critics, one that a Rush novel makes me grapple with on a page-by-page basis. Does a consciousness have a nationality? A gender? What about a bank account? I do not claim to have answers to these questions, and rather than invite science, religion, and other natural or nurturing dogma into this review, I’m going to suggest that what’s so unique about Rush’s style is that it prompts these questions in the first place. By mapping every twist and turn of a human mind approaching an opinion or decision, Rush forces you to wonder if someone else’s process is all that different from your own. What I’m getting at, I think, is that the chief pleasure of a Rush novel is to see a consciousness in action (hence why I’m forgoing almost any allusion to the plot). Said differently: a car engine whirs and pulses and makes all sorts of complex adjustments without knowing that it’s headed to a “manse” in the Catskills.
Much like a Rush character, I’m circling the thing I’m trying to say. This, too, is a chief pleasure of a Rush novel: that you begin to think like a Rush character, to live in their equivocating world. The comparison might seem strange, but just as I often think about a Haruki Murakami or Stephen King world when I’m not “in” it, I find myself thinking of a Rush world as I go about my day (I’ll read for ten more minutes. No, thirty. Fifteen will do. It’s a busy day tomorrow, though do I handle a busy day better when well rested or a little tired?). Yet whereas King and Murakami deal in Sci-Fi strangeness, Rush is as realist as it gets. The world is our own and accuracy is important. You try out different words, definitions, and explanations until you’ve got the thing beat. In Mortals, Rush writes that “We get into crisis and we need to write down where we are in our lives, write letters or manifestos or farewells to the troops, convert our confusion to text so we can read it and see if we can do what our words tell us we should.” Words matter, he seems to argue. The smallest calibrations make large differences. In Subtle Bodies, Nina thinks of how she’s acting “like a child, an adolescent, a child,” and this last adjustment is both accurate and self-effacing. What else could a reader want from a fictional character?
nd now for my own equivocation: my fierce protection of Norman Rush isn’t meant to suggest that Subtle Bodies is his best novel. While this can partially be chalked up to incredibly strong competition, only fans of late-stage Updike and Updike himself would smile at Ned feeling “a little proud of the thick, shaggy limb of urine he produced.” The novel’s 53 sections pass close-third narration back and forth between Ned and Nina, and occasionally it becomes unclear whether the section is a Ned section or Nina section or something of a “they” section:
“Another of the Serv-U men ran up and abandoned a wheelbarrow directly in front of Ned and Nina, saying nothing...He and Nina seemed to be on their own. Nina would hold up the golf umbrella while Ned pushed the wheelbarrow. They set off.”
At the novel’s climax, the narration becomes almost twinned. Consecutive sentences begin thusly: “Nina was feeling...She could well imagine...He was subject to guilt...He could also come up with...But Ned felt sorry for her...Ned decided to...”
Unsatisfied with the back-and-forth rendering of intra-conscious thought, here Rush seems to be moving back and forth inter-consciously, i.e. between Nina and Ned. The move is either brilliant or difficult to follow. Or both. Norman Mailer—another thoughty, famously navel-gazing writer—asked “What is genius but balance on the edge of impossible?”, and for Rush, the impossible task seems to require burrowing into two minds at once. This last trick sounds a bit better than it ends up reading, but it is only one trick amongst many. Lovers of inventive sentences will still call him the best. Any friend-group going on a few decades will chuckle and cringe. What Was Meant is stated and restated. Rush still provides mostly everything. This reader could want.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown.