Saturday, August 13, 2005

Book: "Mating" by Norman Rush

I have definite taste in novels, but I don't know what it is about a novel that makes me like it. I'm a passive novel reader, letting the prose and the story flow, never wondering what makes it flow well, or not. I like novels that seem to engage big ideas, but never have the patience to figure out exactly on which side the novel comes down; if I have to think, I want it to be explicit, not metaphorical or based in the narrative shadings. Which is to say, I loved "Mating," but couldn't really tell you why.

There are the obvious things a) the author is a Swarthmore alum (class of 1955) b) the novel is set in Africa (Botswana) c) the novel is glancingly about development (a village project based on women called Tsau in the middle of the Kalahari) d) the characters take themselves very seriously as intellectual beings, and their conversations reflect that e) because of those intellectual pre-occupations, the prose is dense in a witty way and f) it doesn't hurt that it's about how a quite charming woman falls for an accomplished older man (I've always thought I was born to be middle-aged).

I have the suspicion that there was something troubling from a feminist perspective of having a female narrator whose animating idea in the novel is first getting sex, then seducing the accomplished older man. Sure she's intellectually alive and all, but to have her self-definition be so explicit in terms of a man is...well, a bit retro-grade. Perhaps it's some sort of post-feminist whatever. But I doubt it.

In terms of development, the novel plops you down in Tsau which is lovingly detailed in it's administrative structure (including how the pay rates for different jobs are adjusted day to day to reflect need), all the structural inventions (drainage systems, heating systems...), and how it is based on women (only women can inherit, only women are full members in the community...). As the novel goes along, you get a sense that the glory years of the village (the project has been ongoing for 8 years) are starting to pass, as it matures beyond the perfection of the original vision into something more, well, normal, with all those attendant foibles. There is no argument, necessarily, of development failing per se, but more that the original vision can't be perfectly realized, that the residents of the village have agency to reject what the developer wishes.

"Mating" was damn good. It has the rich prose of, say, "Infinite Jest," where it gets in your head. That richness meant that I could put it down because it was always a bit overwhelming, but in a good way. So, yeah, highly recommended.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I assigned in the first version of the development class; I'm not sure why I decided not to do in the second iteration. Partly because the discussion the first time turned out to be almost entirely around what the women in the class considered the bad male writing of a female protagonist, rather than the way development gets imagined and described in the novel. But I like the book a lot. I also like his collection of short stories.

T. Burke

10:49 AM  
Blogger Isaac said...

Yeah, "Mortals" and "Whites" are on my to read list. Though the same sort of thing happened with "Emma's War" where the discussion seemed to be mainly about the choice of the female, rather than development.

2:14 AM  

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