Norman Rush served as regional director of the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983. Botswana has in turn served Norman Rush extraordinarily well as the setting for the six stories collected in Whites (1987) and in his sprawling new novel, Mating. As its narrator says midway through, “My story is turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents.” Apparently even a relatively small, largely arid country like Botswana can yield a long, surprisingly rich fiction. Yet neither Mating nor Whites can be said to be about Botswana; they are, rather, about the “whites” who take up temporary residence there; their unsettlement—geographical, cultural, and sexual—is his real subject. Mating is this and more: a work of expansive intelligence and great daring. And surely the greatest risk Rush has chosen to take is to tell his story in a woman’s voice. It risks seeming, perhaps smugly, to know the answer to Sigmund Freud’s famous query, What do women want? Mating is a smart—and smartly written—book, but never smug. If the narrator serves as a mouthpiece, it is as a mouthpiece for the times and not, except rarely and almost incidentally, for the novel’s male author. Among Mating’s very few faults, one cannot count the author’s “doing a Denoon.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby heard in Daisy Fay’s Southern voice the sound not of music but of money and was, because Midwestern and poor, suitably entranced and enthralled. The voice of Mating’s narrator (heard previously in the story “Bruns” in Whites) is also enchanting and enthralling, differently so for her different times: ironic and self-ironizing, striving to overcome its humble origins in the same Midwest of Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Fitzgerald himself. Sounding like the odd (and Irish) offspring of a narrative menage á trois comprising Daisy, Nick Carraway, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, she is the undisputed champion of the self-reflexive bon mot. “Kang has douceur,” she characteristically says of one Botswana town, “the still center of nowhere.” It is hard not to like, even love, a narrator who offers up chapter titles such as “Gaffe Fest” and “A Fete Worse Than Death,” and who says of another character, “He said something passé like touché”—the same character who “undressed…became very laissez-faire,” though he refrained from doing so “with the local nubility.” Hers is a voice which sends up American and British foreign service types, which compares Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, to a college town in the American Southwest (both built in the 1960’s), a voice capable of this kind of insight and irony: “You know that you’re in Africa at Victoria Falls because there is nothing anyplace to keep you from stepping off into the cataract, not a handrail, not an inch of barbed wire.” Nor is there anything to keep her from falling in love, except all that as a thoroughly modern, well-educated woman she knows about the topic: that marriage, for example, is “a form of slowed-down- wrestling” in which (and here she adopts her most academic, for- the-lecture-audience-only voice) “equilibrium or perfect mating will come when the male is convinced he is giving less than he feels is really required to maintain dependency and the woman feels she is getting more from him than her servile displays should merit.”
Late in the novel the narrator will ask the question implicit throughout: “What is to be done?” She attributes the quote to Lenin though it could more accurately be traced back to N. G. Chernyshevsky’s social reform novel, What Is To Be Done? (1864), and from there to the curious novel it provoked Fyodor Dostoevski to write that same year, Notes from the Underground. The linkage here is neither gratuitous nor merely academic, for not only is Mating’s narrator well read: She is also, like Chernyshevsky, interested in social reform (albeit of a different, “nihilo-liberal” kind), and more important, like Dotoevski’s Underground Man, anonymous, self-conscious, at once self-vaunting and self- deprecating, at odds with herself and her world, longing to be a participant, doomed to the role of mere observer and recorder. In sum, she is, as he is, the ultimate “paradoxicalist,” not only figuratively underground but geographically as well: under the Equator where it is not just the seasons that are reversed. “In Africa, you want more, I think,” she says, managing to be both assertive and diffident, at novel’s outset in a chapter punningly titled “Another Disappointee.” The time is the fall of 1980—spring below the Equator in the African underground; the narrator has just completed eighteen months in the bush, where she has been doing research for her dissertation in nutritional anthropology on seasonal variations in the fertility of rural populations. What her research proves is that “It wasn’t so.” Her thesis discredited, her research funds exhausted, feeling de trop in a country overpopulated with “anthropologists and anthropologists manqué like me,” desiring some civilized companionship but unwilling to return home either to mother (bigoted and prone to bigness) or to her alma mater, Stanford, she decides to stay on in Botswana, indecisive and directionless as ever: thirty-two, “robust” but not beautiful, and disarmingly honest. She explains that she will not sleep with Rhodesians, South Africans, and other right- wingers, nor with Black Africans, not because of their race but because of their culturally ingrained male chauvinism. Her lovers include Giles, a professional photographer; Martin Wade, rumored to be connected to the ANC; “Z.”, a spy and “leading-man type who was just over the line into the paterfamilias roles and hating it”; and then Denoon Nelson, by far the biggest game of them all, part obscure object of desire, part research project.
Brilliant, handsome, internationally renowned, and available (in country and about to be...
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