(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The plot of Mating is much like that of an Elizabethan tragedy. An opening section, “Guilty Repose,” reveals a narrator caught in a “caesura,” as she calls it, a period of panic in the fall of 1980 when she finds herself turning thirty-two in Botswana with a dead dissertation topic on her hands. The plot thickens in the next two sections, “The Solar Democrat” and “My Expedition,” when she meets the world-famous utopian socialist Nelson Denoon and vows to track him to the colony he has established for distressed women in the Kalahari Desert. In the next three sections—“Tsau,” “Acquisitive Love,” and “Love Itself”—the narrator and Denoon act out their desert idyll before their story unravels in a final African chapter, “Strife.” In a brief commentary, “About the Foregoing,” the narrator reflects on it all from the distant vantage point of Palo Alto, California.

The narrator had hoped to show in her Stanford doctoral thesis that fertility among “remote dwellers” varies from season to season depending on what the gatherers can find, but she has learned that there are no gatherers in Botswana; people everywhere are eating canned food and breakfast cereal or handouts from the World Food Program. As a result, she retreats to the capital, Gabarone, where she socializes with the local expatriates and works her way through affairs with several men who offer her nothing permanently satisfying. From the last of these, Z, a spy for the British High Commission, she learns of Sekopololo (“The Key”), a project to create an entire new village in the north-central Kalahari Desert. What especially excites her about this project is that it is run by Nelson Denoon, a legendary social scientist.

She soon meets Denoon at a reception; the great man’s wife, Grace, approaches in some distress and guides her to a room where Denoon, the author of Development and the Death of Villages, is holding forth on his own version of socialism. Grace explains that her marriage to Denoon has soured and that she has identified the narrator as her successor. The charismatic Denoon’s dialogue with one of the local Marxist intellectuals is so spellbinding that the narrator pressures Grace into revealing the location of Tsau, the new utopian settlement. The journey to Tsau is...

(The entire section is 952 words.)