Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mating offers a rich variety of serious topics in sociology and politics to consider, but the title gives away the book’s focus: It is, finally, a love story between two people whose ultimate separation probably disappoints many readers. Their backgrounds provide engrossing divagations. Denoon’s childhood pains him to relate because of the cruelty of his father, an alcoholic who was frustrated in his own socialist inclinations by the need to provide for his family. When Denoon was eleven, he constructed an artful edifice of glass; the act enraged his father, who demolished the structure with a pickaxe. The incident eventuates in the elaborate glassworks Denoon maintains at Tsau. Denoon hates alcohol, but there are indications that it is a demon he must guard against. The narrator’s childhood was beset by poverty and her mother’s humiliations over being overweight. If Denoon is haunted by his father’s alcoholism, something in the back of the narrator’s mind nags her about her weight. When she returns to Palo Alto, she takes real satisfaction in seeing her mother settled permanently in a Lutheran nursing home, where she works for her room and board.

Even though the narrator rejects Denoon in the end, judging him perhaps even an impostor, it is impossible not to take seriously his ideological convictions. In his dialogue with the African Marxist at the party where the narrator first sees him, he gives an eloquent explanation of the failures of socialism: Socialism deprives society of an efficient market mechanism; socialist economies have to lay aside money to buy technology because socialism stifles invention; socialism breeds a new class of economic crimes that are costly to suppress; and socialist economies always have to import food because socialism has never succeeded in agriculture. These are substantive criticisms that give weight to the narrative. Back in Palo Alto, lecturing to adoring groups of feminists, the narrator preaches Denoon’s precept: that “a true holocaust in the world is the thing we call development, which I tell them means the superimposition of market economies on traditional and unprepared third world cultures . . . and that this has been the seedbed of the televised spectacle of famine, misery, and disease confronting us in the comfort of our homes.”