The narrative voice in Norman Rush's National Book Award-winning Mating was singular and staggeringly brilliant. It dealt with big ideas and bigger passions. His second novel, Mortals, was as ambitious as Mating but its charms lay more in the scope of the action and the acuity of perception than in the singularity of voice or the grandness of ideas. His long-awaited third novel, Subtle Bodies (Knopf)-his first work not set in Africa (where Rush worked in the Peace Corps)-is not as ambitious as either of its predecessors. It is still full of the kinds of perceptions that skew the world around you and force you to see it differently, but in a slower, subtler, and even gentler way. It feels rather more like the late post-Underworld DeLillo or the late-late post-Human Stain Roth-a slight book by a major master.
The plot is, strangely enough, virtually the same as that of the Boomer classic The Big Chill, except that Rush's group came of age in the '70s instead of the '60s and were apolitical cineastes instead of vaguely political former hippies (who were even more political in John Sayles' The Return of the Secaucus 7, on which The Big Chill was based).
In Rush's version, Douglas, the definite leader of the group, which is described as a "cult of friendship," dies (lawnmower, ditch) and the others are summoned to his palatial yet crumbling estate off in the country, where he has been living with his gorgeous wife, Iva, and his half-feral son, Hume. Though they haven't seen each other in many years, Ned, the main character, who is trying both to organize a massive protest against the Iraq war and impregnate his wife, immediately flees both responsibilities to attend his friend's memorial service, which, as it turns out, is a grand affair, for Douglas has become rather famous. When he arrives, all the old gang is there, Gruen, Joris, and Elliot, who is running things. Ned assumes that none of them have been in much better touch with each other than he has been with them, and only slowly do all of the other connections between these characters come out.
I know, it sounds tedious. But from the first page on, the book is suffused with the vivid presence of Ned's wife, Nina, who, furious that he would leave her when she is ovulating, boards a plane and wildly follows him.
Mating was narrated by an unnamed female in pursuit of a visionary intellectual in Africa, and Mortals was dominated by a husband's thoughts about his wife. Subtle Bodies manages to capture both of these overall attitudes in its alternating point of view. Its first words are:
"Genitals have their own lives, his beloved Nina had said at the close of an argument over whether even the most besotted husband could be trusted one hundred percent faced with the permanent sexual temptations the world provided . . . She was a genius at imagining inescapable sex traps. There could be a nun suffering from hysterical blindness that would probably become permanent unless she received a sacrificial screw from somebody's husband, alas."
When she finally finds Ned at Douglas' estate, they quickly retreat to a cabin built for (but never occupied by) the boy Hume, and she thinks: "Getting fucked was so interesting, seen from the peculiar detached mental moment that could descend on her during the act. She felt a flash of fellowship with all women getting fucked, the ones getting fucked carelessly or badly or cruelly, the ones fucked decently or brilliantly. She thought of the shadow of night sliding around the globe endlessly, and with the fall of night the clashing of a million cymbals sounding and representing the coming together of males and females in the Continue Humanity project, this colossal enterprise."
It's not just Nina's thoughts about sex that are interesting, but all of her thoughts are intensely corporeal, embodied, despite the constant stream of spiritual advice about the Akashic record relayed by her mother via telephone. Ned says "Now Nina, you could say, contains multitudes." And as he tells his friends, who are drinking, about these multitudes and how she has to watch ValueVision (like QVC) on television in order to go to sleep, Nina, who has just met them, bursts into the room. "This is what you do, and please do it for eternity. It goes like this. You unzip, raise the seat, and address the toilet from above, as follows. . . . You straddle the toilet, which yes you can do without pushing your pants down. You lean slightly forward toward the wall behind the tank. You aim straight down like your stream is an Olympic diver going down straight."
And it is finally Nina who, at first jealous of Ned's friends, finally helps him see the reality of the situation and to truly value them as people. There is still a tragedy lurking behind every scene the book in the form of its historical subtext. Rush himself was imprisoned for refusing to go to the Korean War, and Ned and Nina's minds are both filled with thoughts of the international protest, which they are certain will stop the invasion of Iraq. It is both frustrating and somehow apt to find Ned thinking, as we all sometimes do, that he can stop, or at least change, the course of history. And so, at the end of the book we wonder, What else does he have entirely wrong? And in that moment of utter doubt, we get a glimpse of Rush's master stroke.