Mortal Splendor

Think of Iris Finch, the woman at the center of Norman Rush’s marvelous new novel, Mortals, as a much-coveted, poorly understood country in danger of revolution. Her husband, Ray, is her nominal ruler and occupier—a colonial power. But sinister forces are circling, fomenting an uprising, and as the novel gets under way, Ray, having taken notice, is in a defensive, watchful position.

Rush, who won the National Book Award for Mating, in 1991, has written a book that’s its equal, with a wonderful balance between the interlocking arcs of its plot. Ray is a CIA man in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana (comic irony No. 1: Why does the CIA have a single agent, let alone an office, in such a backwater with the Cold War just ended?), with a cover as the headmaster of a prep school. Deeply schooled in English literature, he thinks of himself as a kind of embedded historian—the reports he writes “went straight to posterity,” he likes to think, “without needing to be nastily reviewed in the Washington Post, say, or the New Republic.”

As in Mating, Rush’s main character is a do-gooder of a type, another species of American missionary. But only careful moral parsing allows Ray to live with his CIA career: “He saw himself as a provider of truths that others would make use of … the morality of what they did with them being their problem, and not his.”

But Iris is his problem, and the problem is getting worse. She begins to see a handsome African-American psychiatrist named Davis Morel, a man of wide learning and unconventional methods, with a personal mission to save Africa from the West’s various “poisoned gifts,” chief among them Christianity. Whereas Mating was a novel about love, Mortals is about jealousy. “The underlying burning question of what exactly was going on with her over at Morel’s,” writes Rush, “was with him constantly, like indigestion.”

Ray understands that as regards Iris, this is a war of ideology—her mind is the crucial command-and-control facility for her lower self. While, sexually, she has no complaints (this is a favorite subject of Rush’s, and he lingers on it), politically he’s compromised. “I know this sounds stupid,” Iris says, “but one thing I want in this life is to have nothing to do … with cruelty.” Morel, who’s predictably anti-CIA, holds the moral high ground.

Ray is not at all conflicted about his war aim of defending Iris from this usurper. “I’m going to crush Morel,” he thinks. Which is a more vigorous posture than he has ever taken toward his own work. Ray is a rationalizer, a Menshevik among Bolsheviks. “He would defend his country as a decent package of forces,” writes Rush. “Of course all governments were evil, or had a level of evil within them, but in the case of America, wasn’t it fair to say that being evil was forced on it by lesser and more corrupt governments?” But Ray’s inclination to subtlety and nuance impedes action. His sophistication has made him choose to be in the background, a follower; it’s that old best-lack-all-conviction thing, the sense in which power is seldom a meritocracy.

Part of the privilege—and the burden, of course—of being an American is the complexity of this moral position, power being exerted in your name, learning how to live with it, or not. There’s no one writing who shows more insight into this question than Rush—and it’s never been a more interesting question.

Ray’s spymaster is proof of that proposition. He’s also given a name that resonates: Boyle. Boyle is Sidney Greenstreet–ish, minus the reptilian glamour. To Ray, he represents a coarsening of the agency and the world. He’s an ugly American, and Rush delights in describing his repulsiveness: “He was bearded and when his fat cheeks bunched up in a smile it was like seeing cue balls rising out of a sack.” He’s simultaneously dangerous (“Boyle had been to Guatemala and liked it, was the story”) and ridiculous (he’s constructed a secret office, entered by a hidden panel) and banal. (“All Boyle wanted was a new heaven and earth. Someplace all clean and nice.”)

Boyle’s particular version of a city on a hill is reachable by air-conditioned BMW. But all the Americans in this book are trying to build one. Botswana (and of course the rest of the world) is a giant laboratory for American self-exploration. The Botswanans are in the background, part of the set, to be saved or destroyed or ignored according to some higher purpose.

Rush was a conscientious objector during the Korean War. He spent five years as co-director, with his wife, Elsa, of the Peace Corps in Botswana. He isn’t part of the fiction community (whatever that is or should be). His two novels (his first book was the 1986 short-story collection Whites) are instantly canonical, and somehow defy category. The depth and richness of his experience and his mastery at reducing it to the page give his books their own force and gravity. It’s an oddly Victorian enterprise (one thinks of Darwin): a naturalist returning from exotic places with a trove of insights to pour into books over a period of decades. Or more aptly, it’s an imperialist enterprise. And it is this focus—he’s the essential novelist, among other things, of globalization—that makes Rush so exciting to read now. One wants to call him the best writer of his generation, but one imagines that Rush would reject the category, or at least have a fairly complex idea as to what it means. As with any great novel, one wonders how the seamless conjuring—the amazing precision and playfulness of the voice, the flashing river of thoughts and insights and formulations and feelings—was accomplished. The voice (which is a continuation of the voice in Mating) is an end in itself, above and beyond the Graham Greene–ish satisfactions of the plot. Some will find it show-offy—but it’s a feat.

Another quality that makes his books so charged is that Rush doesn’t shrink from describing the inequality and distortions of sexual relationships. Iris is smart, her every utterance dissected—Rush particularly fetishizes her sense of humor—but she’s still installed on a traditionally designed pedestal, described as “the most beautiful white woman in Southern Africa,” among other superlatives. Ray worships her, but his masculine gaze is oppressive. She’s all that stands between Ray and ruin. She’s a case to be cracked (Rush makes this plain—at some point, Ray begins to refer to her as “the subject matter”). He needs a doctrine, a theory, a counterforce strategy. “The question of women as a subject came down to their unhappiness,” Ray thinks, in a formulation to launch a thousand book-club battles.

Inevitably, the book’s climax is an errand into the wilderness—the Kalahari. Plot lines are knotted into glorious—and gloriously unlikely—blossoms as Ray wrestles with his enemies and his conscience. One thinks of Robert Stone, but without the theatricalized existential despair. Implausible as some of the plot developments seem to be, Rush’s amazing rendering obviates the need for suspension of disbelief.

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By Norman Rush.
Alfred A. Knopf; 715 pages; $26.95.
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Mortal Splendor