Paperback review: Mating, By Norman Rush


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The Independent Culture

This novel first appeared in 1991, but still seems extraordinary, innovative, sui generis. An unnamed female anthropologist is doing fieldwork for her thesis in Botswana; she conceives an intense interest in the charismatic Nelson Denoon, writer, intellectual, social theorist, who has started up a utopian community, run by women, in the heart of the Kalahari desert.

So she makes a solo trek through the desert to find him, and there ensues a passionate love affair, both physical and intellectual: these two are as hungry for each other’s brains as each other’s bodies. The unashamed intellectualism is one of the things that makes this book so unusual: when we first meet Denoon he’s lecturing about the faults of capitalism and why socialism is no remedy; a typical dinner conversation is about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a novel of real, original ideas about feminism, love, politics, race and anthropology. Then there is the style. Rush throws to the wind that old creative maxim, “Show Don’t Tell”. His narrator explains everything: events, her view of events, her analysis of her view of events. Much of the dialogue occurs as reported speech, interspersed with her interpretations of what was said and what the underlying motives must have been. It’s peppered with snatches of French, Latin, and Setswana (unitalicised) and the vocabulary is both flamboyant and precise. A high proportion of sentences are stand-alone epigrams: “The celerity with which people recognize something is spilt milk is a main measure of their rationality.” Chapters have intriguing titles such as “This Is How depraved You Can Become”. I hope I’m not making the whole thing sound like a mere display of braininess. This is a story with blood in its veins. And the narrator is the best female character created by a male author I have ever come across.