Norman Rush didn't publish his first novel, Mating, until he was in his late fifties, and his next full-length work, Mortals (2003), arrived 12 years later. For a writer considered patient and careful, with a sinuous style, his third long-gestating novel threatens to undo that reputation.
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Ned and Nina are a couple trying for a baby. Following the death of a college friend, Ned travels from one coast of America to the other (already a departure for Rush – all his previous fiction was set in Botswana) to attend the memorial. Nina, desperate not to miss her ovulating window, follows him so that he can fulfil his paternal duty.
Their relationship is not as fraught as this cross-country chase implies. Nina regards her husband as a "secular Jesus… So far as she knew, he had never done a bad thing." She is not fond of her husband's old pals, however. In fact she has little time for anything unrelated to procreation, while Ned is more concerned with protests and petitions against impending war (the novel is set just before the invasion of Iraq).
Ned's friends aren't that awful. They are soft outlines of their more raucous student selves. The most potentially divisive character is Douglas, the deceased figurehead of Ned's circle. It is unfortunate we don't get to meet him, because this is a novel that could use a rebellious force.
As the mourning group convene at Douglas's castle (he got rich as a debunker of forgeries) there is surprisingly little friction. Affairs are somewhere in the background. Buried secrets are hinted at. Yet nothing manifests. Rush is interested in intellectual back-and-forth and there is some diverting, ironic material on US foreign-policy debates circa 2003. But this couldn't be called a novel of ideas – it's not substantial enough – nor is it a novel of incident.
Aside from the thematic similarities and phraseological quirks, Subtle Bodies contrasts brutally with Rush's earlier writing. The sentences are unspectacular, the characters hard to differentiate, and, worst of all, Rush seems to have lost his curiosity. Admirers of Mating and Mortals are likely to be left bewildered.
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