Consuming the 480 pages of Norman Rush’s first novel, Mating, are the sometimes brilliant, mostly neurotic, and thoroughly nonstop thoughts of a Stanford anthropologist who falls in obsessive love with a utopian activist in Botswana. Mating, which received mostly unalloyed raves and the 1991 National Book Award, established Rush as a premier writer of introspection, from the occasionally silly-mundane to the repeatedly very highbrow. But to this disappointed reviewer, Mating amounted to an interminable transgender exercise in navel-gazing with a thesaurus.
Now, twelve years later, Rush offers further ruminations in his anticipated Mortals. More accurately labeled Mating Redux, Rush’s second novel (swollen beyond the size of the first by more than 250 pages) deals less directly with mortality than with the lovesickness of another intellectual in Botswana: secondary-school instructor and mid-level CIA agent Ray Finch. In thoughts expressed early and often in Mortals, Ray implausibly worships his attractive, but not-so-angelic, wife of 17 years, Iris. A representative sample:
“It never changed for him, seeing her again after a day’s separation, or even less. He felt a flowing, objectless gratitude so strong it weakened him…The shape of her heavy hair against the light and the scent of it as he put his face into her hair were perfections, were absolute things.”
Ray’s tireless regard for Iris, which is the foundation of Mortals, is fundamentally problematic because (1) Iris acts in irritating or outrightly hurtful ways (perhaps in retaliation for being dragged to Botswana), and (2) Ray perceives these behaviors and yet continues to idolize his wife. But in all fairness, Rush may intend a more subtly messed-up marital yin-yang here, and Iris is probably not so easily dismissed as a merely vindictive beauty.
Childless, idle, and inevitably distanced from Ray by the very nature of his job, Iris first creates a modest nuisance by exchanging letters with Ray’s homosexual brother in California, Rex, former demon-child and lifelong misanthrope. Ray is confounded by his wife’s new interest in Rex, a sibling with whom Ray has been deliberately incommunicado. But marital relations get really stilted when a Harvard-trained practitioner of alternative medicine, Davis Morel, moves to the capital, Gabarone, for the overblown purpose of freeing Africa from the shackles of Christianity.
Ray first sees Morel as a target of political interest, but this idea is quashed by Ray’s oblivious CIA boss, who instead wants Ray to investigate Samuel Kerekang, a popular defender of Christian values and local rabble-rouser. Morel, however, stays within Ray’s purview after Iris begins seeing the doctor for various physical and psychological complaints. Not unexpectedly, she becomes infatuated with Morel’s ideas on the infantilizing nature of religion and, most explosively, his contempt for the CIA. From there, Rush’s narrative goes on in an exceptionally winding and long-winded fashion (and includes, parenthetically, where-are-they-now cameos by Mating’s lovers).
There are expectations surrounding a 736-page novel, which advertises something extraordinary by the sheer means of its length. And Mortals — written in a curiously effective third-person perspective — does submit a broad assortment of lofty issues that course through Ray’s highly active brain. There is the nature of fidelity in marriage, to family, and to one’s character; the intentions and the consequences of life choices; mortality (yes), particularly as it applies to Rex and Africa vis-à-vis the AIDS pandemic; Africa’s social and political destinies; America’s involvement in third-world development; the societal influence of religion; and lastly, the decency of Ray’s own life.
But in the end, Mortals adds up to a mass of incompletely fleshed-out meditations that circle Ray’s uxoriousness. Case in point: Rush crafts an inspired dialogue between Morel and Kerekang on the societal worth of Christianity that is (notwithstanding inevitable comparisons between Rush and Graham Greene or John le Carré) remarkably Dostoyevskian in its execution. But to the reader’s frustration, Rush does not see this theme through. Likewise, Rush appears to propose a grand allegory for Africa with his characters, but the development fizzles. And because of these and similar letdowns, Mortals fails in its ambition to become anything of lasting substance.