Best of the Millennium

#13: Mortals by Norman Rush

By posted at 10:17 am on September 22, 2009 9

coverThe intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy.

What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch’s midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.

Yet Mortals doesn’t feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray’s blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive.

Read an excerpt from Mortals.
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9 Responses to “#13: Mortals by Norman Rush”

  1. Wax Banks
    at 12:25 am on September 30, 2009

    Of course this should be higher up the list, but it’s good to find it listed in any case. I chose a passage from Mortals to be read at my wedding; yes perverse and yes pretentious, maybe, but where else do you turn for love in this language?

    Or the idea was to so charge her life with his appreciation that some morning she would sit up and say What the fuck is going on with us, I am so happy. The idea was to let this single flower bloom until it was something monstrous, like an item in a Max Ernst collage, something that fills the room and the occupant says Oh, this is you, this is you, my beloved friend, my love, now I see, something along those lines. He was going to float her in love and she would be like those paper flowers that open up. Water rising around her. She didn’t know about him that he could get an erection just thinking in passing about her and that on one occasion…

    Rush’s talent is obscene, which means, I suppose, that he’s the right man for an obscene job. Christ, what a book.

  2. Susanna
    at 1:44 pm on October 9, 2009

    Thank you, Garth. This is a wonderful book.

  3. James Wood
    at 10:02 am on February 18, 2010

    Congratulations to this blog for promoting Norman Rush’s work — he is the most neglected major writer in America. Like Garth Hallberg, I definitely hear echoes of Bellow; but Rush is unclassifiable, as you also suggest, and I think his next book — his first to be set in America — will be unlike anything he has written before.
    James Wood

  4. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 4:09 pm on February 18, 2010

    For those playing along at home, Rush’s next has been in the works since 2003. Set in the Catskills on the eve of the Iraq War, it’s got the working title Subtle Bodies, and examines friendship, as Mortals looked at marriage, and Mating examined…well, mating.

  5. Alec Michod
    at 5:56 pm on February 18, 2010

    Three years ago, I was lucky to attend a reading at the 92nd Street Y, featuring Martin Amis and–hooray!–Norman Rush. Rush read from “Subtle Bodies,” and, while I have loved every one of his sentences I have read, and while, like Mr. Wood, I think his work is unjustly neglected, there was indeed something different about this new work–something fresher, more poignant, more human (if that is in fact possible, given the great humanity of Rush’s previous novels). While other so-called “major” writers have written themselves into self-aggrandized corners (and I think we all know who I’m talking about here), Rush has held back. I like to think of him as a kind of American JM Coetzee, if such a thing is possible: a public intellectual who has, in only the most interesting ways, rebuffed the role of the public intellectual; a novelist who draws emotional power from restraint, and who is capable of locating the being in the nothingness that surrounds us.

  6. Rick
    at 1:25 pm on October 24, 2011

    You all have to be kidding or retarded regarding Mr. Rush. He is a dreadful
    writer. As the NY Times critic said about , “Mortals”:

    ”Mortals” is a long, tedious and thoroughly haphazard production — a kitchen sink of a book that possesses none of the pointillist detail of ”Whites,” the author’s haunting debut collection of stories (1986), and all the flaws of his 1991 novel, ”Mating” — and more. Though ”Mortals” gradually gathers speed and focus near its conclusion, only the most persevering of readers are likely to slog through the book’s 700-odd pages to get there.

    Despite (or perhaps because of) all this bad Lawrentian writing, their marriage never seems like a real relationship. It’s hard to believe that after 17 years of marriage, Iris and Ray discuss their feelings about religion for the first time — ”so you were a believer for how long?” — or that they say things like ”I just wanted to touch voices” when she calls him at the office to say hello.

    Despite (or perhaps because of) all this bad Lawrentian writing, their marriage never seems like a real relationship. It’s hard to believe that after 17 years of marriage, Iris and Ray discuss their feelings about religion for the first time — ”so you were a believer for how long?” — or that they say things like ”I just wanted to touch voices” when she calls him at the office to say hello.

  7. Sarah Plum
    at 11:53 pm on June 9, 2013

    I read Mating for the first time a few weeks ago. It had been on my TBR list for awhile and life had simply gotten in the way. I was blown away and purchased Morals right away. NOw I am about 100 pages into Morals and loving it – expansive- I am expanding into its world – and with pleasure. Still not sure why this writer is under the radar – so smart, so funny, I am enjoying it so much and dreading getting to the end.

  8. Sarah Plum
    at 7:10 pm on June 16, 2013

    And Rick, remember who said it was a “long, tedious and thoroughly haphazard production”. If Michiko Kakutani likes a book I know to run the other way!

  9. Thomas Wylie
    at 12:11 am on September 17, 2013

    Does anyone care, can anyone care, what Kakutani says in any of her recent reivews? If any other reviewer’s works were so inconsistent and lacking in understanding of the books under review then they would have been fired long ago. She works hard at getting noticed but deserves to be ignored.

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