A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
The 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.
That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Here’s another, called “Lonely”:
No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.
Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.
As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.
In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.
(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)