Norman Rush – Mating

I will readily admit that I have been neglecting my reading, and I can offer no valid excuses – work, pretty eyed boys, sports, and pretty weather for pints are not valid excuses for ignoring the many novels I continue to collect.

I’ve been fighting my way through Norman Rush’s Mating for a lot longer than I care to admit. There was something off-putting about this novel; the narrator made me grimace and I was reluctant to enter her world. Reading the blurb, it would seem that this is a book written entirely pour moi; the narrator is an American academic with a broken thesis struggling to get her work together in Botswana and eventually falling for some man and neglecting the path she’d initially set out on. The blurb concludes with: “What ensues is both a quest and an exuberant comedy of manners, a book that explores the deepest canyons of eros even as it asks large questions about the good society, the geopolitics of poverty, and the baffling mystery of what men and women really want.” Rush’s work is compared to that of John Fowles and Garcia Marquez; yes, name dropping in a review will get my attention. The novel received much praise and was awarded the National Book Award. Glowing review after glowing review surrounded its publication. People LOVED this book, Rush’s first novel. Sounds fantastic, right? I thought so. And then I met the unnamed female narrator, a young pretty woman who quickly tells the reader that she’s been living in the bush basically alone for months, that her thesis on nutritional anthropology is a wash, and that she’s horny. She’s not so bad, I thought. A little stuck on herself, but she’d probably be good for a pint. (I like to judge literary characters based on whether or not I think I could successfully drink a pint with them.) She quickly showed herself as an overly pretentious, name-dropping, arrogant intellectual; I grew to hate her. With every French or Latin phrase she dropped, I loathed her more. For a couple of hundred pages, I despised and distrusted her. Then it hit me, she’s me. I’m not that bad and I don’t go around with my chest puffed out in imagined intellectual superiority, but I do have my moments. Hrmmm… Thank you, Rush, for that unexpected self-evaluation.

After a couple hundred pages, I started to relate to this unnamed female voice, her lack of name (and direction) not going unnoticed. Very long story short, she’s spent over a year in the bush trying to gather material for her thesis, been relatively unproductive, gone to the city to recharge and be a decadent American, heard rumors of this guy and his utopian society, and was pushed toward him. Her relationship with Denoon was constructed by herself (she chose lovers who could get her more information on this remarkable man who she quickly abandoned her course of study to follow) and by Denoon’s wife, who needed an escape. In time, she makes the journey to Tsau. It’s a dangerous journey and one she willingly admits she took to get Denoon’s attention. She wanted to send him a clear message. She nearly dies doing so, but the message is sent.

Tsau is a matriarchal society of broken/fallen/scorned women. It’s Denoon’s brainchild. Yes, the self-sustaining village of African women has a white man as a father; yes, race & gender are very important in this novel. The women in the village all have names and defining characteristics; they are not the white woman in love with Denoon. She becomes so enamored in him. He has become her course of study, quite nearly her raison d’être. She believes she has found her intellectual equal in this older man. She becomes a little obsessive and consciously begins to treat him like an academic subject. She takes notes, measurements (she manages to scare the pants off of him when she goes to measure his penis while he is asleep – he wakes up, sees the shiny tape measure by his manhood and, understandably, panics).

The relationship between the unnamed narrator and Denoon is relatively uninteresting. The novel flourishes in its descriptions of Tsau and the women that make up this amazing utopian-esque village. And the stuff I love about the novel is attributed to the narrator’s background in anthropology. There are several things worth brief mention:

1) The snake women – this is a group of very revered women who are summoned when a snake is spotted. They capture the snake and it usually ends up as part of the meal later that day. With so many poisonous snakes in the area, this group is very important in the protection of the village. Later in the novel, Denoon is praised for ridding the village of snakes – but it’s the women who do so- the women do everything.

2) Male prostitutes. The men in the village are few and far between. They have to be family members of the women and receive special permission to reside there. They are also not allowed to vote and have to work very hard for their keep. The women begin hiring them as prostitutes, much to Denoon’s displeasure. Our unnamed narrator LOVES this fact.

3) Abortion. A 13 year old girl ends up pregnant and our narrator responds as a white American would – she knows a doctor who will perform an abortion with no questions asked. Denoon is appalled – if it is discovered that an illegal abortion occurred in Tsau, it would be bad for the future of his dream society. What our narrator forgets is that these women are well versed in how to make a baby and how to get rid of an unwanted baby; they don’t the white woman’s doctor. The young girl “miscarries.” It reminded me of a line in the short story “Girl.”

There are many other things worth note about life at Tsau, but these just stood out to me. As for the relationship – things get a little awkward for the white couple when Denoon’s village begins to function without him. One of the men, the one who impregnated the young girl, comes up missing. Several people in the village accuse Denoon. This accusation leads to him make a journey to a neighboring village. It’s a dangerous journey and he doesn’t make it – he gets knocked off his horse and is quite wounded. He is found several days later and returned to camp not quite the man he used to be. Our narrator tries to fix him, to bring him back, but she is unable to do so. Interestingly enough, she finds a young, beautiful girl and does the same thing Denoon’s wife did to her; she manipulates the situation and nearly forces Bronwen in Denoon’s bed. Then she escapes back to America, where she is an instant celebrity in academic circles and, after Tsau is referenced as a matriarchal society, with feminist groups.

Back in America, our unnamed narrator seems to grasp the unhealthy obsession she had with Denoon. But there’s a maternal instinct in her that still wants to save him. She had hoped that Bronwen would fix him but she receives a message from Tsau that the pretty woman has been kicked out (and the man that came up missing has been discovered safe and sound). Part of our narrator thinks that the message is all a lie from Denoon to get her to return. The novel ends with the following line:“What is to be done? Je viens. Why not?”

And so the unnamed white woman will return to the situation that claimed not only her identity, but her sanity.

I’d recommend this novel, but not to everybody. It requires a certain intelligence and love of learning to appreciate it and quite frankly, none of you are smart enough. I keed. I keed.

Some reviews have praised the relationship between the unnamed woman and Denoon as being an ideal, some women find hope of great love in the text, I found nothing of the sort. It was not an equal partnership; it was not love.
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Vintage (September 1, 1992)

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