Book Review: “Mating” by Norman Rush

March 21, 2010

This is not a book for the impatient. Dense, demanding and highbrow, Norman Rush’s National Book Award-winning novel about an obsessive academic chasing idealized love in the Botswana bush of the early 1980s is both adorable and infuriating in its impenetrable cleverness.

It took me over a month to read this book, which follows a thesis-stymied anthropologist from Stanford as she chases down political-activist-cum-revolution-figure Nelson Denoon, finding him and wooing him in his isolated feminist village experiment in the central Kalahari. This is Tsau, Denoon’s somewhat implausible ideological refuge for maligned and mistreated women. Tsau is run as a regime that flips the typical Botswanan patriarchy—rendered both as a chauvinistic travesty and as a timeless, quaint culture that the Benighted White West was poisoning—on its head, granting landowning privileges and political clout exclusively to women.

Tsau’s veneer of utopia wears a bit thin as our protagonist—she remains, obnoxiously, unnamed—engages in pseudo-intellectual love games with her quarry (Denoon) and becomes wrapped up in Tsau’s intrigues.

The thoroughness with which Rush renders his heroine is impressive, perhaps the most thorough inner monologue I have ever seen a novelist give a first-person character of the opposite gender. From dysmenorrhea to maternal yearnings, Rush runs his protagonist through all of the necessary feminine paces. I looked for obvious absurdities in motives but couldn’t exactly find any.

To you, the reader, Norman Rush says: “You’d better work as hard as I did.” (Of course, Rush would not use quotation marks or even paragraph breaks to denote dialog; that’s your job, as reader, to decipher). Mating demands familiarity with all of the major liberal arts fields, from western philosophy to political theory. The vocabulary is borderline cruel, forcing me to keep a dictionary handy. Echt, adumbrate, lares, bouleversement, noetic, crescive, elenchus, divagate, apercus, anschluss, sessile—on nearly every page of the 500-page intellectual trial was a word I’d never even seen before. What was he thinking? Does he hate us? Maybe not, but you’d better be up to date on your categories of socialism and your grasp of Middlemarch and Latin phraseology.

The real tragedy here is that there is extraordinary writing skill and some distinctly compelling plot that gets lost in the screaming academic fury of the book. Rush’s understanding of 1980s South African politics and culture is admirable—he spent time there, and not just a dabble of time—and his sentences are often stunning. But the book is so cerebral as to chase away or otherwise flout most of its would-be readers.

3.0 stars
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