It is said that Virginia Woolf once played a parlor game of sorts, and it went like this: all the partygoers wrote down what they considered to be the best novel ever written and tossed their slips of paper into a hat. The slips were pulled out; the notations read; from slip to slip, unanimously, Middlemarch won. Part of the reason for her admiration for Middlemarch, Woolf later wrote, was that she considered it to be “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
This essay is not about Middlemarch. This essay is about Mortals, by Norman Rush, published not in 1874 but in 2003. Mortals, too, is a novel for grown-ups, and it, too, is magnificent. But there the easy congruities end, because so far it’s an underground kind of book, criminally undersung. Yes, Rush received a National Book Award for his earlier and only other novel, Mating. And, yes, he has his following, and its devotion can be cultish. More than one friendship of mine has been solidified by the mere mention of Norman Rush—someone will toss off his name, maybe in passing, maybe contrasting him to some lesser but more loudly praised hero of literature, and I’ll exclaim, delighted, Oh, Norman Rush!, and we’ll both startle and take a closer look at each other, suddenly recognizing the kinship of that small but passionate band of brothers, that lucky few: Rush admirers.
But if I have learned anything from years of recommending this book to friends, family members, acquaintances, fellow writers, dinner party companions, deli clerks, taxi drivers, mailmen, telemarketers, stray passersby, and a few puzzled but forbearing cockatoos, it’s this: enthusiasm, by itself, accomplishes nothing.
So, specifics. First, the story. Mortals is about Ray Finch, a white American CIA agent living in Botswana in the post-Berlin Wall years. Almost 50, Ray is a singular spook: a gun-hater and Milton scholar, he’s also the kind of bibliophile who can calm himself by touching his books and who, under duress, relies on lines of poetry much as a devout Christian might turn to scripture. His expertise in literature provides his cover: by day, he’s a teacher of English literature at a school in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital.
But what, one might ask, is Ray doing in a job not usually thought of as a refuge for bookish hoplophobes? His wife, Iris, a liberal and an idealist, wants to know the answer to that question, and thence springs the crisis that quickens the first half of Mortals. Iris believes in Ray and in his potential for greatness, and believes, furthermore, that his other, better destiny lies outside the agency. She wants him out of his job. And her wants matter, because, to Ray, Iris is of the highest importance. It’s difficult to think of a more convincing depiction of two adults who seem—through Ray’s eyes, at least—to be crazy about each other. Early in the novel, Ray thinks to himself, funnily, “Being obsessed with someone you had been married to for seventeen years was probably a first.” Conjugal sex abounds; conversation, too. They’re clever; they’re carnal; they make each other laugh. Logophiles both, they love wordplay. They revel in their intellects, both their own and each other’s; to be alive and so well-coupled, it seems, is very heaven. But unease is rattling their Eden: despite their compatibility, Iris is dissatisfied, and Ray knows it. The novel begins in disquiet, with this exquisitely backtracking first sentence: “At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized.”
Their marriage is made more precarious with the advent of Davis Morel, a black holistic doctor and devoted atheist. Davis has come from Boston to Botswana determined to spread the gospel of humanist enlightenment, and is all ideals and high purposes; the man doesn’t even lie. Even before Iris lets her husband know she’s started seeing Davis for therapy, Ray distrusts him, and tries to investigate him via the agency; after the revelation, his distrust becomes obsession. He suspects Iris of being attracted to the good doctor. Spy that he is, he watches her, he analyzes her, and he even studies her doodles. He holds his breath when she talks, so as not to miss a single inflection of her words; irritated, she asks him to stop.
At this unstable juncture, Ray is ordered into the field to find an arsonist who, along with a band of followers, is at large somewhere in the Kalahari. And so it is that this adultery novel turns political thriller, so full of suspense and violence—terrorizing! killing! interrogation!—that, one day, some behemoth of a movie studio surely will try to bastardize the novel. Meanwhile, amid the pandemonium, Ray finds cause to examine his life, his métier, and his marriage, and to start pursuing that most American of aims, redemption.
Mortals is so rich, so full of marvels, that one is tempted to create a Borgesian map to the book, an appreciation as large as the novel itself. But I’ll stop here with the narrative, because as pleasurable as is his storytelling, it’s Rush’s genius with language that raises him from the excellent to the extraordinary. He writes so beautifully. And I don’t mean “beautifully” in the way of so many, lesser novelists—by slapping in pretty metaphors, or indulging in facile lyricisms—oh, no, no. Instead, and to a greater extent than almost any writer I can think of, Rush is interested in the rhythms of thought, in how we hear and speak to ourselves. Take, for example, the following excerpt. Ray has come upon a fire set by he’s not sure whom; a man is dead on the ground, his brains dashed out; alarmingly, Ray thinks he sees someone moving in the distance, and then this:
“I am ashamed,” he announced. He didn’t know what he meant but he could figure it out because he was intelligent. All he needed was a rest. In fact, as he got to his feet again, he figured out why he’d said what he’d said. It was private. What he was ashamed of was that ever since he had come down into this burning place the bottom half of his mind had been converted into a prayer rug. He had been playing a constant Muzak of appeals to God, thanks to God for this and that. He visualized his brain sitting in a thick syrup like cough medicine. He began coughing just then and asked God to help him stop. He stopped. He thanked God. He couldn’t not, it seemed.
What’s startling here is how closely this passage tracks Ray’s mind. There’s the way Ray feels the general emotion, shame, before he can identify what its causes might be. “He could figure it out because he was intelligent”—not, the reader will notice, “because he had faith in his intelligence” or “because he could count on his brain.” Rush has pushed aside the scrim of authorial remove; this is exactly the way someone like Ray, so used to relying on his intellect, would phrase his self-assurances. Then there are the perfect, abashed metaphors of the prayer rug and the Muzak. Ray, a secularist who tries to be intellectually rigorous with himself, isn’t one to enjoy his foxhole-atheist pleas. Then there’s the comparison to cough medicine that segues into his involuntary coughing, either because he has already started to feel the urge to cough, or because the image provokes the latent need: whichever it is, again, this is an apt and unforced metaphor, made true to how Ray, in that moment, would think. Finally, there is the wonderful swing from reason to fear and back again, appealing to God, then being ashamed of himself for appealing to God, and so on.
This, I would argue, is one of the keenest pleasures of the novel and is singular to the form. Film, music, painting, sculpture, day-to-day life: more than all of these, intoxicatingly, the novel can give us intimate access to the workings of the mind of someone who is not ourselves. And Rush, more than almost any living writer, generously grants that ingress.
Ray, so wholly revealed to his readers, works throughout the novel toward greater self-knowledge. With increased knowledge comes judgment, and with judgment comes the possibility of correction. Here, perhaps, is why I count Mortals as a novel for grown-ups: it is deeply concerned with moral questions. Not by moralizing—dear god, no—but instead in its understanding of the ways in which our intellects and intentions can fail us—can, in fact, lead us madly astray. So, for example, this following passage early in the novel is a fascinating study in self-justification:
He wasn’t a thug. In fact he took pride in the certainty that he had never directly injured anyone in all his years in intelligence, not once, directly. And of course he had chosen to work in the borderlands of the struggle. He saw himself as a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his.
More backtracking: in that second sentence, those three words “not once, directly” suggest underlying depths of doubt. And, in the same sentence, the careful use of the word “certainty” insinuates the exact opposite: “certainty” is much less certain than, say, the word “fact” or “reality.” It’s worth mentioning that Ray went into the CIA at least partly because of his own ideals, in a time before Vietnam, before Guatemala, when Communism loomed as the one enemy and the United States could seem a last great hope. In both his personal and professional lives, Ray meant well—means well—but of what use is that? At 48, is he living a good life, and what is a good life? As an American and as a person with power, his actions have consequences; that Ray is made responsible for these consequences makes Mortals, rollickingly comic though it can be, serious and necessary.
Are there faults to the novel? Well, there is perhaps too much prose dedicated to Iris’s perfections: her breasts, her face, her wit. Also, I know of people who have found the narration, so stylistically unique, to become wearying somewhere in the course of the 700-plus pages. A chapter in which Davis lectures on the shortcomings of Christian doctrine could, to some, be tiresome. But there are flaws to all great and ambitious novels, loose baggy monsters that they are. The critic James Wood, a champion of Rush, rightly has said that big books such as Mortals “flick away their own failings and weaknesses, make insects of them.”
A French mathematician, after watching a performance of Racine’s Iphigénie, shrugged and asked, “Qu’est-ce que cela prouve?” What does that prove? Rush’s novel proves, what, that we are alone, that we try to be less alone, that, as irresponsible as we are, we are responsible, that we can’t help ourselves, that we have to try to help ourselves: like life, but better, it urgently proves nothing and everything, and must, dear readers, dear writers, dear cockatoos, be read.