Liza St. James: The Last Book I Loved, Mating


I had just graduated from college and was adrift — not sure what I wanted to do nor whether I wanted to be sure  — when I met the unnamed narrator of Mating with whom it became all too easy to identify.

“I had never allowed myself this kind of hiatus,” explains the narrator, an American doctorate candidate in nutritional anthropology researching an abortive thesis in Southern Africa. “I was deliberately planless. I was even able to suppress the vague internalized lifetime reading plan that always nags me when I read trash. I decided to let myself read only whatever turned up in my vicinity.” While I finally had time to begin my own lifetime reading plan, externalized by now-dusty titles deferred in the name of completing a thesis, I felt similarly inclined to read whatever turned up instead. Fortunately for me, what turned up was Mating.

Considering the devoted following I’ve since learned he has, I can’t believe I went so long without having heard of Norman Rush. It wasn’t until two different people referred to his first novel, Mating, within a single week, that I began what ultimately became a Rush spree, consisting of his three published books to date. The one I enjoyed most, however — and to which it turns out I had a rather fitting introduction — was my first. That is, I decided to read Mating when two men I had just met but already found intellectually stimulating coincidentally mentioned it within the same week, only to learn that it is a book in which many principal decisions are made in pursuit of what the narrator calls intellectual love.

When Mating’s narrator decides to remain in Africa, having nothing awaiting her in the States except a reproachful university department and her “poor barge of a mother,” she embraces directionlessness in a way that many independent, ambitious, feminist women fear most: she follows a man. And the fact that this man seems to meet her scrupulous Serious Man criteria doesn’t keep her from criticizing herself about it. Viewing her life as “the supremely boring unfinished comic opera The Mediocre and Me,” the narrator is bent on “hanging out with the finalists.” Enter Nelson Denoon, an elusive and contentious academic working on his newest top-secret project, Tsau, a solar-powered, matriarchal colony in the Kalahari for destitute African women. The narrator makes it her project to infiltrate Denoon’s utopian village and win him over, beginning with a walk alone across a hundred miles of desert to get there. “My utopia,” she says, “is equal love, equal love between people of equal value, although value is an approximation for the word I want. Why is it so difficult?”

Part of what makes Mating so extraordinary is its unreserved approach to exposing this difficulty. As Denoon and the narrator grow closer to one another, readers become privy to the effects of each new level of intimacy. We listen to their discussions, which run the gamut from international development to poetry; we learn their inside jokes and the games they play together. One of such games, for example, involves making up rhymes to insert into the structure “The band can’t play ’cause dot dot dot,” based on the Bob Dylan lyric “The pump don’t work ’cause a vandal stole the handle.” We witness the pinnacle of intellectual love, but we aren’t spared the hang-ups. We know, for instance, that the narrator has ideal weights in mind for both of them, even though she claims to object to assortative mating. “Why can’t every mating in the world,” she asks, “be on the basis of souls instead of inevitably and fundamentally on the match between physical envelopes? Of course we all know the answer, which is that otherwise we would be throwing evolution into disarray. Still it distresses me. We know what we are.”

Likewise, Denoon’s realization that Tsau no longer depends upon his involvement parallels some of the narrator’s apprehensions about their relationship as well as stresses both of their latent concerns with respect to the project: Can a man effectively found a matriarchal village? Is the village a success when this founder leaves so that it may perpetuate itself, or when he stays as a subordinate because no other society is as perfect? “Why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions,” the narrator asks, “are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity?”

When flaws become more apparent in their relationship, the stakes of over-intellectualizing love seem to increase. Denoon’s demystification for the narrator potentially also marks the narrator’s demystification for the reader. For me this wasn’t a problem; where her pretensions and contradictions could have become grating, her intelligence and honesty justified them. I empathized with her desire “to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.” And this is how it feels to read Mating; everything is incorporated into this cache of thought-provoking digressions and obscure facts, sprinkled with borrowings from Setswana, Afrikaans, and Latin.

Yet for all the ideas Mating incorporates, it directly resolves very little. Dealing in questions rather than answers, Mating has a way of making things seem possible for both its characters and its readers — intellectual love included. At one point, the narrator states that what’s enticing about intellectual love is “the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss.” This is what reading Mating feels like, too, except that the parts of the landscape lit up by Mating’s searchlight seem to reveal even more dubious or fraudulent parts of the landscape which, without some light, you wouldn’t have known existed at all.

Liza St. James is a writer and translator from San Francisco. She teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University. More from this author →