Mortals , by Norman Rush. Alfred A. Knopf, 715 pages, $26.95.
To call Ray Finch, the protagonist of Mortals, “uxorious” is to understate the case. Here’s a guy who comes home from work to his wife of many years and muses: “It never changed for him, seeing her again after a day’s separation, or even less. He felt a flowing, objectless gratitude so strong it weakened him.” At another point, he reflects: “He loved Iris. She was on his mind too much. It was a problem. Being obsessed with someone you had been married to for seventeen years was probably a first.” The couple’s febrile intertwinement is partly due to the fact that Ray and Iris are expatriates living in Botswana, and they have no children. Yet as the novel begins, Ray has come to suspect the unthinkable: His wife may be drifting away from him. It turns out he’s right.
As he did in Mating , his superb first novel, which won the National Book Award in 1991, Norman Rush takes the most basic of human tales-in this case, the demise of a marriage-and nests it in a cluster of intellectual preoccupations whose very abstraction would seem the enemy of lively fiction. In the course of this absorbing and variegated novel, Mr. Rush invites the reader to consider the origins of Christianity, the function of the C.I.A. in the wake of the Cold War (the novel is set in 1992-93), the tension between rebellion and conformity in Milton’s poetics, the nature of hell and the political future of postcolonial Africa. For readers hankering after a novel of ideas, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Which is not to say that Mortals always works. Ray’s overheated sensibility is less instantly engaging than the irreverent female voice that narrates Mating (she makes a brief, memorable appearance in Mortals , along with her love interest, the cult anthropologist Nelson Denoon). There’s a curious loftiness to Ray’s private world, expressed in constructions like, “This is fantasy, he thought, I am injured, literature is not life.” Or: “He thought, She’s wounding me, I could die … she doesn’t know.” His weird inner rhetoric mirrors the irresolution of his life, for Ray Finch is several contradictory things: a professor of English, a scholar of Milton, an erstwhile poet and an undercover C.I.A. agent, a vocation he justifies by describing himself as “a provider of truths that others would make use of,” but that, paradoxically, requires him to lie a great deal, especially to his wife.
Early on in the novel, Ray asks permission of his C.I.A. boss, a zealot named Boyle, to spy on an African-American doctor, Davis Morel, who has recently moved to Botswana with the explicit goal of releasing its people from the grip of Christianity. But Boyle orders him instead to pursue Samuel Kerekang, a charismatic populist and Botswana native, a devotee of Tennyson with whom Ray feels an immediate affinity. In defiance of Boyle, he spies on both men, but his suspicions of the American doctor harden into animus when he learns that Morel has been conducting psychotherapy for several weeks on none other than Iris, Ray’s wife. Iris admits she is attracted to the doctor.
Ray’s investigations of Morel and Kerekang catalyze events that culminate in a prolonged, bloody conflict in the north of Botswana that comprises the book’s middle section, a tour de force set-piece that manages to feel both effortless and riddled with surprises. By contrast, the book’s first section consists almost entirely of conversation, much of it between Ray and Iris. “The fact was, he loved talking to her,” Mr. Rush writes of Ray. “Her voice was a gift to him when it was aimed his way.” Readers may not always agree; one of the couple’s exchanges runs to almost 50 pages, and their voices tend to sound written rather than spoken. Complaining about his estranged brother, with whom Iris has begun a correspondence, Ray refers to him as “no respecter of persons” and “a breeder of disequilibrium.”
But what Mr. Rush does beautifully, despite this slow start, is to render up a complex and utterly credible relationship between Ray and Iris: a mutual dependency so consuming that Iris’ fledgling wish for some strand of independence can only take the form of betrayal. The inevitability of this betrayal, and the impact it will surely have on two people who have little more in the world than each other, is what powers the reader through a 32-page public discussion of whether Jesus was in fact a Christian, and a pause in the novel’s gunplay during which Morel compares Milton’s relationship with the British monarchy to Ray’s with the C.I.A. Pushing up through all these debates is a question about the value of submitting to authority-even a benevolent one-as opposed to striving for independence. This opposition is central to the very human drama of mortals, and of course to colonialism and its aftermath.
Mr. Rush is astute at rendering women. Iris is a joyfully libidinous person who had virtually no sexual experience before her marriage, and whose infertility has left her childless. Now in her late 30’s, she’s forfeited what ambitions and social life she once had to accompany Ray to a country where she must depend on him completely-for intimacy, conversation, stimulation-despite the fact that he can’t tell her most of what he’s up to. At a memorial service she and Ray attend, Iris begins to cry, imagining her own memorial. “And what I was thinking was what a joke it’s going to be,” she says. “I have done nothing. There will be absolutely nothing to say. Nothing.” We feel keenly Iris’ desperation for some project to call her own, even as we dread the form that project will likely take.
Mr. Rush’s literary lineage extends from Conrad via Graham Greene to his contemporary, Robert Stone-all writers intermittently preoccupied with the existential struggle of white people in the colonial, or postcolonial, Third World. (Stylistically, Mr. Rush is closest to Mr. Stone.) Yet Mr. Rush’s vision departs from his predecessors’ in its essential comedy. There’s funny stuff in Mortals , thanks largely to the wacky play of Ray’s mind. A description of his C.I.A. boss reads: “Boyle was a field of signs indicating that he probably thought of his physical emanations as very bad things …. He used a cologne and an aftershave. The two scents were separable …. His nostrils were hairless and scoured-looking.” At another point, as Ray massages his wife’s feet, she urges him to be gentle. “He didn’t feel like being gentle,” Mr. Rush writes. “He felt like ripping her feet off and cutting his cock off and starting life over as a eunuch someplace where there were no phones.” In one of the novel’s climactic scenes, Ray launches himself into battle wearing nothing but a 4,000-page manuscript taped to his chest.
Like Mating , Mortals is also comic in the broader sense: What transpires, however painful, usually turns out to be for the best. It helps that the novel concludes shortly before Nelson Mandela comes to power in South Africa, a time of almost unfathomable geopolitical optimism (or so it seems, from this sad distance). In the mind of Norman Rush, the personal and the political are intimately linked. And in both realms, change is good.
Jennifer Egan, who is at work on her third novel, reviews books regularly for The Observer .