Norman Rush has suddenly become one of America’s must-read novelists. He crept up on us, because his two previous novels, Mating and Mortals, were such enormous books that you could easily tell yourself that you’d read them next year. (Mr. Rush debuted in 1986, at the age of 53, with a collection of short stories, Whites, which was critically acclaimed but as under-read as most other debut collections of short stories.) Now Subtle Bodies has arrived, at just 256 dense, colloquial, inviting pages, and you’re out of excuses. This is cause for celebration. Mr. Rush is our … I’ve been searching for a suitable comparison, but he really is sui generis. The first two novels are reminiscent of War and Peace because of their length, intelligence and realism, but Mr. Rush is a more psychological and playful writer than Tolstoy. One could imagine Flaubert as a contemporary (and obviously happy) American and maybe come up with a writer like Norman Rush. I also keep thinking of Evelyn Waugh, perhaps because of the doubtless deliberate resonance between the two titles (Mr. Rush’s Subtle Bodies echoing Waugh’s Vile Bodies). In both Waugh and Mr. Rush, we are always in the middle of the action, and, like Waugh, Mr. Rush presumes a slow, careful reader. We have to figure out the subtleties on our own.
Well, enough with the canonization, and on to the business at hand. Subtle Bodies takes place at the luxurious, sprawling Catskills home of a middle-aged man, Douglas Delmarter—we are meant to hear “del-martyr,” in this novel Mr. Rush loves wordplay—who has died unexpectedly at the height of his powers. His death is the cause of the reunion of “the Friends,” a group of smart college buddies who hung out together at NYU back in the day and who all idolized Douglas. Predictably, as the novel proceeds, little impieties of the deity that was Douglas begin to appear: It looks like his wealth, which they had thought had simply fallen into his lap, may have been ignobly earned; his son, Hume, is a suitably skeptical mess (“It took him a long time to take fatherhood seriously,” Mr. Rush writes); at his untimely end, his love affairs were not in order. The Friends, too, are not quite as friendly as they’d supposed. At one point, we are told that even Aristotle—Western civilization’s greatest champion of the virtue of friendship—despaired of the possibility of having true friends, and part of the nostalgia that is unraveling as Douglas’s climactic funeral approaches is the belief that we all had as kids—that there was something unique about us and the way we were together. The Friends imagined, as college kids, that in retirement they would buy a house near a good university and have a kind of colony of intellectuals who would all be there to witness each other’s admirable, timely death. Surprise, surprise, life doesn’t work that way.
A friend of mine once remarked, “Forty is the age at which you stop believing your own B.S.,” and at one level this novel is about middle-aged disillusionment. We generally take it for granted that the truth is good for us, and it is the job of artists—and almost the stock-in-trade of novelists—to call that cliché into question. Maybe the Friends were better off before they knew that mysterious Israeli agents were pilfering cartons from the basement during Douglas’s funeral or before Ned, a member of the old group and one of our guides through the novel, figured out that Douglas had been sleeping with one of his own former partners.
“Life wants deception; life lives on deception,” Nietzsche repeatedly insisted. But Mr. Rush doesn’t seem to think so. The story that binds all of the fascinating little subplots of Subtle Bodies together is the attempt by Ned and his wife, Nina—our two principle narrators—to get pregnant. Ned was one of the Friends; Nina was not. Ned is earnest but prone to self-deception; Nina is inquisitive and honest to a fault. In the closing scene of the novel (“February 15th, 2003”), Ned is back in his home, San Francisco, overseeing a war protest that had been interrupted at the novel’s outset by the death of Douglas. Ned had suggested to Nina that she participate, but she, typically, laughed at the idea. Ned admits to himself that life and truth are more complicated than we like to think, while also reminding himself that he feels good—that, as he thinks several times, “Everything was good”—and that “You can’t control everything … but this we can control. There would be no war. In part because of them there would be no war in Iraq.” What we are to take away from this is not the familiar idea that quixotism is somehow or other always a praiseworthy thing. Ned’s artistic optimism—“drunk with gratitude and the conviction of victory”—is not a praiseworthy attribute. On the contrary: Mr. Rush wants us to understand that just as the Friends were wrong about Douglas—a fact that Ned is slowly forced, through the course of the novel, to admit—Ned is dead wrong about the significance of his carefully coordinated anti-war march. There are some things we can’t make happen if we make-believe.
What we can make happen, however, is what we are determined hardheadedly to pursue no matter how improbable it might seem. The real hero of the novel is Nina. What we can make happen, however, is what we are determined hardheadedly to pursue no matter how improbable it might seem. The real hero of the novel is Nina. I won’t spoil the surprise and tell you whether or not Nina gets what she wants. But she’s damned sure going to try, in the most practical practice of them all: sex. Lots of it. Crucially, with her husband (though she gets other offers). And sex for Nina and Ned, though it’s for the practical goal of pregnancy, is also always an expression of their love. That , in a nutshell, is Mr. Rush’s happy ethical aesthetic: sex motivated by love. It can get you pregnant. It’s what Diotima taught Socrates: beauty can get you pregnant with the truth.
The novel opens with Ned, on a plane to Douglas’s house, ruminating over one of Nina’s many jealous thought experiments—from earlier in their marriage—about ways in which a husband might be morally required to commit adultery. “There could be a nun suffering from hysterical blindness that would become permanent unless she received a sacrificial screw from somebody’s husband, alas.” The very next paragraph has “Nina, riding in furious pursuit,” because she is about to begin ovulating and she is determined to maximize every fertility opportunity. Nina is fretting about her mother, a reformed hardnosed materialist who is now “overflowing with pregnancy lore that has nothing to do with reality” but who also holds the key to the novel:
Her mother regularly declared that there was a “subtle body” inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. … She wanted Nina not to be oblivious to the subtle bodies of the people she met. That would protect her from deceivers, whoever they might be. Ma suggested Ned be on the qui vive also.
Ned is not on the qui vive and probably will never be; maybe Mr. Rush isn’t either, though he wants to be and recommends it. The story of the novel is the story of Nina—and, through her, Mr. Rush’s readers—learning to see the subtle body. Mr. Rush is nobody’s materialist, nobody’s skeptic. Part of Nina’s project in the novel is to help Hume remove the veneer of cynicism that is the adolescent expression of his skepticism. But what he tries to show us is that there is a middle way between the starry-eyed idealism of Ned’s sincere, well-intentioned false belief (and the many motivated false beliefs of the Friends) and the sullenness of whatever the “hard truth” about Douglas might be. We are humans, and we live somewhere between the heavens and the Earth, between truth and falsehood. Interestingly, that’s where fiction lives, too.