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By Norman Rush

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher:
Vintage Books
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

Lee Taylor Gaffigan writes:

Initially, I was skeptical of Norman Rush’s Mating. It came into my life ten years after publication, devoid of academic context or friendly recommendation, having been plucked from the shelves of a used bookstore in Texas. I was even more dubious upon realizing that the 500-page novel (centered around themes of love) was written from the first-person perspective of a young woman. Would this Norman Rush be able to create a three-dimensional portrait of a woman in love, or would he malign her by way of stereotype and melodrama?

I was floundering myself when Rush’s nameless narrator ambled up beside me. We were both, as she says so elegantly, “on the verge of a confused but major experience.” And this tale may have been just what I was looking fora feminist manifesto of sorts, coupled with a passionate love story. A read that educated me and forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself, and of life.

The writing in Mating is taut, focused and at times otherworldly in both its linguistic ostentation and breadth of subject matter. The reader often feels she is on the sidelines of a Mensa think tank, but surprisingly enhanced by the experience rather than alienated. I found myself drawn to the brilliance of the leading man, Denoon, in the same manner as my sister in spirit, the narrator.

Mating was a journey in imagination for me, steeped as it is in the expat lore of Africa. But as it developed, it became a parable for my encounters with the big messes of love, power and idealism. Denoon, the charismatic pied piper of feminist ideals, finds himself trapped by his need for feminine devotion; his lover watches from a distance, realizing that there is no perfect man, no perfect love. Their affair is experienced in the vacuum of Denoon’s imagined utopia, an isolation that magnifies the oxytocin-laced throes of ‘falling in love.’ It is in the disintegration of idealism that Rush shows his greatest hand. Denoon’s is an island of ideals, political, romantic and personal, and reality is in the tides that run ashore. Idealism has limitations, in literature and in life. Erosion is bound to happen sooner or later. 

Lee Taylor Gaffigan, a former musician, is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at The New School in Manhattan.

Jim Shepard writes:

For those out there despairing about the possibility of a harmonious mind/body alignment when it comes to your potential soulmate, Norman Rush’s Mating provides some heartening reassurance: maybe no book I’ve read in the last thirty years is more alert to, or eloquent about, the exhilarations of that possibility. The book’s unnamed narrator finds herself at its outset in Africa with an exploded anthropology Ph.D, tired of her own company, and ready for a major experience. She wants a companion. And when it comes to intellect, she informs us, “My preference is for hanging out with the finalists.”  

Along comes the ultimate finalist: Nelson Denoon, an academic paragon who’s beautiful, heretical, feminist, and interdisciplinary, who not only studies why the world has to be so unpleasant but who’s also actively trying to do something about it: as a pragmatic and apparently successful utopian, he’s set up a miraculous and self-sustaining Eden in the Kalahari Desert, run by and for dispossessed and abused African women. To prove her commitment, resourcefulness and grit – in other words, her qualifications as a suitable companion – our heroine resolves to cross the hundred miles of desert alone to find him.

Her narrative consists of her reconsideration of their relationship, her emotions recollected in the shakiest of tranquilities, a strategy that allows for endless asides, digressions, mini-lectures, documents entered in evidence and hindsight. But all of her attempts to be embraced by the perfect man only point out to her the paradox of her position: for all her gifts, she’s relying on a male for happiness and a sense of a purpose.

But the book’s greatness resides in her ability to conjure for herself and for us what it’s like to experience love at its apogee: what it’s like on those rarest of occasions when you come upon someone whose mind and body together form the perfect complement for yours, so that you both feel completed, extended, and enlarged, and the discovery never stops. As she puts it: “For me love is like this. You’re in one room or apartment which you think is fine, then you walk through a door and close it behind you and find yourself in the next apartment, which is even better, larger, more floorspace, a better view. You’re happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it’s breathtaking, a surprise, something you’ve done nothing to deserve or make happen. You never intend to go from one room onward to the next – it just happens. You notice a door, you go through, and you’re delighted again.” 

Jim Shepard was a National Book Award Finalist in 2007 for his short story collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway.

ISBN: 9780679737094

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Louis Begley for Wartime Lies
  • Stephen Dixon for Frog
  • Stanley Elkin for The MacGuffin
  • Sandra Scofield for Beyond Deserving

Fiction Judges that Year:

Curtis Harnack, Anne Bernays, Larry Heinemann, Clarence Major, Lynne Sharon Schwartz

The Year in Literature:  

  • Rabbit At Rest by John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • After working for fifteen years as a book dealer, Norman Rush became a teacher and found he had more time to write. He submitted a short story about his teaching experiences to The New Yorker, and it was published in 1978.
  • Rush and his wife worked for the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983, and the experience provided material for his collection of short stories, Whites (1986), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Rush’s Botswana experience also appeared in his first novel, Mating, and in his second novel, Mortals.

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