“Mortals” by Norman RushThis book divides a situation comedy set in Africa with an enormously powerful fiction by one of America’s best writers; in other words, skip to page 357 of this 700-page monster and you’ll find the death of AIDS, but begin it at your own peril. I haven’t read “Mating”, the 1991 National Book Award winner that established the career of this author, but I can vouch for the mindlessness of love that novel supposedly depicts, as one of this author’s great topics, though am unable to signal his ability to make such a state at all interesting. Ray Finch is in the CIA, conducting minor intelligence operations on an unstable local scene. His love of his wife is as usual, next to such a job, as, unfortunately, you would expect. As this book begins, so shall this review.Ray, however, does get away from the wife and into the CIA, and through this work both his wife, and his novel, begin transcending early limitations. Ray is sent to investigate a religious uprising in a remote province. With him is a novel, written by his brother, with whom Ray has a tempestuous relationship: Ray is a scholar, a classicist (one of the most annoying aspects of his relationship is an exceedingly mundane appreciation of puns, rhetoric and language in general that he and his wife encourage in each other). The brother, on the other hand, is the author of what might turn out to be the great advance literature has been waiting for, in addition to being homosexual—which, as a condition or demographic destroyed by AIDS to an extent equal to the other suffering demographic of that disease, the African, exemplifies the passion, the power, the excellence of the CIA scenes in the second half of the book over the tepid domesticity of the first. For Ray will use this book, his brother’s love, sexuality, and Africa, use them to bomb his way through the killers of each, through imagination, and the stasis of his marriage, just as the style of Mortals itself uses these scenes to become itself sleeker, more profound, than the empty erudition with which it begins. Ray finds the religious uprising to have denigrated into a random waylaying of the countryside, in which various political factions have entered to improve their positions. He is interrogated by one such, having destroyed his identification on the way there, and grouped with an African-American doctor with whom he suspects his wife of having an affair. Government agents soon appear to repress the rebels, and Ray finds himself trapped on a roof, nude, his brother’s manuscript—the only copy—duct taped to his chest, the rebels commanding a machine gun over the exit. Ray exhibits the paper, the duct tape, as a bomb, suicidally charging the machine gun. The ruse works, the good guys escape, and Ray collapses from exhaustion.Can there be a more apt metaphor for the power of imagination, of love, than this man, his brother’s words his only clothing, fighting for the political life of Africa? The argument might arise that in order for the second half to be written, there needed to have been the first, which I don’t buy. For one thing, failure is failure, and isn’t justified by a connection with success. For another, this book is too specifically about Ray’s adventures in remote Africa: that novel’s pages hold together so much more effectively than the other, pallid novel, the novel of the first three hundred pages, that one imagines, in fact, another three hundred in front of the first, which the author was persuaded to cut—by which I mean that the effort it took to produce the back half, effort that is visible in every rising moment on the page, could not have produced the easy, the effortless, the disinterested repetition of spousal love that informs the first. The matter is not if the book’s second half could not have occurred without the first, but if the book’s second half can not be understood without the first, and in this analysis the answer is a resounding—and for the author somewhat damning—yes.In any event, the fact of the book, obfuscated however rudely, is that of this transformation, of imagination, of love, of sex and power and Africa, by the one man capable, in the context of the book, of effecting such change. Heroism? If this is not heroic, there is nothing heroic, and for this Norman Rush deserves the highest accolades for his novel Mortals.The Hood Company
Thank you for the review; I was actually soliciting for Boog City, the literary paper for which I am the reviews editor. For the paper, it needs to be something that has come out within the last year, so Mortals is a little outside of those parameters. If you have any reviews of more recent materials, please backchannel one to me, and include a bio of yourself and a cover scan if you have one!Thanks!
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