October 13, 2013

Norman Rush turns to comedy, with seriously good results

“Subtle Bodies” by Norman Rush (Knopf, 236 pages, $26.95)

“Subtle Bodies” by Norman Rush (Knopf, 236 pages, $26.95)

Norman Rush, author of the story collection “Whites” and the novels “Mortals” and “Mating,” which won the National Book Award, all set in Africa, takes a new direction in his new novel.

“Subtle Bodies” (the title refers to people’s “true interior selves”) is a more-comical work, though it deals at times with politics, sexual and otherwise, themes Rush has worked before.

Ned, the protagonist, flies from San Francisco, where he is organizing a march against the impending Iraq war, to upstate New York, where an old college friend has died. He leaves suddenly, without warning Nina, his wife. Anxious to get pregnant, she flies to be with him because she is ovulating. At age 37, she can’t let any opportunity slip by.

Nina sees Ned, who is 48, as “a sort of Jesus, a secular Jesus, of course, not that Ned would tolerate that description.” The narrative alternates between Ned’s and Nina’s voices, and Nina’s irreverent commentary is more engaging than the more earnest Ned, who goes among his friends and other guests trying to get signatures on his petition against the invasion of Iraq.

Twenty-some years earlier at NYU, Ned was part of a group of self-styled wits who liked to make fun of others and employ elaborate puns. For example, Ned tells Nina, they collected examples of “nominative determinism”: an insurance agent named Justin Case, an embezzler named Overcash, a sewer commissioner named Dranoff.

Douglas, the ringleader of this clique, became well-known in Europe as a critic and developed a method of detecting whether a photo has been tampered with. Israel’s Mossad and other secret services want to buy this. Douglas made a lot of money and built a large estate in the woods of upstate New York. Then he died when his riding mower tipped over on him.

Other members of the clique include Elliot, Joris and Gruen. Elliot is handling Douglas’ accounts and tries to control what happens as people, including journalists from Europe and elsewhere, gather for the funeral.

As with many close friendships, these men’s closeness is simply there, not obvious to those observing them. Nina provides the voice of the outside observer. She is not enamored by Douglas and believes he undervalued her beloved Ned. She also learns and tells Ned that Douglas was going bankrupt. She admires and envies Iva, Douglas’ wife, but also proves helpful to their son Hume, who seems troubled and asocial before Nina comes on the scene.

Rush keeps the narrative lively, though its plot is minimal, as it moves toward the funeral, when Ned and his friends are to give speeches. Meanwhile, Ned has conversations with several about the impending invasion, allowing Rush to include incisive comments about the Iraq war.

Joris doesn’t want to sign the petition because he says it’s useless. “War is like the stock market,” he says. “People spend their whole lives showing what the crooks are doing every day in the market and nobody pays attention.”

Until the end of the book, as millions gather around the world to protest the coming invasion, Ned remains hopeful that they can stop this war. But we know how that turned out.

On the other hand, “Subtle Bodies” explores marriage and portrays, in Ned and Nina, a happy one, in spite of some conflict. Their relationship is painted much more fully than his friendship with Douglas and the others. Nevertheless, this is that rare novel that treats marriage, male friendship and politics in a serious yet playful way.

Rush has proved that he can write large, more-tragic novels in foreign settings dealing with big ideas. Here he has written a comical novel on a smaller scale, yet one that resonates with the concerns of many adults.

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