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Subtle Bodies: An Interview with Norman Rush
If memory serves, it was sometime in the early 90s that I attended a reading at the now-deceased Endicott Bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side, featuring Toby Olsen and some other guy. That other guy turned out to be Norman Rush, and he read from Mating, which quickly became my favorite novel. I found myself taken with its narrator’s erudite, self-deprecating, hyperarticulate voice, but also her brazenness, her willingness to throw away her map, her zeal to understand, exhaustively, everything from Botswana to Denoon, the visionary lover who she pursues. I got swept up in its depiction of a Kalahari whose denizens seemed ever on the verge of vanishing, and the lushness of the prose—headiness isn’t the word, as it had a sort of bodiliness. Hungry for more, I went back to his collection Whites and was surprised to find its prose taut and restrained, if no less potent— each story a knife whose handle has broken off and so has to be held gingerly.
Over time, I came to realize that the gestation periods of Rush’s works would be long; they felt, at times, cosmically so. This was, no doubt, inextricable from what made them great—like the places they depicted, you felt like you could spend a decade wandering around in them; these were novels you could live in. Mortals came out in 2003, and then I kept hearing rumors about a new one so often that, even learning the name, Subtle Bodies, felt like catching a glimpse of something epic. And yet…under 300 pages! And…set in the Catskills!
Subtle Bodies does deviate from his earlier novels, but in a way that’s unmistakably his; I’d argue that it marries the zoom-lens compression of Whites with the thematic largesse of his huge novels. Like everything he’s written, it is at once bawdy and cerebral, morally-engaged, candid and funny. Rush agreed to do a phone interview with me from his house in Rockland County, New York, which initially proved disastrous in that much of the conversation was lost when two recording apps silently collided on my phone. Fortunately, we were able to rebuild the conversation Six Million Dollar Man-style, bigger and, one hopes, stronger, thanks to email and the generosity of Rush and his wife, Elsa.
Tim Horvath: The place I want to begin is with the review you wrote of Caleb Crain’s novel, Necessary Errors, in The New York Review of Books. You bring up this idea of “a utopia of friends” in your assessment, which seems apt, insofar as it applies to some extent to Subtle Bodies, and even perhaps to Mating. First of all, there’s utopia itself as a ground of concern. In Mating, it seems that there’s a struggle of sorts, or at least a tension, between the narrator’s idea of a personal relationship between equals, and Denoon’s idea, whereby he has attempted to flesh out a utopia in the form of a society which affords women greater autonomy and agency. In Subtle Bodies, the notion of friendship is batted around in many ways by various characters.
Norman Rush: It’s an old idea, and one thing I discovered when I began the book is that the subject of male friendship is not a common one in literary fiction.
TH: Can you think of other examples? Are there others you were able to track down?
NR: I did ask around, and the examples that most people came up with were Holmes and Watson – characters in what is not standardly called literary fiction – and Aubrey and Maturin, in the Patrick O’Brian sea novels. There are some odd thrusts in that direction in German literature – in Hesse’s Narziss und Goldmund – but nowhere as a fully developed subject. Do you have any thoughts about the topic?
TH: I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. Isn’t there a Platonic dialogue on friendship – the Gorgias, I think?
NR: Right, though, it’s not fiction. Anyway, it’s a subject that interests me. Lawrence had an idea of friendship as the basis for an actual utopian community; briefly, it was claimed, realized. Rananim, it was called. An echo of this utopian function of friendship is all through the old New Ages of Whitman and Edmund Carpenter. Anyway, I’ve been drawn to the question for some time.
TH: And why do you think that is? Why hasn’t male friendship been more prominent in the kinds of writing you’re talking about?
NR: I think there are a couple of things that go some way toward explaining that. First, literature has been dominated by men until just about yesterday, and as a subject for dramatization, friendship hasn’t seemed to be very interesting, on the surface of it, to most men. A reflexive tendency to analyze male friendships, closely examined, as homosexual in nature, would undoubtedly be an inhibiting factor. The times have changed radically and there’s more freedom now to address the subject itself. There has also been a shadow interpretation of many male friendships in literature as enactments of the search by a disillusioned son for a replacement father. This, of course, is the figure in the carpet in the Stephen Dedalus/Leopold Bloom friendship in Ulysses.
TH: What exactly is the fate of the friendships in Subtle Bodies? There’s a long gap in between their college days and the present-day of the story, and each of them is in dialogue –in some cases a sort of grappling hold – with the past. The demise of their ringleader is the occasion for their revisiting these friendships. How do you see the idea of a utopia of friendship playing out over the course of their lives?
NR: It is what these friendships were in the past that they keep trying to come to terms with in the present. Clearly, the college friendships at NYU meant most to Ned, as the intellectual apostle of Douglas that he was then. When they reconnect, the others have become more skeptical. Ned is attempting only partly consciously in the convening of these characters to recreate something of what he’d felt a long time ago. History is against him. So are the diverging biographies of his friends.
TH: The obvious thing to say is that in many ways Subtle Bodies is a departure from the earlier books in size and scope.
NR: You could call it a chamber work.
TH: I like that. Can you expand on it a little bit?
NR: That was the original idea. One reason the book took so long to get done is that I had to keep fighting off its expansion into a War and Peace of the afterleft, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted this to be a work concentrating, without great digressions, on the themes of work, love, and empire. By ‘empire’ I mean nothing more than the actually existing international arrangements pursued and fought for by the United States as the dominant power in the world, and how these affect individual lives at home and abroad. I’m not making a judgment by using the term ‘empire.’ I’m talking about a vastly complex structure and the assumptions that normally go with it. And I’m talking about culture, of course, as it fits into this scheme.
TH: And was that liberating, challenging?
NR: It was challenging, largely following from my weakness for the long form novel. And from my slightly crazed attachment to my characters as they create themselves.
TH: I read in your Paris Review interview that Elsa reads everything you write.
NR: Indeed. And of course she did that again here.
TH: Did she help you reign in some of those “omni-inclusive” instincts, or was it largely a self-imposed discipline?
NR: Oh, I knew what I needed to do, and she helped me ultimately to get there, and that was how it worked.
TH: Apart from it being a chamber piece, and thus constrained in a very different way, what sorts of continuities do you see with your earlier work? Do you feel like you were revisiting some perennial concerns?
NR: Sure. The most obvious one would be the question of work or vocation, which is a recurrent element in my work, and the question of correctly understanding the world. And then of course there’s the unending question of what makes a good life. All of those things.
TH: Nina has a charged take on the relationship between male friendships and those across gender lines. She wants to provide something that she deems inherently superior to male friendship, and she seems to feel that men don’t actually understand what they ought to desire from friendship.
NR: She doesn’t really understand male friendship, or she’s hard on it in a way that’s not quite fair. In my perception, individual males reach a settled understanding of the world at different times in their respective lives, and these settled understandings, which are supported by a secure grasp on certain basics, including material ones, including – importantly – felt hierarchies, can screw up relationships as times passes, which was not something they could have imagined happening when they were young guys together. Really, the basic assumption was that such details wouldn’t matter, even if a great deal changed.
TH: I love the opening line of the book – as such a line ought to, it draws me in. And further, it plays out in echoes throughout, the question of whether genitals actually can be said to have their own sort of lives. And other lines . . . such as the truth of nominative determinism or whether it’s true that men with curly hair are taken less seriously. Not to ask you to take a stand on any of these, but it seems that at times you give voice to theses that are being weighed or being experimentally put into the world, and played out through these characters, as though we were reading a somewhat fragmentary social anthropology. In instances, as with Tsau in Mating, you’ve drawn up the veritable blueprints for an actual utopia, positing not only an idea, but a set of principles and ideals and envisioning their practical manifestations.
NR: No, no, no. Most of the ideas you mention are notional and meant to be funny. If it’s anthropology, it’s comic anthropology.
TH: While I mention Tsau, one thing I’d love to hear you talk about a bit is setting, and your use of it. The way that Mortals begins, by laying out the physical terrain, the description of the house and its separation from others as a reflection of social relations, and in Subtle Bodies the way the house is arranged certainly has an impact. Who’s where, where is Hume’s cabin, and who can peer in voyeuristically, and that sort of thing . . . I’m wondering the extent to which you base your work on actual settings.
NR: For me, authenticity of setting is a kind of sine qua non for the feeling that a scene has been correctly done. I become unnerved if I haven’t got a ground plan, don’t know where my characters are. It’s a matter of personal psychology, I guess. I’ve always collected notes on settings. Most, of course, I’ll never use. And yes, I did live in the Catskills for a while, in a rambling, aging Victorian house, utterly unlike Douglas’s. But I’ve been in enough places with resemblances to Douglas’s that I can see it in my mind. My catalog of settings is kind of like a rolodex, to me. If I find I’m in a place that’s interesting, and I know the people who own it or live in it, I might ask if they mind if I take notes just for my own collection. I’ve also, I confess, just stepped into an alcove to jot down a few notes on décor, etc.
TH: It’s like you’re location-scouting for future works. It’s crossed my mind to go to Open Houses for that very purpose, though I’d feel a bit imposterish.
NR: Well, the funny thing about it is that if you have a sheaf of described settings, they’re actually charged with the meaning that you sensed in those places in the first instance. And they themselves suggest situations and possibilities.
TH: So that you might be inclined to start a piece of work with the setting as a point of departure?
NR: Yes, and I’d probably have to cut it down. The reader doesn’t share the cathexis that a particular setting has for me. That has to come out in the characters and events.
TH: It seems very fitting for this work, it being, as you describe it, a “chamber work,” to have this multitude of rooms, i.e. chambers, some on different floors, some off limits to certain guests.
NR: One of the background tropes that the book is built on is the bedroom farce, and for that you need bedrooms, and you have to know where they are.
TH: Do you attend the theater? I thought of this book as easily your most play-like.
NR: Well, I’d go more if I could. There was a period when we were going to the theater quite a bit, and then when I got into the toils of this book, we stayed home a lot, and in the meantime, the costs around going to the city for the theater had changed so dramatically it felt outrageous. And there were the duds. The last memorable play we saw was Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” twenty years ago. I’m behind on theater, now, and I’m behind on the last ten years in poetry.
TH: Are there films you’ll watch for non-literary inspiration?
NR: I rarely go to the movies. What I see is on TiVo, and what I get out of it is entertainment. Relaxation. I’m not thinking about inspiration, then. Kurosawa might be an exception, but doh.
TH: You’ve mentioned listening to Jimmy Cliff while writing. Would it be too much to say that the rhythm of reggae is in this work, or is it just a matter of getting the blood energized?
NR: There’s no reggae in my bones. Jimmy Cliff’s music wakes me up, though.
TH: I was looking for political links because reggae is such political music, but not an angry political music — a sort of steady, persistent undercurrent of revolution rather than a violent charging of the Bastille.
NR: It’s just whatever works for me. There are certain of Philip Glass’s serialist works which are stimulating in the same way as Jimmy Cliff, for me. And I love Respighi, “The Pines of Rome.” It’s all over the map. It’s just what moves me on.
TH: Do you read reviews of your work?
NR: I’ve done so, so far, and I have the same apprehensions beforehand that I’m sure all writers do, and the same reaction to an extremely negative review.
TH: What’s at the root of your apprehensiveness?
NR: The usual things. One hopes to please.
TH: Have there been political objections to your work previously?
NR: Yes, and I suppose I should take some satisfaction in the fact that they’ve come from both the left and the right.
TH: What’s been the thrust of the ones from the left?
NR: It’s hard to characterize them all. From the left, a failure to do a boilerplate condemnation of everything about the Western presence. My attempt to convey complexity in situation and representative characters has not always been appreciated. From the right, it’s just my standard failure to defend the United States as an unfailingly Moral Empire.
TH: Do you see an opportunity in the blogosphere for communicating with your readership more directly?
NR: No, I’m not good technologically. That’s an understatement. I very much like talking face to face at readings, with people who’ve come because they like books, including my books – but there’s only so much time, and spending a chunk of it in the blogosphere would take time from something higher on my priority list.
TH: What misunderstanding of your work do you think you’re most worried about?
NR: I don’t think about that anymore.
TH: In terms of the characters in Subtle Bodies, do you fear that people will either recognize themselves or believe they recognize themselves, given that you have such an array of characters who may feel exponentially more familiar than the expats in Whites, Mating and Mortals?
NR: These are invented figures, mostly composites, and I’m not at all worried about that. I believe that a larger hazard for Subtle Bodies is hostility by blogosphere commenters to political views expressed in argument by characters in the book.
TH: The political and personal always seem to intersect in your works. Given the classic feminist assertion that the personal is political and the inverse, I’m wondering if for you they ultimately connect, or are they simply two strands, intertwined elements of the human condition and life. One way to read Subtle Bodies is that on one side there’s all this psychological nuance, all these individuals who are clearly delineated and “subtly” sculpted and brought into conjunction with one another, whereas on the other hand, as Ned believes, it’s only mass movements and protests which are going to shut down a war – a place where individuality blurs into sheer numbers, i.e. “bodies.” Does empathy lose the war to mass protest?
NR: I’m not sure what you mean exactly, by that question, but I do think that it may be a spoiler to talk about the way the book ends, so let me take a pass on that question.
TH: Perhaps we can connect it to more recent protests, then. The Egyptian Spring achieved massive change initially, but of course these days seem to be mired in problems—politically and ideologically subtle, and surely ones in which bodies are on the line.
NR: There are a lot of impressive mass demonstrations going on around the world, unexpectedly, lately. The underbrush seems to catch fire more readily in some places than in others. It undoubtedly has to do with technology, the proliferation of the cell phone – texting, tweeting, ubiquitous cameras. There’s a word for that, countersurveillance. In Brazil, they are having what are sort of portmanteau protests, i.e. protests not necessarily directed at any one thing, but at an array of grievances. In North Carolina there’s something called Moral Mondays, where crowds are turning out to address a different pressing social issue each week. And then there was Occupy, in the same spirit. History can turn on a dime. We’ll see.
TH: What may we see?
NR: Well, there might be a backlash against the proponents of government-mandated gestation, for example. It’s a strange time. How interesting is it for younger writers with a feeling for the political matrix of life to be living in the aftermath of the utter failure of “actually existing socialism;” the collapse of social democracy in Europe; and the apparent general crisis of the replacement system of neoliberalism. I keep going back and forth between thinking the artist/writer can make a difference, and can’t. There’s been a shift in the role literature plays in our day-to-day culture, of course. Once, writing was the dominant communicative mode, whereas lit (print, generally) is now a skiff in rough seas increasingly commanded by huge well-armed vessels.
TH: While the oceans are literally rising.
NR: Right. In terms of climate change, there’s a split consciousness in our mental lives. We go about our business aware of the threat, but manage for the most part to put it out of our minds – that the plankton are threatened by the acidification of the oceans, and so forth. It’s a mosaic of inter-related problems and consequences. It’s not fun to think about these things. And of course there’s a lot to lose for some, if too many people do think about the long term consequences of global climate change.
TH: Of course there’s always the matter of whether Obama was born in Kenya or not to provide endless distraction.
NR: Yes, and provide a kind of noxious faux politics that affects the understanding of the world. This is echoed in Subtle Bodies, of course. The absolute importance of politics, of reality-based politics – fact – in defining character is something that is in me, and that I’ve tried to realize on the page. One of the subliminal tasks of Ned in the novel is to revive the political aspect of life, and to revive it in the definition of his friends in particular. He doesn’t realize fully how crucial a task it is for him personally. There’s a sense in which everyone has a sort of unstated ‘politics.’ Here’s a way of seeing that: Take a generally volatile political situation – if you put everyone in a room and they were being interrogated by, oh, somebody like Dostoevsky, their positions, however apolitical they might consider themselves to be, however limited their interest in politics or in anything aside from, say, music, cars, motorcycles, romantic poetry, painting, gardening, sports, their political positions could be elicited and reduced by this Dostoevskian interrogator to individual manifestos.
TH: Do you think that books can still have a moral function that goes beyond just moving us emotionally?
NR: Sure. We’ve touched on this above, haven’t we? Books, and the lineage of great books, are part of the discourse that has formed and goes on in a society with humane aspirations. A cause for worry is that print culture no longer has the same resonance in the lofty precincts where political decisions are made as it used to have. I use the word “lofty” advisedly. The collapse of the great newspapers is happening so fast that it’s hard to keep up with, and as imperfect as they may have been, they made a vital contribution to discourse – and not only in the books sections that are dying with them.
TH: In your writing, you have demonstrated a proclivity toward the comprehensive. Is that you, or is it human nature?
NR: Well, I am a human, but in this matter I think it’s personal taste. I try to write what I’d want to read. Even in exhaustive works of excellent fiction, I tend to want more. I was so happy when I got to the end of War and Peace and there was Tolstoy’s wonderful coda sketching out the futures of the characters I’d come to care so much about.
TH: Will your next project find you returning to a longer form?
NR: Dude, I’m 80. I don’t think I should put too much time into the planning phase of a long form work.
TH: Ha, point well taken! In this book, you seem to have found elegant ways of moving back and forth between external action and consciousness, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that as technique, or if you have managed to do that deftly.
NR: It’s one of the strengths of the free indirect style. The writer has control over the relationship between the events in a passage and the mental reactions of the characters involved.
TH: James Wood is, of course, famously a proponent of this mode. I heard him speak recently about physical detail and the observant writer. There are countless instances of heightened or acute noticing in your work. I could open to any page and find an example, whether Ned noticing Nina’s “cruciform shadow” or the way she covers up the foot she’s insecure about with her other foot, which he then turns into a commentary, generalized empathy for all women. Anyway, I’m wondering if you consider yourself a natural ‘noticer.’ Wood talked about having to consciously marshal his observational powers.
NR: I don’t know if I’m a natural noticer. I do remember more details of scenes from my past than I was aware of noticing at the time, and sometimes they come to me at an apt moment. And I always carry a notebook and in recent years a mini-recorder. I could read description almost endlessly, page after page, in a writer of quality. I want to mention that one of the greatest things to read as you’re getting started as a writer is Thoreau, in his journals, especially the ones that come after the first six or seven years, when he’s losing – not knowing it yet – his battle to assimilate spiritually with nature. His struggle is to describe or extract everything from what he sees and feels, and there are some passages of description that are so powerful and pitiful that they’ve stayed with me since I first read them. But I would never be able to put as much description into my work as I would ideally like. I suspect that it’s writers more than general readers who are likely to be aficionados of description.
TH: Do you enjoy working with editors?
NR: I’ve been with Ann Close at Knopf since Whites. We work together frictionlessly. Partly that’s because my stuff has already been gone over: spoken aloud by myself, listened to and read by Elsa, and edited by her. So it doesn’t require a lot of changing, for which Ann is grateful. We’re all very accommodating to one another. Changes Ann is interested in, she and Elsa usually just work out.
TH: What sorts of failures in the artistic process do you see as the most productive, instructive, or valuable to you?
NR: I think being in control of the lyrical impulse is something I have to keep in mind. I’ve already alluded to the dangers of overloading my narratives with incidental matter – historical and other detail mainly interesting to me. That’s the kind of thing Elsa is tasked with flagging.
TH: If one considers the stylistic polarities in your work, from the more minimalist or lean Whites to the more lyrical works, the “twins of density” of Mating and Mortals, and then this latest, do you see this as a return to the more pared-back style? And going forward?
NR: If I do more short stories, which I may, I’ll have to see how much they resemble the stories in Whites. It’s been a long time.
TH: Are there experiences from your days in Botswana that you feel you’ve never been able to write about, that have stayed with you in ways that demand you return to them as subjects?
NR: About Botswana, there are many aspects of that experience that fell outside the fictional corridors I walked. They color other events and other memories of things that did make it into my other books, but I doubt that I’ll be going back to my remembered terrain and times in Botswana, or to my notes of that era.
TH: I understand that you have a short memoir piece, entitled “Nudity,” coming out in Granta. Do you foresee more memoir in your future?
NR: Getting what I come up with into fictional form is going to be my mission for as long as I’m able to do it. I have my doubts as to the true interestingness to others of the life I’ve led. It’s been profoundly interesting for certain periods and in certain ways, but a lot of it has been spent in a room with books and my typewriters, and a lot of it has been spent in the feats of coping with what life has dealt.
Tim Horvath is the author of Understories, published by Bellevue Literary Press, which is currently a finalist for the New Hampshire Literary Award in Fiction. He has published stories in Conjunctions, The Normal School, The Collagist, and elsewhere, and he has received a Yaddo Fellowship. He teaches in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs in Creative Writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Grub Street.
Norman Rush is the author of three previous works of fiction: Whites, a collection of stories, and two novels, Mating and Mortals. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. Mating was the recipient of the National Book Award. Rush and his wife live in Rockland County, New York.