Recently, I was introduced to the author Norman Rush through his interview in Paris Review. I had heard of him years ago, when White People and Mating came out, but I had never read him, so it surprised me that with so few books to his credit, he would make make it into such august company. Curious as to how he rated, I acquired a copy of Mating for something to read on my commutes.
Aside from the fact that a man wrote it through the eyes of a woman, the first thing that struck me was the lack of dialogue. Dialogue has always been my strength as a writer, though I'm not particularly loquacious, and narrative is my weakness. I wondered if dialogue might be Rush's deficiency and how someone displaying such limited range could be accorded so many honors. I prefer to develop my character's in scenes in which they must contend with each other, permitting the reader see them unfiltered and free to judge them as they will, but what is appropriate for what I write might not be so for everything else.
Nonetheless, for a character as potentially interesting as Nelson Denoon, the founder of a matriarchal utopia in a remote corner of the Kalahari Desert, to be filtered through the eyes and analytical mind of a failing graduate student was baffling right from the limen. The second thing I noticed was how strange it was that a supposedly radical feminist would form such an overpowering crush on a man she had briefly met that she would risk her life twice to be near him. These two aspects of the book continued to bother me until I realized it was really all about her expectations of him and her perception of their love affair. This is where the paradox of feminism seems to enter the picture.
He's a man that many women desire until they have spent some time with him, at which point they shed him like dog hair. They meet when the man's second wife foists her upon him at a party in his honor. After just a few words together, she goes traipsing after him through an African squatter camp at dusk and, following a brief second interview, on a multi-day journey through the desert, not only on foot, but alone. She barely survives. Her arrival in the community of Tsau, founded by Denoon to shelter abused South African women, sets off a chain of events that nearly implode the refuge.
Denoon would appear to be the ideal mate for a feminist. As seen through the eyes of the protagonist, he represents everything a woman wants, accomplished career-wise, strong when he must be, complaint to her wishes, helpful domestically, good in the sack, a stimulating conversation partner, he even insinuates a desire to marry her, providing she is willing to make that decision, and he ends up infuriating her in much the same way as he did his second wife, because he won't stand up and fight when she feels he should.
The event that triggers the row between them is a power struggle in Tsau. It is instigated by a male relation of one of the female residents, who claims that men must live there as elephants, meaning that bull elephants are shunned by the female herds. The man is somehow spirited away, causing an even more serious crisis, as his sister claims he was murdered by Denoon. Once the opposition has been dispersed, Denoon's influence wanes, and a female hierarchy, bearing traditional symbols of power, asserts itself in the once egalitarian feminist community.
This is the point at which the protagonist finally decides she has had enough. Reading Jonathan Franzen's essay, Technology Provides an Alternative to Love. - NYTimes.com, in the Sunday morning paper, I was reminded of the protagonist's "love" for Denoon in Mating,
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