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Norman Rush’s ‘Subtle Bodies’ is anything but subtle

“Subtle Bodies” is about the joys and tribulations of marriage, vaguely reminding one in some ways of the 1982 film “The Big Chill.”

Last time I looked, “subtle” meant “delicate or precise as to be difficult to describe.” Regrettably, the novel doesn’t pass this test. The first sentence of the novel begins, “Genitals have their own lives.” Hardly hackneyed but more vivid than the prosaic “It was a dark and rainy night.”

“Subtle Bodies” follows three previous works of fiction of Norman Rush, all set in Africa: “Whites,” a collection of stories, and two novels, “Mating” (winner of the National Book Award) and “Mortals.” These few books, worked out on old typewriters over long periods of time, have received great praise.

J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, two Nobel laureates, are admirers.

The premise of Rush’s latest is carried by a story about a group of now middle-age New York University grads, 1974-78. Their features aren’t delineated much beyond Rush giving them cardboard identities and film doubles’ look-alike bodies.

Twenty-odd years on, they travel to an estate in the Catskills to attend the funeral of Douglas, “the ring-leader of a clique of self-styled wits of superior sensibility,” who has died riding his mower too close to the ravine.

One of them, Ned, a political organizer and Rush’s protagonist, is against the United States invading Iraq in 2003. He’s a former Catholic who looks like Zeppo Marx and tries to interest the others in his petition against America’s involvement. The group included their now-deceased leader, Douglas, who looked like Leslie Howard; Elliot, raised a Bahai and in charge of funeral arrangements, and who looks like the movie villain John Ireland; Joris, an atheist lawyer who looks like John Garfield; and Gruen, a Zionist, who looks like Flash Gordon.

At the strange manse in the Catskills where the funeral preparations take place, they meet Iva, Douglas’ beautiful widow and, Hume, their weird son with a Mohawk haircut.

Left behind from this gathering, and furious, is Ned’s wife, Nina, who’s angry with him about his abrupt departure for the funeral. She rushes to the Catskills by plane and bus, anxious to chastise him for leaving in her condition, enceinte, she hopes. The title of the novel comes from Nina, as she remembers a conversation with her mother, who is, if not tipped, a bit strange.

Nina’s mother claims, she says, that “there is a change in the odor a woman’s body gives off during pregnancy. But then her mother regularly declared that there was a mystical “subtle body” inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example.

In fact, Nina herself is anxious that she and Ned have their own child rather than adopt. “What she wanted was Ned’s essence. And face it, she wanted her own essence to go on, too.”

The title is later adumbrated by Ned and Joris (on page 198), when they speak of “whether their true interior selves – the subtle bodies inside – were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance might have done to hurt them.”

“Subtle Bodies” is replete with ideas, plangent complacencies that are not fleshed out sufficiently: the idea of friendship and what makes it last; remembrances of adolescent behavior (a Christmastime parody, “It’s Beginning to Look a Bit Like Kwanzaa”) that probably wasn’t worth writing about; the arrival at the funeral of people whose presence isn’t sufficiently explained. These and other diversions fail to achieve any cogency of plot.

The whole premise seems phony; a set piece for an ironic comedy, “invective as an art form” – outrageous, absurdly insulting argument, especially as it related to entering Iraq 10 years ago.

One of many examples is when Joris argues with Ned: “I’m never through. And by the way we have the perfect warrior to do it. The officer corps is full of Christians who have their own version of the end of the world.

You won’t like this, but this is what I have to say. Especially with people who think getting themselves killed so they can go to paradise is a really good idea. What I say is that a time comes when you have to kill them in large enough numbers so it interferes with their assumption that they can keep putting up mosques.”

What ties these diatribes together is the maintenance in the foreground of the love story or at least lust story of Ned and Nina, who are still in the throes of their sexual intimacy after dropping earlier partners.

And so people are on their own to find what they think is love or what suits them in its place. “Subtle” seems hardly the word here. In the end, trailing crumbs of delight can lead to disaster and only occasionally, to happiness.

The novel has some evocative writing in it, but if you are looking for a tight plot and strict underlying logic to what takes place, this may not be your book. There is an attempt to tie everything together at the end, but it doesn’t work. Rush is imbued with the idea that much of the universe is individualistic and that is a view that doesn’t take to tidying up.

Wyatt Mason, who did an extravagant piece on Rush in the New York Times recently, put Rush’s capacity to cogitate almost endlessly this way, “An awareness of the mechanism – of how our minds work, of the transits between self-certainty and self-doubt and the endless inner arbitrations litigating each – is a central Rushian preoccupation.”

This capacity to cogitate endlessly doesn’t make “Subtle Bodies” a good novel. It may be that this Rushian oeuvre is too clever by half to sustain the irony he may wish to intend.

My view: Norman Rush, who also lives in the Catskills, rides his mower too close to the ravine in this novel.

Subtle Bodies

By Norman Rush


236 pages, $26.95

Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.