Bad enough that a new Norman Rush book appears but once a decade; to be a big tease about it seems cruel. As far back as 2005, Rush was describing his new novel, Subtle Bodies, as a “screwball tragedy,” a book concerned with “friendship, male friendship in particular.” The tease was on, and over the next seven years assumed tantric proportions: It would be Rush’s first book set in the United States and not Africa, and much shorter than his previous novels—the five-hundred-page Mating (1991), and the seven-hundred-page Mortals (2003)—with the action taking place on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion. In 2008 the author, perhaps already primed for the sales meeting, broke it down this way: “Mating is about courtship; Mortals is about marriage; Subtle Bodies is about friendship.”
And yes: male friendship in particular. Centered on a fraternal reunion, Subtle Bodies, at a girlish 233 pages, appears in size and scope to deliver on its author’s promises. Rush has proved himself a writer of grand and self-conscious ambition, possessed by a keen sense of the thing called greatness. He has also been a writer of powerful—sometimes overwhelming—sensibility. In Mating, about an American woman in southern Africa who is drawn to the leader of a utopian experiment, sense and sensibility pair perfectly: Rush has said that he set out “to create the most fully realized female character in the English language.” Many agree he did nothing less.
Subtle Bodies prompted new challenges: To attempt a short novel, Rush has suggested, goes against his very nature; the apparent dearth of fiction exploring male friendship seems to have sparked the part of Rush that seeks to redress, innovate, bust ass. But I suspect it is what feels innate in Rush—the swelling heart and prickling consciousness, wedded in extravagant, clarion prose—that has connected with so many readers, and brought him to his signal preoccupation: that two-headed beast, the couple. Though Subtle Bodies tunnels in various directions, including toward a meditation on the enigma of male friendship, here again the marital banner flies strong from the novel’s first pages, its first syllables.
So come Ned and Nina, he in his late forties and she in her late thirties. Presented whole and already babbling in a couple’s native tongue, they are creatures whose mutual comfort, years in the making, prevails over what situational obstacles it must. They are Bay Area nonprofiteers who deal in complaints about “the metallic aftertaste of the coffee they were getting from their co-ops in Belize” and Hare Krishnas crashing respectable protests. They have good intentions. They think about and even gesture to the outside world, prizing their identity as people who think about and even gesture to the outside world. They have limits. Their good intentions are pocked by more immediate concerns, small and large, most springing from their adoring, consoling love. Which is to say they amuse, coddle, and care for each other, such that the one’s every thought and subthought, as represented by alternating streams of close third-person narration, arrows toward the other. These doting quips, worries, and aperçus cross in midair and thread downward, reinforcing the pair’s heavily stitched foundation, a quilted country all their own.
The novel opens with Ned thinking of Nina and Nina thinking of Ned; both are in the air, flying east on separate planes. Awaiting Ned in the Catskills are three of his college friends: Joris, Elliot, and Gruen. The old gang is gathered to mourn their leader, Douglas, who has perished in a lawn-mowing mishap on his rambling estate. Ned left abruptly, with little thought of Nina’s fertility window, which is about to open and close for another month. Nina feels “like a baby” for following “in furious pursuit,” but she also feels like a baby, and tragedy visiting some distant part of Ned’s life, known to her only through a legend as dull in its retelling as half-remembered dreams, will hardly stand in her way. If not a threat, Nina sees Ned’s attachment to this legend as regressive, delusional: “She was beginning to hate friendship. He was mixing up friendship with acts and atmospheres from the deluded matrix the boys had lived in for a heartbeat in the seventies. She thought, I am your friend, you idiot, and I let you into my perfect body, for Christ’s sake.”
Ned’s crew formed in the mid-1970s, when the men were undergraduates at New York University. Too young for Vietnam, they forged their own brotherhood, and dreamed of remaking the world with “friendship at the core of everything.” They talked of “molecular socialism” and fantasized about buying “an old manse in some rundown neighborhood,” where they might grow old and die together, “one by one as friends.” Mostly they told jokes. Ned stillrevels in the memory of their wit, pranks, and word games. “A bouncer was an excort and graffiti artists were ulterior decorators” is one example of many puns and in-jokes Ned remembers that might find the reader siding with the other men, who are less amused to reminisce. “We were a very strict book club run by Douglas,” declares the doubting Joris. “And here is the thing, my men. Nothing was funny that we did. Nothing.” What Nina describes as the group’s vague ambition “to be social renovators of some unclear kind” has ended with their leader’s inglorious hillside death: “No friend near, no one around, black mud engulfing him.”
Culture vultures and salon activists in their youth, middle age finds the now-estranged group little and yet wholly changed. Over the course of several days spent on Douglas’s estate, which is overrun with a Felliniesque horde of European press and hangers-on (Douglas became rich and “half-famous” debunking literary forgeries), Ned badgers his reluctant friends into signing a petition, set for publication in the New York Times, to stop the invasion of Iraq. Their denial and defeatism energize Ned, who exults in his efforts, which include amassing “his coalition” for the February 15, 2003, worldwide march.
In Douglas’s house there are many rooms, and in one of them sits Iva, his Czech wife, “a consensus great beauty” of stormy brow and gleaming bosom. In another Ned finds Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, a book Douglas stopped reading at page 847, resolved to parse the rest out in small, celebratory bursts. Subtle Bodies begins with Ned half-wishing for the wholesome distraction of an “uppermiddleclassic” on the plane, and specific titles appear throughout, books largely associated with guilt, whether because they were stolen, abandoned, or never seriously considered, includingReflections on the Causes of Human Misery, What Is to Be Done?, and The Twilight of American Culture.
Ned clings to the myth of the male bond, the idea that friendship between men is “all affinity,” free from feminine subtext or imposition. Though aware of the necessity of this idea to Ned’s sense of himself, Nina doubts its reality, or relevance to Ned’s current life. Iva, too, represents demands of the present at odds with a romantic sense of the past. Rather than eulogize their friend, the men are asked to “sell” Douglas to potential investors at a public memorial with a private agenda: securing a legacy for his family. “We must make a . . . book,” Iva tells the men, polluting their little club’s central object with the suggestion of a stock portfolio.
There is also Nina and her needy womb. Nina the corporeal, always calling back, in her thoughts and deeds, to the body. “Certain times had been amusing,” Ned thinks, pondering the old days. “Some things are pleasant,” Nina thinks, pondering the present moment, her husband’s hand lodged in her crotch under a moonlit tree. Some things are pleasant inSubtle Bodies, sometimes weightlessly so. Here Rush’s exuberant, late-modern style feels as smooth and casual as freshly pressed khakis, but beneath it a sort of parasympathetic network courses with moral ambivalence. Set against the looming decision to end countless Iraqi lives, the main characters’ preoccupation with creating more Americans is the source of an unnatural tension, one Rush leaves implicit. Something about the pocket sketch of the liberal generation that followed Rush’s brings to mind his nine months spent in prison for refusing to fight in the Korean War. Not a hack job, Subtle Bodies doesn’t offer a glowing likeness, either. The novel rather delicately extends Rush’s interest in what he described in a 2010 Paris Review interview as “the baffled, compromised liberalism” at the center of Mortals.
“What were we . . . the five of us?” Ned asks his surviving friends. The answer, perhaps fittingly, remains clouded, subject to perspective. The friends and their dynamic are presented largely in tender outline, and a late twist of melodrama doesn’t do much to change that. “The girlfriends took over but we kept on the best we could” is how Joris characterizes the group’s dissolution. Yet, Rush suggests, to be a friend can also mean being the custodian of a dream, the keeper of a history. “The impulse is to tell the story of your life to a friend,” Ned thinks, “so you know what the story is.” That impulse remains, even as your oldest friends begin to resemble painfully familiar strangers, their essence, their secrets—the subtle bodies of the title—no more available to you than to the FedEx guy.
In diverging, the men became, and remain, who they were always meant to be—lovers, if they were lucky. In Subtle Bodies, as in so much of his work, confronting the world returns Rush to his central question: What matters, in the end? That we do what we can, is the author’s refrain. Even if all we can do—all any two people can do—is form a country of our own, whose flag is love.
Michelle Orange is the author of the essay collection This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013).