Hauling the Load to the End

I rarely give up on a book, even if it’s exasperated or offended me from the beginning. (For example, the mere fact that I made it all the way through the violent celebration of misogyny and colonialism otherwise known as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist should give an indication of just how difficult it is for me to set aside a text without finishing it.) But that quirk presents a problem when I’d like nothing better than to be done with a volume that seems to be adding on an extra page for every one I read. Such is the case with Norman Rush’s Mating, an award-winning piece of fiction it feels as if I’ve been dragging around now for months.

Political cartoon from Library of Congress, on Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not that the novel is boring, or badly written; it’s neither. At first, I was surprised not to be outright digging the author’s deployment of decades’ worth of GRE vocabulary lists; after all, I love new words, and new occasions for using old ones. Maybe, though, Rush’s insertion of Latinisms and wittily-wielded academicisms is part of what’s getting to me. This whole story, or the package in which it’s delivered, is so heavy; my reading is slowed down by the weight of what seems to be the narrator coping with her insecurities via highly articulate and jaunty self-deprecation. Less an analysis of academic culture (though it is present), Mating seems sort of like Oscar Wilde went to grad school and continually had to joke about his awe and love of the whole thing by pretending to play it cool and to be less serious/intelligent/whatever than he (or in this case she) really was– while also using big words to belie the act.

I’ll admit: my irritation may be due to the fact that it’s hitting home– that I’m being faced with myself in grad school, among so very many serious people around whom I always felt like a child. Like any number of comics using their ability to get laughs as a defense mechanism, my own sarcastic dumbing-down was the only way I knew to deal with institutional egotism and senseless power games. Given, it was the wrong strategy– and that may be why I’m so frustrated with this character, crafted in the hands of a male author.

Because in spite of this nameless narrator’s pretty good overall construction as a character, Rush also tends to put gender-based generalizations into her mouth that irk me, one representative example being, “I always remember titles and authors, unlike women in general.”* This sort of thing could be a device that fits her jokey pooh-poohing of self, but it gets old incredibly quickly.

At any rate, I’ve reached the point of speeding up my reading rate, finding myself back as a high school sophomore trying to complete that week’s assignment of being X words farther along in the book I’d chosen than I’d been the week before. I’m pretty sure I have such a bad specific memory of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (See? Title and author firmly implanted in my female brain), in spite of having loved it, because that was one of the books devoured in the hall over lunch, just to be able honestly to report I’d fulfilled my word quota for the week. We did have to give a plot update as well– but had I been allowed to savor the thing, I’m confident I’d currently be able to give at least a few details about why I found it worthy of praise.**

Hence, I know I’m not exactly practicing the most responsible method of completing this book. But in addition to being sick of it, I’ll be traveling soon, and I really, really do not want to haul its literal or figurative weight onto a transatlantic flight; slow-going as getting through it is in regular life, I can only imagine it would make the fourteen hours or so of my journey feel like a week spent in a hell of canned air and cranky humanity. Fingers crossed, then, readers: I’m hell-bent on using my holiday weekend to get through this chunk of literary molasses.

 

* Normal Rush, Mating (New York: Vintage International, 1991): 91.

** I also (now) fondly recall having misread a syllabus, and after plowing through 258 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology in one evening (again: name and title solidly in place), having an infinitesimally fleeting blast of total cosmic comprehension shortly before midnight. Sort of like the world’s shortest and soberest trip, with follow-up visions of fat translucent spheres engaging each other in battles to the death for positions of mastery and servanthood.

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6 comments

  1. birds fly

    I applaud your determination to finish it. I used to share that kind of reading fortitude, but in the past few years I have given myself full liberty to toss a book aside. There are simply too many others out there that I’m interested in reading. I do think I’ve gotten to know my own preferences much better, though, so abandonment happens less often as I read farther and deeper. It’s possible that I’m missing out on some books by limiting myself in advance, but I try not to dwell on that.

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    • Special K

      And even if you do miss out, as you said, with so much good stuff out there, things probably equalize in the end. I’ve pondered from time to time whether I should keep a greatest-hits list of things given up; Tolkien’s Silmarilion always pops into my mind first.

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      • birds fly

        That has the makings of a good blog post. I gave up on Brothers Karamazov once although in retrospect it probably just wasn’t the right time for me to be reading it.

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      • Special K

        Now I’m laughing, because I need to do another list of things I unadvisedly read while at the gym; Karamazov was one. When my gym buddy, a film prof, saw that, he told me to cover it in a Sports Illustrated, or I’d never get a date. I declined his advice, later moving on to Swann’s Way– which did, in fact, result in my being hit on, although unfortunately by someone of the wrong gender. She was at least nice!

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      • birds fly

        That’s hilarious. I actually also abandoned Swann’s Way, although I got much farther in it than in Karamazov. Again, I don’t think it was the right time, although I can’t say I’ve felt the urge to return to it, or Proust in general. I can appreciate his writing without reading more of it, right? I think that’s an option…

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