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.
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.
Insomnia led me last night to start another book, one that’s been glaring at me from a corner shelf for a while now: Blaise Cendrars’ To the End of the World. Really, this– at least its first few pages– is not the thing to start reading when you’re still nursing post-romantic wounds, even, maybe especially, when you think you’re starting to turn the bend towards bluer skies. In general, as I get older, I have ever less tolerance for scenes of sexual degradation and the usual sense of misogyny, no matter how veiled in justifications about the messiness of real life, the harm of prudery, etc., etc., that tend to go along with them. (1) And so, dead tired but infuriatingly unable to achieve blissful unconsciousness, it was maddening to open up a cover and immediately be pounded with an invitation both to laugh derisively at the protagonist and to get off on some high-brow porn. (2)
Even if there are such pitiful, maybe even despicable, creatures in the world, and even if it seems futile to do anything but laugh at an old whore– well, I just don’t want to read about it. I’ll finish the book; I’ll even hope it gets better, or that I grow a thicker skin, or that I can use the experience as a way into really pondering why sex provides such an amazingly varied array of launchpads for any emotional reaction imaginable. But geez; this was not an auspicious beginning.
I couldn’t keep reading that particular book, not in the state of mind I was in. But I was still wide awake– and so grabbed The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and dove right in, with much better results. Sometimes, it’s inadvisable to get near things that hit too close to home– but on the other hand, essentially looking at yourself through the eyes of a disinterested party can also be pretty therapeutic. “Story,” of course, is not my story– but Davis beautifully portrays the craze-inducing overanalysis of fundamentally useless relationships that so many women impose upon themselves; the tale was sort of a tough-love reminder to look at the big picture, pick my pride up from the greasy corner to which I’d consigned it, and get on with my life.
I’m not saying that four-page short story cured all my ills– but it calmed my irritation with Cendrars. And– and: after reading it, I went right to sleep.
(1) One of the worst of the bunch I’ve come across in the last few years is Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist, which just felt like one big colonialist fantasy, and endangered any appreciation I had for Futurism’s super-cool artwork.
(2) I’m wondering how Elfriede Jelinek would (or does) feel about this opening passage; a scene from Lust (a book that made me want to bathe in bleach and holy water) involving the protagonist’s lover and his friends, among other things, urinating on and laughing at her, felt like the logical conclusion of what Cendrars started here.