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.
Yes, I’m still reading Paradiso. I was bound and determined to finish the thing off once and for all this weekend, but it just didn’t happen. I attempted to summon up and derive inspiration and willpower from a grad-school feat of yore, when, not reading the syllabus with much attention, I was shocked to discover what I thought to be an assignment of 250 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology for the next class. Looking at said course guide the day before the seminar was to meet, I dropped everything and plowed into the tome, succeeding in completing what I thought had been the assignment. My reading, of course, wasn’t very thorough, given its speed– but about 3/4 of the way in, my brain being bombarded by world spirits and theses and Aufhebungen at early hours of the morning, I suddenly had something like a very brief epiphany, where everything came together in one brilliant, cohesive sphere of wonder– and then fell apart almost immediately. I’m still unsure whether I was relieved or not when I got to class the next day, red-eyeball-tired, to find out that we’d really been assigned about thirty pages.*
|How Paradiso makes me feel. (NARA)|
At any rate, to be honest, I was less hopeful of achieving some ephemeral moment of clarity by doing the same thing with Lezama Lima, and more eager to just be done with the thing. No dice. I’m still fifty pages way from the end of this intolerable labyrinth, and at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky if I finish it by the end of the week. If not, I’ve got a lengthy plane ride next week, which should help me knock this particular monkey off my back. (And who’s to say? Maybe high altitudes and the canned air that comes with traveling at such elevations will add some legitimate trippiness to a text that seems far too self-conscious in its attempt to achieve vaguely hallucinogenic effects.)
Maybe my Hegel-coup is just an event never meant to be repeated. (And without the fear of being stared down by a very otherworldly prof who bore more than a little resemblance to Rasputin, it’s understandable that my motivation to undertake such challenges these days is significantly less than it was long ago.) But my guess is that the completion of this present tome will at least merit a brief celebration, coming in a close second, probably, to the elation I felt on finally finishing John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. That, though, is another story.
* I later took a course that focused the entire semester on just the Phenomenology. It was actually a brilliant class that brought me some real understanding of the work– but I’m still unwilling to dismiss whatever momentary insight it was that I’d gained a few years before, even if I’m not sure exactly what sort of insight it was.