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.
The big holdover of suspense that began at the end of yesterday’s workday and lasted until I got into the office this afternoon was whether I’d decided to go to a spectacular, right-up-my alley event, or whether I’d surrendered to the exhaustion brought on by a busy week and an overwhelming desire to dive under some very cozy covers and conk out to the comfort entailed in pajama-clad warmth.
Well, reader, there really was no suspense involved; we all knew I’d throw in the towel, given the fact that, with my early waking hours and my true love of sleep, I’d never make it out, on a week night, to something that would just be getting started a couple of hours after my dinnertime. It all sounds so sad– and probably continues to appear so when I admit that it’s now a Friday night, and I’m 100% keen on curling up in a big chair with a blanket knit by a friend, a nice cup of tea, and some Euripides. Yes, everyone, I’m old way before my time.
That non-realization (I’ve borne the heart of a 95-year-old somewhere inside me ever since I was, oh, five, in actual age) had me musing on Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” a little piece that appears a lot more innocent than it is, at least at a quick read. But that “one man [who] loved the pilgrim soul in you” is really just getting in a very smoothly delivered gloat of vengeance– a bit of smug victory we’d all like to believe we can claim over crushes who didn’t take us up on our offer to join in a duo of mutual admiration, a triumph that would confirm the other person really just never had anything else going in life, really had no individual core of meaning, and is now a completely empty, useless shell, since the only possible source of fulfillment has moved on to more appreciative hearts.
How self-affirming to believe that I’m so damn fascinating and unique among all other human beings that my run through someone’s life has left an indelible mark on that person’s brain, heart, and soul! But the desire to have proof that such a thing has happened isn’t really about winning or not winning over some particular person; it’s about wanting to see yourself as indisputably memorable and awesome– because, apparently, we can never be too sure that our own comfort in our own skin is ever good enough. To put it in more complicated terms, go check out Hegel’s Phenomenology, and the fight to the death in an attempt to win the Other’s recognition.
When I say Yeats’s poem is one produced by a boy who’s been told no, and who has moved for that reason from loving what he wants to wishing ill upon what he can’t have, I’m not condemning the poet himself; he’s just expressing what we’ve all probably thought at one point or another (only he’s actually telling his would-be lady– Maud Gonne– what he’s thinking). Maybe once the poet himself grew a little older, he mellowed out, grew to think less like a spoiled child, vis-à-vis a woman who, from the sound of it, had very much her own, full life.
But let’s admit it: at any age, wouldn’t we like to be the best thing that ever happened to someone? If we could know that had come to pass, just once– that our lives had had at least that bit of impact on the world– maybe our own slide into old age wouldn’t cause us to “Murmur, [even] a little sadly.”