The Novelist As Ventriloquist

Mating. By Norman Rush. 480 pages. Knopf $23.

There's so much to admire in Norman Rush's "Mating," nominated last week for a National Book Award, that you could almost love it. It's a novel that doesn't insult the intelligence of either its readers or its characters: a dryly comic love story about grown-up people who take the life of the mind seriously, and know they sometimes sound silly. (This is Rush's first novel, but he's a fully mature writer whose short stories, collected last year in the well-received "Whites," have been appearing for two decades.) Like B. F. Skinner's "Walden Two," it's set in an experimental utopia--in this case, a solar-powered village in the African desert run by women--presided over by its founder. And like Nabokov's "Lolita," it's a feat of literary ventriloquism. Rush makes it even tougher for himself: he writes it in the voice of a woman, and keeps her unobtrusively unnamed for almost 500 pages. So what's not to love? Her, unfortunately.

Rush's narrator is a would-be "nutritional anthropologist" in Africa, whose Ph.D. thesis on fertility rates among gatherers has "exploded" because canned food and cornflakes have eliminated gathering. Despite her feminist misgivings, she's obsessed with "getting love out of a man," and sets her cap at Nelson Denoon, a celebrity anthropologist/economist "about even with Ivan Illich on the...fame meter." She moves into his mostly female utopia, but her ideal is the one-on-one utopia of happy marriage--though she'd never demean herself to call it that. "Perfect mating will come," she says, "when the male is convinced he is giving less than he feels is really required to maintain dependency and the woman feels she is getting more from him than her servile displays should merit." Such jargon--academics use it to describe primate behavior--is a perfect vehicle for her scorched-earth self-irony.

The voice Rush invents for her is a crazy salad of Gallicisms, Latinisms, puns, cliches, allusions and social-science cant. "She was on the qui vive re Nelson," she says of a rival. Or: "Now I was marginal with rage ... and he was supposed to soothe me and contextualize." Like P. G. Wodehouse or Donald Barthelme, Rush pushes the ungainly over the edge into the poetic: "It was clear she had decided to cast her bra to the winds as part of living life to the hilt for a while in the heart of darkness where nobody knew her, as can happen." This madly mixed diction serves to distance her from the very experience she's madly analyzing. In lucid moments, she sees Denoon isn't the issue: she's acting out an inner drama in which the need for love dukes it out with narcissism. (So, of course, is he.) "Mating" is state-of-the-art artifice: she talks, she introspects, she even suffers. But she never quite comes to life. Maybe that's the point--we are talking narcissism--but despite the work that went into her, we can't take her to heart.