I hardly finished any books last year, at least compared to 2014, 2013, and 2012, because I didn’t keep track before then. My reading pace has definitely slowed from its grad-school zenith, but I also just gave up on a bunch of books—even pretty great stuff, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (I caved and watched the miniseries) and Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (temporarily put aside for breezier vacation reading). I also spent a truly colossal number of hours online in 2015. Savannah got me a paper subscription to the New York Review of Books for Christmas, so hopefully that help ameliorate my internet addiction, at least somewhat.
Anyway, all the books I actually managed to finish were, thanks to my ever-waning attention span, fantastic. And this speaks to the greatness of the greatest of them, which is Mortals by Norman Rush.
(I chose this picture because I’m 99% sure it’s a selfie.)
I have such an intense affinity for Rush. I love how he looks like Hemingway but is something like Hem’s antipode, both temperamentally and stylistically. I love how his books are unapologetically serious and unabashedly entertaining. I love that his reputation rests entirely on the strength of four books—the first of which I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about, even though it was robbed of a Pulitzer, and the last of which was deemed a disappointment more or less across the board upon publication. I look forward to checking out both Whites and Subtle Bodies in 2016.
Had it not been for Sabbath’s Theater and The Master and Margarita, Rush’s Mating would’ve been my favorite book of 2014. (I need to get better at reading pre-20th century lit.) Mating is typically people’s favorite Rush novel, I think, but I like Mortals better. I’m having trouble coming up with a concrete reason as to why that is, though. Perhaps its simply the James Bond aficionado in me; I dig a good spy fiction.
I heard from an old episode of Bookworm that Rush was originally working on a novel titled Kerekang the Incendiary. That book seems to have morphed into a small part of Mortals. The interview takes place in the early 90s, when Mating came out, so it seems like Rush spent about a decade working on this novel, which seems about right, given its psychological depth, linguistic precision, and sheer page-count. But I can’t find Rush explaining anywhere how this particular book came to him. Perhaps he just changed the title, but I imagine the perspective and scope were entirely reconceived.
But yeah, I’m not sure there’s much I can say about Mortals that hasn’t been said better by others, so instead I will wrap this up by poking fun at John Updike, who reviewed the novel in the New Yorker:
Ray’s apologetic, I-hate-myself attitude about involvement with the [Central Intelligence] Agency seems, after September, 2001, rather dated; instead of being considered too meddlesome and sinisterly omnipotent, the C.I.A. appears to have been, with other national watchdogs, sound asleep at the switch.
In the age FISA courts up and drone strikes, the irony of Updike, in his post-9/11 myopia, chiding Rush for the (supposed) obsolescence of his worldview is, in a bleak and unfortunate way, pretty hilarious.