Norman Rush
New York: Vintage International, 1991
ISBN # 0-679-73709-X
480 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2005

In late 1980 the young unnamed narrator is in Gaborone, Botswana. She had been working on her PHD thesis, but her project in nutritional anthropology has fallen apart. She is frustrated, unsure of her abilities and doesn’t know what to do at the moment or with her life in general. However, she meets the charismatic Norman Danoon, a maverick anti-establishment anthropologist who is running some sort of secret utopian community in the Kalahari desert.

The narrator sets out on a quest not only to see and experience his secret project, but to win the love of this strange and impressive man. We are treated to a detailed account of the progress of her efforts to win his love and create this near perfect equal relationship between a man and woman.

Along the way we come to learn a great deal of his utopian community which hopes to reverse centuries of world-wide societies by creating a successful democratic matriarchy. In addition to detailed discussions of the theories behind Denoon’s dreams and his attacks on modern and historical patriarchal societies, we are taken inside many tiny pieces of the community at Tsau, from the woman who runs the meat tree, details of the structure of the ruling council and to the role of dung cart boys in Tsau.

In the main the book is an interesting read. At one point the narrator herself even worries about the detail in which she is reporting the progress of this love affair. She compares herself to a character in a Borges story who is creating a map that bears a 1 to 1 relationship in size to the place itself. I must myself admit to feeing this concern about her obsessive detail.

Another aspect of the love story surprised me. She regards herself as a feminist and him as a strong feminist as well. Yet her mode of pursuing him seems anything but feminist. There is lots of attention in the detail of daily life for being together equally. Yet the over-arching situation is of a failed graduate student chasing a famous and successful ex-professor and in her own account, plotting his seduction, willing to submerge her whole life into his utopian dreams. Despite this quarrel, even the love story itself was interesting if the contradictions are read more as revealing human flaws in the narrator’s character than logical errors of characterization.

The story of the utopian community was well done. The basic idea of the community was itself bold and a plausible ideal is put forward. Again, the flaws in the system and people involved add realism to the account rather than a distraction.

The author’s vocabulary throughout is astonishing. Careful detail is given to word choice and much exotic vocabulary appears. I tend to pride myself on vocabulary, especially passive vocabulary, but I still had to look up a couple dozen words and come across dozens of others I knew but have rarely seen in print.

In addition to vocabulary the author’s experiment with a novel grammatical move met with mixed success. When the narrator tells us what someone said it is given in a direct quote, rather than using standard grammatical structure –

new paragraph, open quote, the quote, closed quote, new paragraph

Norman Rush just begins the quote in the middle of the sentence with only an upper case letter to signify this is a direct quote. Two examples which seem to work well are:

“So I laughed and said There is how you tell a thing is a quirk.”

“He said Did you know the rate in South African men is the same to the second decimal as the rate for the prison guards as a class around the world, and what does that say to you?”

But, a third example presents a slight ambiguity in which only context determines the meaning and it isn’t quite clear.

“I think he said You notice everything, and I said Oh you’ve noticed, so we laughed and he brought the thing in.”

In Rush’s experimental grammar the above sentence just isn’t immediately clear. However, I enjoyed his bold attempt to mess with a quite standard grammatical structure.

Overall this is an interesting and thought provoking novel. Rush writes it with such compelling attention to the creation of detail, that I was constantly asking myself if this could possibly be rooted in some actual historical case. I think this is strong testimony that Rush’s fiction is one of power.

Along the way a couple of ideas were thrown out which grabbed me independent of the flow of the novel itself. I’ll close these comments with those items.

Norman Denoon touches a point about our modern society which I share with him:

One thing wrong with America according to Denoon, is that the society is converging to suppress unsupervised mass play, largely through the mechanisms of TV and adult-run sports like Little League. His theory was that if you leave young males alone they will go in play situations from fascism to feudalism to democracy. So now there is a diffuse and thwarted attraction to fascism that is getting played out at the adult level.

A second issue that arises often in the novel is the conflict between the joys of freedom which individualism provides and the loss of social good which that same individualism allows. The narrator has this deep concern with the strict rules of Denoon’s utopian community and the questions burst out when the narrator asks:

[Denoon has said that] it is perfectly expected that you will be shouted at from the next yard or street if someone notices you being remiss [remiss in this case, in not using disinfectant after using the toilet, but what follows can be applied generally to Denoon’s society].

When you come to Tsau you take a virtual oath to do this faithfully. Is all this a tonic or not? Would you tend to wear down over time? Compare this to living at a less comfortable level but in a condition where you are free of the obligation to become part of a collective self-defense organism every time a bells rings.

I find this a difficult problematic which I face often in thinking of the conflicts of self and society in my own life.

The novel is a good read and often thought provoking, but I wouldn’t classify it as a great novel. The level of detail the narrator gives us of the attempted seduction itself and the uneasy mix as to whether this is about the relationship between the narrator and Denoon, or about the ideal community of Tsau are rough edges for me.

Bob Corbett


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