If Joyce Carol Oates is at one end of the authorial spectrum, satisfying avid readers with a steady cascade of new books, Norman Rush is at the far other end, releasing his heretofore exquisite fiction at the pace of a slowly dripping faucet. “Subtle Bodies” is his fourth book in four decades. Unfortunately, it does not achieve the all-round brilliance of his earlier work, especially his first novel, “Mating,” which won the 1991 National Book Award. It does, however, provide sips of Rush’s exquisite writing.
“Subtle Bodies” leaves Botswana, the site of Rush’s three previous books, for a mountaintop estate in the Catskills. There, a group of college friends convenes after the untimely death of their erstwhile leader, Douglas, to mourn, uncover the past, and rearrange the present.
The plot is as flimsy as the “Big Chill’’-esque premise is hoary: There seem to be mysterious circumstances regarding Douglas’s career, finances, marriage, and son, some of which get resolved, none of which are particularly engaging; meanwhile, Douglas’s old friend Ned tries to impregnate his wife and organize what turns out to be the historic Feb. 15, 2003 march against the impending Iraq War.
While this summary is hardly gripping, there is more to “Subtle Bodies.’’ Like all Rush’s fiction, the novel is largely an account of what Ned’s mother-in-law calls the “mystical ‘subtle body’ inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being . . . that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. It was all about attending closely enough to see them.”
This is exactly what Rush does — and, at his best, does better than just about any contemporary writer. He attends so closely to his characters — their thoughts, words, beliefs, relationships — and landscapes — physical, social, political — that he brings them utterly alive, with often-exhilarating aptitude and insight.
It’s tempting just to quote. Ned’s mother-in-law is “a sentimental communist, a very nice old communist living in Old Nido, a nice old-lady communist apartment complex owned by a nice old rich lady communist widow.” The view from Douglas’s mountaintop complex features “calm prospects, no crags, just the matte grandeur of tracts of trees sweeping up to plucked-looking ridgelines, marred, if that was the word, here and there by isolate slumping-limbed firs resembling incorrect ideograms.” Ned’s wife Nina’s initial sobriquet, “le grand Douglas,” signals everything we need to know about Ned’s “great friend.”
At the heart of the novel are Ned and Nina, two of the more endearing self-conscious political intellectuals of recent fiction (when Nina says, with gently mocking sympathy, that Ned’s biography should be called “The Neurotic Personality of our Time,’’ “but unfortunately it’s been used,” she could just as easily be talking about herself). Ned is the idealist, a political organizer and Free Trade movement leader, who is committed to his friends and politics alike.
Nina is the passionate cynic, who begins the novel in a stew of righteous rage and niggling irritation as, ovulating and desperate to copulate, she goes after Ned, who left a note in their San Francisco kitchen saying that he’s headed to Douglas’s funeral.
Ned and Nina know themselves and each other inside out, subtle bodies and all, to the point of being able to predict each other’s idiosyncrasies. Their stream-of-consciousness perceptions are a fictional accomplishment worthy of Rush’s earlier books.
The other characters are more erratic propositions. Iva, Douglas’s widow, “the leading gossip columnist in Czechoslovakia,” and his feral son Hume are simply bizarre, as is the Douglas his friends recall. Those friends initially appear as more odd ducks, though two, Joris and Gruen, emerge as vivid and poignant characters in their own rights.
Friendship itself is another of the novel’s preoccupations. Ned, according to Nina, believes “friendships between men were superior. Because — and he had said this! — men didn’t want anything back from their true friends, it was all affinity.”
Nina holds that “there is no permanent friendship between men.” The gradual revelation of the banal self-importance of the college claque might seem to bolster Nina’s case. But Joris and Gruen ultimately come through for Ned, disproving her hypothesis and registering the possibilities of adult connection, when one looks “closely enough to see” other people in themselves, rather than one’s own nostalgic imagination.
Rush’s longtime fans will be disappointed by “Subtle Bodies,’’ which lacks the consistency and heft of his earlier work. But in its humor, language, and occasional insight, it still offers a quick primer on his gifts.