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On Sale: March 23, 2011
Pages: 736 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78936-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

At once a political adventure, a portrait of a passionate but imperiled marriage, and an acrobatic novel of ideas, Mortals marks Norman Rush’s return to the territory he has made his own, the southern African nation of Botswana. Nobody here is entirely what he claims to be. Ray Finch is not just a middle-aged Milton scholar but a CIA agent. His lovely and doted-upon wife Iris is also a possible adulteress. And Davis Morel, the black alternative physician who is treating her--while undertaking a quixotic campaign to de-Christianize Africa—may also be her lover.

As a spy, the compulsively literate Ray ought to have no trouble confirming his suspicions. But there’s the distraction of actual spying. Most of all, there’s the problem of love, which Norman Rush anatomizes in all its hopeless splendor in a novel that would have delighted Milton, Nabokov, and Graham Greene.

Excerpt

I. Unrest

Paradise

At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.

He paused at his gate. All the houses on the close, in fact all the houses in the extension, were identical, but, for Africa, sumptuous. They were Type III houses built by the government for allocation to the upper civil service and significant expatriates like agency heads and chiefs of mission. The rooms were giant, as Iris had put it when they moved in. Throughout the extension the properties were walled and gated on the street side and separated internally from one another by wire-mesh perimeter fencing that had to be constantly monitored and kept in repair because there was a network of footpaths through the area that the Batswana insisted on using to get from Bontleng or the squatter settlements to their day jobs or for visits with friends or family living in the servants’ quarters each Type III house came with. The quarters were cubicles set well apart from the main houses, which had possibly been a mistake because it made monitoring the flux of lodgers and visitors that much harder. If the quarters had been connected to the main houses there might be less thousand clowns activity in them, although you’d lose yet another piece of your own privacy. The perimeter fences were constantly developing holes so that the paths could keep functioning as they had before the extension was built, and it was a fact that their African neighbors were consistently more lax than the expatriates who lived there about keeping the wire fences fixed up.

The houses stood on generous plots and there was nothing wrong with a Type III house. They were single-story cinderblock oblongs faced with cement stucco. Their house was salt-white inside and out. Every third house in the extension was painted tan. The floors were poured concrete. He’d had to push Iris into the house the first time they inspected it because she thought the floors were wet, they were waxed and buffed to such an insane lustre. They had the best plot on Kgari Close, the largest, at the apex of the horseshoe the close made. They had six rooms. He would admit that their moderne type furniture was on the ungainly and garish side. It was from South Africa. It seemed to be made for very large human beings. On the other hand it was provided free by the government of Botswana. Their bed was firm, and was vast. The corrugated iron roof, painted red to suggest terracotta tile, was a mistake, but only in the hottest part of the year, like now, when it converted the unshaded parts of the house into ovens, to which the answer was the airconditioners they had in their bedroom and living room, at least, at opposite ends of the house, except that unfortunately Iris saw herself as acquiring virtue by abstaining from using them exactly when the justification for using them was greatest. She always denied her attitude had anything to do with solidarity with Dimakatso and the other servants in the neighborhood out in their hot cubicles or with the un-airconditioned population in general, but he thought otherwise. She claimed it was because the airconditioners made too much noise for her. She was very sensitive to noise. Also she could be willful. For example, everything in the house could be locked up—regular closets, linen closets, cupboards, cabinets. The assumption was that you were going to be stolen from. The drill everywhere else was that the maid came to you to get the key when something had to be procured, and brought the key back to you afterward. But Iris kept everything unlocked even though their first maid had complained about it because she was worried that if anything went missing she’d be blamed. So nothing was locked, which was fine, she always did what she wanted. What was wrong now? He was tired of it.

Sometimes the yardman opened the gate, but usually it was the watchman, who came on duty at five. He overlapped the yardman’s tour by half an hour or so, but the yardman could be anywhere, doing anything, including napping someplace. The watchman would normally be at his post under the thorn tree to the right of the gate, sitting on a camp stool and having a cup of Joko tea and eating the very decent leftovers Iris provided—a chop, chicken thighs, and the sweets without which no meal is complete, to a Motswana. On weekends it could happen that there wasn’t much for lunch and he would think about the procession of chops and drumsticks that had gone out the kitchen door to Fikile that week, but he’d never complained about it. The watchman was coming. Ray liked Fikile, a short, energetic man in his forties. He wore the military jacket and service cap the Waygard Company supplied, but with them he wore heavy black woolen dress slacks too long for him and rolled up into tubes at his ankles. His ankles were bare. He was wearing shoes so cheap the leather of the vamp gathered up like the neck of a sack where the laces were drawn tight. They exchanged greetings and Fikile opened the gate. Ray walked into the yard. It was possible Fikile was illiterate. When he’d first come to work for them he’d always seemed to have reading matter with him, and then Ray had noticed that it was the same worn copy of Dikgang that they were seeing day after day. Then he had stopped bringing anything at all to read. Ray’s theory was that having the newspaper with him had been for the purpose of making a good impression and that now that Fikile knew they liked him and were going to keep him he was excused from having to pretend he could read. His English was minimal. Naturally Iris wanted to do something, but she felt blocked because to ask him if in fact he could read or not, after he’d clearly gone out of his way to give the impression he could, might insult him. Ray suspected that behind her agitation over Fikile was a short story she’d broken her heart reading in which one of the wretched of the earth is tricked into thinking he can learn to read by staring at a mystical diagram and repeating a nonsense mantra he has paid some charlatan his last nickel for. And to hand Fikile some piece of reading matter of their own, in Setswana or English, would seem like a test. Iris seemed to want her fiction to be excruciating. But that was the way she was and he was sorry he’d asked, when she’d given up right away on something light he’d recommended, probably Tom Sharpe, Isn’t it excruciating enough for you? He was always on the lookout for decent books for her, but being in Africa made it difficult and she made it difficult because she was cursed with good literary taste. She knew good writing from bad.

Here they had everything. He looked around. There were two discs of grayish struggling lawn flanking the flagstone path to the house where it diverged from the driveway leading to the garage. They were being kept alive by hand-watering. Someday the drought would be over and they could use the hosepipe again. Except for flowerbeds and the grass areas, the yard was bare red sand textured like a Holland rusk. The sand was raked every day in deliberate, sinuous patterns. He liked that. There were five palm trees spaced around the house, which he liked except when dead fronds dropped and banged on the roof at all hours. He loved his neighbors, and especially his immediate neighbors, for their lack of interest in him. One was the widow of the leader of an out-of-power Zambian political faction the Botswana government was partial to. Mrs. Timono was an actively furtive person. His other immediate neighbor, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, was never at home. It was nice that no one had ever wondered, at least in his presence, why someone who was supposed to only be the head of the English Department at St. James College had been assigned housing in Kgari Close. He thought that was because the housing allocation process was known to be mysterious, and also simply because they’d been there so long. And he had been careful to let it be understood around that they were paying a serious premium for the house, which they could manage because Iris had received a small inheritance, lalala.

It was fun to put one of their uncomfortable metal lawn chairs in the center of one of the microlawns and sit there in the imperfect, lacy shade of the thorn trees. The trunks of the trees in the yard were properly limewashed to protect them from termites, except for the palms, which had some natural resistance. There was a crate by the wall to stand on in the event something interesting seemed to be going on in the street. His wall was pink. He even liked the street itself. He liked the broad, clean, faintly convex roadway and the astringent odor given off by the gum trees planted along it. If he’d kept on teaching in the U.S. they might well have ended up in a university town someplace in the Southwest that looked pretty much like this part of Gaborone.

It always made him happy when the gate clicked shut behind him. Paradise was from the Persian for walled garden, probably the first fact anybody tackling Milton learns.

He thought, I ask them, What do you think the word paradise means? and they say various things. Their definitions of paradise are so modest: They reveal themselves: They begin to think about it: Odd that nobody in Gaborone knows what paradise means except me and my students and Iris. He lingered on the stoop. It was time to go in. If he waited Iris might stop whatever she was doing and come to let him in. If he waited the entire lower sky to the west would turn burnt orange. Ray liked working in the heat, being conscious of it. It was tonic for him, for some reason. Fikile was wondering why he wasn’t going in, by now. You get a slight continuous feeling of virtue from working in the heat, on a level with wearing wristweights all day, he thought. He should go in. The best heat was now, in December. The west was solid orange and the peak of the sky was apple green. Woodsmoke drifting from cooking fires in Bontleng and Old Naledi would color the air for the next couple of hours, fading in and out, never overpowering, more a perfume, to him. Fikile would start toward him in a minute if he didn’t go in. I would have been nothing in America, Ray thought. When he imagined what he might have been if they hadn’t come to Africa it was painful. Not that Iris would credit any scenario in which his qualities went unused and unrewarded. She adhered to the great man theory of marriage. She loved him. Coming to Africa had been essential, but he had to be alone in knowing it and knowing why. That was the deal. It was unfair that something was going wrong with her just at the moment you might say all the moving parts in the machinery of his life were in order. He could walk to work. His health was fine, his weight was perfect. He thought, I love Africa, but not like the idiots who come over here and say Boy! Women with mountains of sticks on their heads. Look, an ostrich crossing the road!

Nothing is more useless than dwelling on grievances, he reminded himself, feeling himself about to twitch in that direction. He’d earned the right to some satisfaction. The easy part of his life had begun unannounced like a dream two years ago and he had a right to enjoy it. No one could know about it, obviously, but he was living in a state of triumph, and had been ever since Russia and all its works blew apart overnight. Before that he had been part of a war. What he was in now was more like a parade. Of course nobody knew who he was, except for Iris who had to know generally. She had no details. But when somebody wrote The Decline and Fall of the Russian Empire and Everything Connected with It he would be there between the lines. He couldn’t generate the right metaphor for amazing 1989. He had an image of something like a metal claw sunk into half the planet suddenly disarticulating, but that was a weak image. Or it could be like this, he thought: You have a goliath of an enemy dressed in armor about to smite you who sits down suddenly and looks faint and when you open up his armor you find only his face is normal, the rest is sickly, mummified, and then he dies in front of you and it’s all over.

This moment was what Iris was suddenly taking away.

The event was too huge for any image he had been able to come up with. It would take someone as great as Milton to come up with the appropriate image right off the bat. He felt he had no time to think, lately. Iris was full of mental homework for him to do that he didn’t want to do, such as answering the question of why they had been so attracted to one another when they met—but it had to be aside from the purely physical reasons she knew he was going to overemphasize.

He stood in the foyer. No one was around. He heard the kitchen door close. That was Dimakatso leaving for the day.

He entered the chill bronze gloom of the living room, where the airconditioner was laboring for his benefit, obviously, since no one else was on hand and the room looked as though no one had made use of it that day. He walked over to the main double window. The louvers of the blinds were tilted downward, almost to the closed position. All the windows in the house were barred and tightly screened. He was fanatical about the screens. There was malaria nearby. He was the force behind both of them continuing to take chloroquine. Iris got worse headaches from the chloroquine than he did, so he understood why she resisted him.

There was still no one.

But I’m fine, he thought, trying not to relive a moment from the walk home that had made him feel fragile. Near the school was a rundown property whose occupants kept a goat. The goat had run up purposively to the fence as Ray came by and for an instant Ray had thought something monstrous was happening, because the goat’s tongue seemed to be a foot long. He’d been frightened until he’d realized that it was only a goat eating a kneesock. Iris could be asleep. He would look for her, softly.
Norman Rush|Author Q&A

About Norman Rush

Norman Rush - Mortals

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Norman Rush was raised in Oakland, California, and graduated from Swarthmore College in 1956. He has been an antiquarian book dealer, a college instructor, and, with his wife Elsa, he lived and worked in Africa from 1978 to 1983. They now reside in Rockland County, New York. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. Whites, a collection of stories, was published in 1986, and his first novel, Mating, the recipient of the National Book Award, was published in 1991. He is also the author of the novels Mortals and Subtle Bodies

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Norman Rush
Author of MORTALS


Q. Mortals is your third work of fiction set in Botswana. How is Botswana different from other African countries?
A. Botswana is a unique African country. It achieved independence in 1967 through a process of negotiation, not violence, and its first president was married to a white English woman. Each of these factors played a part in the development of Botswana as a peaceful democratically-inclined, pragmatic, western-oriented new country. Botswana has remained democratic throughout all the turbulence in the countries surrounding it—Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa—as they attained black majority rule. The country has a small population that is largely occupied in cattle raising and very low-productivity rain-fed agriculture. The terrain is very unforgiving. It’s flat, mostly scrub savannah, with a vast swamp in the northeast quarter of the country that constitutes the largest unfenced wild game area in the world. It’s a poor country, and the problem of inequality between the traditional agricultural sector and the modernized, urbanized sector, is huge. In the 80’s and early 90’s, Botswana was the most promising country in Africa from the standpoint of foreign aid agencies. Since the scourge of AIDS has struck, it is now probably the most damaged and threatened.

Q. What was Botswana like in 1991, the time frame for MORTALS, and how has it changed in the past 11 years?

A. In ’91, Botswana was one of the only African countries that always appeared on the world list of certified democratic states. It had successfully exploited its diamond resources for the benefit of the people. The country was distracted by the liberation struggle in South Africa that culminated in those years. Botswana was a frontline state, as those states that gave material support and sanctuary to the liberation forces were called. The prospects in 1991 were hopeful, but as I’ve said, the magnitude of the AIDS pandemic and its consequences had not yet been grasped.

Also in the years succeeding 1991, Botswana’s economy has been hurt by declining commodity prices. And migration from the countryside into the towns has contributed to social problems like petty crime, and pressure on resources—like firewood and water—and services.

Q. What were you doing in Botswana?

A. My wife, Elsa, and I were the first Co-Directors of a Peace Corps program. In Botswana we were in charge of a program that supported about a hundred volunteers in assignments ranging from teaching to water borehole maintenance to TB control to wildlife management. We were stationed in the capital, Gaborone (pronounced Hab or oh nee), and traveled extensively in the country and the region.

Q. MORTALS is both a tale of everyday espionage and an all-consuming romance. It is also a snapshot of the ideological and political changes that have swept the world since the fall of communism. Why was Botswana, at that moment, 1991-2, the right setting for the story you’ve told?

A. The collapse of world communism came as a deep shock to the nationalist movements in southern Africa. The socialist countries had been sponsors and supporters of the liberation movements, and there was a deep affinity within those movements with socialist ideology. Black majority rule was being achieved in all of the countries of southern Africa simultaneously with the self-destruction of socialism as a live system in eastern Europe. Majority rule was nevertheless very close to becoming a reality. In the novel, this historical moment—the socialist debacle—has consequences for the central characters in the book, Iris and Ray Finch, since Ray’s career has been founded on the struggle against communism… and for the heroic Kerekang the Fire-Thrower and his movement.

Q. Please say a little about these characters, all of whom are American: Ray Finch; his wife, Iris; and her doctor, Davis Morel. What has brought them to Botswana?

A. Ray Finch is a contract agent for the CIA operating under cover as an English teacher in an elite Botswana secondary school. His motives for accepting assignment in Botswana are complex—some are personal, some are political. As the book evolves, we see that the personal motives have been the stronger.

Iris, Ray’s wife, is in a state of increasing doubt about her compliance with Ray’s choice, especially as she sees the world political context that ostensibly justified it changing before her eyes. This disaffection prompts her toward (or rationalizes) a traumatic infidelity.

Davis Morel, Iris’s doctor and then lover, is an African-American come to southern Africa on a personal mission to campaign against what he considers to be the essential pillar of enduring semi-colonialism in Africa—the Christian religion.

Q. Your characters pay allegiance to many literary figures. Ray’s CIA cover is as an English teacher, and he is also a Milton scholar; Kerekang, an African with populist ideals, admires Tennyson; Iris is a sophisticated reader of serious fiction; and Ray’s brother, Rex, echoes Oscar Wilde. Who are some of your influences as a writer?

A. A question that has preoccupied me might be phrased as What is Literature for? That question gets addressed in various imagined situations in this book. As to my own influences, since I write political novels, I look back to the great exemplars, in particular to Conrad's Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. They penetrated my soul. So did Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. I admire the work of Chinua Achebe. Henry James's Princess Casamassima was revelatory for me. I was, unfortunately, I have come to see, for a long time under the esthetic spell of James Joyce. You can see that I have selected my models from the firmament of literary art, and thus must die unhappy. I do think my books are funnier than those I've mentioned, though, and that's a consolation.

Q. Will we see any characters from WHITES or MATING in this novel?

A. Yes, we meet again the narrator of MATING, the formerly anonymous Karen Ann Hoyt Denoon. We see what has become of her, and of her husband, Nelson Denoon. The main character from one of the stories in Whites, Paul Ojang, appears. During Ray’s worst ordeal, he encounters an African woman named Dirang. Some will remember Dirang as the animating spirit of the cooperative community of Tsau, in MATING.

Q. It’s interesting that the character in MORTALS that contributes the voice of dissent toward America is the only one actually living in America. Rex, a gay man dying of AIDS. In fact, he is the only main character to have AIDS in a novel set in Africa, in which a large percentage of the population is HIV positive. Why did you deal with this issue in the manner you did?

A. Rex is a cynic, and is more a satirist than a dissenter. AIDS becomes real for Ray Finch through the cruel fate of his brother. In Botswana, during the period the novel covers, AIDS was gathering force, but the authorities were distracted by the great political drama reaching its climax next door in the Republic of South Africa. Denial and evasion were the initial responses to the AIDS crisis. My character Doctor Morel is in distress at this situation, and is lobbying the Ministry of Health for a change of direction. By the mid-nineties of course, AIDS had become the overwhelming social threat that it is today. Sero-positivity stands at about 34% of the adult population, life expectancy is plunging, children are being orphaned at a horrifying rate.

Q. What is your take on the much-discussed anti-Americanism in the world today? In Africa?

A. During our five years in Africa, what anti-Americanism we encountered derived primarily from perceptions of America’s long cohabitation with apartheid South Africa. Even so, anti-American feeling was ambivalent, strongly mixed with admiration for American technology and prosperity. The contemporary phenomenon of Islamist anti-Americanism had not yet declared itself.

Q. Your first novel, MATING, won the National Book Award in 1991. Did that affect your writing of this second novel?

A. Winning the NBA had some contradictory effects. As Andrew Wylie, my agent, said to my wife seconds after the announcement was made, “This changes everything.” That was true. Many doors opened to me. It brought a sort of calm into my heart. My first book, WHITES, had been a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. But the NBA also stoked certain perfectionistic tendencies I suffer from, and fed a compulsion to do as well or better than I had done with MATING. There was a cost. I took ten years to complete Mortals to my satisfaction, which was too long.

Praise

Praise

An astonishing accomplishment . . . [A] detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Rush has now produced three books so full of brainwork, contour, sinew and laser light that we don’t want to leave home without him.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Wild and wonderful. . . . Whether the matter under scrutiny is marital wrangling or guerrilla rebellion, Rush’s observations are brutally accurate—and funny.” —The Seattle Times

“The depth and richness of Norman Rush’s second novel, Mortals, give him his own shelf in the canon”—New York Magazine

“Brilliant . . . Mortals is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. . . . Its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language. . . . The two hundred or so pages in which Rush describes what is in effect a small African civil war seem to me some of the most extraordinary pages written by a contemporary American novelist.” —James Wood, The New Republic
 
“Remarkable . . . Rush [is] as challenging and surprising and uncompromising as ever.” —Time
 
“It’s no small feat to write engagingly about love, religion, philosophy, and war, and it’s no small feat to end up with something that dances on the line between earthy and stately. Each of [Mortals’] 715 pages is ripe with more ideas and insights than most authors try to get into a chapter. Mating was magnificent. Mortals, as hard as it is to believe, is even better.” —Fortune
 
“Psychologically acute, meticulously written [and] ambitious. . . . Should help console those still unreconciled to Graham Greene’s death.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Rush’s political wisdom, honed by the years he spent working in Africa, is enhanced by an acutely moral literary sensibility and his core humanity; together, the traits . . . imbue his work with depth and grace.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Complex and accomplished. . . . In both its wry-yet-forceful narrative style and its generous conceptual research, it is a worthy successor to [Mating].” —The Washington Post
 
“Few other books so powerfully convey the uneasy connection between intimacy and absurdity, the way that the minutiae of everyday domestic life can become so loaded with meaning . . . . Read it if you care at all about some very old, very vexed questions–about matters such as the knowledge of good and evil, or the nature of human wisdom and human folly.” —Houston Chronicle
 
“Broadens the scope of [Rush’s] fiction while going deeper into the human dynamic of a country in the midst of profound upheaval. Mortals envelops the reader in a manner that modern fiction too rarely attempts . . . no one caught in its sweep will want the experience to end.” —Chicago Sun-Times
 
“Bitterly funny. Mr. Rush has a canny understanding for Africa, a profound appreciation for the fine points of romantic love, a muscular style of description, and an eye for character so frighteningly sharp that it argues against running across the man at parties.” —The Economist
 
“The great joy in reading [Rush’s] work is that it seems to proceed from an unshakable belief in the capacity of the novel to embrace everything: global poltics, the nature of love, race relations, philosophy, religion, literature, the exact feeling of the dust in Botswana. . . . There is no denying its intellectual meatiness and its moments of intensity.” —Newsday
 
“A novel as ambitious and spell-binding as his first. . . . Rush weaves an astonishing array of subjects into his story, from Freud, religion and politics to life, death and Africa. Rush is a master of his characters’ minds. . . . Within [their] intense internal dialogues are thought-provoking, smart and often hilarious nuggets.” —The Baltimore Sun
 
“The sheer energy and ambition of Mortals seems to mock its creator’s earthbound status. . . . Reader[s] will be justly rewarded for persisting to the explosive climax that rips this novel’s civilized veneer wide open.” —The News & Observer (Raleigh)
 
“Breathtakingly ambitious. By the book’s end, Rush has given us masterful slices both of Africa’s indelible beauty and of its ongoing chaos. Rush is a real seer, and he captivates us with his audacious fictional vision.” —Elle
 
“A serious work that calls attention to the indissoluble link between the public and the private. . . . You’ll find it hard not to be impressed with the scope of Rush’s vision.” —The Miami Herald
 
“[Rush] is economical with language, choosing the best words to distill ideas and express them in gems . . . [He] has real affection for Botswana and its people. His rendering of the cadences of their speech is just right.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“A masterwork of literary art . . . Mortals is a beautifully written, well-executed novel. It is written with passion, grace and flair. . . . Rush has a rare and beautiful gift of making readers feel true empathy for his characters. . . . A triumphant follow-up to Rush’s Mating.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Full of situations that range from subtly humorous to near slapstick that reveal an unusually keen human insight.” —The Denver Post

Mortals is brilliant in its presentation of milieu, the heat, the squalor and the human misery of Botswana. The reader is immersed in an exotic culture and its political and social history rendered vivid by Rush’s prose.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Well worth the wait. . . . Rush’s prose, wit and insight provide so many delights. . . . Mortals should solidify his reputation and win him new readers.” —The Oregonian

“Wild and wonderful. . . . Rush inhabits the restless synchopative rhythms and associative bedlam of a male mind consumed by jealousy, disillusion and fading altruistic dreams. His observations are brutally accurate and funny.” —The Charlotte Observer

“[An] absorbing and variegated novel . . . effortless and riddled with surprises. . . . For readers hankering after a novel of ideas, it doesn’t get much better than this.” —The New York Observer
 
“The ideas are a brilliant bonus. The writing itself is intensely readable: not dry but juicy. It is rare for a novel of consciousness to be also a novel of action, but it is one of the distinctions of this book to be both.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune
 
“Lucid, luminous, proudly literary prose. . . . Makes the erudition of Rushdie or Frazen seem show-off frippery by comparison.” —The Village Voice
 
“Has the feeling of one of Evelyn Waugh’s satiric excursions into Africa. . . . The author’s keen intelligence and his experience of the multifariousness of Africa provide some generous rewards.” —San Jose Mercury News
 
“Brilliant . . . moving. Mr. Rush shows once again that he is one of the most intelligent and patient psychologists now writing fiction. The reader is not likely to find a better novel this year.” —The New York Sun
 
“Compellingly intelligent and intriguing . . . Hugely complex, deeply intelligent, engagingly garrulous.” —LA Weekly
 
“Rush’s latest delivers on his extravagant promise. Not only is Mortals every bit as rich and densely textured as its predecessor, but its thrillerlike plotting adds a whole new dimension.” —Time Out New York
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An astounding accomplishment. . . . [A] detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around.” —The Christian Science Monitor

About this guide
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Norman Rush’s Mortals. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about this greatly anticipated novel by the author of Mating, which won the National Book Award in 1991.

About the Guide

Ray Finch is a forty-eight-year-old American who teaches literature in a boarding school in Botswana. He is ardently in love with Iris, his wife of seventeen years—yet he worries that she is slipping away from him. Iris’s dissatisfaction with life in Africa stems partly from Ray’s secret job—he is a contract agent for the CIA. The year is 1992 and Russia has collapsed, leaving the forces of communism in disarray and the CIA without a clear enemy. For Iris, who is idle and isolated in dusty Gaborone, the time seems right to return to the States. When she is affected by a lecture given by the charismatic and self-educated social activist Samuel Kerekang, who is working to redistribute wealth to the poorest of Botswana’s people, it is clear that Iris suffers guilt from her association with Ray’s secret life. Further complicating matters for Ray, Iris has recently sought help for her depression from another charismatic character, the black American physician and atheist Davis Morel, who has recently arrived in Botswana on a personal mission “to lift the yoke of Christian belief from Africa.” Ray is certain that Iris and Morel are having an affair and jealousy becomes his central obsession as he embarks on a surveillance mission into the austere and dangerous northwestern corner of the country. During the extraordinary adventure that follows, in which both Ray and Morel are imprisoned and tortured by CIA-backed thugs working to undermine an uprising led by Kerekang, Ray undergoes a harrowing—and often very comical—process of penance and self-renewal.

Mortals is both a detailed portrait of a marriage and an examination of some of the most pressing issues of contemporary life—among them love, betrayal, and forgiveness, personal and national self-deception, failed promises, false gifts, and the relation between white power and black poverty in Africa. In this brilliant, wide-ranging novel, Rush reveals the intimate link between the personal and the political aspects of his characters’ lives, showing just how inextricable they are.

About the Author

Norman Rush was raised in Oakland, California, graduated from Swarthmore College in 1956, and was a conscientious objector during the Korean War. From 1978 to 1983 he was codirector, with his wife Elsa, of the Peace Corps in Botswana. He has also been an antiquarian book dealer and a college instructor. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. Whites, a collection of stories, was published in 1986, and his first novel, Mating (1991), won the National Book Award. Mortals is his second novel.

Discussion Guides

1. The opening chapter, which follows Ray as he approaches his home in Gaborone and describes his feelings about his marriage, is called “Paradise.” In what ways is Ray’s marriage figured as paradise? If you have read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, how is it reflected in Mortals? Which characters in the novel could be seen as representing Satan? [See also chapter 16, “Milton, We Are Surrounded,” and pages 526-33.]

2. The episode of Rex’s attempt to record the “crimes” of the Finch family is narrated in great detail [pp. 32–39]. What does Ray’s role in this episode, and his reaction to it, suggest about the effects of his family situation upon his character? Why might Ray’s father have been so obsessed with finding the document? How does the story connect to the novel’s theme of surveillance?

3. What is appealing—or unappealing—about Iris as a character? To what degree does the fact that we see her only through Ray’s perspective make her difficult to assess? Is Ray a reliable narrator of the story of his marriage? If this book were written from the perspective of Iris (as Mating was written from the perspective of a woman), how might it be different?

4. What does Iris’s interest in Morel do to Ray’s sense of self? What is her motivation for getting involved with Morel? Does it seem that Iris is interested in leaving her marriage, or is she desperately in need of a change, of something more to occupy herself? Does it seem likely that the affair with Morel will develop into something more permanent?

5. If you have read Mating, how does Mortals take up the themes prevalent in that novel? How does the marriage in Mortals compare to the relationship of the female narrator of Mating, (whose name, we learn, is Karen) and Nelson Denoon? How does the story of what became of their matriarchal community reflect upon the viability of utopian schemes? How do the Denoons compare, as visionaries, with Samuel Kerekang?

6. The novel is written entirely in the first person narrative style, which gives the reader the illusion of complete access to Ray’s mind. What is the effect of this choice on the experience of reading and on the reader’s feelings about Ray?

7. Ray sees himself, in his work for the CIA, as “a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his” [p. 50]. Why does Ray love this work, and why is it important to him to remain in Africa “in the borderlands of the struggle” [p. 50]? Why does Ray try so hard to shield himself from moral culpability in his work and from the less successful outcomes of American interference in the affairs of foreign nations [see also p. 74]?

8. Ray realizes that “his great enemy, some great personal enemy, was missing. . . . The Russians and their creatures had been a blank system to him” [p. 50]. Is Morel the “great antagonist” he seeks? If so, why? If the second half of the novel can be seen as a prolonged contest between Ray and Morel, is there a clear winner?

9. Discuss Ray’s meditation on Iris’s unhappiness, his mother’s unhappiness, and the unhappiness of women in general [pp. 59–60]. Is Ray’s idea about the cause of women’s discontent correct? He realizes that “the only kind of societies the human race had ever been able to build were ones in which half the population was being very accommodating to the other half.” Is he right in thinking that if women stop being the accommodating half, “it was going to be a world full of divorces”?

10. Like Iris, Ray is going through a crisis of his own—as his meeting with Boyle makes clear. Ray finds that the words “Nobody knows who I am” have “a soothing effect” on him [p. 73]. In his work for the agency, he muses, “He produced art. He was a writer. . . . And his Lives existed materially and would be kept and someday might even be found, when the true history of the world was written, but that wasn’t important” [p. 75]. Why is Ray so ambivalent about his own status as a creative intellectual? How, at the end of the novel, has this situation changed?

11. Why does Rush bring Iris’s sister, and to a greater extent, Ray’s brother Rex, into the story? Why is it important that Rex is a writer and a homosexual? What is the connection between Rex’s writing and Ray’s own sense of himself as a writer and intellectual? What kind of a voice do Rex’s letters and his Strange News bring to the novel? What happens to change Ray’s feelings about his brother?

12. What is most interesting about the way Ray and Iris interact? Is there a vital connection between the games of language and sex that they play? To what extent is their marriage a model of companionship and mutual support, and to what extent is it claustrophobic? What aspects of Ray’s life, past and present, have contributed to his obsessive focus on Iris? What are Rush’s particular skills as an observer of human intimacy?

13. What does Kerekang’s eulogy for Alice Wemberg suggest about the gifts of whites to Africa? What is it about Kerekang that makes him a “person of interest” to the CIA? Is Davis Morel more radical in his intentions than Kerekang? Why is the CIA not interested in him?

14. Rush has created Kerekang and Morel as two foils to Ray—two men whom Iris admires and who are passionate believers in bringing about social change. What do they make Ray realize about himself and about what Iris wants? How does he come to feel about Morel when they are imprisoned together? How does he arrive at the decision to throw his lot in with Kerekang and Mandela’s new South Africa?

15. Why does Ray destroy his passport? What is most moving about the relationship between Ray and Keletso?

16. Ray’s imprisonment and escape contain some of the book’s most amusing moments. Why is his situation so laced with comedy? Why does he choose to be naked when he makes his stand against Quartus and his thugs? What is the significance of his having strapped Strange News to his chest?

17. Ray’s idea of a worthy goal in life is, quite simply, to love his wife: “It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy” [p. 77]. Considering the difficulties of more socially progressive characters in the book, like the Wembergs, Kerekang, and the Denoons, does Ray’s romantic philosophy seem a surer road to contentment? How does this line of thinking underscore the desperation of Ray’s situation?

18. Messy postcolonial politics, far-flung tribal groups, an inhospitable climate, the tenuous yet privileged position of the expatriate community—many aspects of life in southern Africa are represented here. Which scenes are most effective in giving the reader a sense of the complex reality of Botswana?

19. Talking with Morel, Ray mentions that “The working vocabulary of Americans is half what it was in 1950. That’s horrifying” [p. 548]. Earlier, he thinks of Kerekang as “a victim of poetry” [p. 373]. Language and literature—particularly poetry—are essential to the identity of most of the main characters in Mortals. What is the effect of reading a book so saturated with the consciousness of words and their various implications?

20. Why might Rush have chosen “Mortals” for his title? Both here and on the cover of his previous novel Mating, Rush has chosen to use details from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch [see page 555]. Why this painting?

Suggested Readings

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace and Life & Times of Michael K; Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim; William Empson, Milton’s God; Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup; Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter; Bessie Head, When Rain Clouds Gather; Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible; John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; John Milton, Paradise Lost; Francis T. Palgrave, The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language; Philip Roth, American Pastoral.

  • Mortals by Norman Rush
  • July 13, 2004
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $19.95
  • 9780679737117

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