Mating: A Novel
Set in the African republic of Botswana—the locale of his acclaimed short story collection, Whites—Norman Rush’s novel simultaneously explores the highest of intellectual high grounds and the most tortuous ravines of the erotic. tackles the geopolitics of poverty and the mystery of what men and women really want.
Had Jane Austen been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, Mating is the book she might have written. Set in Botswana in the days before the end of apartheid, Norman Rush’s novel is, essentially, a comedy of manners played out in Austen’s approved milieu: a country village. Granted, the village in question, Tsau, is a utopian society created by the great American anthropologist Nelson Denoon, and run largely by and for disenfranchised and abused African women. Still, the issue that interests Rush (and the one that fueled Austen’s novels) is the age-old question of who mates with whom, and why? The unnamed narrator is a 32-year-old postgraduate student in anthropology whose dissertation has just gone south on her. Drifting around the edges of the expatriate community in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, she first meets Denoon:
He was smiling at Kgosetlemang—the event was to be considered over with, clearly—and I could tell that his gingivae were as good as mine; which is saying a lot. I attend to my gums. People in the bush don’t always attend to their oral hygiene, not to mention other niceties. There was no sign of that here. I of course am fanatical about my gums because my idea of what the movie I Wake Up Screaming is about is a woman who has to keep dating to find her soulmate and she’s had to get dentures. I have very long-range anxieties.
Entranced by this potential soulmate, our heroine strikes out into the Kalahari Desert with a couple of donkeys and follows him to his utopia where sexual attraction, regional politics, and social experimentation make for very strange bedfellows, indeed.
Mating is a fiercely intelligent, hugely ambitious novel that takes on feminism, socialism, political corruption, foreign-sponsored rural development projects, and, yes, male-female relations in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. Certainly Rush’s language is a big part of what makes the novel work: the narrator’s combination of elevated vocabulary and wacky non sequiturs is inspired. When, for example, Denoon explains to her that most of the women in Tsau are celibate and therefore so is he, she reflects that “of course the spiritus rector of a female community would need to be a sexual solitary, at least during the foundational period.” She then wonders if “this situation was the analog of western series on television where the female watchership shrank to nothing when the producers let the marshal get married.” Mating is remarkable for its wit, its acuity, and its ability to satirize without demeaning; it’s also a heck of an entertaining story. Jane Austen would have been proud. —Alix Wilber