[Marxism] Brutal take-down of a novel whose main character is a "political activist"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 17 08:05:03 MDT 2013

(Coincidentally I stopped in a B&N bookstore in my neighborhood 
yesterday to browse through Jonathan Lethem's new novel about a CPUSA 
family. There was one sentence that caught my eye. A CP'er viewed among 
her political activities walking a young Irish boy across the street to 
buy a slice of pizza in an Italian pizzeria, as if this was promoting 
ethnic unity or something. God only knows. I would like to take all the 
novels about the left written by non-leftists over the past few years 
and make a huge bonfire out of them.)

NY Times September 16, 2013
Gazing Into Their Past via Their Bellybuttons

By Norman Rush
236 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

The premise of this tiresome new novel by the critically acclaimed 
author Norman Rush sounds as if it had been lifted straight from “The 
Big Chill”: a group of now middle-aged college friends reunite to 
commemorate the death of one of their own. The result not only lacks 
that movie’s humor and groovy soundtrack but is also an eye-rollingly 
awful read.

The novel’s preening, self-absorbed characters natter on endlessly about 
themselves in exchanges that sound more like outtakes from a dolorous 
group therapy session than like real conversations among longtime 
friends. Its title, “Subtle Bodies” — which refers to people’s “true 
interior selves,” whatever that means — is a perfect predictor of the 
novel’s solipsistic tone. Readers given to writing comments in their 
books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like 
“narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins.

There has always been a strain of self-consciousness in Mr. Rush’s 
writing, but in his earlier books, set in Botswana, where Mr. Rush once 
worked in the Peace Corps, the African setting provided him with an 
opportunity — brilliantly seized in his debut collection of stories, 
“Whites” — to exercise his reportorial eye and to place his characters’ 
personal dilemmas within the larger context of Westerners’ trying to 
come to terms with Africa and its colonial past. With each book since 
“Whites” (that is, the National Book Award-winning “Mating,” from 1991, 
and “Mortals,” 2003) his narratives and characters have grown more 
inner-directed: a process that has reached its cloying culmination in 
“Subtle Bodies.”

Although most of this novel is set on an estate in the Catskills shortly 
before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it actually takes place largely inside 
the heads of a political activist named Ned and his possessive wife, 
Nina — who both, it quickly becomes apparent, live within the Mylar 
bubble of their marriage, obsessively dissecting each other’s emotions 
and moods. Ned thinks of Nina as “his honey monkey.” Nina thinks of Ned 
as “a sort of Jesus, a secular Jesus.” When Ned and Nina both wear 
jeans, she thinks of them as “a symphony in denim.”

Ned has rushed from California to the Catskills, where his friend 
Douglas has just died, and Nina has followed in hot pursuit because 
she’s ovulating now and wants to have a child; she’s furious that he’s 
picked this moment to get on an airplane without her.

Back in the 1970s, we learn, Ned was part of a clique at New York 
University, a band of students, who, as Nina understands it, thought of 
themselves as “a group of wits,” “superior sensibilities of some kind.” 
They were the sort of folks who referred to themselves as “cineastes” 
because they went to movies at the Thalia. They liked to use words like 
“outré,” referred to graffiti artists as “ulterior decorators” and said 
that “Pinot Noir meant don’t urinate at night.” When they listened to 
records, no one was allowed to speak.

Douglas (who seems to have driven a lawn mower too close to the edge of 
a ravine) was the leader of the pack. Reminiscent of the charismatic 
genius figures in Iris Murdoch novels, he was an intellectual guru for 
the others, though it’s baffling why anyone would look up to such a 
pompous jerk.

Douglas picked up his college girlfriend Claire with the line “I stand 
here lonely as a turnstile,” and found it amusing to insert the word 
“egad” into every answer he gave in a class. One of the group remembers 
that Douglas “wished if we all outlived him, we would go to some park 
and hide in the trees, and when somebody came by, we would shout, ‘Great 
Pan is dead.’ ”

This jokester attitude infected Douglas’s child rearing as well: he 
named his son Hume, after the philosopher David Hume, and encouraged him 
to be as outrageous as possible. Hume has grown up to be a feral 
teenager with a double Mohawk haircut; he often lives off by himself in 
the woods in a cabin or a yurt.

The media are arriving to cover the memorial service for Douglas because 
he was “half-famous in the world” for debunking forgeries: “He’d proved 
that some sensational papers revealing that Alfred Dreyfus was in fact 
guilty of espionage were right-wing forgeries” and had shot down 
forgeries of “Milan Kundera’s so-called ‘Love Diaries.’ ”

There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Douglas’s philosophy — it’s said that 
he was “proposing various universal solutions to the problem of the 
persistence of evil in the world, in human relations” — and more 
portentous gibberish about his current mysterious work: Nina says she’s 
learned that “he took something called special commissions. Which means 
that he did work for the German Bundes-something and for the Israelis.”

The other members of this novel’s cast are either as insufferable as 
Douglas or as flimsy as paper-doll mannequins. There’s Elliot, an 
officious stockbroker who made riskier and riskier bets in the market 
and seems to have lost a lot of his friends’ money. There’s Gruen, a 
chubby fellow who owns an agency that makes public service announcements 
for TV and who used to serve as “everybody’s confessor.” And there’s 
Joris, who goes to prostitutes for sex because he regards himself as a 
“married-woman fetishist” who would ruin any marriage he undertook the 
same way he ruined his first one; he rarely sees his two sons from that 
union, and says that “maritime law was a perfect field for him because 
absolute cynicism was the best Weltanschauung to have if you were in it, 
because the field was strewn with pirates and crooks.”

Perhaps Mr. Rush means all this to read as black comedy, but it’s not 
remotely funny or compelling. In fact, it’s impossible to work up any 
interest in hearing what these absurdly self-important and poorly drawn 
characters might have to say as they drone on about themselves, with 
some random asides about Islam, Dadaism, anti-Semitism and abstract 
matters like “the sublime of deeply comprehending the world.”

At one point, Ned says to Nina, “Why are we even talking about this?” 
It’s a question the reader might well ask about this claustrophobic and 
totally annoying novel.

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