Well, this was ambitious. A friend, hearing that I was headed to Africa, suggested Norman Rush’s Mating with the caveat, “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.” I was completely won over by the narrative voice and the premise, though. It’s set in 1980s Botswana, in the development/academic community, i.e. the white folks. A nice contrast to West with the Night, I thought. But I might not have taken it on had I hefted its 600 paper pages. (Six hundred, folks! That’s a lot of mock-anthropology!) Instead I read and read and read on my Kindle, wondering why I’d been at it for weeks and was still only about 60% through.
But I do love a reading project, and though I occasionally thought of bailing out, I stuck with Mating to the end, adding one more to the pitiful list of National Book Award winners I’ve finished. And, more to the point, adding a bracingly skeptical angle to considerations of modern Africa.
Here’s the premise. The narrator is a 32-year-old Stanford PhD. student whose thesis on nutritional anthropology has dried up owing to lack of data: “I had to hunt for gatherers. Gathering was a dead issue in my part of the bush,” she explains. So she’s somewhat marooned in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, casting about for something to do rather than returning to Palo Alto, tail between her legs. She finds herself drawn into the orbit of the handsome, charismatic Nelson Denoon, a rock-star social scientist. (If that’s an oxymoron, our nameless protagonist doesn’t get it, but there’s a lot she doesn’t get.) Denoon, having written several totemic books, is involved in a top-secret project in the Kalahari desert.
Once our heroine finds this out, she becomes obsessed with witnessing Denoon’s village, called Tsau. It’s an entirely new creation, a community run by and for women. It’s been kept secret in order to develop fully before it can be examined by anyone. Nelson is the only white person who lives there. Nelson has made the rules, hoping to create a testosterone-free utopia. Only toward the end of the book does a protest from one of the Tsau residents reach Nelson: “He has made us live like elephants!” i.e. in a matriarchal group that successfully marginalizes males. It takes the various characters a very long time to wonder why Nelson gets to impose his ideas. Interestingly, it’s also a while before the reader focuses on the black/white equation because Rush keeps the narration in the protagonist’s head. It’s all her observing The Other and forgetting that she, too, is observed. But the book’s title reminds us that her romantic involvement with Nelson can also be seen anthropologically.
I loved the denseness of the narrator. She has an Asperger-esque way of recounting every detail, analyzing herself with the same kind of clinical interest she turns on everything else: “I see myself as quite perfectible. It always surprised me how few pygmalious, polymathic men had ever been interested in sprucing me up, given that I’m so interested and available, and that, as everyone notices first about me, I remember everything.” OK, maybe you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with this woman, but she’s very funny. As in, “If there is an evolutionary justification for the pygmy bladder assigned to the female race I would like to know what it is.” Just one more thought-provoking point to consider.