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Mortals by Norman Rush
Paperback $19.95
Jul 13, 2004 | ISBN 9780679737117

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  • Jul 13, 2004 | ISBN 9780679737117

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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

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.

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