Norman Rush may be America's last living maximalist author. In two bulky, Africa-set novels, 1991's "Mating" and 2004's "Mortals," he astutely explored themes of courtship, outsiderdom and herd mentality. Blending romantic lift with the depth of a graduate course in sociology, he's earned every accolade he's received.
At barely half the length of its predecessors, his "Subtle Bodies" isn't a slighter work. But compressed as it is, Rush's storytelling feels more allegorical, its humor more pointed. Once again, the plot turns on a couple: Ned is a lifelong activist organizing a mass protest against the Iraq war (it's early 2003), while his wife, Nina, is outraged that he's skipped town during her prime days for conception. Ned had a good reason, or thinks he does: His wealthy college friend Douglas has died, and his tribe has reconvened at his New York estate for the funeral.
"They were going to be social renovators of some unclear kind, had been the idea," is how Rush describes the group, invoking the novel's themes of broken ambition. As the five men snoop around each other's pasts, romantic and ideological failures pile up like so many unexpected bills. Rush doesn't play this decline as tragedy or comedy, though he can be a very funny writer. Rather, he's coolly candid about showing the distance between imagined reality and the facts.
Consider the moment when Ned tells his old friends of the antiwar protests: "Wait until you see the marches. We can stop it this time." We know how that turned out.
Yet Rush encourages you to respect that kind of optimism, in part because he's so precise and emotionally generous in describing it. Ned's interactions with Nina (once she catches up with him) are witty and charmingly intimate. Yet Rush can easily shift into a more panoramic, gimlet-eyed view on relationships, as when Nina imagines her and Ned as just one small part of "the coming together of males and females in the Continue Humanity project, this colossal enterprise."
The novel accelerates as Douglas' funeral approaches and the friends' facades begin to crack. The "subtle bodies" of the title are, as Ned thinks, the core selves that survive "despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them." But the closing pages suggest that age, accidents and circumstance are part of our core selves, too. Hoping for a false sense of order is what's unnatural. If "Subtle Bodies" feels a bit contrived and constricted, that's intentional. As Nina puts it, thinking of the men in Douglas' estate, "the problem was that around there it was like a novel."
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C.