Illustration by Richard Downs

Henry James famously described 19th-century Russian novels as “loose, baggy monsters,” and the appellation has seemed so generally correct that the phrase has caught on as a catchall definition of the novel — this, the richest, most generous and most malleable of art forms. And here we have, at a monstrous 700-plus pages, Norman Rush’s eagerly awaited second novel, Mortals (Knopf), following by more than a decade his prizewinning first, Mating. You couldn’t wish for anything more loose or baggy and, in the main, so compellingly intelligent and intriguing.

Mortals, like Mating and Rush’s collection of short stories, Whites, is set in Southern Africa — more precisely, Botswana — and I can’t think of an American writer who has so deliberately made a small portion of Africa the default setting for his fiction. Sure, Bellow has paid a visit, and Updike too, but Rush has staked out his imaginative territory with a tenacity that recalls British or Anglophone South African writers. This is unusual in that, according to Rush’s biography, he spent only five years in Botswana, from 1978 through ’83. Clearly the continent, as it implacably tends to, caught hold of his imagination and will not let it go.

Mortals, however, is set during the years 1992-93, a time of immense and impending change in that part of the world as the apartheid regime in South Africa inexorably gave way to the coming of black-majority rule and the apotheosis of Nelson Mandela. And in Botswana — a tranquil, safe and relatively prosperous island in the turbulent sea of African geopolitics — lives Ray Finch, an American in his late 40s, married to his considerably younger American wife, Iris. Ray is a scholar of some repute; his specialty is John Milton and his works, particularly the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost. Ray teaches English literature at St. James’, an elite secondary school in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, but this is in fact only a convenient cover for his main job — as a contract agent for the CIA.

What makes Ray more interesting than the usual middle-aged spook in a comfortable posting is that he is a deeply happy man. He is happy because he loves his wife. Iris is, quite simply, the center of his world, and as a portrait of a truly loving couple, Ray and Iris are amazingly convincing. No small achievement on Rush’s part: bliss, perfection and contentment are notoriously hard to convey fictionally, but Ray’s love for Iris rings absolutely and memorably true.

However, there is a worm in the bud. Iris, happy as she seems to be with her husband, is in fact a troubled soul. Secretly, she seeks out the help of a black American doctor and holistic healer, recently established in Gaborone, called Davis Morel. Morel is more than a convenient therapist — he also has a mission: a kind of mad atheistic plan to rid Africa of the scourge of religion, of whatever stamp, and replace it with a form of devout secularity. Morel and Iris, in due course, become lovers.

Ray, from his standpoint as a CIA operative, is interested in Morel and the potential disturbance to the status quo he might represent. But Ray’s station boss, the rebarbative Boyle, wants him to turn his attention elsewhere — toward a local firebrand, an old-style agrarian socialist called Kerekang, who is preaching a form of benign revolution for Botswana and threatening to destabilize this one tranquil spot in sub-Saharan Africa. Ray hates Boyle, and their several encounters and fraught briefings are astringently amusing and vividly achieved.

So far, you might think, so relatively straightforward. Here we have a novel whose literary antecedents might be cited as, say, Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise or Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. But Rush’s ambitions are other than narrative excitement or political satire, and this explains the novel’s immense length. We are given a tremendous amount of Morel’s pagan libertarianism; we get a full analysis of Kerekang’s homestead populism; we are supplied with the complete family history of Ray’s hated gay brother, Rex, and so on. Ray and Iris, in addition, pass tens of pages talking to each other about this and that. It has to be affirmed that Rush is a genuine master of dialogue — which is just as well, as this is one of the most dialogue-heavy novels I have ever read.

Rush, very like Saul Bellow, is inclined to use dialogue to convey both enormous amounts of factual information and hefty intellectual matter. No review can do justice to the impressive quality of the thought or the multifarious nature of the ideas — both weighty and frivolous — investigated here. However, I have a problem with this tendency, this particular trope — which other readers may not share — and as I turn the pages of these endless conversations, I wonder why the author eschews devices such as reported speech or simple expository prose. Nobody ever talks like this, or at this erudite length, in my experience, and suspension of disbelief, not to say narrative energy — so necessary for any fiction — begins to erode.

But the novel, loose and baggy as it is, is the sturdiest of vehicles and can support all manner of stresses and strains. The story picks up around Page 340 as Boyle sends Ray on assignment north, into the Kalahari Desert, to check up on Kerekang, who has established a kind of rural commune and who, for sound agrarian reasons of his own, has started attacking remote cattle stations and blowing up boreholes.

Things begin to move relatively fast. Ray is captured by a group of mercenaries who have crossed the border from Namibia. He is tortured and imprisoned. During his incarceration at an abandoned luxury game lodge, he is joined — astonishingly — in his cell by Morel, also captured by the mercenaries, having been sent north by Iris to search for the missing Ray. The game lodge is then attacked by Kerekang’s men, and a sustained firefight ensues. In the crisis Ray seems to turn a little insane but in his insanity behaves with foolhardy heroism and saves the day. They flee into the desert with Kerekang and his men. Ray and Morel have long conversations about Iris. Morel confesses that he and Iris are having an affair, says he loves her and that Ray has to come to terms with the fact that his marriage is over. They both proceed forlornly home to Gaborone and Iris.

In a way the novel is now effectively over too, narratively speaking, and here it ties up with a subtheme that is alluded to both in the book’s title and in Ray’s abiding love for Milton’s great epic. Ray Finch, at the opening of the novel, was a man in paradise: He loved and was loved in return. But this was not to be, and Ray returns to a postlapsarian world, after his ordeal in the desert, in which this affirming, all-important, life-enhancing fact is no longer the case. He has to envisage an existence without this vital buttress, this foundation that gives his life its fundamental meaning.

And I think this essential human problem — this human crux — lying at the core of this hugely complex, deeply intelligent, engagingly garrulous, frustratingly meandering story is what gives this sprawling novel its clear integrity. Ray is a modern Adam: He has lost his innocence and is condemned to live on, unloved in a sinful world. His dilemma is ours also, and is universal and timeless. “We are all dying animals” is how Davis Morel summarizes the human condition at one point. And the way we cope with that pitiless fact is this novel’s deep and abiding concern.

All is not lost, however: Rush seems keen to hold back from the ultimate bleak conclusion. Ray decides to seek out Kerekang (who has now moved on to South Africa), and Iris accompanies him on a final journey to Johannesburg. En route, in a mountainous picnic stop, they indulge in a final, truly earthmoving fuck before parting. The novel ends with Ray teaching at a rural school founded by Kerekang. Iris is still with Morel in Gaborone — though not living with him — and is anxious to see Ray once more. Some hope is hinted to us that in the future the love between Ray and Iris may be renewed. Paradise Lost, yes, but there is also the possibility of Milton’s sequel: Paradise Regained.

William Boyd is the author of several novels, including A Good Man in Africa, Brazzaville Beach and the recent Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart. He lives in London and France.

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