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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Norman Rush

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To purchase Mating

Title: Mating
Author: Norman Rush
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991
Length: 477 pages
Availability: Mating - US
Mating - UK
Mating - Canada
Mating - India
Accouplement - France
Die Massnahme - Deutschland
Accoppiamenti - Italia
  • National Book Award for fiction, 1991

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Our Assessment:

B : impressive in many respects, but limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Africa Today . Winter/1993 Sheldon G. Weeks
Entertainment Weekly C 1/11/1991 L.S.Klepp
FAZ . 20/1/1996 Wilhelm Kühlmann
Independent on Sunday . 20/10/2013 Brandon Robshaw
The Nation . 24/8/1998 John Leonard
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/10/1991 Thomas R. Edwards
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/9/1991 Jim Shepard
TLS . 18/9/1992 Robert Brain

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel is set in Botswana, about Botswana, but it is not of or for Botswana. It has been written for Americans and is more about America and American perceptions of the world than Africa. (...) Mating is, in reality, a giant short story, right down to its O'Henry-ish ending, and it might better have stopped as a novella." - Sheldon G. Weeks, Africa Today

  • "The narrator maunders on conceitedly about herself, telling us how good her intuitions about people at a party are and how well some feeble witticism of hers was received, with the result that it often takes the narrative several pages to get across a room. Yet she does have some acute and amusing observations to make about Africans, Europeans, women, and men (.....) Rush is too much at home in the company of his characters to give them the comic thrashing they seem to be asking for." - L.S.Klepp, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Darüber und über gelegentliche sprachliche Scheußlichkeiten ("die Hinterfragung meiner eigenen Motive") kann man hinweglesen und den Roman nicht nur als Porträt des heutigen Afrikas betrachten, sondern auch als Psychogramm derer, die als Therapeuten doch zutiefst der Therapie bedürfen. Im Verzicht auf das happy ending, in seiner ernüchternden Bilanz und in der Destruktion der Heilsgewißheiten wirkt dieser Roman ehrlich." - Wilhelm Kühlmann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This novel first appeared in 1991, but still seems extraordinary, innovative, sui generis. (...) I hope Iím not making the whole thing sound like a mere display of braininess. This is a story with blood in its veins. And the narrator is the best female character created by a male author I have ever come across." - Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday

  • "So much goes on in Rush's nifty novel about true love, star-crossed anthropology and rural development in Southern Africa that we almost forget about the morning after." - John Leonard, The Nation

  • "All of this is presented in an allusively freewheeling first-person narrative that provides exhilarating evidence of an impressive intelligence at work and play. Readers receive a palpable sense of having their education sternly tested -- and expanded -- by Mr. Rush's novel. Geography, history, political science, economics, literature, biology, popular culture and utter trivia -- the narrator and her beloved Denoon hash everything out, and in doing so are encyclopedic in the extreme, segueing from bats to Boers to Borges to Botswana. (...) Mr. Rush has created one of the wiser and wittier fictive meditations on the subject of mating. His novel illuminates why we yield when we don't have to. It seeks to illuminate the nature of true intimacy -- how to define it, how to know when one has achieved it. And few books evoke so eloquently that state of love at its apogee" - Jim Shepard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mating, however, is not about Africans; as in his earlier fiction, Whites, it is the quandries of foreigners living in Africa which concern Rush. (...) In fact, the novel is little more than the heroine's (and author's) infatuation with Doneen. (...) Addmittedly, Rush's characters and Rush's book add up to the kind of things I like to hate (.....) But in many ways Mating, is successful fiction, with a good twisty plot, and intriguing setting and those superendowed protagonists." - Robert Brain, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mating is largely set in Botswana, in the early 1980s -- as Ronald Reagan comes to power in the US -- and is narrated by an unnamed American anthropologist doing field work there. Just turning thirty-two when the novel begins, she finds she has an: "exploded thesis on her hands" -- the work she was doing has run into a complete dead end -- and no good reason not return to the US. But, even though she knows she won't stay in Africa permanently, she decides to hang on for a bit.
       She goes "slightly decadent" for a while, trying out a variety of lovers, among other things, but what eventually really catches her eye is the legendary Nelson Denoon, the "acme of what you could get out of academia", able to do his own thing:

He was so famously sardonic ! So heretical ! He was so interdisciplinary !
       The narrator immediately knows what she wants: him. But he's elusive, difficult to find and approach -- and then, she realizes, likely to be difficult to hook. His understandable antipathy to anthropologists -- "Most of the official great names in anthropology were mediocrities. Some were creeps" -- complicates matters too.
       Nelson's current project is entirely off the beaten path, a utopian community, populated and for the most part led by women, called Tsau. Generally only reached by the occasional plane bringing supplies, the narrator knows she can't get an invitation to join in, but she decides to try her luck and just show up there. This means a long and hazardous trek through the Kalahari desert. She does get there, and she manages to convince them to let her stay on; after that, the seduction of Nelson is only a (brief) matter of time.
       Tsau does seem almost too good to be true, as the narrator anthropologically describes how it functions, and how many of those there interact. It's got a lot going for it:
Tsau was Paris compared to ninety-eight percent of the villages of the world. I would hear again how deeply he believed in the village qua village. There were villages in Austria today less culturally open and advanced than Tsau. I would hear again that in Tsau we had everything we have a right to demand in a continent as abused and threatened as Africa: decent food and clean water, leisure, decent and variable work, self-governance, discussion groups on anything, medical care. These were not lies.
       Naturally, utopia does not remain an idyll; the narrator's deceit and manipulation are, of course, one of the problems (and it is not surprising that deceit is also part of what ultimately undoes her).
       Mating is a sprawling novel, its narrator a close and often critical (and self-critical) observer -- with a constant air of some detachment, the scholar in her trying to separate emotion from fact. At times the novel strains under its own weight, as even the narrator recognizes:
     My story is turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents, but I feel I should probably say everything.
       And so she does. Much of this is fascinating. The early section on the Gaborone community -- the mix of foreigners in Botswana's capital --, her trek through the Kalahari, and then the portrait of the utopian community are often well and amusingly observed. Her attempts at positioning herself -- her efforts at 'mating', from the pure sexual release to the complications of "intellectual love", as well as finding a place in Tsau -- are quite interesting -- though she does remain quite at sea.
       The writing is strong but quite relentless; the fact that the narrator is not very sympathetic -- and so often a manipulator -- makes it difficult to empathize with her -- and at a more neutral distance her story simply isn't that engaging. Idiosyncrasies such as sprinkling French and Latin terms -- id est, enfin, jeu -- in her writing tend to be somewhat grating (and the excuse that both she and Nelson had studied Latin -- "We both loved Latin" -- don't really make it more agreeable).
       Mating has the feel of a book meant to be an intellectual exercise, addressing the big social, political, and philosophical questions, while also engaging on the very personal and emotional level. Rush manages a great deal here, but it isn't entirely successful. Ultimately, it also feel a bit too much like an over-polished writing-exercise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 February 2012

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Mating: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       American author Norman Rush was born in 1933.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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