Sam's Reviews > Mortals

Mortals by Norman Rush
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's review
Apr 04, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: novels

James Wood might argue that big books transcend their shortcomings - whatever that particular plea for ambition really means - but Mortals has a few, of which one is its sheer length. True, this novel about a small-time CIA agent/professor in Botswana and his long-suffering, possibly cheating wife does a great many things, but not enough to justify being 700+ pages long. The pages on religion, for instance, are great, especially a recorded debate between a militant atheist and an agnostic socialist, and they only take up about thirty excellent pages. What makes this book (over)long is its persistent focus on the marriage of Ray (the agent) and Iris (his wife). Not that the exchanges between these two aren't interesting, but they take up like two hundred pages of the narrative.

Some of this is essential, since the fun of this book is being inside Ray's head and getting his crippled neo-liberal humanist perspective on things, a large part of which is being obsessed with his wife. But the whole first part of the book contains almost nothing but his relationship to Iris, and when the action finally picks up in the second section one almost breathes an audible sight of relief. I understand Rush's mission to expose the fissures in the good white liberal psyche, but enough is enough!

It's a testament to how good Rush's writing is that I got through this sucker, and the excellent writing is what made me rate it so highly. Once Ray gets into the Kalahari it's all smooth sailing, and I found the ending particularly heart-breaking. But pgs. 200-300 are certainly a slog. Soldier on, and much good awaits you.
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