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10 Years, One Book: Norman Rush Brews A Literary Distillation

Sep 8, 2013
Originally published on September 8, 2013 6:46 pm

On the surface, Norman Rush's new novel is about a middle-aged man, Ned, who reunites with a group of college friends after one member of the group dies unexpectedly. But what transpires over the next few days ahead of the memorial service is less about Ned's relationship with these men and the heady, self-absorbed days of yore, and more about how Ned sees himself.

In his third, much anticipated novel, Subtle Bodies, Rush takes the reader inside the most intimate parts of relationships — between Ned and his wife, between Ned and his deceased friend, and between Ned and his own expectations.

Rush tells NPR's Rachel Martin about the process of writing his new book and the topics he wanted to explore.


Interview Highlights

On why it took him almost a decade to write Subtle Bodies

"The explanation is actually pretty simple: The book kept escaping from my control. I am afflicted with the, I guess you'd call it, compulsion to say everything. And this was going — without the assistance of somebody — was going to turn into a War and Peace about the 'after left,' as I call it, the period after the collapse of the socialist project and the beginnings of where we are now.

"... It's exquisitely interesting, but ... I had made a promise to my wife to do something unheard of for me, which was to write a concentrated piece of writing, a distillation, and not consume these years in a herculean struggle. But it didn't work out that way. The book got over 400 pages twice, and it brought me to my knees one evening. And I sought her forgiveness first, and then her help, and we together reduced it to its essentials."

On exploring the topic of friendship

"I wanted to write about friendship, and I discovered when I started reading around in the subject that there is not actually a lot of first-rate serious literary fiction that concerns male friendship. To me, it seemed like a rare subject. I had things to say about that that hadn't gotten into the previous books, and I wanted to contrast the kinds of friendship that exists within a marriage and what masculine friendship is. I wanted to look at it in a deep way."

On the character of Douglas, whose unexpected death brings the friends together

"Douglas is one of these characters who turns up who has what you might call limited charisma, or charisma limited to a particular circle of people, but with ambitions for it to be broader. ... Ned and the others, too, in each of their own ways, were susceptible to the antic opposition persona presented.

"... [They'd] fallen under a spell and gotten with a kind of unstated program, an oppositional program, opposition to the culture."

On Ned's wife, Nina, who is trying to get Ned to have a baby with her

"The problem for Nina with Ned is that he's been brought along to the point of being willing to do it. But she wants him to want to do it, and that means embracing the possibility of the child living in a decent world, a happier world, a better world, a world that would be [nurturing] and decent. ... He's struggling with the feeling."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. On the surface, Norman Rush's new novel is about a middle-aged man, Ned, who has been reunited with a group of college friends after one member of the group has passed away unexpectedly. But what transpires over the next few days ahead of the memorial service is less about Ned's relationship with these men and the heady self-absorbed days of yore, and more about how Ned sees himself. In his third, much anticipated novel, Norman Rush takes the reader inside the most intimate parts of relationship - between Ned and his wife, between Ned and his deceased friend and between Ned and his own expectations. Norman Rush joins me now from our studios in New York City. Thank so much for being with us, Mr. Rush.

NORMAN RUSH: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, this is probably an annoying question to you. But I understand this took you a while to write - almost a decade. Is that right?

RUSH: Yes. And the explanation is actually pretty simple. The book kept escaping from my control. I am afflicted with the - I guess you'll call it - compulsion to say everything. But I decided that I had made a promise to my wife to do something unheard of for me, which was to write a concentrated piece of writing, a distillation and not consume these years in herculean struggle. But it didn't work out that way. The book got over 400 pages twice. It brought me to my knees one evening and I sought her forgiveness first and then her help and we together reduced it to its essentials and ultimately at 236 pages, I believe it is.

MARTIN: This was a big process - as you said - distilling everything, all the ideas percolating in your head, distilling all of that down into a concise narrative with a few characters. Why Ned, why his wife Nina, why the circumstance of a friend's funeral?

RUSH: I wanted to write about friendship. And I discovered when I started reading around in this subject that there is not actually a lot of first-rate literary fiction that concerns male friendship. And I wanted to contrast the kinds of friendship that exist within a marriage and what masculine friendship is. I wanted to look at it in a deep way.

MARTIN: The central relationship, the central male relationship is really between Ned and his friend who has passed away, Douglas. Can you describe who is this man Douglas and what was Ned's relationship with him like?

RUSH: Well, Douglas is one of these characters who turns up who has what you might call limited charisma, or charisma limited to a particular circle of people, but with ambitions for it to be broader. And it's effective in the case of those people. Ned - and the others too in each of their own ways - were susceptible to the opposition persona presented.

MARTIN: Douglas was the charismatic in this group of friends. And they'd all kind of - is it fair to say - they'd kind of fallen under a spell.

RUSH: Yes, fallen under a spell and gotten with a kind of unstated program, an oppositional program, opposition to the culture, to the way they felt about the culture and where it was going.

MARTIN: I'd love to ask you about Nina, Ned's wife. She is desperately trying to conceive a child. How does that desire and longing fit into what Ned is experiencing at this particular moment at this reunion?

RUSH: Well, the problem for Nina with Ned is that he's been brought along to the point of being willing to do it. But she wants him to want to do it and that means embracing the possibility of the child living in a decent world, a happier world, a better world, a world that would be nurture and decent.

MARTIN: And he doesn't believe the world is that way.

RUSH: He's struggling with the feeling. His optimism on that point is rising because it looks like the opposition to the invasion of Iraq is becoming enormous.

MARTIN: We should say he is trying to mount support for a big anti-war march.

RUSH: Yes. It's called the Convergence in San Francisco, yes. And that has to do with the attitudes that she needs him to have for having a child together.

MARTIN: It's a relatively new marriage and I wonder what that was like for you to explore. Because this is not where you have been recently. You have been married a really long time - more than 50 years, right?

RUSH: Yes, that's true. It was fun to recapture the good early days of our life together. And also fun to make use of Elsa's wit.

MARTIN: Elsa is your wife.

RUSH: Yeah, Elsa, my wife, yes.

MARTIN: So, is Nina directly informed by your wife, Elsa?

RUSH: Elsa has been rifled a bit for Nina. That is the way it is.

MARTIN: You had made a promise to your wife Elsa that it would only take you two years to finish this most recent novel. It took you quite a bit longer than that. As you look forward perhaps to the next book, have you given up making promises to her?

RUSH: No. I think that I'm capable of adapting to the necessity to say I'm stuck and this is going to take longer than I thought. Is that OK? Do you understand? And it will be OK - there's never any question about it - but she needs to not be in a perpetual state of expectation. That's only fair.

MARTIN: And you have learned that that is OK for you to admit.

RUSH: Yes. I'll be in 80 in October but life lessons, apparently they just never stop coming.

MARTIN: Norman Rush. His book "Mating" won the National Book Award. His latest novel is called "Subtle Bodies." Thank you so much, Mr. Rush.

RUSH: It has been a great pleasure, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.