Meanwhile, in California: Norman Rush Discusses “Subtle Bodies”

1. I wanted to know what she was reading, but she looked peaceful and I didn’t want to interrupt her. Nina, the female lead in Rush’s forthcoming novel, has a compulsion where she must know “exactly” what other people are reading. “She didn’t like people who covered the books they were reading with homemade paper sleeves. She saw it as a challenge.” 2. A jazz trio played before the reading, which was a first for me. Simpson thanked them graciously, adding she once taught the cellist in a Chekhov class. This felt fitting, as Rush named the Russian realist as one of his major influences, along with James Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad.

On Tuesday night, I headed out to The Hammer at UCLA to hear Norman Rush read from and discuss his forthcoming book, Subtle Bodies, with his wife, Elsa Rush, and author Mona Simpson. As I took one of the remaining seats in a room buzzing with dedicated fans and mellow jazz, I wasn’t expecting to hear some of the most valuable insights on writing I’d ever heard, but that’s exactly what happened. I felt like I got another piece of the map. I am new to Norman Rush’s work, which Mona Simpson compared to eclipses — things that “arrive rarely, but assert themselves massively.” His first book, Whites, a collection of short stories, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and his following novel, Mating, won the National Book Award. Simpson dotted the author’s loaded timeline to trace the path of his success. At age eighteen he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, from 1978–1983 he and his wife, Elsa, served as country directors in Botswana for the Peace Corps, and at age fifty-three he published Whites, though he had been writing novels since he was a teenager. Simpson said she loved writers like Rush whose knowledge comes from their “burning mass of experiences, rather than a ball of facts.”

1. Subtle Bodies working together to create a layered melody. This is a relationship much like his lifelong collaboration with his wife, character model, and editor, Elsa. She plays such an intrinsic role in Rush’s work that they were interviewed as partners. 2. The crowd enjoying Rush’s reading.

Greeted by warm applause, Rush began by stating that he felt he was engaged in the art of complaint. He believes this art reaches its “highest revelation” in the novel, as “characters always find something to complain about.” He believes this kind of complaining has the power to change things for the better, like how once Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Russian it influenced the prohibition of serfdom. However, Rush feels politically ambitious novels have since “faded” in a time where they could be of crucial importance. He feels us coming to a technological, social, and political breaking point, exemplified by how the recent rise of austerity in Greece pushed their suicide rates up over 30%. Perhaps this is why he set his novel around the start of the Iraq invasion, as it and its surrounding events are frequently pointed to as marking the start of our modern age. The novel, due out in 2013, is set into motion by married couple Ned and Nina having to cancel their ambitious peace march and anti-war coalition plans to attend the west coast funeral of “Le Grande Doug,” the “ringmaster” of Ned’s buddies from his NYU days. He tells the story from their two separate voices chapter by chapter.

1. Mona Simpson introducing Rush to a packed crowd restless for new fiction. Placing him in the company of Philip Roth and Alice Monroe, she called Rush one of her true favorites.

Rush plays with his characters like an adventurous scientist, without pretense and without taking sides. They laugh as they explore their curiosities and frustrations, and they laugh as they buckle under the weight of the world. Simpson said, “They represent America as a good example,” built on faith in our ideals. He goes so far as to create dossiers for every character, internalizing what he knows about each of them so he can feel their histories. The biggest balance he feels he must strike lies between their surface level, day-to-day complaints and their “higher” complaints, like the situations they are born into and the systems they have little control over.

1. Rush reads his work like it’s meant to be heard aloud, as though it’s a story told among old friends at a bar or coffee shop. His new novel studies the interplay of marriage and friendship, and male friendships in particular — a topic he says he has seen “almost nothing” of in major literature. 2. The signing after the reading at the Hammer Museum bookstore.

After his reading, Rush joined in conversation with Elsa and Simpson. The focus shifted onto Rush’s life and work as a whole, and an event that I thought started out real got even realer. He called Elsa his “angelic muse and defender,” wondering how she endured during his period of “very painful experimental writing,” noting that, “trying to surmount Joyce in one swoop is not a good idea.”

“I have a tendency to include a didactic element in my novels. It can get excessive.” Rush said. “He does like to think about thinking,” Elsa added. She tries to spot sections where she feels there would potentially be “an awful lot of readers skimming.” Rush recalled a perfect example of this. He wrote an unpublished novella set at a cocktail party in which representatives from every sect of the American left are arguing with each other. Trotskyites, anarchists, even a sect that was just one person. “Many things are addictive.” Elsa said. “Norman’s characters are addictive entities, or he’s addicted to the chemicals he has in creating them.” He’ll write for a long time in their house on High Tor Mountain, and then come downstairs. She can see how he loves them, and thinks “He’ll never stop.” She described the three years she had to wait for the second half of Mating as a “desert,” and she threatened to move out if he didn’t pick up the pace. With his novels, Rush says he’s guilty of trying to “Osmos them rather than write them.”
Like the fictional Nina, Elsa’s wisdom is sharp, assertive, and contagious. “If you don’t want to get rejection slips like fall foliage, you have to start paying attention to what other people are interested in,” she says. During the Q&A, a man identifying himself as a writing teacher with his class in tow asked her about this idea. He said he tells his students to write what they’re passionate about and wanted to know if she agreed. She answered by saying that during Rush’s experimental period she was a hand weaver, and they lived without medical insurance until she became the director of a special needs preschool. Off the top of her head, she gave us a replacement maxim: “If you masturbate all the time, you’re never going to have children.”

As they sat across from each other on the black platform, it was clear that their intellectual tension also paralleled Nina and Ned’s. When an audience member asked about their marriage, Rush said his work continues to remind him of “the treasure there.” Elsa then recalled a phase of “free love” that ended abruptly when Rush realized it wasn’t an arrangement exclusive to him. She said that after three or four years of marriage, he claimed “We’re doing the dance of the soon-to-be parted,” yet they’ve been married for over fifty-five years. If this dance is part of the fabric of what Rush’s characters complain about, then they must be complaining about what means the most to them, what they can’t help but love.


–David Ohlsen, an LA native, is a thoughtless product of UC Riverside’s Creative Writing program and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.

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