Feigning Control

Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies

Granta, 256pp, 14.99, ISBN 9781847087805

reviewed by Michael Duffy

Norman Rush’s third novel, Subtle Bodies, acts like a debut in more than one way; this is Rush’s first book about America, and it is his first of a reasonable length to expect a mass audience. Perhaps with this in mind immense care has been taken with its composition. The plot is paced precisely, keeping the novel concise whilst also acquainting the reader with characters who are evoked with practiced roundedness, both personally and politically. This deft presentation of narrative and ideology is to be expected, as the text is the product of an almost decade-long gestation period. In that time, however, the anxieties that led Rush to take up his pen have been fully realised across the Middle East.

The book centers on a middle-aged man’s concerns about the potential invasion of Iraq. Ned is summoned to the Catskills to visit the home of a deceased university friend, Douglas, where he is reunited with his old NYU clique, a group of self-proclaimed wits who have been frantically assembled to participate in the memorial. As they descend upon Douglas’s opulent manse, Ned continues to arrange another convergence – the San Francisco chapter of a worldwide protest against the invasion of Iraq. These two events bleed together as Rush’s protagonist attempts to procure the signatures of his friends for a petition in the New York Times.

Subtle Bodies has been celebrated for its portrayal of enduring homosocial relationships in The New York Times and the LA Review of Books. This is one of the book’s excellences, and Rush accurately portrays that sometimes brutal frankness only possible between childhood friends: one of Ned’s old friends details a fetish for married women and prostitutes; another is caught spitting over the ravine above Douglas’ death site, excusing himself by saying ‘I was wondering if I could spit across... the answer is, I can’t.’ The group uses their meeting to update each other on their lives, but Douglas is naturally at the heart of most of their discussions.

Douglas was an idealist, desperate to control the world around him. He spent his later life sending emails to Ned that highlighted a variety of possible solutions to the world’s evil. In his university days, too, he was given to asserting personal control by distributing fliers with graphic photographs of leukoplakia, an oral cancer caused by cigarettes, and leading the clique out of Marlon Brando’s Last Tango in Paris after an unhygienic toilet scene. He is portrayed as an eccentric academic who feebly attempts to manipulate the world around him. These futile efforts to manage both global and personal risks are something that Ned finds himself clinging to, as he himself is deep within a similar battle for control.

For Ned, the difficult task of reassessing his own history is redoubled by the arrival of his wife Nina. Nina is a younger, second love, and her fine attunement to Ned’s wants and needs seems to embody the novel’s loving dedication to Rush’s wife of half a century: ‘I hope you like being indispensable, because nothing can be done about it’. Her first appearance in the novel, however, is nothing short of crazed: she races towards Douglas’s home to reach Ned and reprimand him for leaving so suddenly whilst they are attempting to conceive. The couple’s craving for a child is a refrain that dominates the novel, depriving the bodies that Rush invents of much of the subtlety that his title ascribes to them. This contrasts the ingredients of the person, as the narrator puts it, with the corporeal reality of their most private moments.

The novel continually returns to a deep analysis of personal struggle. As a left-leaning intellectual, and the head of a coalition against the Iraq war, Ned is driven to advocate his political reservations about Iraq and struggles to find a balance between mourning the WTC attacks and criticising the war on terror. Of these two phenomena Judith Butler writes that for many it was assumed that ‘sympathy with the one, translates, in a single symbolic stroke, into support for the latter’. This uncomfortable problem is played out in the text as Ned tries to convince the cousin of a 9/11 victim to sign his petition against preemptive action.

Subtle Bodies negotiates the subject of war by highlighting the unavoidable potential for innocent losses - by grounding these debates in an immediate, local grief the novel questions what makes a life grievable within the nationalist narratives of post-2001 America. Rush’s most pressing argument for pacifism is the almost unanimous public support that his protagonist draws on throughout, but the novel’s treatment of the war is undoubtedly stunted by the fact that the occupation of Iraq is now, finally, winding down.

But there is more to Rush’s portrayal of Iraq than social commentary. Ned’s position on Iraq is deeply rooted in his need, as a subject, to grasp some form of rational agency – he believes he is exerting control over post-terror politics, and presumably terror itself. Rush’s genius in this novel is his ability to write the more mundane subjects, for which he is so highly regarded, in parallel with these grander realisations about the self. The careful orchestration of Douglas’s funeral comes to embody a recognisable trope of 21st-century fiction: the grief-induced lust for control that is the driving force behind recent novels such as Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Delillo’s Falling Man. As the group resists the forced formalities of the memorial they strike out at Ned’s political aspirations – one friend opines that countless activists spend their lives giving insight to global financial risk, and yet it nonetheless continues to spin wildly out of control. Here we are treated to a subtle comparison between the blind faith in risk management displayed within the confines of Wall Street and the similar notion of control that informs preemptive political action on Iraq. The fact that control of the memorial is being spearheaded by an almost bankrupt stock-trader is another quiet motion towards this remarkable parallel.

To paraphrase German sociologist Ulrich Beck, the central issue of this novel is how to feign control over the uncontrollable. Much of the humour in Subtle Bodies, of which there is plenty, stems from attempts to do just this, as when Nina struggles to take control of her womb. Like Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, Nina is thoroughly dependent on Schopenhauer technique, telling herself countless times that she is finally pregnant despite any tangible proof. One of the most enduring images of the novel is Douglas’s rebellious son spying on the naked Nina as she performed an elaborate shoulder stand, ostensibly to aid conception.

Nina’s resentment of Douglas’s attempts to feign control over his world sits uneasily with her attempt to control her womb, as illustrated by this beautifully written discussion:

”I’ll tell you something else you have to do. You have to watch where you sleep from now on.”
“Oh God, what does that mean?”
“It means you have to be head north feet south.”
“Well if your head is north the only place your feet can be is south, right?”
“Okay, be smart with me. It’s alignment. If you grow carrots in a tray of dirt and grow them athwart the axis you get crummy short carrots [....] So align your bed.”

Nina’s dubiously informed, increasingly desperate attempts to control her own biology are an astute parallel to Ned’s unsuccessful display of global-political agency.

Whilst Subtle Bodies does not purport to give the reader an insight into American foreign policy, it does deal with the Beckian notion of feigning control. Nina feigns control over her body, Douglas’s widow feigns control of his compromised academic legacy throughout the funeral, and Ned feigns control over the war in Iraq. Due to its timing it would be highly generous to pronounce Rush’s literary approach to the question of Iraq as groundbreaking, but his handling of the issue of personal control in contemporary society is. This is a rare thing – a book that sets difficult political notions like risk management alongside enduring personal insight, all within a thoroughly enjoyable portrait of marriage and friendship.
Michael Duffy is a PhD researcher with the Department of 20th and 21st-century literature at the University of Southampton.