Listen to this article
Subtle Bodies, by Norman Rush, Granta, RRP£14.99 / Knopf $26.95, 256 pages
The opening passage of Norman Rush’s keenly anticipated third novel, Subtle Bodies, finds 37-year-old Nina on a flight in hot pursuit of her husband Ned, who has rushed to join the surviving members of his university clique at the funeral of their one-time ringleader Douglas. Desperate to conceive a child, Nina “sprung after him . . . like a wild beast.”
In the years since their collegiate heyday, Douglas, we learn, has amassed a great and mysterious fortune, having gained some fame in Europe as an expert detector of forged historical documents. The group has let their correspondence slip but, at Douglas’s vast compound in rural New York, its decades-dormant dynamic reasserts itself among the remaining members.
Once on the scene, Nina is careful to mask her contempt for the late Douglas, whose celebrated japes she found sophomoric (“Everything she knew about Douglas was irritating”). Furthermore, she is aggrieved that Douglas wasn’t a better friend to Ned, imagining Ned had been “abandoned gradually, and then finally, by this man he was racing ahead of her and her ova to praise and bury”.
Subtle Bodies is Rush’s first novel since 2003’s acclaimed Mortals, and the first of his first books not set in Botswana (Rush and his wife were Peace Corps co-directors there from 1978 to 1983). Whites, the collection of stories he published in 1986, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his 1991 novel, Mating, won the National Book Award.
His at-times poignant new novel is about friendships that have run their course, and the failure of the unrealistic expectations of youth – in this case the hope that the group would remain close for the rest of their lives. Though the friends have all been reasonably successful in their disparate fields, their depressing, very adult baggage is exposed during the course of the funeral. There’s Elliot, whose prostate cancer is in remission; Joris, a prolific whoremonger; and the overweight, “medicated” Gruen. Douglas’s woes at the time of his death, it is revealed, were myriad.
Readers of Rush’s earlier work will recognise here his gift for writing convincingly from a woman’s perspective and it is Nina whom he endows with the most perspective. That the friends’ bonds would loosen was inevitable, according to Nina, who considers men incapable of maintaining friendships. “Something goes wrong, somebody marries the wrong person, somebody advances too fast, somebody converts, somebody refuses good advice,” she says. The men’s “true interior selves” – their “subtle bodies” – which were the basis for their early bonds, have changed.
Far from disrupting the proceedings, Nina’s meddling at the funeral opens the lines of communication between the men, sheds light on Douglas’s sketchy career and finally ferrets out the story of the infidelities that contributed to the group’s ill health.
Rush is at his most convincing when creating the private, invented vocabularies that friends use between themselves – their “idioverse”, as he described it in Mortals. Because of its slim size, and because Rush set the bar so high with his hefty earlier books, Subtle Bodies feels somewhat minor but fans will find it, nevertheless, a crisp, enjoyable read.