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“Rush has now produced three books so full of brainwork, contour, sinew and laser light that we don’t want to leave home without him.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Wild and wonderful. . . . Whether the matter under scrutiny is marital wrangling or guerrilla rebellion, Rush’s observations are brutally accurate—and funny.” —The Seattle Times
“The depth and richness of Norman Rush’s second novel, Mortals, give him his own shelf in the canon”—New York Magazine
“Brilliant . . . Mortals is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. . . . Its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language. . . . The two hundred or so pages in which Rush describes what is in effect a small African civil war seem to me some of the most extraordinary pages written by a contemporary American novelist.” —James Wood, The New Republic
“Remarkable . . . Rush [is] as challenging and surprising and uncompromising as ever.” —Time
“It’s no small feat to write engagingly about love, religion, philosophy, and war, and it’s no small feat to end up with something that dances on the line between earthy and stately. Each of [Mortals’] 715 pages is ripe with more ideas and insights than most authors try to get into a chapter. Mating was magnificent. Mortals, as hard as it is to believe, is even better.” —Fortune
“Psychologically acute, meticulously written [and] ambitious. . . . Should help console those still unreconciled to Graham Greene’s death.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Rush’s political wisdom, honed by the years he spent working in Africa, is enhanced by an acutely moral literary sensibility and his core humanity; together, the traits . . . imbue his work with depth and grace.” —The Boston Globe
“Complex and accomplished. . . . In both its wry-yet-forceful narrative style and its generous conceptual research, it is a worthy successor to [Mating].” —The Washington Post
“Few other books so powerfully convey the uneasy connection between intimacy and absurdity, the way that the minutiae of everyday domestic life can become so loaded with meaning . . . . Read it if you care at all about some very old, very vexed questions–about matters such as the knowledge of good and evil, or the nature of human wisdom and human folly.” —Houston Chronicle
“Broadens the scope of [Rush’s] fiction while going deeper into the human dynamic of a country in the midst of profound upheaval. Mortals envelops the reader in a manner that modern fiction too rarely attempts . . . no one caught in its sweep will want the experience to end.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Bitterly funny. Mr. Rush has a canny understanding for Africa, a profound appreciation for the fine points of romantic love, a muscular style of description, and an eye for character so frighteningly sharp that it argues against running across the man at parties.” —The Economist
“The great joy in reading [Rush’s] work is that it seems to proceed from an unshakable belief in the capacity of the novel to embrace everything: global poltics, the nature of love, race relations, philosophy, religion, literature, the exact feeling of the dust in Botswana. . . . There is no denying its intellectual meatiness and its moments of intensity.” —Newsday
“A novel as ambitious and spell-binding as his first. . . . Rush weaves an astonishing array of subjects into his story, from Freud, religion and politics to life, death and Africa. Rush is a master of his characters’ minds. . . . Within [their] intense internal dialogues are thought-provoking, smart and often hilarious nuggets.” —The Baltimore Sun
“The sheer energy and ambition of Mortals seems to mock its creator’s earthbound status. . . . Reader[s] will be justly rewarded for persisting to the explosive climax that rips this novel’s civilized veneer wide open.” —The News & Observer (Raleigh)
“Breathtakingly ambitious. By the book’s end, Rush has given us masterful slices both of Africa’s indelible beauty and of its ongoing chaos. Rush is a real seer, and he captivates us with his audacious fictional vision.” —Elle
“A serious work that calls attention to the indissoluble link between the public and the private. . . . You’ll find it hard not to be impressed with the scope of Rush’s vision.” —The Miami Herald
“[Rush] is economical with language, choosing the best words to distill ideas and express them in gems . . . [He] has real affection for Botswana and its people. His rendering of the cadences of their speech is just right.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A masterwork of literary art . . . Mortals is a beautifully written, well-executed novel. It is written with passion, grace and flair. . . . Rush has a rare and beautiful gift of making readers feel true empathy for his characters. . . . A triumphant follow-up to Rush’s Mating.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Full of situations that range from subtly humorous to near slapstick that reveal an unusually keen human insight.” —The Denver Post
“Mortals is brilliant in its presentation of milieu, the heat, the squalor and the human misery of Botswana. The reader is immersed in an exotic culture and its political and social history rendered vivid by Rush’s prose.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Well worth the wait. . . . Rush’s prose, wit and insight provide so many delights. . . . Mortals should solidify his reputation and win him new readers.” —The Oregonian
“Wild and wonderful. . . . Rush inhabits the restless synchopative rhythms and associative bedlam of a male mind consumed by jealousy, disillusion and fading altruistic dreams. His observations are brutally accurate and funny.” —The Charlotte Observer
“[An] absorbing and variegated novel . . . effortless and riddled with surprises. . . . For readers hankering after a novel of ideas, it doesn’t get much better than this.” —The New York Observer
“The ideas are a brilliant bonus. The writing itself is intensely readable: not dry but juicy. It is rare for a novel of consciousness to be also a novel of action, but it is one of the distinctions of this book to be both.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Lucid, luminous, proudly literary prose. . . . Makes the erudition of Rushdie or Frazen seem show-off frippery by comparison.” —The Village Voice
“Has the feeling of one of Evelyn Waugh’s satiric excursions into Africa. . . . The author’s keen intelligence and his experience of the multifariousness of Africa provide some generous rewards.” —San Jose Mercury News
“Brilliant . . . moving. Mr. Rush shows once again that he is one of the most intelligent and patient psychologists now writing fiction. The reader is not likely to find a better novel this year.” —The New York Sun
“Compellingly intelligent and intriguing . . . Hugely complex, deeply intelligent, engagingly garrulous.” —LA Weekly
“Rush’s latest delivers on his extravagant promise. Not only is Mortals every bit as rich and densely textured as its predecessor, but its thrillerlike plotting adds a whole new dimension.” —Time Out New York
1. The opening chapter, which follows Ray as he approaches his home in Gaborone and describes his feelings about his marriage, is called “Paradise.” In what ways is Ray’s marriage figured as paradise? If you have read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, how is it reflected in Mortals? Which characters in the novel could be seen as representing Satan? [See also chapter 16, “Milton, We Are Surrounded,” and pages 526-33.]
2. The episode of Rex’s attempt to record the “crimes” of the Finch family is narrated in great detail [pp. 32–39]. What does Ray’s role in this episode, and his reaction to it, suggest about the effects of his family situation upon his character? Why might Ray’s father have been so obsessed with finding the document? How does the story connect to the novel’s theme of surveillance?
3. What is appealing—or unappealing—about Iris as a character? To what degree does the fact that we see her only through Ray’s perspective make her difficult to assess? Is Ray a reliable narrator of the story of his marriage? If this book were written from the perspective of Iris (as Mating was written from the perspective of a woman), how might it be different?
4. What does Iris’s interest in Morel do to Ray’s sense of self? What is her motivation for getting involved with Morel? Does it seem that Iris is interested in leaving her marriage, or is she desperately in need of a change, of something more to occupy herself? Does it seem likely that the affair with Morel will develop into something more permanent?
5. If you have read Mating, how does Mortals take up the themes prevalent in that novel? How does the marriage in Mortals compare to the relationship of the female narrator of Mating, (whose name, we learn, is Karen) and Nelson Denoon? How does the story of what became of their matriarchal community reflect upon the viability of utopian schemes? How do the Denoons compare, as visionaries, with Samuel Kerekang?
6. The novel is written entirely in the first person narrative style, which gives the reader the illusion of complete access to Ray’s mind. What is the effect of this choice on the experience of reading and on the reader’s feelings about Ray?
7. Ray sees himself, in his work for the CIA, as “a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his” [p. 50]. Why does Ray love this work, and why is it important to him to remain in Africa “in the borderlands of the struggle” [p. 50]? Why does Ray try so hard to shield himself from moral culpability in his work and from the less successful outcomes of American interference in the affairs of foreign nations [see also p. 74]?
8. Ray realizes that “his great enemy, some great personal enemy, was missing. . . . The Russians and their creatures had been a blank system to him” [p. 50]. Is Morel the “great antagonist” he seeks? If so, why? If the second half of the novel can be seen as a prolonged contest between Ray and Morel, is there a clear winner?
9. Discuss Ray’s meditation on Iris’s unhappiness, his mother’s unhappiness, and the unhappiness of women in general [pp. 59–60]. Is Ray’s idea about the cause of women’s discontent correct? He realizes that “the only kind of societies the human race had ever been able to build were ones in which half the population was being very accommodating to the other half.” Is he right in thinking that if women stop being the accommodating half, “it was going to be a world full of divorces”?
10. Like Iris, Ray is going through a crisis of his own—as his meeting with Boyle makes clear. Ray finds that the words “Nobody knows who I am” have “a soothing effect” on him [p. 73]. In his work for the agency, he muses, “He produced art. He was a writer. . . . And his Lives existed materially and would be kept and someday might even be found, when the true history of the world was written, but that wasn’t important” [p. 75]. Why is Ray so ambivalent about his own status as a creative intellectual? How, at the end of the novel, has this situation changed?
11. Why does Rush bring Iris’s sister, and to a greater extent, Ray’s brother Rex, into the story? Why is it important that Rex is a writer and a homosexual? What is the connection between Rex’s writing and Ray’s own sense of himself as a writer and intellectual? What kind of a voice do Rex’s letters and his Strange News bring to the novel? What happens to change Ray’s feelings about his brother?
12. What is most interesting about the way Ray and Iris interact? Is there a vital connection between the games of language and sex that they play? To what extent is their marriage a model of companionship and mutual support, and to what extent is it claustrophobic? What aspects of Ray’s life, past and present, have contributed to his obsessive focus on Iris? What are Rush’s particular skills as an observer of human intimacy?
13. What does Kerekang’s eulogy for Alice Wemberg suggest about the gifts of whites to Africa? What is it about Kerekang that makes him a “person of interest” to the CIA? Is Davis Morel more radical in his intentions than Kerekang? Why is the CIA not interested in him?
14. Rush has created Kerekang and Morel as two foils to Ray—two men whom Iris admires and who are passionate believers in bringing about social change. What do they make Ray realize about himself and about what Iris wants? How does he come to feel about Morel when they are imprisoned together? How does he arrive at the decision to throw his lot in with Kerekang and Mandela’s new South Africa?
15. Why does Ray destroy his passport? What is most moving about the relationship between Ray and Keletso?
16. Ray’s imprisonment and escape contain some of the book’s most amusing moments. Why is his situation so laced with comedy? Why does he choose to be naked when he makes his stand against Quartus and his thugs? What is the significance of his having strapped Strange News to his chest?
17. Ray’s idea of a worthy goal in life is, quite simply, to love his wife: “It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy” [p. 77]. Considering the difficulties of more socially progressive characters in the book, like the Wembergs, Kerekang, and the Denoons, does Ray’s romantic philosophy seem a surer road to contentment? How does this line of thinking underscore the desperation of Ray’s situation?
18. Messy postcolonial politics, far-flung tribal groups, an inhospitable climate, the tenuous yet privileged position of the expatriate community—many aspects of life in southern Africa are represented here. Which scenes are most effective in giving the reader a sense of the complex reality of Botswana?
19. Talking with Morel, Ray mentions that “The working vocabulary of Americans is half what it was in 1950. That’s horrifying” [p. 548]. Earlier, he thinks of Kerekang as “a victim of poetry” [p. 373]. Language and literature—particularly poetry—are essential to the identity of most of the main characters in Mortals. What is the effect of reading a book so saturated with the consciousness of words and their various implications?
20. Why might Rush have chosen “Mortals” for his title? Both here and on the cover of his previous novel Mating, Rush has chosen to use details from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch [see page 555]. Why this painting?
Posted April 27, 2012
I wanted to enjoy this book, but after more than a hundred pages it became clear that things develop slowly in Botswana. I was looking for literature, not a page turner. Yet I found I did not care enough about these characters to want to wade through chapters of mundane marital onversations. I can't grasp what the several rave reviewers saw in this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 11, 2004
After consuming far too much book club junk food, I found Mortals to be a nourishing feast. It affected me profoundly, especially with regards to the soul-touching theme of literature itself--if and how words matter at all in our daily existence. Another major theme was obedience and rebellion (which has inspired me to start reading Milton's Paradise Lost --what I think was the inspiration for this novel), the depths of which are fascinating. A third stiking (yet sidebar) theme is Morel's opinion on the institution 'religion'--let it tease you into putting yourself into a fresh perspective of your own. As for the language of this book, it can touch you with its poetry then make you laugh out loud--sometimes all in the same sentence. It is truly eloquent. Putting a description of this novel into a nutshell such as this is simply ridiculous. Please do it justice--read it, and let it sink in....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 3, 2003
It takes place in Botswana, Africa, as everyone knows. The 'hero' is a spy for the CIA. His life is in crisis. I loved being in his mind, even though it is often tortured. I loved the writing itself, which is often like poetry, except very unromantic. But I guess the hero, Ray, is romantic about his wife. He loves her more than anything on earth and needs her for his life not to be meaningless to him. Her name is Iris, and she's a sweet person who loves him too, but she goes to a therapist, Dr. Morel, a Black American, and she and he fall in love. Ray wants to kill him, but ends up being in an ironical position where his priority has to be to save Dr. Morel's life when they are captured in a political situation and held together in cell -- where Ray finds out a secret about Iris and Dr. Morel that Iris has been keeping from him. There is a strange, surreal yet very real, battle on the roof of an old hotel. One thing strange about this bloody battle is that it is so disturbing and violent and extreme, and yet it's funny, too. This can't be explained. Except that genius can do anything, even make you simultaneously weep, feel fear, and laugh. I won't tell the ending. There is a sexual scene with Ray and Iris toward the end that is so vivid and perfect that it brought tears to my eyes. Read this book. Then read it again. It is a brilliant work of art, a beautiful work, a masterpiece.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 8, 2003
This is a great book. The author's previous book, Mating, deservedly won the National Book Award in 1991 and was named one of the top 100 books of the century by the New York Times Book Review. Mortals is just as good. A grittier work, it is every bit as thoughtful and intense as Mating. If you love great literature, don't miss this one. Among the best books ever written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 1, 2003
My brother, Norman, gave me a copy of this book, but I'm having a lot of trouble getting through it. Based on what I've read so far, I'll give it Three Stars. Hey, Three Stars are better than One. Robert Rush
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