As a spy, the compulsively literate Ray ought to have no trouble confirming his suspicions. But there’s the distraction of actual spying. Most of all, there’s the problem of love, which Norman Rush anatomizes in all its hopeless splendor in a novel that would have delighted Milton, Nabokov, and Graham Greene.
About the Author
His stories, essays and reviews have been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and other periodicals. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.
Whites, a collection of stories, was published in 1986 and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and his first novel, Mating, was published in 1991 and was the recipient of the National Book Award. Mortals is his second novel.
Read an Excerpt
At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.
He paused at his gate. All the houses on the close, in fact all the houses in the extension, were identical, but, for Africa, sumptuous. They were Type III houses built by the government for allocation to the upper civil service and significant expatriates like agency heads and chiefs of mission. The rooms were giant, as Iris had put it when they moved in. Throughout the extension the properties were walled and gated on the street side and separated internally from one another by wire-mesh perimeter fencing that had to be constantly monitored and kept in repair because there was a network of footpaths through the area that the Batswana insisted on using to get from Bontleng or the squatter settlements to their day jobs or for visits with friends or family living in the servants’ quarters each Type III house came with. The quarters were cubicles set well apart from the main houses, which had possibly been a mistake because it made monitoring the flux of lodgers and visitors that much harder. If the quarters had been connected to the main houses there might be less thousand clowns activity in them, although you’d lose yet another piece of your own privacy. The perimeter fences were constantly developing holes so that the paths could keep functioning as they had before the extension was built, and it was a fact that their African neighbors were consistently more lax than the expatriates who lived there about keeping the wire fences fixed up.
The houses stood on generous plots and there was nothing wrong with a Type III house. They were single-story cinderblock oblongs faced with cement stucco. Their house was salt-white inside and out. Every third house in the extension was painted tan. The floors were poured concrete. He’d had to push Iris into the house the first time they inspected it because she thought the floors were wet, they were waxed and buffed to such an insane lustre. They had the best plot on Kgari Close, the largest, at the apex of the horseshoe the close made. They had six rooms. He would admit that their moderne type furniture was on the ungainly and garish side. It was from South Africa. It seemed to be made for very large human beings. On the other hand it was provided free by the government of Botswana. Their bed was firm, and was vast. The corrugated iron roof, painted red to suggest terracotta tile, was a mistake, but only in the hottest part of the year, like now, when it converted the unshaded parts of the house into ovens, to which the answer was the airconditioners they had in their bedroom and living room, at least, at opposite ends of the house, except that unfortunately Iris saw herself as acquiring virtue by abstaining from using them exactly when the justification for using them was greatest. She always denied her attitude had anything to do with solidarity with Dimakatso and the other servants in the neighborhood out in their hot cubicles or with the un-airconditioned population in general, but he thought otherwise. She claimed it was because the airconditioners made too much noise for her. She was very sensitive to noise. Also she could be willful. For example, everything in the house could be locked up—regular closets, linen closets, cupboards, cabinets. The assumption was that you were going to be stolen from. The drill everywhere else was that the maid came to you to get the key when something had to be procured, and brought the key back to you afterward. But Iris kept everything unlocked even though their first maid had complained about it because she was worried that if anything went missing she’d be blamed. So nothing was locked, which was fine, she always did what she wanted. What was wrong now? He was tired of it.
Sometimes the yardman opened the gate, but usually it was the watchman, who came on duty at five. He overlapped the yardman’s tour by half an hour or so, but the yardman could be anywhere, doing anything, including napping someplace. The watchman would normally be at his post under the thorn tree to the right of the gate, sitting on a camp stool and having a cup of Joko tea and eating the very decent leftovers Iris provided—a chop, chicken thighs, and the sweets without which no meal is complete, to a Motswana. On weekends it could happen that there wasn’t much for lunch and he would think about the procession of chops and drumsticks that had gone out the kitchen door to Fikile that week, but he’d never complained about it. The watchman was coming. Ray liked Fikile, a short, energetic man in his forties. He wore the military jacket and service cap the Waygard Company supplied, but with them he wore heavy black woolen dress slacks too long for him and rolled up into tubes at his ankles. His ankles were bare. He was wearing shoes so cheap the leather of the vamp gathered up like the neck of a sack where the laces were drawn tight. They exchanged greetings and Fikile opened the gate. Ray walked into the yard. It was possible Fikile was illiterate. When he’d first come to work for them he’d always seemed to have reading matter with him, and then Ray had noticed that it was the same worn copy of Dikgang that they were seeing day after day. Then he had stopped bringing anything at all to read. Ray’s theory was that having the newspaper with him had been for the purpose of making a good impression and that now that Fikile knew they liked him and were going to keep him he was excused from having to pretend he could read. His English was minimal. Naturally Iris wanted to do something, but she felt blocked because to ask him if in fact he could read or not, after he’d clearly gone out of his way to give the impression he could, might insult him. Ray suspected that behind her agitation over Fikile was a short story she’d broken her heart reading in which one of the wretched of the earth is tricked into thinking he can learn to read by staring at a mystical diagram and repeating a nonsense mantra he has paid some charlatan his last nickel for. And to hand Fikile some piece of reading matter of their own, in Setswana or English, would seem like a test. Iris seemed to want her fiction to be excruciating. But that was the way she was and he was sorry he’d asked, when she’d given up right away on something light he’d recommended, probably Tom Sharpe, Isn’t it excruciating enough for you? He was always on the lookout for decent books for her, but being in Africa made it difficult and she made it difficult because she was cursed with good literary taste. She knew good writing from bad.
Here they had everything. He looked around. There were two discs of grayish struggling lawn flanking the flagstone path to the house where it diverged from the driveway leading to the garage. They were being kept alive by hand-watering. Someday the drought would be over and they could use the hosepipe again. Except for flowerbeds and the grass areas, the yard was bare red sand textured like a Holland rusk. The sand was raked every day in deliberate, sinuous patterns. He liked that. There were five palm trees spaced around the house, which he liked except when dead fronds dropped and banged on the roof at all hours. He loved his neighbors, and especially his immediate neighbors, for their lack of interest in him. One was the widow of the leader of an out-of-power Zambian political faction the Botswana government was partial to. Mrs. Timono was an actively furtive person. His other immediate neighbor, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, was never at home. It was nice that no one had ever wondered, at least in his presence, why someone who was supposed to only be the head of the English Department at St. James College had been assigned housing in Kgari Close. He thought that was because the housing allocation process was known to be mysterious, and also simply because they’d been there so long. And he had been careful to let it be understood around that they were paying a serious premium for the house, which they could manage because Iris had received a small inheritance, lalala.
It was fun to put one of their uncomfortable metal lawn chairs in the center of one of the microlawns and sit there in the imperfect, lacy shade of the thorn trees. The trunks of the trees in the yard were properly limewashed to protect them from termites, except for the palms, which had some natural resistance. There was a crate by the wall to stand on in the event something interesting seemed to be going on in the street. His wall was pink. He even liked the street itself. He liked the broad, clean, faintly convex roadway and the astringent odor given off by the gum trees planted along it. If he’d kept on teaching in the U.S. they might well have ended up in a university town someplace in the Southwest that looked pretty much like this part of Gaborone.
It always made him happy when the gate clicked shut behind him. Paradise was from the Persian for walled garden, probably the first fact anybody tackling Milton learns.
He thought, I ask them, What do you think the word paradise means? and they say various things. Their definitions of paradise are so modest: They reveal themselves: They begin to think about it: Odd that nobody in Gaborone knows what paradise means except me and my students and Iris. He lingered on the stoop. It was time to go in. If he waited Iris might stop whatever she was doing and come to let him in. If he waited the entire lower sky to the west would turn burnt orange. Ray liked working in the heat, being conscious of it. It was tonic for him, for some reason. Fikile was wondering why he wasn’t going in, by now. You get a slight continuous feeling of virtue from working in the heat, on a level with wearing wristweights all day, he thought. He should go in. The best heat was now, in December. The west was solid orange and the peak of the sky was apple green. Woodsmoke drifting from cooking fires in Bontleng and Old Naledi would color the air for the next couple of hours, fading in and out, never overpowering, more a perfume, to him. Fikile would start toward him in a minute if he didn’t go in. I would have been nothing in America, Ray thought. When he imagined what he might have been if they hadn’t come to Africa it was painful. Not that Iris would credit any scenario in which his qualities went unused and unrewarded. She adhered to the great man theory of marriage. She loved him. Coming to Africa had been essential, but he had to be alone in knowing it and knowing why. That was the deal. It was unfair that something was going wrong with her just at the moment you might say all the moving parts in the machinery of his life were in order. He could walk to work. His health was fine, his weight was perfect. He thought, I love Africa, but not like the idiots who come over here and say Boy! Women with mountains of sticks on their heads. Look, an ostrich crossing the road!
Nothing is more useless than dwelling on grievances, he reminded himself, feeling himself about to twitch in that direction. He’d earned the right to some satisfaction. The easy part of his life had begun unannounced like a dream two years ago and he had a right to enjoy it. No one could know about it, obviously, but he was living in a state of triumph, and had been ever since Russia and all its works blew apart overnight. Before that he had been part of a war. What he was in now was more like a parade. Of course nobody knew who he was, except for Iris who had to know generally. She had no details. But when somebody wrote The Decline and Fall of the Russian Empire and Everything Connected with It he would be there between the lines. He couldn’t generate the right metaphor for amazing 1989. He had an image of something like a metal claw sunk into half the planet suddenly disarticulating, but that was a weak image. Or it could be like this, he thought: You have a goliath of an enemy dressed in armor about to smite you who sits down suddenly and looks faint and when you open up his armor you find only his face is normal, the rest is sickly, mummified, and then he dies in front of you and it’s all over.
This moment was what Iris was suddenly taking away.
The event was too huge for any image he had been able to come up with. It would take someone as great as Milton to come up with the appropriate image right off the bat. He felt he had no time to think, lately. Iris was full of mental homework for him to do that he didn’t want to do, such as answering the question of why they had been so attracted to one another when they met—but it had to be aside from the purely physical reasons she knew he was going to overemphasize.
He stood in the foyer. No one was around. He heard the kitchen door close. That was Dimakatso leaving for the day.
He entered the chill bronze gloom of the living room, where the airconditioner was laboring for his benefit, obviously, since no one else was on hand and the room looked as though no one had made use of it that day. He walked over to the main double window. The louvers of the blinds were tilted downward, almost to the closed position. All the windows in the house were barred and tightly screened. He was fanatical about the screens. There was malaria nearby. He was the force behind both of them continuing to take chloroquine. Iris got worse headaches from the chloroquine than he did, so he understood why she resisted him.
There was still no one.
But I’m fine, he thought, trying not to relive a moment from the walk home that had made him feel fragile. Near the school was a rundown property whose occupants kept a goat. The goat had run up purposively to the fence as Ray came by and for an instant Ray had thought something monstrous was happening, because the goat’s tongue seemed to be a foot long. He’d been frightened until he’d realized that it was only a goat eating a kneesock. Iris could be asleep. He would look for her, softly.
Reading Group Guide
“An astounding accomplishment. . . . [A] detonation of talent that threatens to incinerate competitors for miles around.” —The Christian Science Monitor
About this guide
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Norman Rush’s Mortals. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about this greatly anticipated novel by the author of Mating, which won the National Book Award in 1991.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rush should be better known than he is. His narrators are highly intelligent, allusive, funny, and his politics are serious and thoughtful.
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.
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....
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.
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.
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