**A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK**
In a sophisticated romp through the tribulations and joys of marriage and friendship, a group of college friends reunites two decades after graduation.
After the sudden death of Douglas, once the ringleader of a clique of self-styled wits, his four best friends are summoned to his Catskills estate to mourn his passing. Responding to a mysterious sense of emergency in the call, Ned flies in from San Francisco with his wife Nina in furious pursuit; they’re at a critical point in their attempts to conceive and she won’t let a funeral get in the way. It is Nina who gives us a pointed, irreverent commentary as the men reconvene, while Ned tries to understand what it was that made this clutch of souls his friends to begin with—before time, sex, work, and the brutal quirks of history reshaped them. Filled with unexpected, funny, telling aperçus, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies is also a deeply moving exploration of the meanings of life.
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Read an Excerpt
Genitals have their own lives, his beloved Nina had said at the close of an argument over whether even the most besotted husband could be trusted one hundred percent faced with the permanent sexual temptations the world provided. It was the kind of conversation that went with the early days of a marriage, of their marriage. He had been rebutting her silly but fiendish thought experiments and had gotten tired of the game. She was a genius at imagining inescapable sex traps. There could be a nun suffering from hysterical blindness that would probably become permanent unless she received a sacrificial screw from some- body’s husband, alas. He looked around. Good thing there were no nuns on the plane, at least none in costume. When you’re traveling you’re nothing, until you land, which is what’s good about it, Ned thought.
Nina, riding in furious pursuit, felt like bucking in her seat to make the plane go faster through the night. She was still enraged. She felt like a baby. She thought, You are a baby: no, he is, he is, my lamb.
Maybe the matronly pleasant-seeming woman sitting next to her was wise. She was old enough to be. Anything was possible. And it might not hurt to talk to an adult other than my incessant mother, she thought. She had to call her mother when they landed, first thing. It’s just that she won’t shut up about my pregnancy, she thought. Her attempted pregnancy, was what she meant. She regretted telling her mother about it.
I love my mother, she wanted to tell the woman next to her. It was just that her mother was overflowing with pregnancy lore that had nothing to do with reality. She’d been unkind when her mother said, You smell differently when you’re pregnant, because she’d said in response, Oh really? How do you smell then? With your uterus? All her mother had been trying to say was that there was a change in the odor a woman’s body gives off during pregnancy. But then her mother regularly declared that there was a mystical “subtle body” inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. It was all about attending closely enough to see them. They varied in color and brightness. Her mother claimed she could see them, faintly. She wanted Nina not to be oblivious to the subtle bodies of the people she met. That would protect her from deceivers, whoever they might be. Ma suggested Ned be on the qui vive also.
Dinner, as they called it, was done with. She seemed to have twisted her napkin into a rope and she wondered if her seatmate had noticed. The woman wasn’t being especially friendly to her. Usually the people she happened to sit next to were.
Yes, she was enraged at Ned, but also felt sorry for him. May God help you my lad, my Ned, she thought. He would be dumbfounded when he realized she had sprung after him, done it, like that, like a savage beast dropping everything herself, the same as he had, like a child, an adolescent, a child. He had never seen her truly furious, never once in three years of marriage. He had seen her agitated, and he had seen her annoyed, but never this. I am war, she thought.
No question he deserved tenderness, which he got. On her own, she had quit referring to his beloved clique of college friends as clowns. He hadn’t asked her to, but the term had stung him, a little. And this despite the fact that they had been clowns manqué, a troupe, goofing on the world under the baton of their maestro Douglas.
She had to control herself. She needed to be calm and alkaline. She thought, I wonder if he thinks I love taking Clomid and standing on my head après sex, with him holding my feet in the air. He had left her a barely readable note. Twice since leaving he’d called her, and each time she’d answered, I am not answering this phone.
Everything had been left for her to deal with, not only everything involving the nonprofits, not only the mis-sent invoices and the complaints about the metallic aftertaste of the coffee they were getting from their co-ops in Belize, but calls about the demonstration he was organizing, the same calls over and over again, because this was a coalition. She hated coalitions. And why did Ned have to be the Chair? She made an involuntary flinging-out gesture that startled her seatmate, who flinched. Nina tried to bury the gesture in a show of policing her tray table. She doubted that the woman was deceived. Ned could be annoying without meaning to. Talking about getting pregnant he had said, about his own attitude to it, I can’t decide whether I’m ambivalent or not. Which was a ghostly survival of the talky badinage-based humor of his circle of clowns, by which she meant friends, sorry. It was a slightly funny thing for him to say, but the subject wasn’t funny.
Nina had the window seat. She raised the window shade to study the night. Why did stadiums where no one was at play have to be lit up like Christmas, why? But why everything, really, and why had that woman writing her up in the Contra Costa Times described her as sharp-featured, why? Because she wasn’t. And why hadn’t the woman mentioned her award in the story saying that she was the best accountant the nonprofits in the Bay Area had ever heard of? She considered her reflection in the window. Why not angular, instead of sharp-featured?
Well she was going to take the bull by the horns and talk to her co-passenger. It was ordained that the woman’s wallet was going to be exploding with snapshots of unblemished grandchildren. She would deal with it. She needed to talk. She needed to be with Ned, now, before the thirty-six hours were up, so they could do it. Had he forgotten or did he just not care? About family making, he did feel old for it sometimes. He was forty-eight.
The woman beside her opened her purse and extracted a paperback, which she seemed to be handling rather reverently, like a missal. Nina was curious. The woman moved unsubtly away, taking her elbow off the common armrest.
Nina entertained the idea that the woman had sensed a core truth about her, which was that she always wanted to know what people were reading. I can’t help it, she thought. She always wanted to know. It had been embarrassing from time to time when people saw her craning around inappropriately to get a clue about what they were reading. It was just that knowing made her feel better. Somebody could be reading Mein Kampf. And she didn’t like people who covered the books they were reading in little homemade kraft paper jackets. She couldn’t help taking that as a challenge, apparently. Definitely the woman was getting tense. But she might as well relax, because Nina already knew what she was reading. She had figured it out in a glance. But I’m clumsy, she thought. Anxious, she thought it again. Then she passed her hands down her sides, for no reason.
The woman had bent the front cover of the paperback around to conceal the spine, and now she was slanting the book so that Nina would be required to contort herself to make out what was on the page. The woman’s dual mission seemed to be to read and at the same time keep what she was reading secret from Nina. It was silly because the cover art featuring embossed foil bolts of lightning and a cross on a blood-red field declared that the book was an entry in the genre of Christian theological thrillers that had gotten so popular. That was the last thing Nina needed to think about, the end of the world. Well, she couldn’t interrupt this per- son when she was reading. Because reading was sacred. It was to my mother, she thought. The number of times her mother had found her reading intently when it was time to set the table, and given her a pass, was legion.
She wouldn’t mind getting into an argument on Christianity. Because she had a new standpoint on the subject since she had happened to marry a sort of Jesus, a secular Jesus, of course, not that Ned would tolerate that description. So far as she knew, he had never done a bad thing, except for like a complete asshole going to the funeral of fucking Douglas, the world’s greatest friend—going and just leaving her a few messages. Douglas, never Doug, the rule for addressing the world’s greatest friend.
Nina had her own reading matter but she was too hyper to read. Two poems in Poetry magazine had irritated her. In one poem, the gist was that the reader goes to the sea-side, and it’s the sea shouting Help! the sea saying Help! to humans, something like that. And then in another one, the poet seemed to say It’s closing time in the old fort and you have to go and you can’t find your sons, so what to do, you just go back to the cannons and you’ll find them hanging around there. Everything was upsetting. And there was nothing interesting about the interior of a plane. Her seat-mate swallowed a cough. Planes were unsanitary. She was breathing recirculated air, and it was Ned, his impulsiveness, Ned, who was to blame. Her fury was rising again.
She knew why it was. Things she wanted, things she thought she had, being jerked away from her without warning and at the last minute, always upset her, based on pat- terns in her absurd childhood, patterns she had studied and parsed and studied until she was sick unto death of the subject. But her therapist had been a Freudian, and being sick and tired of it wasn’t a reason for letting go of some- thing. The reverse! And after years of staring at the facts, she had no idea, still, how she should feel about her pixie parents—up, down, sad, send them to the firing squad? How should she feel about the elf shoes, with their pointy toes curving back toward her little shins, that her mother had gotten on sale, making her wear them to school, insisting they were perfectly normal? She remembered the giant celebration her parents had given when her father finally got into the Screen Extras Guild, in his fifties, was that sane? She had no idea. They did this, they did that. For any ailment, they medicated her with bark tea. Her mother had become an astrologer because it was such a portable occupation. But then they had stayed stuck in Los Angeles for- ever. Linda, her mother’s best friend and worst influence, had branched out into astrology for pets, dogs mainly, and tried to get Ma to take it up, which she hadn’t.
But then finally, late in the day, turning thirty-four, she had found Ned, and gradually gotten him to want a child, and to really try, with her. And then this. She thought, I take the pills, I get the shot, he vanishes! It was outrageous.
It all had to do with le grand Douglas. Douglas had been the head of Ned’s clique in the seventies, the spokesmodel, when they were undergraduates, which would make it Douglas’s clique, actually. They had been a group of wits, in their opinion, of superior sensibilities of some kind, was the idea. Everything she knew about Douglas was irritating. He even had his own term for the effect they were going for: perplexion. So elegant. And there was his legendary pensiveness, the way he would sometimes hold up his hand in a certain way to signal the group to stop talking so he could finish a thought he wasn’t sharing. Then he might jot some- thing down on a scrap of paper or he might not. The point, to her, seemed to be to show that whatever was going on around him was subordinate to the great private productive secret-not-necessarily-related-to-anything-his-groundling-friends-were-talking-about trains of thought that Douglas was having.
And one thing she could not get out of her mind was that when Douglas had been the ringmaster of the group at NYU he had demonstrated that he was the world’s champion of walking out of the Thalia, walking out on foreign films he personally found highly overrated and taking his pack of stupid fool friends along with him. She had been incredulous, hearing about that, and about Ned obeying Douglas, essentially. And Ned had told her about the group going to see Last Tango in Paris. And Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando were having precoital fooling around and in the course of it she has to pee and she goes into the toilet in the vacant apartment they’re carousing in and the camera follows her and she pees but gets up without wiping or using a bidet or anything and then they had gone on to have sex. So quelle horreur and that was enough for Douglas, who found the hygienic omission a good enough excuse to lead his minions out immediately. His position had been that the omission fatally attacked the plausibility of the scene. They had been very severe about cinema, Ned’s group. It was amazing to her. They had walked out on Brando at his professional and physical peak. So why had they kept going to the Thalia led by someone who was so sensitive that half the time their money would be spent for nothing?
And what she did know with certainty was that Ned had been abandoned, abandoned gradually, and then finally, by this man he was racing ahead of her and her ova to praise and bury, and it had been painful, muted but painful, to Ned, over the years. And she knew that the abandonment had gotten more painful for Ned as Douglas got half-famous in the world, debunking forgeries, significant forgeries. And Douglas had remained closer, Ned had known for a fact, to the other three friends. She had no idea what had led Douglas into the “questioned documents” business, but something had, and he’d made it pay. He’d proved that some sensational papers revealing that Alfred Dreyfus was in fact guilty of espionage were right-wing forgeries. And then someone had forged Milan Kundera’s so-called Love Diaries, and Douglas had shot that down. And then he had married the leading gossip columnist in Czechoslovakia, the radiant Iva, a consensus great beauty. And he had gotten her over to the U.S. and put her in a tower in the woods, in the Catskills, near Woodstock. And they had lived in it, and there had been an inheritance, and when the internet came, there would be little fragments from Douglas to Ned, avant-garde tips on nutrition or postings from the Committee for Ethical Tourism which proved there was nowhere in the world you could go for a vacation except possibly Canada. She had always wanly hoped to get revenge on Douglas. Because there had truly been a superior soul in their little grouplet, and that had been Ned, her lad, her Ned. And there was another thing that had driven her crazy about Douglas. At first through the mail, and then by fax, and then by email, had come a stream, a very intermittent stream, of short papers and notes from Douglas, who had become eccentric and was proposing various universal solutions to the problem of the persistence of evil in the world, in human relations. And some of them had been items like monotheism, and then it had been declining terrestrial magnetism, and there had been others. Like his theory that gradual anoxia was driving mankind crazy, based on the shrinking percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere compared to the much higher oxygen content in air samples taken from bubbles in ancient Egyptian glassware. And then it had been estrogens and antidepressants infiltrating the water supply. Of course it would be very nice if someone could prove that unkind- ness was caused by pollution.
And Ned had always been dutiful and sent some sort of reply trying to argue, shorter and shorter replies, because Douglas almost never, and then never, had had anything to say to Ned in return, no expansion on the particular subject.
Douglas’s group had thought very highly of itself. They were going to be social renovators of some unclear kind, had been the idea, by somehow generalizing their friend- ship. Ned could still get solemn, talking about those times. She didn’t get it. And part of the original group idea had been that they would always be a unity, helping each other, maybe creating a compound in the wildwood for summer vacations or maybe crafting some excellent retirement collective. Right, she thought.
One thing she knew and Ned did not, was that there is no permanent friendship between men, among men. Some- thing goes wrong, somebody marries the wrong person, somebody advances too fast, somebody converts, somebody refuses good advice or bad advice, it didn’t matter. It went up in a flash, it went up in a flash, like magnesium paper set on fire in a magic show. She thought, It’s not always great with women, either, but it can be. Women can have friends, it’s more personal, she thought. Although in the great design of things, women were getting to be more like men. There were more tough cookies around, and liars.
Well, Ned was her friend, her deep friend. He didn’t realize it, exactly. He thought everything was love with them, but it wasn’t. She would have been his friend whenever. It was a standard fantasy when you fell in love to imagine you could go back in time and find your beloved growing up, appear there, save him or her, get together as adolescents, by magic, and go on together, fighting for one another, into old age, never wavering. It was a pure friendship fantasy. Not sexual.
And that was why she was enraged at the man, enraged. She had to get this rage out of her, so she could kill him when she caught up with him. He was an idiot. He was reckless. He was hopeless. He had shit for brains. He couldn’t be counted on. He was a fool. These people had hurt him in the past, Douglas had. She only knew some of it.
She was moving around too much in her seat. The woman next to her was unhappy.
She offered the woman her uneaten dessert, an industrial brownie still in its packaging. Nina had watched the woman devour her own brownie in two bites, earlier.
“No,” said the woman, quite forcefully.
She thinks I’m affiliated with Satan, Nina thought.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions and other material that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about this highly anticipated new novel by the author of Whites, Mating (which won the National Book Award in 1991) and Mortals.
1. What is your first impression of Nina, in Chapter 2? What are the strongest aspects of her character?
2. The structure of the novel alternates between sections presented from Nina’s point of view and sections presented from Ned’s. In what ways does this structure also create a portrait of these two people, and of their relationship?
3. “Her mother regularly declared that there was a mystical ‘subtle body’ inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. It was all about attending closely enough to see them” (p. 4). Is Nina able to see (or feel) these essences? Is Ned?
4. Nina thinks of Ned’s “clique of college friends” as “clowns . . . goofing on the world under the baton of their maestro Douglas” (5). She refers to their “badinage-based humor” and “their idiotic exhibitionism” (9, 106). What evidence of their status as “superior sensibilities” do you see (9)? Do you find Ned’s nostalgia for those friendships understandable? Deluded? Both?
5. Ned, according to Nina, is “a sort of Jesus, a secular Jesus” (7). “There had truly been a superior soul in their little grouplet, and that had been Ned, her lad, her Ned” (11). In what way is it significant that Ned is the only member of the group who has made a life out of his commitment to social justice?
6. Nina states that Ned doesn’t seem to understand that “there is no permanent friendship between men, among men. . . . Women can have friends, it’s more personal” (12). Is she right in this? Nina’s opinion of Douglas creates an amusing contrast with Ned’s obstinate attachment to his dead friend. Whose opinion do you come to agree with?
7. Is Hume most likely the person who has stuck a pushpin into the image of Douglas in the double portrait (68)? Might it be Iva? How does the presence of Hume disrupt the image of Douglas and Iva’s perfect life?
8. Ned, sadly talking with Joris and Gruen, says, “The group is finished.” Joris answers, “It was finished long ago” (45). Is Joris right? The three discuss their idea of what the group was (45-6). Does the novel convey the sense of an intact group, or one that exists only in memories?
9. Iva says to Ned, “You were the closest, of course, because you both loved Claire” (72). Why is it significant that Ned had a long relationship with Douglas’s ex, Claire? What is the “diabolical” thing that has been going on without his knowledge, that leaves Ned “drowning in bitterness” (73)? What is his reaction later when he learns more about what Iva hints at here, and does it change his feelings about Douglas (200-2)?
10. Ned walks down to the Vale to meet Nina in the parking lot of the general store; their reunion takes place on pp. 77-8. What is interesting, funny, or unusual about these two people? What does the scene reveal about their bond?
11. The novel presents a situation in which everyone is present to honor Douglas and to remember him. What kind of person was he? Does the novel seem to present Douglas as a mystery? What does Nina find out about Douglas’s activities and how he has made his money?
12. Note that the first word of this novel is “genitals.” Why is sex such an important element of this story? What part does sex play in the development of the plot, and in the lives of the other characters? Does Rush create, in Ned and Nina, an ideal partnership of minds and bodies?
13. From Joris, Ned hears opinions about Claire he has never heard before: “She was a shit. . . . She was no good . . . . she was passive” (127-8). How much of what Ned goes through in this story is a forced reevaluation of his lovers, his friends, and his past?
14. Ned wants to understand, about himself and his friends, “whether their true interior selves—the subtle bodies inside—were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them” (198). How is this question relevant to anyone who thinks about the passing of time and its impact on friendships? Does Subtle Bodies examine the question, “Should we try to let go of the past and of our past selves?” By the end of the novel, where do you see Ned on this question?
15. Ned has moments of great clarity about what he has with Nina. Thinking of her, he realizes, “I need to live forever” (64).He wants to say to Nina, “I would always like to be what I am now, with you” (198). Do these moments help Ned to commit fully to her and to their child-to-be?
16. Why does Joris resist signing Ned’s petition? Is Ned overly idealistic in his political ideas? Consider their long and heated political argument (137-44). Given what we now know about what happened in Iraq, who do you think was right––Joris or Ned?
17. Discuss Ned’s decision to read aloud from Douglas’s copy of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and how the passage is meaningful for his own life, for Douglas’s life, for anyone’s life (233).
18. Norman Rush is one of the great writers on marriage, possibly because he and his wife Elsa have an extraordinary one. The idiosyncratic, comical, wonderfully real exchanges between Nina and Ned are also found between lovers and spouses in Mortals and Mating. In a Paris Review interview Rush said, “A couple’s private language can develop in peculiar ways that look ordinary to the couple, but very strange to any outsider. . . . Extraordinary language is sometimes just what happens between two people living closely over many years.” Discuss this statement in the context of the most amusing, lively, or enviable moments of interaction between Nina and Ned.