Odd things happen in the wild. Odd things happen in the mating game too, and in the eponymous book, with its title carefully chosen for an association with animal instincts. Norman Rush’s Mating is all about contrasts: our perceived intellectual ability despite being trapped in a big piece of meat, our capacity for delusion and belief in the face of overwhelming and contradictory evidence, and the power of knowledge to enlighten—and to trap.
Mating reminds me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in that both are about the highest, most abstract levels of love and sex even while basic instincts still control and inform those functions. The overall strategy about love is probably is probably as well understood by your average sixteen-year-old as your average Ph.D., even if the teenager can’t articulate anything with the verbal dexterity and alacrity of Mating’s narrator. They’re both looking at the game theory of love: How do I achieve success if I’m dependent on the posturing of others? What is success in a field as elusive and uncertain as relations among people? Perhaps most importantly: how will others perceive me, how will they perceive me perceiving them, and so on in an infinitely recursive loop?
Someone schooled in the sophistication of societal relationships takes those questions to a deep place, watching the interplay between self and other. The narrator of Mating is, in the fashion of intellectuals, very aware of her own awareness, and the awareness of others. She doesn’t get lost in watching, however, because she’s too busy acting; no longer an anthropology student, the narrator doesn’t need to worry about the observer’s paradox.
What happens when utopian-inclined but jaded brains mate in the wild? Hilarity, among other things, a comic journey into the heart of darkness and heart of lightness, corresponding to the heaviness and lightness in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Whether life is lightness or darkness depends on how you perceive and accept it, but for the narrator, it’s lightness even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
And it’s a fun journey, to a land in Africa where a man wants to set up women as the socially powerful, as a test of human relationships from the individual to the national to the societal level. Regular readers of novels or nonfiction about utopian movements can probably guess what might happen, but Mating is not a conventional story, and both the narrator and her guru/lover, Nelson Denoon, are regular readers and constant consumers and processors of information. They know about love as well as societies—but what about each other and their own society? That’s harder to see for reader and actor, and even until the last three sentences you don’t know what’s going to happen.
But it is unusual, just like the journey. So try the journey—Mating slipped under my radar for far too long a time, until I saw it in the NYTimes’ effort to identify the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years. Mating didn’t win, but it is in good company, and worthy of the accolades it received.