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.

Chasing thought: in the zone

Being immersed in a topic makes you ready to have the flash, the epiphany, the moment when thoughts collide and new ones emerge. It’s why I write about books: I see something I didn’t just from reading, and when I’m writing I pull something out of my subconscious that I didn’t even realize was there. From nothing comes something.

It’s a remarkable feeling, being in the zone, and the zone develops and broadens with time. You need the ideas, the knowledge, and the stimulation to form the primordial mass necessary. Then the ideas can start combining, extending, evolving. I suspect this kind of cycle applies to most fields of intellectual endeavor, and the more one practices being in this state of mind, the easier it comes.

In essence, it’s a virtuous cycle: creativity and discovery beget more creativity and discovery. It means paying attention to what others have said without being dominated by their ideas; it means being ready to challenge when you should and accept when you should. It means having a notebook or dictaphone, so you’re always ready when you’re in a car or on a train or walking your dog to capture the wisp before it floats away, maybe never to return in the exact same form.

The scaffolding is important—you need to know what the greats who preceded you thought. You’re not really ready for the higher stuff until you’ve laid the base; you don’t build a pyramid from the top down. You need your mind to be primed with the books you’ve read, the conversations you’ve had, the newspaper you saw this morning, and the problems you’ve considered. Once they’re all there, you unconsciously work on what you have, and connections form. And when the storm breaks, it’s a good idea to have buckets below, whether in the form of computers or dictaphones or pencils.

In fact, all this came to me in a torrent while I was working on a post about Mating. In a moment, I opened the OS X program DEVONthink and began typing. The first draft wasn’t as good as it could be, but the raw material I later shaped into a more coherent whole (some may debate the “coherent” aspect). The important part was writing before the inchoate thoughts evaporated; the feeling of capture is a rush, in a way somewhat similar to running or drugs, but subtly different too.

All this goes back to the writing itself, which is where some of these new ideas grow. I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to analyze what they read—but I discover more about what I read through writing about and reacting to it. Being able to explain why something is good and how it is good is a useful skill—as is its flipside. It’s part of grasping the principles underlying so many surface phenomena. And if you’re really going to get in the zone, you need to know the ground before you can fly through the air.

%d bloggers like this: