Ned, a California anti-war activist, and his wife Nina are trying to conceive – he is 48, she is 37, and the clock is ticking. When Ned, without warning, travels to upstate New York for the funeral of his eccentric college friend Douglas, the only way for them to have sex on schedule is for the furious Nina to secretly pursue him there. At Douglas’s mountain estate Ned is reunited with his old friends, the once-anarchistic group of self-described ‘wits’ now staring down the barrel of old age. As the group struggle to process the death and over-the-top funeral of their friend, they’re confronted by questions of group loyalty, the paths their lives have taken, and their own vanities and insecurities.
Norman Rush’s fourth novel, his first in ten years, is also his shortest – but while many books benefit from brevity, there’s a lack of narrative tension in Subtle Bodies, with Rush’s trademark focus on smaller character explorations leaving several scenes and plot points as little more than amusing detours. Set in early 2003, the book contains several arguments between Ned and his friends on the invasion of Iraq – Ned is organising nationwide protests, convinced he can prevent the war. It’s difficult to determine Rush’s motivation for doing this – Ned’s doomed passion is poignant but his rhetoric largely muted a decade on.
The book’s biggest strength, however, is Rush’s skill with language – he writes with a lyrical, conversational tone that is bright and playful. Nina, Ned and his friends are all fond of wordplay, calling bouncers ‘excorts’ and graffiti writers ‘ulterior decorators’, and inserting Nina into Ned’s close-knit group allows for some sparkling observations of character. It’s these intimate, ‘subtle’ moments where Rush really shines.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.
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