Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on an Anthropological Botswanan Journey That's Really a Love Story

I've talked about all the light reads I've been working my way through this fall, but my October book club choice was the opposite of a light read. Take one look at Mating by Norman Rush and everything about it says heavy read. It's almost 500 pages; those pages are nearly transparent; even the cover makes you think, "...Oh, this is definitely literary."

These surface judgments were only half accurate. If a book can be both dense and easy to read at the same time, then this one does that. Let me explain: the narrative isn't told in a hard-to-understand way; the language is fairly conversational, and there is a plot there—it's not just musings. But it's actually this casual language that makes this book take a lot longer to read than most. (To give you an example, I had 200 pages left on the Thursday before our meeting, and that night I read from about 6pm to 11:30 pm, minus about 45 minutes, to finish those 200 pages. It took that long. My usual approximate 1 pg/min rate did not apply here.) Dialogue punctuation is non-existent, so you really have to get in the flow of what's happening to follow. (Not a book that can be read in short little 10 min subway commute chunks.) Also, the language is sort of stream of consciousness but not in a totally rambling way. More of a, this is how I would say it if I were talking to a person, with interrupting clauses and without correct sentence structure, way. 

So now that I've given this great rundown on how this book is written, you probably want to know what it's actually about. The year is somewhere around 1980. Our unnamed narrator (and she remains unnamed throughout the entire novel—a fact I didn't realize until our discussion) is an American anthropologist in Botswana. She's around 32, highly intellectual, highly independent, and also incredibly curious about people. Specifically, her relationships with people. We gather early on that this narrative is a recollection; she's telling us, from the beginning, about her relationship with one Nelson Denoon, the fascinating but mysterious founder of an alleged utopian society out in the desert. Denoon becomes our narrator's obsession, as she is bound and determined to venture to this settlement and make herself part of Denoon's life.

While this book is somewhat plot-driven, what's most interesting is the story running below the surface. At the basic level, you have this woman on her own in Botswana, seeking out a man out of curiosity. A bit deeper, though, Mating is about this woman and how she makes decisions, and this relationship and how these two people interact. The setting alone could be its own story, but Mating isn't really about the setting so much. It's more about our narrator and Denoon, their lives simply set against an interesting backdrop. Our narrator is a unique character in a unique setting. Perhaps it's this quality and this quality alone that made her feel like a somewhat distant character, unrelatable to a degree. But Mating also felt very much like a product of its 1980s time, and maybe 32 in 1980 is very different than 32 in 2013. (E.g. At 28, I'm at the point where I related more to 30 than 20, but I felt nothing in common with our narrator.)

To be honest, I expected to get a lot more out of our discussion. And maybe we did dig deeper, but I had two glasses of wine at our meeting and then stayed up way too I could just be forgetting all our ground-breaking points of discussion! Either way, I did enjoy this book and it felt good to stretch my heavy duty reading muscles for a change. To me, reading serves one or two purposes, sometimes both at the same time: it provides entertainment and it, in some way, educates. Sometimes one trumps the other when you choose a book off the shelf, but both are fabulous.

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