The premise of Norman Rush’s first novel has promise: an affair between a dropout ”nutritional anthropologist” in her early 30s and a ponytailed academic vagabond in his late 40s who has started a utopian commune for poor African women in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. You expect and get a certain amount of oblivious-white-expatriate comedy: At one point a germ-obsessed doctor prints a pamphlet on the widely neglected subject of sanitation and is delighted when the natives keep demanding more copies until he finds out that it’s being used to alleviate the chronic toilet paper shortage — a farce reminiscent of the birth control and temperance campaigns in Evelyn Waugh’s African satire Black Mischief.

The nameless narrator who crosses the desert to insert herself into the bed and life of Nelson Denoon gets to be a problem, however. Her voice is lumpy with academic affectation and slipshod syntax. She speaks of ”constructs” when she means ”ideas”; she has a sadistic flair for words like ”dilutely,” ”committedly,” and ”nexus”; she utters unspeakable sentences like ”The original conceit was that I was going to be hedonic, think passim about my life.” But the parody of academic argot isn’t broad enough to be funny. It’s also not entirely clear whether it’s the narrator or the author who, like television journalists and U.S. senators, thinks that ”transpire” means ”happen” but sounds more impressive, or who thinks that the term ”ressentiment” comes ”from French sociology” rather than from Nietzsche.

The narrator maunders on conceitedly about herself, telling us how good her intuitions about people at a party are and how well some feeble witticism of hers was received, with the result that it often takes the narrative several pages to get across a room. Yet she does have some acute and amusing observations to make about Africans, Europeans, women, and men: ”Pastoral sex is an exclusively male penchant. I guarantee no woman ever proposes it if there are quarters available.” And so does Denoon, who spends much of his time cooking up half-baked theories. As an idiosyncratic leftist, he has devastating things to say about capitalism and command-economy socialism; he redefines Cuban socialism as social cubism; he offers refractory reflections on the romantic left-wing taste for insurrection, the decline of silence, and the trouble with aerobics. His declamations are the best thing in the book, since the love affair itself amounts to small change, and the doomed desert utopia never becomes interesting.

If Mating has a theme beyond Denoon’s desultory ones, it’s the way in which the narrator’s feminist rhetoric trips over her adoration of Denoon. But the irony, like everything else here, isn’t particularly artful. The book has been nominated for a National Book Award, but if you want to read a novel set in Africa with an academic woman narrator, try William Boyd’s most recent book, Brazzaville Beach, which has more in the way of comedy, suspense, philosophical resonance, and readable prose. Rush is too much at home in the company of his characters to give them the comic thrashing they seem to be asking for. C

  • Book