The ratatouille was great, with a non-canonical but pleasantly sharp English cheddar grated over the top. The bread pudding was celestial, the best I’ve ever made. Don’t know if it was the goat’s milk or the water bath I baked it in or the slow, cool oven that gave it such a silky, luscious texture. More experiments are called for.

Reading Mortals, Norman Rush’s very-long-awaited follow-up to Mating, one of my favourite novels. I keep wanting to call it Mordles after a memorable review of a Bruce Willis-Demi Moore movie I never saw. Demi’s accent was so bad, the reviewer said, that the film should have been titled Mordle Torts.

Rush’s prose is as delectable as ever, but ten or twelve chapters in, I have to admit I am bugged by what I perceive as two flaws. First, the story is told as stream-of-consciousness, rather than the flashback of the earlier book. The structure of Mating let the narrator (Karen, apparently, but I’ll never get used to calling her that) leave out the prosaic parts. In Mortals you’re immersed in Ray’s consciousness as he walks down the street, with random memories and associations flitting about. It’s tremendously well observed, but it is at times, and it galls me to admit this, a bit boring. Ray waits for a gap in traffic. There’s no gap. There’s no gap. There’s a gap. Ray crosses the road.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for flaw two. I don’t like Ray much. He’s uxorious, usually a big hit with me, but he loves Iris in a whipped-cur kind of way. Something’s up between them and instead of saying “What’s up with us?” he slinks around. He hates his brother, which I find hard to forgive. And as a spy, he compares very unfavourably with Stephen Maturin (who doesn’t?)

Ray takes money for his work and in one excruciating scene, allows his chief to humiliate him. Stephen killed men for less, much less. Not that I think Stephen’s bloodthirstiness is an amiable trait or even possible to transfer to Gabarone in 1991, but Ray just sits there and takes it. A man with a spine would have told Chet Boyle to go and fuck himself. Ray’s too invested in the idea of himself as a spy. Without the agency, he’s just another Milton scholar, which makes him feel impotent. Which makes him impotent.

Oh, oh, I just figured out why that scene squicked me so much: Chet Boyle is Keith Power, right down to the sweaty wattles! Mystery solved! Delicate shudder. I just hope Keith doesn’t ego-surf Google…

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