The Book Club

Acting Like a Man

Dear Chris,

I want to address the questions of Rush’s female characters and whether Ray’s hatred of Rex is justified or unjustified. But first I want to expand on your last happy theme, that of things that are right with this novel. Mortals is, as you say, in the great tradition of epic novels of ideas. At least one chapter in this book merits comparison with Mann or Melville, and there may be others I’m not coming up with right now. I mean the extraordinary debate between Dr. Morel, the evangelist of agnosticism, and Kerekang, the defender of Christianity.

To set the scene for our readers: Ray has assigned Pony, a student of his, to attend Morel’s meetings and secretly tape them; in this chapter, Ray listens to the tapes. The meetings turn out to be training sessions for a group called the Apostles of Reason. Morel lays out for his followers a kind of anti-Christian catechism. The point of this catechism, depicted hilariously as a revival-tent-style give-and-take, is to expose Christianity as fraudulent by showing it to be a religion conceived in bad faith that tried to hide its corruption by persecuting the Jews. Jesus, argues Morel (as do, in real life, the great scholars Paula Fredrikssn and Geza Vermes), never had the slightest intention of starting a new religion. He was preaching only to Jews, in an established prophetic vein. The codifiers of Christianity not only mangled his teachings but turned them against the very people from whom they came. Insofar as Jesus did deviate from Judaism, says Morel, it was to stress what he deems to be the most heinous aspect of Christianity: The belief that God demands that we repudiate our own intelligence in favor of a childlike faith. (Judaism does not stress faith; instead it calls for repentance, which requires full activation of the mental faculties.)

Morel’s argument is fiery, scintillating, well-researched, uncharitable, irrefutable—and then, of course, Kerekang douses it with a bucketful of pragmatism. Whatever the origins of the religion, says Kerekang, it cannot be denied that it teaches values desperately needed by people adrift, like many Africans: monogamy, empathy for the poor, relief from suffering. The two men go back and forth for quite some time, but unlike Ray’s endless self-interrogation, this back-and-forth never causes the reader to lose patience. We have achieved the empyrean heights of the Magic Mountain’s Naphtha and Settembrini. We are awed by Morel, but our sympathies—or mine, anyway—lie with the more compassionate Kerekang, and it is part of the novel’s genius, a poignant expression of Rush’s Mannian understanding of the ironies and tragedies of history, that Kerekang will become the well-meaning instigator of a brutal and pointless war. 

This brings me back to the old what-could-have-been—to how good this novel might have been had Rush not spoiled it by falling too deeply in love with Ray and Iris. Before closing, let me quickly defend my claim about Ray and Rex and say a word about Rush’s women.

1) Why is Ray’s hatred of Rex unjustified? Because it is so clearly an expression of collective insanity, of a madness shared by the rest of Ray’s family. None of Rex’s many so-called crimes—including writing, in his adolescence, a tome itemizing his family’s supposed criminal activities—ever warranted the hatred of adults. Irritation at the time? Yes. Lifelong hatred? No. That the father tore the house apart in an effort to find the volume just shows that Ray imbibed his paranoia, his ugly need for control, from a parental source—not that the precocious and aggravating Rex did anything other than act like a precocious and aggravating teenager.

2) I’m slightly baffled by the claim that Karen’s and Iris’ voices are male—I have a particularly hard time parsing this at the level of diction. I can think of a half-dozen women of my acquaintance who use the male vernacular (who “talk like men”) and vice versa, so a fictional mixing of these categories seems unremarkable. I did think of one way in which Karen struck me as male, but I have to admit that as a woman, I found it exhilarating. You accused her of having the soul of a lawyer, which seemed unfair to me. However, she is acutely conscious—overly conscious, even tit-for-tattish—of where she stands in the eyes of men. When it comes to relationships, she insists on complete equality. Luckily for us, her insistence as often as not takes the form of wit, rather than sheer intellectual one-upmanship (though there is some of that). She never relaxes her vigilance on this score. It can make her irritating, but as a woman, I couldn’t help admiring her for it because the truth is, she’s right—the minute you stop insisting on your equality men do start to display a faint, unconscious condescension. What seemed male to me about Karen’s vigilance is that most women I know (myself included) tend to let most of those vaguely insulting male comments slide because it’s just too damn exhausting to call men on them all the time. A man imagining himself into the persona of a women, on the other hand, is more likely to be able to sustain Karen’s level of outrage.

I would love to talk about Iris but it looks like I have reached my word limit.

So, I’d cross a desert with you any day, Chris. It has been a pleasure.