On the surface, Norman Rush's new novel is about a middle-aged man, Ned, who reunites with a group of college friends after one member of the group dies unexpectedly. But what transpires over the next few days ahead of the memorial service is less about Ned's relationship with these men and the heady, self-absorbed days of yore, and more about how Ned sees himself.
In his third, much anticipated novel, Subtle Bodies, Rush takes the reader inside the most intimate parts of relationships — between Ned and his wife, between Ned and his deceased friend, and between Ned and his own expectations.
Rush tells NPR's Rachel Martin about the process of writing his new book and the topics he wanted to explore.
On why it took him almost a decade to write Subtle Bodies
"The explanation is actually pretty simple: The book kept escaping from my control. I am afflicted with the, I guess you'd call it, compulsion to say everything. And this was going — without the assistance of somebody — was going to turn into a War and Peace about the 'after left,' as I call it, the period after the collapse of the socialist project and the beginnings of where we are now.
"... It's exquisitely interesting, but ... I had made a promise to my wife to do something unheard of for me, which was to write a concentrated piece of writing, a distillation, and not consume these years in a herculean struggle. But it didn't work out that way. The book got over 400 pages twice, and it brought me to my knees one evening. And I sought her forgiveness first, and then her help, and we together reduced it to its essentials."
On exploring the topic of friendship
"I wanted to write about friendship, and I discovered when I started reading around in the subject that there is not actually a lot of first-rate serious literary fiction that concerns male friendship. To me, it seemed like a rare subject. I had things to say about that that hadn't gotten into the previous books, and I wanted to contrast the kinds of friendship that exists within a marriage and what masculine friendship is. I wanted to look at it in a deep way."
On the character of Douglas, whose unexpected death brings the friends together
"Douglas is one of these characters who turns up who has what you might call limited charisma, or charisma limited to a particular circle of people, but with ambitions for it to be broader. ... Ned and the others, too, in each of their own ways, were susceptible to the antic opposition persona presented.
"... [They'd] fallen under a spell and gotten with a kind of unstated program, an oppositional program, opposition to the culture."
On Ned's wife, Nina, who is trying to get Ned to have a baby with her
"The problem for Nina with Ned is that he's been brought along to the point of being willing to do it. But she wants him to want to do it, and that means embracing the possibility of the child living in a decent world, a happier world, a better world, a world that would be [nurturing] and decent. ... He's struggling with the feeling."