Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush

“And the question was still there of whether their true interior selves–the subtle bodies inside–were still there and functioning.”

subtle bodiesIn Subtle Bodies, a group of college friends now in their late forties, have hurried to the Catskills after a tragic accident leading to the death of the ringleader of the group. The novel focuses mainly on Ned, the socially conscious member of the group, who is very intent on getting his ol’ college pals to sign a petition against the invasion of Iraq (the events of the novel take place about ten years ago).

I feel a bit torn about this book. It had the interesting premise of bringing a small group of people to a luxurious mansion where they are forced to interact and face each other, à la And Then There Were None and What a Carve Up! The group of friends led by the recently deceased Douglas thought of themselves as “a group of wits, in their opinion, of superior sensibilities of some kind, was the idea.” What the reader soon finds out is that this cabal of “wits” were simply pretentious dodos. The somewhat likable Ned even ponders “discussing the subject of just how funny most of their japes had been.”

Ned is joined by his wife, who had never met Douglas or the other men. She has heard anecdotes of their student days and finds them pompous, with Douglas being the king buffoon.

The first half of the novel is quite gripping. There is something secretive going on between Douglas’s widow and one or more of the old chums. The guests keep being shifted around to different rooms and Douglas’s 14-year-old son, Hume, (yes, that Hume) who lives wildly on the property grounds adds wonderfully to the mystery and oddness. The character of Nina, Ned’s wife, at first seems injected to annoy the reader in a completely different way, ends up being the most roundly developed character. She doesn’t buy into the nonsense of the remaining friends and their godlike adoration of Douglas. She is sympathetic to the other oddballs that begin to populate the house as the memorial service creeps closer.

With Nina, Rush has proffered an excellent candidate to peel off layer by layer of the truth hidden beneath but what is lying below is lackluster. The second half of the novel is less drawing; information is revealed but nothing that readers couldn’t suss out themselves. What Rush does well is come up with examples of how the group had once been so intolerable and how Doulgas, in his life, had carried on in such the same fashion. Even his death becomes a ridiculously contrived spectacle where each of the friends is tasked with a specific eulogy that they can’t stray from and must be approved by his widow.

I would still recommend Subtle Bodies, however, it could be greatly improved with the slash of an editor’s pen to the final chapter and some of the longer political arguments Ned has with his comrades in regards to signing his petition. It did not fit in with the rest of the narrative and felt heavy-handed.


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