What happens when hipsters grow up? Do they become less insufferable with age? Do they learn to contribute something useful to the society they’ve long scorned, and in turn were scorned by? Maybe they, like Norman Rush’s deceased character Douglas, leave New York City and go live in a castle somewhere, work on secret projects for the Israeli government, get a trophy wife and raise a child who opts to worship Odin and live wild in the surrounding forest.
Subtle Bodies begins with a 48-year-old man named Ned dropping everything to attend the funeral of Douglas, the de facto leader of Ned’s small group of college friends. Ned hasn’t seen Douglas in many years. Douglas — the fact that he went by Douglas and not simply Doug is illuminating — was a wit, a man who casually tossed around too-clever-by-half bon mots and regularly quoted Boswell’s Life of Johnson. (In other words, a complete jerk.) Douglas had charisma in life, though, and exerts a powerful gravitational pull on his acolytes from beyond the grave.
Not to speak ill of the recently fictionally dead, but the more the reader learns about Douglas, the less apt they will be to mourn his passing. Ned’s quirky wife Nina — one of the books’ two main protagonists and far and away the book’s most endearing character — is the only one who knows Douglas for what he was. “She had quit referring to [Ned's] beloved clique of college friends as clowns,” Rush writes. “He hadn’t asked her to, but the term had stung him, a little. And this despite the fact that they had been clowns manqué, a troupe, goofing on the world under the baton of their maestro Douglas.” Before he died, Douglas, in an interview with Der Spiegel, referred to this collegiate proto-hipsterdom as “Abstract Comedy.”
Reunited for the first time in many years, sans Douglas, the group dynamic returns. There is no battle for the vacated leadership position. Rather, there is a low-level conflict between the friends and Douglas’s widow over his legacy. Douglas, it seems, has become something of an intellectual celebrity in Europe, something to do with exposing prominent forgeries. Before he died, Douglas was busy working on a top-secret cryptography project for the Israeli government. Like most tightly-kept secrets, this is one everyone seems to know about. The European media descends on the funeral, but it’s never quite clear why Douglas’s death garners so much press.
Subtle Bodies is geographically a departure for the author (his books and stories are typically set in Botswana), but it is recognizably Rushian. Mating, his justly praised 1991 National Book Award-winning novel, explores the relationship between his sharp female narrator and a seemingly perfect man who disrupts her feminist identity. Subtle Bodies feels structurally and stylistically familiar. Nina’s portions of the book, particularly — with her amusingly poignant reflections on sex, pregnancy, motherhood and marriage — contain much of the obscure wordplay and non sequitur-heavy banter for which the author is known.
Rush’s considerable talent for inhabiting fascinating female voices, though, isn’t enough to wash out the bad taste left by his men — a sad drunk, a whoremonger, an impotent stockbroker, and — if you count Douglas’s feral son — a peeping tom. Even Ned, the most likeable of the group, is rendered slightly pathetic in his frantic efforts to get signatures on his anti-war petition meant to prevent the invasion of Iraq.
Abstract comedy, it turns out, just isn’t that funny, and Rush’s plot never really congeals. That’s not a fatal shortcoming in itself, but unfortunately all the reader is left with is these sad, petulant clowns talking past one another in a series of awkward encounters. This may have been exactly the send-off Douglas would have wanted, but it’s considerably less amusing for those of us left behind.