Sunday

Vivid Characterization in Short Fiction: Norman Rush's Whites

The stories in Whites are impressive in their variety. While they’re all set in Botswana, they’re told from the point of view of characters with radically different perspectives: a young American graduate student, a white South African woman traveling across the desert with her husband and another couple, a Mokgalagadi tribesman, a middle-aged seductress, an aid worker, a timid dentist. Norman Rush is a master ventriloquist: he’s great with voices, inflections, and patterns of speech and thought. His point of view characters invite the reader to see the world from a new perspective, and for the most part they’re engaging enough to make it a pleasure to do so.

Rush doesn’t expend much ink on Bostswana’s physical environment. Most of the stories take place in the city, in houses, parks, and public buildings. He tends to stick close to his POV characters, only infrequently “zooming out” for a look at the broader landscape. He is quite interested, though, in the cultural setting, which tends to shape and define his characters, and in fact it is the skillfully rendered interplay between the characters and the culture, and the originality of the characters in general, that are the true strengths of this collection. A particularly impressive example is Moitse in “Alone in Africa.” Moitse drives the action in this great story, and the character revelations continue all the way down to the final line. 

Before Moitse shows up at his window, Frank the sex-hungry dentist is moping around his house in the upscale “official” section of the city, thinking about his life, his vacationing “varietist” wife, and African culture. Suddenly he sees a local girl through the kitchen window, standing furtively beside the door. We get a vague impression of sexuality, and a vague idea that she wants something.

As the story progresses, Moitse’s physical reality gradually becomes clearer, like a darkroom photograph.  This is a very neat effect, and you have to read the story to get a full appreciation for it. We find out that she’s barefoot, and we see her clothes, which demonstrate not only her poverty, but also her sexual appeal. In a wise display of restraint, Rush gives us Frank’s reaction:

She was beautiful.  He studied her in the grayish light.  She was beautiful.

Rush sketches in her background. She’s the eldest daughter of a poor family three houses down. Her mother is a hawker. We learn that she’s well into the age of sexual eligibility: she’s at least sixteen. We begin to get a sense of her personality and motivations.  She corrects him when he misspeaks in Setswana, yet she tells him her name in a barely audible voice.

After he struggles for awhile in Setswana, she addresses him in English.   “She was full of surprises,” Frank notes, but as we will discover, he doesn’t know the half of it.

The surprises continue to unfold, delightfully, throughout the rest of the story.  As they spend time together we learn more about Moitse’s physical appearance. She has perfect skin; her hair is worked back in tight ridges from her forehead. Her personality also continues to develop, through her actions and through Frank’s observations of her. She’s bold, brazen, lascivious, appealingly innocent and childlike. She’s forceful, decisive, and courageous. When Frank’s soup boils over she comes to the rescue, shifting the pot off the burner with her bare hands. 

Now we get a more detailed physical description:

She stood close to him, smiling. She was slightly unfresh.  Her nipples showed like bolt heads through the T-shirt cloth.  She went back to the table.  She had the usual high rump.  Her hem went up in back.  There were traces of mud on her ankles and a few smears of mud on the floor tiles.

Moitse is a real flesh-and-blood person to the reader now, no longer just a mysterious, beautiful waif.  Her physicality is coming into clear focus, but we still wonder—what’s she after?  Frank thinks she wants to exchange sex for money, but we’re not sure.  There’s a dual conflict to the story: what’s going to happen between Frank and Moitse, and what’s going to happen if Frank’s nosy, self-righteous, evangelical neighbor discovers her in the house. 

Moitse seems to appreciate the need to keep her voice down.  We’re starting to get the idea that, in addition to the qualities mentioned above, she’s both savvy and considerate. Frank returns to contemplating her appearance and decides she’s cat-faced.  Later, he sees her as a lynx, or a vixen.  Like these small predators, she’s also a neat eater, which Frank likes.  So she’s a predator, but a smart, careful one, and an attractive, diminutive one to boot.  This bodes well for the success of the liaison. At the kitchen sink, Moitse makes the first move:

This was it, then.  Her arms were around him.  She was strong.  She was brave to do this.  She was holding him so hard he had difficulty turning around to face her.

This passage captures her essence: bold and strong, but also maybe a little nervous.  Frank manages to steer her into the shower, which appears to be a novelty to her, though she is “some kind of veteran,” and in a hilarious turn lifts her leg to point her “mons” at him like some kind of sex talisman.  In the bedroom, she is bold, playful, sexually forward and obviously experienced, though also girlish and somehow innocent.  Frank retreats in panic, and when he comes back she’s straightened out his clothes and the sheets—she has a care-taking, motherly side—and lies there waiting with a wad of toilet paper in her hand: she’s a no-nonsense gal.  Frank is reassured. 

Everything’s all set to go when her sisters arrive and mess it up.  Moitse goes after them, hissing, still naked, and Frank can hear her outside beating them. 

Suddenly, disaster.  Frank sees his neighbor approaching the house with a flashlight.  The jig seems to be up.  Christie barges in, Frank thinks all is lost, and then:

It was brilliant.
Moitse, fully dressed, was sitting on a stool by the sink. She had a towel across her knees and the bowl of sugar peas on her lap.  Her sisters were on the floor, sitting facing her with their legs straight out.  They were watching her face fixedly.  She was showing them how to string peas . . . She was brilliant . . .She was hard.  Frank could tell she wasn’t giving anything away.  She was as hard as nails.  He was in good hands with her.  It was over.  She was being sharp back to Christie.  She was in charge.

Moitse is full of surprises, and Frank is charmed.  She’s like a character from the A-Team, someone you want as a friend but not as an enemy.  But she is “still a child.”  Frank shows everyone out and lies down on his bed.  He is relieved, yet sad and wistful about what could have been.  And then, in what has to be one of my favorite endings,

There was a scraping sound at the window above him, the sound of nails on the flyscreen.  He recognized it.  He sat up straight.  She was back.
            She was back.

*

In the course of the story the reader comes to know Moitse as bold and shy, sexually forward yet innocent as a child, aggressive, sharp-tongued, even violent, yet also caring, considerate, smart and neat. If Frank is a horny child, Moitse is a sexualized Cat in the Hat: persistent and unstoppable. She is unwashed yet dignified, dressed in rags yet beautiful, a lynx-like dynamo ripe with life’s passionate juices, sure of what she wants and not afraid to go after it. That’s a pretty interesting character brought to life in under twenty-eight pages.