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Book Review

A Modern Anti-Heroine Wages War With Herself

THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, A Novel, by Catherine Bush Farrar, Straus & Giroux

$24, 304 pages

September 11, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Arcadia Hearne, the narrator of Catherine Bush's somewhat strained but thoroughly interesting second novel, might well be called an "anti-heroine." Like many a modern antihero, from Dostoevsky's "underground man" to Sartre's Roquentin, she is not a villain, but merely someone unwilling or unable to act courageously. When we first meet her, she is living in London, working at a small research facility called the Centre for Contemporary War Studies. Although men who chat her up in bars are often shocked, intrigued or excited by what they assume to be her penchant for violence and danger, Arcadia has never yet set foot in a war zone. Her job involves research and analysis of the ways in which wars are--and are not--conducted.

When, for instance, is it appropriate to intervene militarily? "Did you act in the place where danger seemed the worst, the moral horrors gravest, or . . . where atrocities were easier to clarify? Or where the possibility for effective action seemed likeliest? Or choose somewhere simply because it was closer . . . more likely to impinge on your life . . . your doorstep--though how did you define doorstep. . . ." "What kind of wars," Arcadia is forced to wonder, "can be fought by countries who collectively fear death, whose first concern is the safety of their own personnel, who'll do anything to avoid bringing home body bags?"

Not only is Arcadia concerned about what is going on in the world, she is also driven by a very personal need to understand what she calls "the rules of engagement." Ten years ago, she fled her native Toronto after two young men fought a duel with pistols over her. Since then, she's married and divorced an Englishman, who accused her of losing interest in him because of his unwillingness to "kill . . . or be killed" for her. Although some who hear the story of the duel assume that Arcadia must secretly relish having been the object of such impassioned dispute, any reference to that episode makes her profoundly uneasy. Arcadia knows that in certain societies, duels were once de rigueur. But she does not understand what could have motivated two modern men to engage in so archaic a rite, or why she herself did not intervene to stop them.

Recently, in London, Arcadia has come into contact with some political refugees: a woman from Somalia, a man from Iran. In light of all her brooding about the need to intervene, her skittish reaction to the prospect of becoming personally involved in helping victims of oppression is quite shocking. Presumably, we are meant to be shocked, and in order for this anti-heroine to become more of a heroine, she must revisit the past she has been trying to evade.

As a university student in Toronto, Arcadia became deeply involved with an intense, artistic, alarmingly romantic young man. Still eager for "experience," she went behind his back to enjoy the risky thrill of secret trysts with a more casual, laid-back philosophy student. While evidently it would have been hard for her to have stopped her obsessive first lover from issuing the dueling challenge, the reader may still wonder why on Earth she made no effort to prevent her sensible second swain from agreeing to the challenge. In some ways, Arcadia seems an all-too-typical soi-disant "liberated" woman: quick to claim the formerly "masculine" prerogative of sexual freedom, but content to fall back into traditionally "feminine" helplessness and passivity when it comes to taking responsibility for her actions.

"Yet I wanted to be true, figure out how to be true to myself," she declares. (In pre-Freudian days, being true to oneself often meant following the dictates of conscience. More recently, it tends to mean following the dictates of ego or id.) Arcadia's lesbian younger sister, Lux, offers her a clue as to what's missing from her makeup: loyalty, the capacity to be true to others as well as to oneself.

Bush's terse, elegant, often sensuous prose draws us swiftly into her protagonist's intelligent yet troubled mind. Her fusion in this novel of the political and the personal is not only ambitious, but compelling and provocative: a thoughtful attempt to examine the nature of love and risk.

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