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The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Chris Adrian's Gob's Grief--an intimate portrait of individual human suffering and an unusual history of the American physical and social landscape scarred by the Civil War. In this eerie and brilliant debut novel a fascinating cast of both real and fictional characters is assembled who all share one common trait: grief for brethren who were lost in the bloodiest war fought on United States soil. And from this context emerges one tortured soul whose despair grows into a maniacal obsession with resurrecting the dead.
George Washington--"Gob"--Woodhull and Thomas Jefferson--"Tomo"--Woodhull, are the twin sons of the real historical figure Victoria Woodhull, the nineteenth-century feminist and spiritualist. At age eleven, Tomo runs away from his family home in Homer, Ohio, to join the Union soldiers, but gripped at the last minute by fear of dying, Gob stays behind. When Tomo is killed, Gob is devastated by the loss and overwhelmed with guilt. Gob runs off into the woods of Homer and begins his strange path to adulthood and the medical profession. As brothers across the nation continue to be lost in horrific battles, an older Gob meets America's national poet, Walt Whitman, while Whitman is comforting soldiers in hospitals in Washington, D.C. After the Civil War, Gob is reunited in New York City with his mother, who has become a revolutionary journalist, suffragette, women's stockbroker, and preacher of free love. There, Gob pursues medical school and embarks secretly on the object of his obsession: building a machine to resurrect the dead. He recruits his friend and fellow medical student, Will Fie, to his project, and, falling for his mother's young protegZˇe, the fictional Maci Trufant, he persuades her to help as well. The convergence of these disparate characters who are united by grief results in an astonishing climax that overturns the balance between the earthly and the spiritual. Vividly imagined and intricately realized, Gob's Grief is a profound testimony of the extremes to which sorrow can drive a man and a country, and the fragile attempt of both to build a future.
1. From each of the main characters to Alanis Bell in the woods of Homer, Ohio [p. 115], Gob's Grief can be read as an elegy to lost brothers everywhere. How does the concept of brotherhood convey the personal yet universal nature of loss and death? What is the larger symbolism of the rending apart of twin brothers?
2. What does Gob's machine symbolize? Gob asks, "Is it useful to [the dead] that we mourn? Life might spend all its days grieving for lost life. You'd think something could be done with it." And Walt responds, "All the precious blood. A great work ought to be coming, oughtn't it?" [p. 69] Is Walt's vision of "a great work" the same as Gob's? Does Gob's machine work? Is his project a success? Why does Maci's father build his machine, and what does the existence of another machine like Gob's suggest about post-Civil War society? Why does Maci's father call his machine "the Infant" [p. 268]?
3. What is the nature of the grief and suffering in the novel? Is it for the living or the dead? According to the Urfeist, "Every last creature is sad. . . . Not that they mourn their beloveds. They mourn themselves. They are sad because they know that they are going to die" [p. 253]. Does the Urfeist's assertion, echoed by Walt's fear of death [p. 108] and Gob's fear of death [p. 117], encapsulate the theme of Gob's Grief? Or does Maci's sentiment, "It is memory that keeps us all ever from being happy" [p. 381] more accurately summarize the theme of the novel?
4. Other than the angel's warning to Will that Gob's machine is an "abomination" [p. 182] and Gob's strangely rational acknowledgement, "Oh yes. The angels--they're very much against us" [p. 202], Gob's Grief seems strangely devoid of religion. Does this lack of religion reflect a postwar nihilism? Or, conversely, can the entire novel be read as a religious allegory? If so, what do each of the characters in the novel represent?
5. Even as Maci watched Walt in Gob's machine, she "thought it was folly, just an enormous monument to Gob's Grief that was beautiful and complex, but no more likely to raise the dead than an ordinary lever." But at the same time, "Maci believed and believed and believed. . . . She considered how it was wonderful that a machine could manufacture faith and put it in you, how it could abolish doubt, and that this was perhaps more miraculous than the abolition of death" [pp. 372-3]. Is Maci's faith, in fact, the driving force behind Gob's machine? Why is the abolition of this vague concept of "doubt" so significant?
6. Will recalls his brother Sam: "When they were small, Sam had tried to teach him how to wake within sleep, to know he was dreaming while he was dreaming. 'Then you are the master of your whole world,' Sam confided" [p. 158]. What do the characters' dreams reveal about them? How does the retelling of dreams advance the plot? [See, for example, Tomo's dreams on pp. 7, 23, 211 and Walt's dreams on pp. 47, 31, 52, 100, 102.]
7. What are the roles of Walt's Hank, Will's Jolly, and Maci's brother Rob? Are they actually spirits, or are they the characters' consciences? Why might these characters be able to "hear" or "see" the spirits, while Gob, whose "fondest wish" [p. 114] is to see a spirit, is unable to?
8. Do the characters in Gob's Grief live by any conventional codes of morality? Do traditional concepts of right and wrong have a place in either the novel or in post-Civil War America?
9. How is the construction of Gob's machine implicitly compared to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge [p. 197]? How are each of these parallel constructs a particular manifestation of the post-Civil War mentality--one a grotesque distortion of the other?
10. What image of doctors emerges from Gob's Grief? What attitude toward death and life should a doctor have? On the one hand, "It seemed to Will that Gob was becoming a doctor for the wrong reason, not because he loved life, but because he was obsessed with death" [p. 167]. On the other hand, for Will himself, "Medical school was the last place he should be, in his condition, because the sad natural histories of disease became personal to him" [p. 156]. What does it take to be a good doctor? Are the expectations for physicians different today than they were at the end of the nineteenth century? In the novel, how are doctors likened to soldiers and medicine to war?
11. Who is the Urfeist? Is he a doctor? What does he teach Gob? How does Gob feel about him? How do these feelings compare to his feelings for his father? His mother? How does the role he plays in Gob's development compare to the role Frenchy plays in Will's development, or the role Victoria Woodhull plays in Maci's life?
12. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, "Kosmos" is the Greek word for "order, universe" and has evolved into the English word "cosmos," which is defined as "the universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious whole." In his 1958 critical essay on Leaves of Grass, John Kinnaird describes the multiple components of Walt Whitman's persona utilized in his poems, the third being the "kosmos": "[The kosmos] is the most functionally mythical aspect of the persona--the furthest from worldly ego and the closest to his dream life--the fantastic, serio-comic mask of godhead whereby Whitman resolved in imagination the contradictions of his conscious identity into a divinely free and conventionally lawless unity of opposites" [source: Roy Harvey Pearce, ed., Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Leaves of Grass and the American Paradox," p. 30]. In light of these definitions, why might Gob have chosen Walt Whitman to power his machine?
13. In her recent biography of Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Goldsmith states, "The rise of Spiritualism . . . expanded at a time when devastating war had imposed the unbearable loss of husbands, sons, and lovers" [source: Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, p. xiv]. Does this provide a clue as to why Adrian chose Victoria Woodhull as the other unique historical character upon which to anchor his story? Is Woodhull's Spiritualism another expression of Gob's Grief? Maci gets "so tired that she confused their projects, so she thought that Gob was building a machine to expose and destroy hypocrisy, and that Mrs. Woodhull was writing an article that argued so powerfully against death that nature, shamefaced after reading it, would revoke mortality" [p. 363]. Is the reader intended to recognize in Maci's confusion a bizarre resemblance between Gob's efforts and his mother's?
14. What did Will learn from his glass house? Does Maci learn the same lessons from Rob's sketched body of Pvt. Vanderbilt? What might the sketches have meant for Rob [p. 278]?
15. Is Maci insane, as she suspects [pp. 295-6]? Is Gob insane? How are the concepts of sanity and insanity defined in the novel?
16. What role does sexuality play in the novel? How do the relationships between Will and Gob; Walt and Gob; Walt and Hank; and Gob and the Urfeist simultaneously expand and scar the notion of brotherhood? Why does the novel close with an act of sexual intercourse between the aging Tomo and his wife?
17. Why does Will Fie dislike Walt so much [p. 234]? What is the significance of the character Oliver Barley [pp. 42, 51], and how does his role in the novel compare to Will's?
18. Will thinks, "This was the transformation their engine had effected, to make the ridiculous sensible and the sensible ridiculous" [p. 219]. Does Will's disorientation convey a thematic effect of confusion to the reader? Does Adrian's decision to relate his story out of chronological order emphasize this theme?
19. Can Gob's Grief be read as an embodiment of Walt Whitman through the dramatization of the different components of his poetry, his philosophy, and what his life came to represent to America? If you are not familiar with Walt Whitman's life or his epic collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, some of these components are the following: lament over the horrors of war; admiration for the soldiers; exaltation of democracy and individual liberties; a new, modern America; brotherhood and the universality of man; egotism and the search for self; and the immortality of man's soul [sources: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass; John Addington Symonds, Walt Whitman: A Study; Roy Harvey Pearce, ed., Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays; and, James E. Miller, Jr., Walt Whitman].
20. Is Gob's Grief best described as historical fiction or fictionalized history? How does Adrian successfully blend the genres of fiction and nonfiction, and how does this technique affect a reader's ability to relate to the characters?
21. Excepting his obsession with funerals and empathy for the mourners, does it appear that Tomo's life turned out to be devoid of spirits and fairly ordinary? In what ways is his life different from Gob's, and why?
Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector; Caleb Carr, The Alienist; Philip Caputo, The Voyage; Michael Cunningham, The Hours; E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks; Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust; Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull; John Irving, The Cider House Rules; Matthew Kneale, English Passengers; Jeffrey Lent, In the Fall; Abraham Lincoln, Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings; Patrick McGrath, Asylum; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom; Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler; Michael Ondaatje, Anil's Ghost; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin; Patrick Süskind, Perfume; Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence; Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month That Saved America.
Chris Adrian was born in Washington, D.C. and is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He is currently a medical student in Virginia. Part of Gob's Grief first appeared in The New Yorker under the title "Every Night for a Thousand Years" and was subsequently collected in Best American Short Stories 1998. His fiction has also appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and Story.