Mona Simpson is the author of Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, and My Hollywood. Off Keck Road won the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim grant, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writers’ Award, and, recently, a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Simpson is on the faculty at UCLA and also teaches at Bard College.
1. "The most terrible and wondrous experience in Jane di Natali's life was over by the time she was ten, before she'd truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle" [p. 28]. With these words Simpson concludes her description of Jane's nighttime journey west from the Sierras in a battered truck. What is wondrous and what is terrible about this passage out of childhood? Why does Mary decide that it's time to send Jane to her father, and why do you suppose she does it in this way?
2. A Regular Guy is the first of Mona Simpson's novels to be narrated entirely in the third person. Does this mode of narration have the effect of giving you equal access to the interior lives of various characters? Who is the novel's central character? Which of the characters do you most care about, feel closest to? Is your empathy with some characters and not others an effect of the mode of narration, or of some other aspect of Simpson's technique?
3. In his speech at the teachers' convention, Owens claims that "People being related biologically is irrelevant. What matters is if you like 'em." [p. 111] Why, then, is he anxious about whether Jane looks like him? Would he have accepted Jane as his daughter if she weren't attractive, bright, and healthy? Do you believe that he is capable of loving?
4. Two abortions take place during the course of the novel: Mary aborts the child she has conceived with Eli because Jane expresses some negative feelings about having a sibling, and Olivia aborts the child she has conceived with Owens because Owens is ambivalent about marrying her. What issues do these two abortions raise in Jane's life? Why are they important to the concerns of the novel as a whole? Why does Mary put Jane in the position of deciding the fate of her and Eli's unborn child?
5. What is the relationship between ambition, success, and love in A Regular Guy? Does the choice of either love or ambition tend to be different for the women and the men in the novel?
6. Owens's loss of status seems to turn his focus to simpler things: love, children, gardening. Is Owens, after his fall, a more likable character? Do you think his newfound devotion to family is authentic? Is Simpson inviting us to conclude that the domestic, private life is inherently of more value than the public life?
7. Tom Owens has a number of strong opinions about how society should be run, and he seriously considers running for political office. Do you think he would have been a successful politician? Or president? Which of his beliefs derive from his hippie past, and which seem to contradict the ideals of the sixties? Is there a coherent philosophy behind his various beliefs? If not, how do you interpret this aspect of his character?
8. Simpson juxtaposes the rise of Noah Kaskie with the fall of Tom Owens, and from the beginning of the novel seems to set up the two men as a study in contrast. In what other character juxtapositions are we invited to reflect upon and compare aspects of personality and various approaches to life?
9. Jane takes her father's name at the end of the novel and seems to be finally and securely accepted by him. What kinds of changes has Jane gone through? Does she come to resemble her father's character more than her mother's?
10. Asked about her motivation as a writer, Simpson answered: "I hope to reach the readers who read the way I read, passionately and with much yearning and abandon, readers ardently questioning how they should live, both personally and in a larger context of community and world-wide community, and who find the context for their questioning to be books and the process of reading." (Quoted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 44, p. 103.) Such issues are clearly being examined in this novel: how does your reading of it affect the way you think about what you value in your life, and how to achieve the right kind of life?
For discussion of ANYWHERE BUT HERE, THE LOST FATHER, and A REGULAR GUY:
1. What are some of the ways in which these novels identify the problems of family life in contemporary American culture? What is Mona Simpson's ideal of the family, and how do the families in these three novels fail or succeed in providing love, protection, identity, self-respect? Why is the importance of the child's point of view central to all three novels?
2. In The Lost Father, Mayan says, "So much of what determined what was life and what dream was still only money" [p. 116]. In each of these works, one's economic condition has a strong shaping influence on one's life. Is money--or its lack--the most fateful element in life? Which characters in these works are most dependent on money, or on the idea of wealth, in imagining and creating the kind of life they desire?
3. There is a range of narrative techniques in these three novels. There are several first-person narrators in Anywhere But Here, a single first-person narrator in The Lost Father, and a third person omniscient narrator in A Regular Guy. How do these technical choices on Simpson's part affect your experience of each of the novels?
4. About her approach to structure, Simpson has said, "I work paragraph to paragraph or even line to line.... I have an emotional sense of where things are going to, but I don't do a whole chart or anything like that." (From interview with Susannah Hunnewell, The New York Times Book Review, 9 February 1992, p. 10.) How would you describe and differentiate the structure of these novels? Henry James fondly called the novel form "a loose baggy monster." Do you think that Simpson's novels particularly fit this description?
5. How does Simpson control and convey the sense of time and of past and present? How important a role does memory play in these works?
6. Simpson started out as a poet, and her writing is often powerfully lyrical and imagistic. For example, in The Lost Father Mayan says of her mother, "in her private soul she is a child holding an empty glass jar waiting for the sky to fill it..." [p. 3]. What are some of the more striking images and descriptive passages you've noticed? How do such images affect or deepen your experience of the work?