1. Does it seem as if Joel is living entirely in a world of his own devising? Or does the external persistently intrude?
2. What is the primary point-of-view in the story? When — and why — does it change?
3. “The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind.” Does it seem as if the reader, like Joel, is in the process of piecing together a riddle? Roughly how many of the clues are real and how many exist only in Joel’s mind?
4. Paradox can both illuminate and also perplex. Does the book which on the one hand says that “there is no super-nature, and there are no gods, no devils, no demons, or ghosts” nonetheless feel ghostly or otherworldly?
5. How is light used paradoxically? (Think, perhaps, of the ray of moonlight that first illuminates the puzzle-piece in the Prelude and the “thin daggers of light” that lance Joel’s eyes in Chapter 1. Or the first physical description of Lauren in Chapter 2, who’s sitting “higher up, in a cleaner and more perfect light, gilded in gold.” Or in Chapter 7, the “meat-eating, life-giving, thunderously silent sun” and then the quoted biblical passage: “If the light that is in thee be darkness.”)
6. Why, as the novel progresses, is Joel’s father referred to more and more as his “old man”? What or whom does the old man represent? Is he really dying on his metal bed?
7. Why do you think Joel’s mother is mentioned so frequently in the context of breeze and breath, life and death, a Pentecostal wind? Is there a connection between his mother and the spirit of truth?
8. “Breath is life,” writes Lia. Is her own “strangely audible” breath significant? And if so, in what way?
9. In Chapter 16, Tom tells how the Ark of Jehovah was historically described as “a vessel” containing the actual word of God but also “blood, stone, stone tablets, or even a child in the womb?” Is Tom then suggesting a connection between the living vessel of the ark and the female capacity to contain life — or, more specifically, Joel’s mother, who in her note to Joel wrote “You are my child, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, son of my womb, and I love you more than I could ever say”?
10. Is Joel related to Tom and Lia?
11. Does Joel’s trip into the caves of his past seem, at times, more symbolic than real? Does it call to mind Raddick’s obsessive Ethiopian search for the Ark?
12. What does Joel’s vessel ultimately contain? Is it, in essence, the same as what Bill’s vessel contains? Or Raddick’s?
13. The “bluish quicksilver shape” Joel first glimpses in Chapter 1, which strikes him as “indescribably beautiful” and which reminds him of a vital human organ, does it call to mind what Joel’s mother called “the quicksilver truth,” or the ovoid, bluish-silver moon that’s so often watching from above, and which first illuminated the puzzle-piece? Are there other instances of bluish-silver flashes and eggs and egg shapes?
14. The Secret History, a fictional book within the book, is called a “strange and mysterious” volume the origin and authorship of which are obscure. By the end of the story, do we know whose history The Secret History actually tells?
15. Why do you think Tom is once found playing with a pair of scales? Is Joel’s birthday thematically significant? And is Joel correct when he says to Elias that “justice is proportionality?”
16. Throughout the book, there are numerous references to work and human labor — “Nothing more fundamental than labor is required for the production of wealth” — and then later on to “the work of willing, the strain of attention.” Is the author drawing a parallel between these two types of work: i.e. the effort to pay attention or not, and the fact that (as Elias says) “life requires discipline, effort”?
17. Does Lauren, who by her own admission does not need to work, contribute to the discussion of work?
18. Why is Lauren so inordinately enamored of the egg-shaped stone, which Joel’s father, a miner, excavated with great labor, and which Joel as a child stole, and gave away? And is there perhaps a connection between this stone and the stone of the Ark?
19. Tom says that the question “What is truth?” is no real mystery and he proceeds to define it. What is his definition of truth, and what, if any, connection does Tom see between truth and morality? Does he believe that knowledge and truth are synonymous? Finally, if it’s not God that grounds morality, what according to Tom is the fundamental thing that DOES ground it?
20. Is childhood a significant part of this novel’s theme?
A long excerpt of the book can be read here.