Reading guide for Tumbledown by Robert Boswell

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by Robert Boswell

Tumbledown by Robert Boswell X
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2013, 448 pages

    Sep 2014, 456 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. Early in the book we learn the IQ scores of several characters, as well as several cultural figures (page 57). How does this information frame how you read the rest of the book and evaluate the characters? Why do you think only Karly's score is officially on record? Do you think intelligence tests and tests of "psychological disorders" reveal the truth, or could the tests themselves be biased?
  2. Maura Wood—brazen, bold, "a rebel without a cause" as Billy describes her—loves schizophrenia-diagnosed Mick and pursues a lopsided friendship. "She wanted him to be well, and she needed him to be ill" (page 93). Why do we "need" people to be something that they don't want to be? How is Maura different from other characters? Is she more dangerous to others or herself?
  3. In Same Man (the comic written by Candler and Billy, and illustrated by Candler's mentally impaired older brother, Pook), all the characters have the same face. One of Same Man's tasks "was to keep the good guys and the bad guys straight" (page 140). Is this a larger theme in the book, or are there no good or bad guys? What is the larger connection between mental instability and artistic representation?
  4. In chapter four we learn that Candler keeps a notebook of profound things his clients have said, like, "The loud beneath the image sketches, but also there's the buttoned-up absence we don't need to distill" and "I disorder you" (pages 150–51). What do these statements suggest about Candler's clients? What does it suggest about Candler that he finds them meaningful?
  5. Candler is given an enormous amount of responsibility for his clients, and yet he has almost no responsibility for himself. How does this affect his own life and the lives of his clients and loved ones?
  6. After the party for Candler and Lolly, a slightly inebriated Violet drives the three of them home. "The alcohol she had consumed was not enough to hinder her driving, and neither was it enough to make the dark world beautiful, but just another obstacle to get beyond" (page 247). How does this compare to how Mick describes the effect of his meds? Is this ironic in any way?
  7. At Barnstone's house Mick confesses that he doesn't like to say the name of his illness (page 301). Later in the same chapter, Lolly admits that she adopts various "costumes" in life (page 310). Is illness something to be ashamed of? How are diagnoses like costumes?
  8. During Mick's suicide attempt we learn that this isn't Mick's first brush with death. "And his illness, when it descended—that, too, had been a kind of death" (page 385). Mick also states that he doesn't didn't feel alive when he takes his medication. Do you agree that illness is a kind of death? Do all illnesses need to be cured? Could an illness ever be seen as an advantage?
  9. Toward the end there are two alternating and competing narratives going on at the same time. Which one do you believe? How might the narrative structure—switching back-and-forth between two possible realities—mimic mental illness?
  10. What statement(s) do you think Boswell is making about mental illness and mental rehabilitation clinics? How would you change the way we think about and treat mental illness?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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