The Fatigue Artist is a refreshingly candid story about life, love, and survival in the contemporary world. A writer living in New York City, Laura is overwhelmed by a mysterious lethargy and retreats to her bed where she reflects on the loves and losses of her recent past and seeks the cure to her perplexing tiredness. Fortified by the Eastern teachings of her Tai Chi instructor and the nurturing attentions of friends and a acupuncturist, Laura crawls out of her somnambulism with intelligent determination in search of peace and resurrection. The Fatigue Artist is both a moving chronicle of a woman's search for meaning and a wry depiction of modern urban life.
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Laura says, "I almost hear the bed whispering to me to come, the way you might feel a lover longing for you miles away, and I come readily, falling onto the waiting mattress, firm but yielding as an accomplished lover, the strong coils beneath the stuffing like reliable bones beneath the flesh." From what does Laura seek comfort and relief? What does the bed represent to her? How does Schwartz develop the bed as a metaphor?
It has been two years since Laura's husband, Ev, was killed. Laura says, "The pain I felt and feel without him is the pain amputees feel in a lost limb, phantom pain." How does Laura express her grief at Ev's death? Does his death have anything to do with her fatigue? If so, what? Why did it take two years for the grief to surface? What is Schwartz saying about time and death and grief and their impact on a person's life?
Laura's on-again off-again relationship with her lover, Q., is a central theme in The Fatigue Artist. In the beginning Laura says, "Q. threads through my life like an unusual color in a tapestry or a swatch in a cape of many colors." How would you describe the character of Q.? Why might Laura be so attracted to him? In what ways does their relationship work? In what ways does it not? Does Q. play a part in her illness?
Near the end of the book, Laura says, "My frail efforts to keep things -- Q.-- at a distance collapsed....Could I call 'love' the sulky feeling I kept for him, locked in a dreary chamber in the vicinity of my heart like a chained attack dog drugged by time and disillusion, rendered harmless, dormant?" How is the chained and drugged dog used as a metaphor? How does it express her feelings for Q.? Does this quote reveal a source of her fatigue?
Laura consults a modern day medicine woman whom she calls "The Witch," who says of Laura's condition, "Yes, the virus that dares not speak its name."What do you think is wrong with Laura? What might be going on with her psychologically? Can you empathize with her? How does our culture handle Laura's type of illness?
From her apartment window, Laura watches daily Tai Chi classes in the park and finally joins the class. The teachings of the Chinese instructor are then woven into the novel. How are they significant to the story? In what ways does Laura employ the teachings? In each class, the students do an exercise called "push hands," in which they yield to each other's movements. Why is this exercise relevant to the novel? Is there power in yielding? How can you use this philosophy in your own life? Which of the other teachings are meaningful to you?
The theme of balance runs through the book, first in the Tai Chi exercises, then in the acupuncture treatments, and later as Laura watches children learning to ride bikes. In what ways does balance relate to Laura's life? How is she thrown off balance by Ev's death? By Q.'s departure? How does she reestablish balance? What might Schwartz be saying about the importance of balance in today's world?
In explaining her relationship with Ev, Laura says "My life was attached to his, and young as I was, I knew it is essential to love your life or else change it. I couldn't or didn't wish to change it so I willed myself to love it." Is it possible to will yourself to love something or someone? Does Laura, in fact, come to love her life with Ev? Do you think their relationship was a successful one? What do you think makes a good marriage?
First a rat, then a squirrel nest on Laura's windowsill. She routinely puts on her gloves and clears away the nests hoping to discourage the resident. Gradually she comes to accept the squirrel's presence and even feels protective of it. What does the squirrel represent to Laura? How does her changing relationship to the squirrel reflect her inner transformation? What changes occur within her that allow her to accept the squirrel? Are the changes reflected in her attitude toward herself? Toward Q. and her other friends and relatives? If so, how?
Laura's friend, Grace, is a performance artist. As she explains, "What I do is more a cross between theater and visual arts....We might just take a piece of ordinary life out of context and exaggerate it....It's a metaphor for a real condition."What does Grace mean by this? How does the title The Fatigue Artist relate to performance art? In what way or ways is Laura's illness a performance? While having dinner with her friend Mona, and Mona's mother, Laura conceives of conversation as a form of performance art. What does she mean by this? Are there ways in which you make use of performance art in your daily life?
As Laura feels better, she begins to write more. In reflecting upon this, she says, "Do I bless the fact of Q. or curse it? A capricious muse, he'd given me another book." Thus, Laura turns her misfortune into something positive. What is Schwartz saying about life's course and the part we play in it? About turning something unfortunate into something good? What view of human nature does Schwartz espouse? Does The Fatigue Artist leave you with any sort of message, any vision for humankind? Recommended Readings The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler Berkley Publishers, 1986 A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf Harcourt Brace, 1989 Folly, Susan Minot Pocket Books, 1994 Independence Day, Richard Ford Knopf, 1995 My Life as a Man, Philip Roth Random House, 1994 Nights, Edna O'Brien Farrar, Straus R Giroux, 1987 Perfect Health: The Complete Mind-Body Guide, Deepak Chopra Crown Publishers, 1991 Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher Pocket Books, 1990 Salt Dancers, Ursula Hegi Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995 Tai Chi: For Stress Control and Relaxation, Gary Khor Heian International, 1994 The Tunnel, William H. Gass Knopf, 1995 Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan Pocket Books, 1994