This reading group guide for Going to See the Elephant includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rodes Fishburne. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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INTRODUCTION Going to See the Elephant
tells the story of Slater Brown, a wide-eyed young journalist who arrives in the city of San Francisco with a trunk full of nineteenth century novels, a stack of blank yellow notebooks, and a dream “of writing something that would last forever” (11). In order to survive, Slater takes a job at the antiquated and struggling newspaper The Morning Trumpet
, but without a real story to report on, his chances of success seem slim. When a mysterious psychic gives him a portable radio that allows him to eavesdrop on all sorts of conversations while riding the city bus, Slater becomes the toast of the town, writing story after story for the newspaper that reveal San Francisco’s most cherished secrets.
But Slater’s newfound fame and blossoming relationship with the beautiful chess protégé Callio de Quincy are soon threatened by the gluttonous Mayor Oswell and his quest to squash the Trumpet
’s scoops and maintain his position of power. Meanwhile, the brilliant scientist Milo Magnet begins experimenting with the city’s weather patterns, resulting in bizarre meteorological happenings and storms unlike anything San Francisco has ever seen. As the clouds gather overhead, Slater is forced to learn how to become the man, the writer, and the hero that he didn’t know he could be.TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What are your initial impressions of Slater Brown? Why do you think the author chooses San Francisco as the place where he will seek his fortune?
2. What is it that motivates Slater in his journey to become a writer? Fame, immortality, or something else? How does Slater’s motivation develop and change as the story continues?
3. Initially, Slater talks constantly about “synchronistic coincidences,” but by the end of Book One, he has adopted the more proactive philosophy of “make happen.” How are Slater’s two ways of viewing his situation contradictory and how are they similar? How does he reconcile the two perspectives?
4. At the beginning of the novel, Slater sees a distinct disparity between literary and commercial writing: “For God’s sake, as so many of the dead masters have shown, you can’t shine and illuminate at the same time
,” he thinks to himself (12). What does Slater mean with this statement? Do you agree with him? Can you think of any authors who, in their writing, manage to both shine and illuminate at the same time?
5. What is the meaning of Milo Magnet’s meteorological experiments and his quest to control the weather? Why is creating weather systems the one project on which Milo chooses to focus his attention?
6. How do Milo’s scientific pursuits relate to Slater’s quest to be a writer? How are their pursuits and motivations similar, and how are they different? How does the city of San Francisco react to and perceive these two men?
7. Why is Slater drawn to Callio? What does he learn from her, and what does she learn from him? How does their relationship develop and change as the book goes on?
8. Callio divides chess players into two types: “the intuitive chess players, who use a library of learned moves plus a deeper instinct” and “the memorizers, who obsessively read about past games with the intention of remembering a string of moves that will outlast their opponents’ ability to produce a string of countermoves” (175–176). How does Callio’s description of the different types of chess players relate to her view of Slater and his “gift,” their relationship, and the manner in which they pursue their dreams throughout the novel?
9. The chess match between Callio and Milo’s computer, and Callio’s subsequent loss to the computer, is a major turning point in the novel. What is the significance of Callio’s loss and why does the match mean so much to the city of San Francisco?
10. Why does Slater ultimately decide to abandon the radio? Does abandoning the radio change his life for better or for worse? Do you think that Slater’s experience will be replicated by the next person who picks up the radio? What does the radio symbolize?
11. In Greek mythology, Calliope was the muse of poetry, and it was supposedly she who inspired Homer to write the Iliad
and the Odyssey
. Do you think that Callio serves as Slater’s muse, or is she more than that? Why is it significant that Calliope is the only muse missing from the sculptural façade of the Trumpet
building? Do you see any other parallels between the book and mythology?
12. The author defines “going to see the elephant” as a trip west to seek gold, a journey to far-off lands like India and Africa, and “a nearly forgotten expression . . . meant to identify those rare souls interested in making contact with the story of a lifetime.” By the end of the novel, do you think that Slater has found “the elephant”? Are there other characters who are also “going to see the elephant”? Who or what, if anything, is “the elephant” of the novel?ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Have you ever “gone to see the elephant”? Perhaps that means moving to a new city, accepting a new job, or simply taking a risk without knowing the outcome. Discuss how you made your decision and how the experience changed you.
2. San Francisco is such a prominent setting and plays a large role in the novel. If members of your book club have visited San Francisco, bring in pictures to share with the group or souvenirs from time spent there. Alternatively, cook a classic San Francisco dish like cioppino
, bake a loaf of sourdough bread, or make the delicious Italian dessert sacripantina.
3. If you are familiar with the Odyssey
, discuss the similarities and differences between Slater’s quest and that of Ulysses. Alternatively, discuss the connections between Going to See the Elephant
and your favorite coming-of-age novel; Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce, and The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger are a few examples.A CONVERSATION WITH RODES FISHBURNE Slater writes so eloquently about San Francisco that the city almost becomes another character in the book. Why did you choose to set the story there?
I think of San Francisco as a particularly sensuous, smart, sophisticated woman. I feel like every year she has a checklist, and if you haven’t held up your end of the bargain she boots you out and you get a great job offer to move to Topeka and be an emu farmer or something. I wrote this book to keep her from sending me to parts unknown.Slater is a writer and obviously you are a writer. Are any elements of the story autobiographical, or do the similarities end there?
No, I’m not Slater Brown. I actually saw the real-life inspiration for Slater Brown in a coffee shop on Polk Street in San Francisco in about 2005. He was writing furiously in a notebook, and he had about fourteen empty espresso cups around him. I could tell that he’d come to San Francisco to be a writer and that he had BIG plans for himself. That image crystallized in my head as the genesis for Slater Brown. Whoever it was, I hope he doesn’t come ask for royalties! Many points about Slater’s identity remain a mystery: the reader never learns about his family, where he came from, and what he was doing before he got to San Francisco. Why did you choose to write his character this way?
Because people who arrive in great cities get a second birth of sorts. Where they come from, who their parents know, and what schools their grandparents matriculated from are singularly unimportant. What’s important is to “neppah ekam”! (see page: 32)Going to See the Elephant fits into a number of genres: the coming-of-age novel, science fiction/ fantasy, fable, and satire, to name a few. Was this your intention and, if so, how did you manage to blend so many types of writing into a cohesive whole?
Well, San Francisco blends so many types of stories, cultures, myths, ethnicities, foods, languages, etc. I wanted to write a love letter to this city and the only way for me to do that was to tell a story that spilled outside the established lines. Slater compares himself to writers like T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. What authors and books were most influential to you in writing this novel and in your career?
All writers start as readers. I was influenced by so many writers; here are five at random: Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Peter Taylor, Jim Harrison, Harry Mulisch.So many of the characters in the novel are fascinating figures: the mad scientist, the gluttonous mayor, the brilliant and beautiful chess player. How did you prevent them from becoming caricatures?
Because I love them, I guess.From the beginning of the novel, when you say that Slater enters San Francisco “with the confidence of Achilles circling Troy,” to the end, when Niebald tells Slater that the ninth muse missing from the façade of the Trumpet building is named Calliope, there are many parallels between Going to See the Elephant and ancient Greek mythology. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of the story?
Well, the muses would have kicked my ass if I’d forgotten to include them. And I need the muses more than they need me.Is there a chance we will see Slater and Callio—or maybe even Milo Magnet—in future work?
I’ve told all of them to call collect. So far . . . crickets!