This reading group guide for Such Good Work includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Johannes Lichtman. 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.Introduction
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Jonas Anderson wants a fresh start.
He’s made plenty of bad decisions in his life, and at age twenty-eight he’s been fired from yet another teaching position after assigning homework like Visit a stranger’s funeral and write about it
. But he’s sure a move to Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth, will be just the thing to kick-start a new and improved—and newly sober—Jonas.
When he arrives in Malmö in 2015, the city is struggling with the influx of tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. Driven by an existential need to “do good,” Jonas begins volunteering with an organization that teaches Swedish to young immigrants. The connections he makes there, with one student in particular, might send him down the right path toward fulfillment—if he could just get out of his own way.Such Good Work
is a darkly comic novel, brought to life with funny, wry observations and searing questions about our modern world, told with equal measures of grace and wit.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Such Good Work
plays with the idea of things or behaviors that are good for you, or things that are good for others. Do you think those things are subjective? Or is there a list of “good” things that every person should be working toward?
2. Addiction is a prominent theme in Such Good Work
, both explicitly and implicitly. Aside from Jonas’s drug use, what are some other addictions, vices, or compulsions that you notice throughout the novel, on levels big and small?
3. Sweden is a country that is underexplored and underexposed in fiction as a setting. What did you know about Sweden when you came to Such Good Work
, and what did you learn about it as you read? What was it like reading about an American living abroad?
4. There are a few women in Jonas’s life—Anja, Alexandra, Katja, Stella. How are these relationships similar and different to one another, and what role do they play for him and for the larger story?
5. Jonas isn’t necessarily an unlikeable character, but he is absolutely—and self-admittedly—flawed. Does that make him more accessible? More human? What did you like about Jonas as a protagonist and narrator?
6. At different points in the novel, Jonas questions whether addiction benefits creativity, citing Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and other writers who have battled demons in the midst of producing great work. Do you think there’s validity to the theory that genius stems from dysfunction?
7. When Jonas is teaching in the US, one of his students is writing a paper on race relations, and throughout his time in Sweden, the people around him compare the responses both countries have to refugees, race, and the political implications of both. How are they similar and different? What does Jonas learn and how does he engage with each?
8. Jonas engages with some dark themes and topics throughout the novel, but there are also some moments of lightness and humor. What were some of your favorites? Do you think that incorporating them made for a better reading experience?
9. As he spends more time in Sweden, how does Jonas’s view of the world and the ways his new and old home countries respond to crises change and evolve?
10. In the opening pages of Such Good Work
, Jonas says, “When I used to get high, places were interchangeable. Everywhere was the best place ever—and then the worst. But now place mattered very much.” What role does place play in this novel, in Jonas’s life, and in your life?
11. Two characters who we hear a lot about but rarely see are Stella and Zach, Jonas’s friends from home, but they are still really important to him. What role do they play in Jonas’s life, and what do they represent in the larger story?
12. Throughout Such Good Work
, Jonas thinks about the ways in which people—including himself—perform outrage at certain injustices but then do little to actually prevent them from happening again. Have you noticed a similar phenomenon in our world and daily lives? In the novel, Jonas “mentally rewrote each of these memories into scenes in which I’d done something”? Have you ever done this?
13. What is a world or media event that has impacted you in the same way that Jonas is impacted by reading about Alan Kurdi and other refugees in crisis? In many ways, Jonas becomes much more affected by these issues when he meets Aziz and the other boys. Do you think that we need a personal connection and human face to truly feel motivated to act and pitch in?
14. Toward the end of the novel, Jonas says he wants to correct the world. There is also another scene in which a person is criticized for doing more harm than good for dropping everything and going to volunteer with the Red Cross. After seeing the complexities of “such good work” in the novel, do you think that it’s possible for one person—or a group of people—to solve the world’s problems?
15. Thinking about the title of the novel, the story, the characters, and the themes, what does it mean to do “such good work” or be a good person? Has your definition or perspective changed as you’ve read and discussed Lichtman’s novel? Do we do “such good work” for others, or for ourselves?Enhance Your Book Club
1. As a group, choose a cause you all believe in and find organizations that support the cause. Discuss how your group can fundraise for the cause in your community.
2. Find a recipe for Swedish meatballs or other Swedish foods and serve them at your next book club meeting!A Conversation with Johannes LichtmanOkay, so, first question. What initially inspired you to write Such Good Work?
Well, I started writing what eventually became the first chapter of Such Good Work
as a short story called “You Really Have to Stop the Killing” in 2013. The short story I wrote was very different from what ended up being the first chapter. There was a teacher who was trying to hold it together and there were facts about animals that lived a really long time, and that was about it.
But there was something about the narrator, about the voice, that I liked, so I worked on that story for maybe two years. I also wrote two other short stories from the narrator’s perspective, so by the time I published “You Really Have to Stop the Killing,” I had a good chunk of material from this narrator’s perspective.
I thought about doing a collection of linked stories, but eventually I decided to try to write between the stories and build it as a novel instead, partly because there’s something really freeing about writing a work in which the chapters don’t have to be able to stand on their own and can just function as parts of the whole (in short story collections, each story, of course, has to work on its own). There were a bunch of other reasons that I chose to swerve into writing it as a novel, too, and now I’m realizing, about two minutes into my answer, that I’m answering the question “How did you write the novel?” rather than the question you asked, which was: “Why did you write the novel?” I think the how
is easier to explain. It took me about three hundred pages to answer the why
when I was writing the book, so who knows how long it would’ve taken me to answer it here.On the surface, it seems like you and Jonas have a couple of things in common. Your names are similar, you both have familial ties to Sweden, hold dual citizenship, have lived in California, and you’ve both been teachers. That leads us to wonder: How much of the novel is autobiographical, or taken from life?
How dare you ask me that?
Just kidding. This is, understandably, a question that comes up a lot. Which I get. When I read books by Jenny Offill or Ben Lerner or Rachel Cusk or whoever, I wonder how much is autobiographical. I don’t think it affects my understanding or experience of the texts much—but I’m still curious.
The short answer is that some of my novel is autobiographical but definitely not all of it. I could never have published this as a memoir—not even close. I was actually asked by friends and some publishing people if I had considered making it a memoir instead, since I guess readers just assumed it was pretty much an autobiography. But there was way too much made up, and the stuff that is taken from my life is so exaggerated, condensed, combined, or altered that even the autobiographical portions couldn’t be published as nonfiction.
That said, by giving the character a similar name as me and giving us similar biographies—not trying to make him a fifty-something Danish history teacher or whatever—it was a nod to the reader to sort of say, “Yes, this is based on my life. It’s also a novel. Do with that what you will.”
I am, at least at this point in my life, not terribly interested in making up new worlds, wholly imagined characters, complicated fictional family trees, etc. I often like reading books that do these things well—it’s just not something that I want to do in my own writing right now. I’m more interested in taking places and situations that I’m familiar with and exploring what would have happened if something were different—if the conversation had taken a different turn, if a different person had shown up, if a different decision (usually a worse decision) had been made.
Both Jonas and I are Swedish-American (though I was born in Sweden and he was born in the States) and both of us went to grad school in North Carolina and Sweden and are writers who teach or have taught. So there’s definitely a lot of me in there. But, to take just one little example, I’ve never been fired from a job. I taught, part-time, for the same university in North Carolina, for almost ten years. Jonas and I have a bunch of the same biography and share some headspace; but I think I tend to make better decisions than he does. He also has longer hair.Often in novels about addiction, there is a plot point incorporated to “explain” why the lead character struggles with their particular vice, but in Jonas’s case it just seems to be a fact of his life. We have an idea of why he uses, but there’s no singular traumatic event, really, that leads him down that path. Was that a specific choice, to focus a novel on a character whose problems can’t necessarily be traced back to one defining thing?
What a great question. Of course, I always think it’s a great question when someone notices something I’ve done that I think is important and puts it in the form of a question (“How did you come to write such a remarkable book?”). But all the same, this is a decision that I spent a lot of time thinking about and one that matters greatly to me, so I’m glad you brought it up.
There’s often a lot of narrative psychology at work when we talk about addiction—both from addicts and from people trying to understand addicts—and while I get why that is, I also find it a little aggravating. I really wanted to go in the opposite direction. Sure, people often start using a substance at least partly because of pain, trauma, or a lack of ability to cope with whatever they’re trying to cope with. But eventually most addicts get to a point where they are using drugs solely because they’re addicted to drugs. Their bodies have started needing the substance the way it needs food or water. There’s very little narrative about it anymore—it’s biological. And while it’s easier and sexier to go with the tragic past narrative—certainly much easier for addicts, who often tell themselves they have a tragic past, whether or not that’s true—I think that’s a very incomplete way of talking about it.
With Jonas, there are of course personal reasons that make drugs tempting to him. But I wanted to get away from the “this event caused my addiction” narrative.Such Good Work is set in the very recent present and features ripped-from-the-headlines names and events instead of recognizable fictionalizations—which ultimately makes the novel seem that much more real and urgent, and also brings the story of this Swedish city back into the larger world. How did you choose which real-life moments and people to bring in, and the parts of the novel in which you would do so?
I really like that you called it “ripped from the headlines.” It sounds so dramatic and Law & Order
–y. I think I’ve watched like two hundred episodes of Law & Order
—original, not SVU. There’s something wonderfully comforting in a script that knows where it’s going and knows how to get there.
But back to your question. The one event that I had to bring in if I was going to write about the refugee surge was the picture of Alan Kurdi. I wasn’t living in the US at the time, so I only saw the American reaction via social media, but in Sweden, it was devastating. And it was everywhere. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that photograph set in a motion a singular autumn in modern European history.
The reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi also exposed the best and worst sides of Western charitable impulses. The intense desire to do something but also the intensely temporary and conditional nature of that desire. Lidia Yuknavitch writes about this in really interesting fashion in The Small Backs of Children
(or, not “this,” since I believe she wrote her book before the photograph, but about the phenomenon more generally).
The Paris terrorist attack also kind of had to be there, because that marked a turning point in the attitudes of centrists in Western Europe, many of whom had been unusually pro–open borders up until that point.Such Good Work is a book about a lot of things, but one theme that continues to pop up, however implicitly or explicitly, is writing and storytelling—more specifically, who has the right to tell a story. Was that inner conflict Jonas feels over whether he can properly convey a story about other people something you experienced while writing?
Yes! It’s something I still feel intensely conflicted about! But I don’t think it’s something I can really explain better here than I tried to do in the book.Adding to the question above: How much research did you do about the refugee crises around the world for the novel, and how much did you already know? Was there something that surprised or shocked you that you ended up including?
In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of it as research—I just kind of got wrapped up on a personal level. Like Jonas, I volunteered to help out a little, and though our experiences were different on that front, I also spent a lot of time thinking about and reading about the situation. (In ways that I suspect were not particularly helpful to anyone but myself.)
When you start reading about it and talking to people, the whole thing is shocking. Maybe not to refugees, the children of refugees, or people who grew up close to refugees. But I was born in Sweden and grew up in the US, which means I possess passports to two of the richest countries in the world, and if one of them were to find itself in a dangerous conflict on its soil, I could just go to the other. So I was lucky enough to be born about as far from being a refugee as possible. This was one of the many reasons that I never wanted to try to write from the perspective of a refugee. I am not arrogant enough to believe that my imagination is that powerful.
I think the parts of the refugee stories that stuck with me most—and I am a little frightened to think what this says about me—were the parts that I had at least some modicum of frame of reference from which to consider. So, for example, I don’t have that type of frame of reference from which to consider murder, rape, and torture. For which I’m very thankful. When I read about those types of horrific experiences, they made me very sad. And then they disappeared from my consciousness. Again, that’s a little frightening to notice.
But the thing that never disappeared from my consciousness was the thought of all the waiting the asylum seeker must do. I obviously don’t know what it’s like to wait to be granted asylum or to be released from a refugee camp. I do know what it’s like to wait, generally, though, and that shared experience, however different and comparatively luxurious my waiting has been, made the things I read and heard about the experiences of waiting stick with me.
The average time for a refugee spent in migration before returning to their home country is seventeen years. That part was shocking to me. And trying to imagine what it was like to be stuck in a place and not know how long the wait was going to be—obviously you don’t arrive in a refugee camp and get a ticket that says “In two years you will be allowed to move to Germany.” That’s now how it works. You’re often waiting with no idea how long the wait will be and no one who can tell you. So the length of waiting and the level of uncertainty stayed with me.
You often don’t get to go to school in a refugee camp. Even young people I met who had grown up outside of their home country in various states of limbo outside of refugee camps often had limited access to school. So getting acquainted with teenagers who had never gotten to go to school—that was . . . I don’t know if “shocking” is the right word. But it stayed with me.
For that reason, I try to support organizations that provide opportunities for school for young refugees during transitional times, since, for many young people, their whole adolescence can be a transitional time.
Save the Children is aiming to provide educational opportunities for young refugees—there’s information about that in the back pages of this book.
On a grassroots level, the Maya School is a wonderful project—a small school for children living in a Turkish refugee camp. You can learn more about that here: http://centerforfiction.org/donate-to-the-maya-school/Jonas also refers to a bunch of different writers and books throughout the novel. Are those writers some of your favorites? Which books or authors have influenced you as a reader and as a writer?
No, I hate all those writers. I read exclusively Dutch erotica.
I mean, yeah, many of the books I mentioned are ones that were at least important to me at some point in my life. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son
in particular is a book that’s had a profound influence on me (not always good—though it’s a remarkable work).
As for which books or authors have influenced me—how much time do you have?
In no particular order: Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill, pretty much all of Milan Kundera, Ben Lerner’s novels, Sarah Manguso’s essays, James Baldwin’s essays, Janet Malcolm (who I think is America’s greatest living nonfiction writer), Stig Dagerman, Kurt Vonnegut, Orwell’s nonfiction, Geoff Dyer (particularly Out of Sheer Rage
and the essays), Rachel Cusk (particularly the Outline triology), Omar El Akkad (journalism and fiction but also this great talk I saw him give on migration).
Laila Lalami, Karl Ove Knausgård, Zadie Smith, The Corpse Exhibition
by Hassan Blasim, Aleksandar Hemon, Percival Everett, W. G. Sebald (especially The Emigrants
and On the Natural History of Destruction
), Where I’m Reading From
by Tim Parks, Teju Cole, The Wallcreeper
by Nell Zink, Ablutions
by Patrick deWitt, Tell Me How It Ends
by Valeria Luiselli, Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan, Karate Chop
by Dorthe Nors.
The essays of Leslie Jamison, essays of Eula Biss, essays of Natalia Ginzburg, Journal of an Ordinary Grief
by Mahmoud Darwish, Regarding the Pain of Others
by Susan Sontag, Little Labors
by Rivka Galchen, HHhH
by Laurent Binet, Elif Batuman, J. M. Coetzee, Season of Migration to the North
by Tayeb Salih, Faulkner, Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and, for this book in particular, a Swedish work called Andrum
by Viktor Banke. Lots of other people, too.
The writer who first inspired me to write was David Sedaris. I had loved other writers before him, but I had never read a book and thought, “I could do this.” Then when I was eighteen I had a composition class with a great teacher named Courtney Brogno who introduced me to David Sedaris, and I thought to myself, “This guy is just writing funny stories about his family—I could do that!” Of course I was both wrong and stupid (conditions I have struggled with for much of my life). The great thing about David Sedaris is that he creates the illusion that what he’s doing is easy. But it was enough to lure me in.There are, of course, some dark themes and topics that you cover in this novel. Yet Jonas tells them with a surprising edge of subtle humor. How did you know when to incorporate that without making it seem like you were joking about such serious issues?
I have always liked reading things that are both sad and funny. I like texture in a book. Whenever you have too much of something—whether it’s suffering or laughs—I feel like the reader becomes numb to that. Balancing both brings out the flavor in each. In my experience, people often respond to pain with humor. I do think that a natural reaction to tragedy is to laugh. Your own tragedy, that is—it’s probably not too good to laugh at others’ tragedies.
Which brings up a kind of difficult point: I felt much more comfortable mixing the funny with the dark in the sections that were almost solely about Jonas’s life than I did in the sections about the young men coming to Sweden. But hopefully I found a good balance in both. I don’t know, though. It’s tricky.This is a question featured in the Topics & Questions for Discussion, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it as well: Do you think we do “such good work” for others, or primarily for ourselves? Did you have the same answer before writing this book?
That is a very difficult question, which may be impossible to answer in such a general way. The answer is almost always: It depends. Often a bit of both. It’s complicated, I guess.
Hopefully the reading groups handle it better than I did.Such Good Work is your first novel. What did you learn from writing it about yourself, or about the kind of work you want to do in the future? Are you working on anything else?Such Good Work
is, in fact, my first published novel. It’s not the first novel I wrote, though—it’s the fifth. The first four will be published only upon my death, as my final revenge on humanity for not saving my life.
As for what I learned from writing it, the answer to that is pretty long and boring. But it was a great experience and I’m happy with how it turned out. Or at least as happy as I can be with anything that’s shipped into the world with my name on it.
As for what I’m working on now, I’m just finishing up a nonfiction book about the great enigma of twentieth-century Swedish literature, Stig Dagerman, and about the ethics of literature. Who gets to tell what story? How does the writer use their life to build their fiction and what are the consequences? I was over in Sweden this past fall doing research and I’ve been really enjoying the project. I think it’s funny and sad and deals with issues that I’m fascinated by—but who knows.
I am about to start work on another novel, which I can see in my head, vaguely, like a picture of the future that isn’t in focus but is happy. But I will say no more than that, as I firmly believe that the literary gods punish writers who discuss unwritten works.