This reading group guide for The Beautiful Miscellaneous includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Dominic Smith. 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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At seventeen, Nathan Nelson is the mildly gifted son of a genius. His father, Dr. Samuel Nelson, is a particle physicist whose three passions in life are quarks, jazz, and uncovering Nathan's prodigious talents. Consequently, Nathan has spent his formative years in whiz-kid summer camps, taking trips to particle accelerators, and plotting simultaneous equations to the off-kilter riffs of Thelonious Monk. An only child, Nathan is painfully aware that he "swims like a tadpole in the deepest place of the bell curve" and slouches through puberty looking for an escape from his parents' lofty dream.
Everything changes when Nathan is involved in a terrible accident. After a brief clinical death and a two-week coma, he awakens to find that his perceptions of sight, sound, and memory have been irrevocably changed. The doctors and his parents fear permanent brain damage, but the truth of his condition is much more unexpected and leads to a renewed chance for Nathan to find his place in the world.
Nathan’s father arranges for him to attend the Brook-Mills Institute—a Midwestern research center where savants, prodigies, and neurological misfits are studied and their "talents" applied. Immersed in this strange atmosphere—where an autistic boy can tell you what day Christmas falls on in 3026 but can't tie his shoelaces, where a medical intuitive can diagnose cancer during a long-distance phone call with a patient—Nathan begins to unravel the mysteries of his new mind and tries to make peace with the crushing weight of his father's expectations. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Nathan’s parents seem to live apart from both outsiders and each other. Discuss Nathan’s relationship to his parents. How are they connected to and disconnected from one another? Why do you think they keep a distance between themselves and people outside the family?
2. After the accident Nathan’s father says, “This was not supposed to happen.” (p. 65) What role does fate play in this novel? Was the accident “supposed” to happen?
3. Nathan’s father says that Nathan’s grandfather “thinks God’s an old guy with a beard and an ulcer and a scoreboard.” (p. 71) Nathan’s father believes in a “unified field.” (p. 70). What are Nathan’s beliefs about God? Do his convictions change through the course of the book? How?
4. Synesthesia, Nathan’s condition, is described as a blending of the senses. How does the author use sensory details in his writing to convey this condition?
5. Mozart, perhaps the most famous historical child prodigy, is mentioned early in the book as part of an experiment on rats. (p. 44) Identify and discuss the skills of the other prodigies at the Brooks-Mills Institute. Who is the most talented? Who is the most driven to use his or her talents? Why?
6. Toby asks Nathan what he is “in for,” (p. 112) referring to the Brooks-Mills Institute as if it was a jail. Is the Institute a kind of prison? If so, for which students? What benefits do they get from being at the Institute?
7. Nathan refers to silence as the “sound of not remembering.” (p. 131) What does he mean by this? Soon after, Dr. Gillman says, “Forgetting is when things slip [out]. Not remembering is when you filter things out.” (p. 132) Do you think he is right? Why or why not?
8. Dr. Gillman says to Nathan that knowledge is pointless unless you do something with it. Nathan asks in return, “Why does information have to be useful? Does music need to be useful?” (p. 133) Discuss their arguments. Who do you agree with?
9. Generally, Whit is interested in the world on a planetary scale while Nathan’s father focuses on particle and subatomic science. Where do Nathan’s interests fall in the scope of the universe?
10. Collision, whether it be particles, cars, or people arguing, plays a large role in the book. Which of the many sudden impacts, either physical or emotional, are the most important in the novel?
11. Toward the end of the story the author includes letters from Nathan to his father. Why? What do these letters reveal about Nathan that the author might not have been able to convey in another style of writing? How do these letters connect, compare, and contrast to Nathan’s father letter to God?
12. At many times in the book Nathan is clearly the central character. His father, however, casts a long shadow over Nathan’s life and the course of the novel. Who is the most powerful driving force of the action in the book?
13. What is the significance of Nathan’s father’s watch? What role does time play in the story?
14. Clyde Kaplansky says, “Memory can be the way back or the way forward.” What does he mean by this? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?
15. What does Nathan learn after seeing Darius/Taro?
16. What is the meaning of the title The Beautiful Miscellaneous?
Discuss the arc of the storyline. What is the central conflict? What is the rising action? What is the climax? Does it have one? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Stanford Linear Accelerator is one of the world's leading research laboratories. Established in 1962 at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, whose mission is to design, construct and operate state-of-the-art electron accelerators and related experimental facilities for use in high-energy physics and synchrotron radiation research. Learn more about the center at: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/
2. The Davidson Institute at the University of Nevada (http://www.ditd.org/) is an example of a nonprofit school for America’s gifted children. To learn more about how education for the gifted functions on a state by state basis visit: http://www.gt-cybersource.org/StatePolicy.aspx?NavID=4_0
3. Each year the USA Memory Championships are held. To learn more about the event or how to participate visit: http://usamemorychampionship.com/ A Conversation with Dominic Smith 1. What was your inspiration for writing a book about a prodigy? Do you know any prodigies? Do you have any extraordinary talents yourself?
The book came to me in pieces. A friend told me a story about her college roommate whose father had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The daughter of this man was a complete mess and could barely function in life. It was as if she felt there was no point in trying to excel at anything. That got me thinking about growing up in the shadow of genius. Later, I heard a story about a ten-year-old boy who developed a prodigious memory after being hit in the head with a baseball. He became an “accidental prodigy.” The novel in some ways fuses these two ideas. I wondered what would happen if the ordinary offspring of a genius was, somehow, given a second chance.
In the course of researching this book I spoke to a number of prodigies—people with encyclopedic memories or rare musical talents or gifts for dozens of languages. They spoke of the triumphs and struggles of having a profound gift in one area.
I can’t say that I have any extraordinary gifts. Before the age of twelve I experienced a number of serious accidents—a near-drowning, a knife in my eye, a house fire starting beneath my bedroom—so I consider making it to my thirties to be a paranormal feat. 2. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. Do you identify with any of your characters?
I agree that we subconsciously filter our personalities into the characters we create. I think I identify with many of the characters in the novel—with Samuel’s desire to drift and live in his head, with the way Cynthia romanticizes the past, with Nathan’s search for identity, and even with Whit’s well-intentioned but sometimes corny cheerfulness. 3. Why did you set the book in the time period and place that you did?
I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, so it seemed natural to tell this coming-of-age story from within those decades. Also, there was a certain amount of quantum physics that needed to be in place for the story to make sense. As for the Midwest, I went to college in Michigan and Iowa and this is a landscape I’m compelled by. 4. What research did you have to do on memory, particle science, and astronauts to write this novel?
There was a lot of research that went into this book, particularly on particle physics and memory. I benefited a great deal from the classic memory study The Mind of a Mnemonist
by A. R. Luria, and also from the work of Dr. Darold Treffert, who is a leading authority on savant syndrome and consulted on the film Rain Man
. I needed to understand what kinds of brain injuries can result in a prodigious memory and how that memory might function. I also soaked in a lot of particle physics by reading people like Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking, and by thinking about the implications of unified field theory. The dilemma was always how to make the science dramatically interesting. I lucked out on astronauts—a friend of mine is the son of a former U.S. Air Force general and he told me stories about having an early astronaut over to the house for dinner. I went and read a few books on the space programs of the ‘70s for the rest. 5. At the end of the book Nathan uses his talents to become an actor. As a writer, what role do you think artists play in society?
I like to think artists play a very active role in society. Good art raises important questions about our place in the world. It lifts us out of our workaday lives and makes us consider new ideas. Although artists pursue their own “selfish” creative agendas, we sometimes benefit from their labors. If they can give us something important and universal, then they have given us a great gift. 6. Does memory play a particularly special role in your own life? What is your fondest memory?
I have always been attracted to memory and its limits. When my mother was in her late thirties she had a stroke and lost a significant part of her short-term memory. I was about eleven at the time. It had never occurred to me that memory could be lost. The fleetingness of memory and the nature of nostalgia are things that I’m interested in as a writer.
My fondest memories are from my childhood in Australia. I’m not sure there is one that stands out above all others. Until I was nine we lived in the Blue Mountains, outside of Sydney. Our house was surrounded by acres of bush and I spent my afternoons building forts and chasing after lizards and frogs. Later, we moved to Sydney and I discovered the ocean for the first time. Summers were spent on Bondi Beach. The air smelled of melting gelato and coconut tanning oil. 7. Nathan’s father is a big jazz fan; are you as well? If so, what is your favorite album?
I was late to discover jazz but I find myself listening to it more and more. My favorite album is probably the Dave Brubeck classic Time Out
. 8. The subject matter of the book is refreshingly original. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy to read? What books influenced you to become a writer?
I really admire the writing of James Salter, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, J. D. Salinger, Joy Williams, and Denis Johnson, to name a few (or seven). I find myself coming back to their work again and again. I also love to read Woolf, Dickens, and Nabokov. Reading DeLillo’s White Noise
and Salinger’s Nine Stories
really opened up my idea of writing. I was in awe of James Salter’s language in Light Years
I don’t know that I am capable of comparing my writing style to other writers. I would be flattered if I’d picked up anything from the names mentioned above. But I think the “anxiety of influence” works in a very subconscious way. In some ways we bring everything we’ve read to the table when we write. Somehow certain traits from our reading life make it onto the page and not others. 9. How was writing your second novel a different experience from writing your first? What was harder about the process? What was easier?
They were both difficult to write. I felt a little bit more like I knew what I was doing with the second novel. I managed the research more efficiently and knew when to dive into the writing. But I found it harder to grasp the characters and the storyline. It fell into place slowly. Moving from one novel to the next can feel like you’re setting out with no experience under your belt. It’s a whole new roadmap. 10. Do you have plans for your next book?
I am working on a third novel but at the moment it’s a string of muddled ideas floating around in my head. I’ll do us both a favor by not trying to describe it coherently.