This reading group guide for War of the Encyclopaedists includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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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As US forces in Iraq grapple with a growing insurgency through the summer of 2004, Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk are stateside and dreaming of master’s degrees. The twentysomethings of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district know the two friends as the Encyclopaedists, an art collective formed largely as an excuse to throw outrageously themed parties that will get its cofounders laid. But after Montauk, a lieutenant in the National Guard, is called up and stationed at a security checkpoint in Baghdad, Corderoy must travel east alone to wage his own battle—as an intellectual skeptic dropped into the unfamiliar culture of Boston University’s graduate program. As both begin to find their expectations for adulthood challenged by circumstance, their experiences remain linked by relationships with two women: Mani, a rootless painter dodging the high expectations of her Iranian-born parents, and Tricia, a whip-smart humanitarian trying to find a place for herself in the shifting terrain of global politics. By jointly revising the Encyclopaedists’ Wikipedia page, Corderoy and Montauk manage to hold on to shadows of the past, but the shared platform ultimately helps them to forge new identities in the tumult of the ever-changing present. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Over the course of War of the Encyclopaedists,
Montauk and Corderoy’s revisions to their Wikipedia page remain a constant. How does the evolving online entry come to influence the way each friend thinks of the other as time passes? In what ways might their editorial process echo Mani’s feeling that “if she had kept a journal, she would have written that . . . she was slowly rewriting the associations this place held for her, replacing that awful night with something newer, something better” (page 55)?
2. Early in the novel, before his deployment, Montauk avoids confronting his responsibilities to Mani and his parents by thinking about Odysseus’s trials in The Odyssey,
“the irony [being] that in choosing to avoid the difficult thought chains, Montauk inevitably fell into their metaphorical counterparts, which left him depressed and not knowing why” (page 19). How else do characters in the novel elude their problems by escaping into fiction?
3. Montauk vacillates between thinking of his service to his country as “a classic rite of passage that most of his coddled generation was denied” (page 23) and dreading “whether the choices that had gotten him here had been subconscious attempts at the sort of hipster irony he’d claimed to be done with” (page 210). How common or rare do Robinson and Kovite make Montauk’s self-consciousness seem among young men in the military?
4. In response to Corderoy’s suspicion of the purpose of his degree, Professor Flannigan points out that he is “training to be an academic. This degree doesn’t lead anywhere else. If you want to survive in this career, you need to learn the language upon which the grand discussion is based” (page 134). How does the novel’s depiction of graduate school both challenge and celebrate the role of higher education in American society? Does Corderoy come to a definitive conclusion about his place in the world of academia?
5. Tricia and Corderoy share a critical view of the “crisis patriotism” that followed the September 11 attacks, but when Tricia thinks of a college friend she spent that morning with in uptown Manhattan, she texts her “Never forget
” (page 99). In chapter 12 of the novel, what kind of portrait do the authors paint of 9/11 and “Where were you when . . .” exercises in national solidarity?
6. When Montauk first arrives in Baghdad, he finds that the Cavalry has installed the American and Texan flags in Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace (page 149). Then he discovers that the Iraqis had tiled a floor with President George H. W. Bush’s face, but “nobody had bothered changing the flooring because the insult of walking on your enemy’s face was lost in translation” (page 159). Discuss the symbolic value of flags, statues, and other representations of leaders. What role do such symbols play in the actual dismantling of a government or system of beliefs?
7. Montauk sympathizes with Corderoy’s “frustration and bafflement that life was subject to the dictates of chance,” but finds his friend’s framing of the idea too “intellectual, metaphysical . . . It could live only inside a library. It would fall apart as soon as some junky BMW raced toward the barricades with who knew what in its trunk, his men forced to shoot the dirt, then the tires, then, if the car kept coming, the driver” (pages 200–201). Do you agree that intellectualization is incompatible with the reality of war? How does Montauk grapple with the same “frustration and bafflement” as Corderoy in the novel?
8. Aladdin’s death prompts Montauk to offer money for information on the translator’s killer, but the citizens who come forward feed him only misinformation. What does Olaf mean when he responds to this series of events by saying “It’s Iraq” (page 205)? What does the content of the interviews on pages 186–99 reveal about everyday life for Iraqis in Baghdad?
9. Robinson and Kovite make the stylistic decision to juxtapose Urritia’s encounter with a suicide bomber against Ant’s story about his date with a paraplegic. How does Ant’s story serve to increase the tension of the imminent suicide bombing? How does the girl’s disability echo the specific dangers of serving in Iraq?
10. Compare the differences between Corderoy and Montauk’s experiences of going home for the holidays in the section titled “Festivus.” How might their unique upbringings have influenced the decisions each has made as an adult?
11. When Mani first paints Hal in order to work through “that unresolved cluster of resentment and curiosity and anger and lingering love” for him, she finds the experience deeply cathartic (page 272). Only later does she decide that “she had been so reactive, it had made her art reactive, [and] perhaps she was ready now to make art not in relation to anyone, art that was causal, not caused” (page 425). Discuss these conceptions of art. What relationship do the artist’s personal feelings have with her inspiration? What do you think it means for visual art to be causal?
12. Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, a fact to some extent mirrored by Mani and Corderoy’s conversation about whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. What effect do the representations of the jumbled pamphlet Mani visualizes as she undergoes her abortion (on pages 380–83) have on the authors’ overall portrait of the procedure?
13. On page 402, Corderoy likens his recent experiences to those of Sir Ernest Shackleton navigating the Weddell Sea off Antarctica in 1914. Unlike Shackleton’s vessel, Endurance,
which ultimately sunk, Corderoy feels he has “found solid, unsinkable land, right where he’d left it, land at the end of the known world, a rocky inhospitable island leagues from civilization, but land, immovable, magnificent land.” How does Corderoy use nautical exploration as a metaphor for his life? Why might he identify with an expedition that ended in disaster?
14. When Mani and Corderoy visit Montauk in the hospital, the latter admits that while “it was good to see his friends, . . . it would be even better for them to leave now. He hated feeling that way, but hating the feeling didn’t make it go away” (pages 419–20). Why does Montauk want to put distance between himself and his friends? What change of heart might he have subsequently had to bring him to the last Encyclopaedists party? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Soldiers and civilians alike have unique and personal reactions to the fact of war, as Robinson and Kovite capture on page 423 when partygoers try to navigate Ant’s disfigurement. Have you ever been in a social situation where directly addressing the sacrifice of a service member felt uncomfortable? Discuss.
2. Try drafting a mock Wikipedia page with a friend or family member celebrating your relationship and share it with your book club. What common values does the exercise reveal you to have that might not otherwise have come up?
3. Turn your next book club meeting into an Encyclopaedists party with one of the themes from War of the Encyclopaedists
. How does the way you interpret the theme diverge from that shown through the costumes in the book, fictionally representative of the year 2004?