Stolen Salt Shakers

January 28, 2008

The copy of Apathy and other small victories by Paul Neilan that I found in the bathroom at work had the reader’s guide torn out of the back. Quite a disappointment. Especially given that our neighborhood book club was coming up and I had suggested the book and hadn’t even bothered to read it first. So I went ahead and wrote up some of my own questions based on a few quotes I pulled out of the book. Hopefully they will generate some productive discussion.

salt-shaker.jpg

Questions for Discussion

1. If apathy etymologically can be derived from the Greek απάθεια (apatheia) and describes an indifference for what one is not responsible for then how does the strong humiliation felt by the protagonist upon hearing ‘Shane, you’re doing an amazing job on your alphabetizing. (p. 104)’ from Andrew the team facilitator strike you? Shane is in fact responsible for alphabetizing forms at Panopticon insurance and when he does so, typically intoxicated, he is indifferent. However when he is unexpectedly praised does it not seem like another defeat? How is this experienced echoed in other situations in the book?

2. When Shane notes that ‘There are a fixed set of explanations that most people apply to situations, and if one of those easy explanations doesn’t fit they either push harder to make it fit or they ignore the whole g*****n thing and watch TV. (p. 147)’ is he in fact confessing, perhaps unconsciously, to one of his own shortcomings? Or does Shane, in fact embody a third way of pushing harder and trying to ignore the whole thing, such as it relates to Shane’s repulsed and yet sustained speculation about his neighbor Mobo’s sex life?

3. The power structures and compromises of the contemporary white-collar work place is a leitmotif throughout the book. Shane observes at one point ‘And what these people did to their cubicles made it even worse. Dressing them up with trinkets and pictures, always trying to make them look hospitable and just like home. I understood why they did it, but that didn’t make it right. Lying to other people is fine and usually funny but lying to yourself is tacky. There’s nothing hospitable about an 8′ x 8′ carpeted holding cell on the eighteenth floor of an insurance building and it would be wrong to forget that.(p. 148)’ Contrast this viewpoint with that from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged ‘If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose- because it contains all the others- the fact that they were the people who created the phrase to make money. No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity- to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created.’ Can one make money and not lie to oneself? Does Shane express any overt or implied lies about himself in the book? Is there a deeper symbolism for the office cubicle?

4. When Shane thinks to himself ‘…and I learned a lesson I had learned a thousand times before: facts and reasoning are nothing against a good slogan. No one can argue with a bumper sticker. Not when it’s on the bartenders car. (p. 152)’ in his favorite local bar is he making an observation about our sound bite culture, being obsequious to the bartender or justifying his own passing interest in formulating bumper stickers? How does one argue with a bumper sticker? If a slogan is a question dressed like a fact how does this fit into Shane’s larger world view, or lack thereof?

5. Throughout the book Shane’s relationships with women range from painfully humiliating to humiliatingly painful. At one point Shane notes ‘It was strange, but I never felt closer to her than when I was cowering behind that bathroom stall door, cringing as she beat it into scrap metal. (179)’ Does this advanced level of intimacy seem sustainable for him? Is there more romantic potential that he is not reaching? In what way’s are Shane’s gender roles fluid and in what way’s are they rigid?

6. There are implicit and explicit religious overtones in the book. How does Shane’s statement ‘two wrongs don’t make a right but sometimes they make me laugh.(p. 224)’ fit with respect to a relativistic value system? How does this comedic drive for vengeance fit into Judeo-Chrisitian notions of shame, punishment and judgment? How would the world be different if humor was a component of vengeance?

7. Have you ever stolen a salt shaker? If so when and where did you do so? How did you feel about it at the time and how do you feel about it now? If you haven’t can you imagine any circumstances under which you would do so?

Readers Guide to Apathy and Other Small Victories
Paul Neilan

St. Martin’s Griffin, New York
(2006)
231 pages

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