Reissue of a favorite novel by “a generous and lyric storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle) known for his tragicomic voice and unforgettable characters.
Death is what keeps me up at night, and so death is what I write about. In fact, it’s only one of the horrors that keeps me awake, that and loneliness, grief, separation, and, well, that’s enough for now. We’re dying and we don’t want to be. Everything we care about slips away from us, everyone leaves. That’s the awful sadness at the center of our existence. That’s what I believe. And I believe it is our struggle against this brutal fact, against the reality of our brief lives and our immense losses that constitutes the beauty of life. So even in a book that I thought was going to be about love, I knew that death would creep in. I just didn’t know how.
I started with Laf and set out to write about a marriage in trouble because only trouble is interesting, and trouble between partners especially so—there’s so much history, intimacy, so much shared memory involved, so much vulnerability, so many expectations. What sets the story in motion is Laf’s sense that his dreams are about to become regrets. That’s what keeps him up at night. His anxiety is so intense that he is willing at first to sacrifice his marriage in order to pursue this dream of becoming a writer. He leaves his wife Martha, hurts her terribly, and throws their futures into chaos. Now I know that in fiction nothing is ever what it seems. I knew there was more to Laf’s story than he was letting on. I figured I’d be startled by some revelations and supposed the story would take some turns I had not expected. Still, I assumed that something like this would happen: As a result of his struggle, a protracted and anguished one, Laf would come to understand that his place was with Martha, that he loved and needed her, that he could only reach fulfillment, artistic or otherwise, with this woman who had shared his past and loved him dearly. That was the book I thought I would write.
But then Judi Dubey, a minor character I had assumed, quite unexpectedly told Laf that she had been a thirteenth-century Saxon mystic and began to relate a fascinating story of her past life. I thought, as Laf might have: What an interesting and curious woman! Neither Laf nor I believed that Judi had lived before, but then where did these vivid and resonant details come from? And why does she need to believe this? And I thought, well, now it will be harder for Laf to get back home. He’s entranced. But that will only make the story more interesting, his conflict more acute. He’ll have to dig deeper, struggle harder. And his return to his wife will be all the more compelling. But then Judi discovers she has advanced cancer.
Part of the joy of writing is discovering what turns up on the page each day. You live with these people, you care about their lives, you think more about them than you do about your own family. Your job is not to judge them, and it is not to let them off the moral hook. Your job is to witness their behavior, to hold them responsible for what they do, and to render justice to their lives.
Writing fiction is a humble art. I write stories knowing that I have no answers, but lots of questions. I write about what I don’t understand, hoping that in the writing, I’ll come to see what I think. I’ll muddle ahead to some insights, knowing that I will never really come to understanding or wisdom. As a writer this is how I make sense - try to make some small sense - of the world and my place in it. The purpose of a novel, I think, is to say this is what it’s like to be a human being, and this is how it feels. Well, love is what Laf doesn’t understand, so I began this particular story with Laf trying to figure it out. What is love anyway? Why do people who love each other hurt each other? And why does love, which is what sustains us, which always begins with such hope, so often fail?
- Love Warps the Mind a Little opens with an epigraph from W. B. Yeats: “But is there any comfort to be found?/ Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” How does this sentiment pervade the novel? Does Laf find comfort? Does Judi?
- Throughout the novel, Laf is writing a story about Dale and Theresa. How do the elements of that story comment on Laf’s own struggle? Discuss Dale’s change of character in terms of Laf’s change of character.
- Judi and Laf deal imaginatively with their difficult lives. Laf writes stories; Judi remembers past lives. Discuss the similarities in these creative endeavors.
- How does Dufresne perceive his characters, especially the minor characters like Ronnie, Pozzo, Hervé, Trixie? Does he offer any insights into their situation and troubles? Does he treat them sympathetically? If so, how?
- Throughout the novel, Laf finds himself powerfully attracted to certain women; Judi, Pauline, strangers in an airport. What do you make of his behavior? Is it understandable? Consistent with his character?
- In the novel, Laf compares being in love with writing a story. How might this be true? In what sense is love a creative act?
- On page 236, Laf quotes Judi who says that everyone in therapy has a love disorder. Discuss this notion that love or distortions of it are at the source of our emotional problems. Is this accurate ?
- What role do the minor characters play in shaping the story?
- In the book we see people coping with life and love in a variety of ways: with therapy, religion, paranoid delusions, dreams, writing, visualization exercises, drugs. What do these activities tell us about the human condition? What is it that makes us human? Our bodies? Our hearts? Our minds?
- What view of human nature does Love Warps the Mind a Little seem to express? Does Dufresne suggest a vision of an ideal world? What might that be?
- On page 236, Laf makes a distinction between romance and love. Romance, he seems to say, is an ideal, while love is real. What do you make of his distinction? Do you agree with Laf that there is a vast difference between the two? Or is one a stage of the other?
- On page 296, Dale has this insight: Every act of loving affirms the goodness of the lover just because he is capable of loving and being loved. Discuss this notion of goodness and self-worth being part of the ability to love. What does this say about the person who doubts his/her own goodness?
- Judi tells Laf that to act habitually is to act without thinking and that the idea of therapy is to shatter patterns in our life. If you stop a habit you get to start your life. In light of what she has said, discuss love as change, as the breaking of habit, as starting over.
- A first person narrative such as Love Warps the Mind a Little depends to a large degree on the voice of the storyteller. In what ways is Laf’s voice an engaging and effective one? How would the story have been different with a third person narrator?
- Fathers don’t come off very well in the novel. Dale and Laf never really know their fathers; Judi’s dad abandons the family, and so on. Laf writes of his characters: “My fathers were either missing or away on business or drunk on their asses or simply nasty. This wasn’t my own father’s fault. Blaise was none of the above. I think I gave them problems to see what made them tick. Problems were like new clothes to them. Something to get used to; something to sport around in. What is it with men?” Well, what is it with men? Something learned, something inherent? Or is it all a bad rap? Discuss the influence of the fathers in the novel on their children.
- Judi and Laf disagree about the efficacy of the “New Age” healing she undergoes. This tells us something about the two characters, of course. In the light of the events of the novel, is Judi’s behavior understandable? Would she have been better off trusting in science and medical technology? In what ways, if any, was the alternative treatment beneficial?
- What does Laf come to understand about the meaning of his own life, the meaning of Judi’s death? What meaning does death come to have for Judi?
- Discuss the different psychological and emotional stages that Judi passes through in the course of her illness. What does she learn about herself and her relationship to others?
- How does the tone of the novel change? What is the dominant tone of the novel? How does Dufresne keep the novel from becoming sentimental or maudlin?
- At the end of the novel, Laf says he wants the shame, guilt, and regret right there on the surface like a rash. Why would he want that?
- Describe Dufresne’s style in the novel. How does it contribute to the novel’s effectiveness?
About John Dufresne
John Dufresne is the author of seven books, including the New York Times Notable Books Love Warps the Mind a Little and Louisiana Power & Light. He teaches in the Creative Writing Department at Florida International University and lives in Dania Beach.
Books by John Dufresne
A favorite novel by “a generous and lyric storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle) known for his tragicomic voice and unforgettable characters.More
"Belongs on the shelf alongside John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel."—Steve YarbroughMore
A collection by "a generous and lyric storyteller" (San Francisco Chronicle) known for his tragicomic voice and his unforgettable and lively characters.More