“Dufresne’s incandescent novel makes it clear that just living to tell a tale can be enough.” —People
A Note from John Dufresne
I wanted to write a story about two children trying to survive their difficult childhoods, and I wanted to play with the forms of fiction and memoir. Fiction is telling the truth; memoir is telling the facts, and facts are subject to interpretation. I have a faulty memory just like you do, like we all do. Memories are naturally fallible and malleable. We can remember that which did not happen, as false-memory studies have proven. Memoir, you can be sure, is what didn’t happen in quite this way. Fiction is what happens. As far as I can tell, I use the same mental system to envision a made-up world as to recollect my past. And it’s the same system my unconscious brain uses to dream. In all three cases I’m forming a mental image of what is not actually present. I’m seeing and hearing what isn’t here. Memory is reproductive imagination. When I write stories, I know that I know nothing. When I write about my life, I think I know what I’m talking about, and that’s dangerous and inherently dishonest.
So I hit on the notion of letting Johnny, the narrator, a fiction writer himself, and my alter ego, I suppose (not me, but the me I might wish to be, the better me, the sweeter me, the smarter me, the me with the heartbreaking past and the resplendent future), write a memoir, and I let him know that he could appropriate any of my memories as his own, and no one would be any the wiser. Johnny writes about how he came to save his family, only to lose them again, and I write about Johnny coming to understand his past and in so doing come to understand my own. At least a little bit. Two birds, one stone. Not all of Johnny’s memories were borrowed; some were invented, shaped, and polished. And how was I, how were we, to know that his story would end in the future, and that he would use me to imagine what he could not remember?
So Johnny, age twelve at the start, and his little sister Audrey live with an elaborately psychotic mother. The authorities can’t know that Mom is crazy or they’ll take the children from her and separate them from each other. Dad, a long-haul trucker, is down South somewhere starting up a second, a secret, family. Audrey, when she’s not out in her star-spangled cowgirl boots walking her malleable cat Deluxe in a baby stroller, spends what time she can reading under her bed or behind a curtain or is in the closet telling herself stories. Johnny is resourceful, fearless, spirited, and kind. He creates a world with his lies that they can safely live in. He convinces his teachers and social workers that his mom’s as sane as a certified public accountant. Then he persuades Mom that he and Audrey are being cared for by an imaginary family across town. But when Mom’s antic behavior turns ugly and calamitous, there’s no flight of fancy that can carry the children to safety.
- Is Johnny a reliable narrator? How do you feel about Requiem, Mass. after learning that, although Johnny’s story is fiction, it’s more or less true? Are you able to suspend your disbelief that what you’re reading really happened?
- A number of the characters in Requiem, Mass. create alternate lives and relationships—sometimes imagined, and sometimes literal—to escape a difficult reality. There’s Sandilands, for example, and Rainey’s other families, and Frances’s “real” children. What purpose do these alternate families serve for those who create them?
- Why do you think that Frances is able to be so accepting of her children over the phone but not in person? Is there something about visual reality versus aural reality that upsets her?
- Frances’s fear of John and Audrey’s “replacements” seems at times to be driven by a deep desire to be close to her children. Do you believe Frances indeed yearns to connect with her children, given how little concern she has for them after she recovers mentally? Do you think she truly believed for a while that her children had been replaced?
- Rainey justifies having multiple families instead of quick affairs by saying, “When I love a woman, I need to take care of her.” Do you feel this is Rainey’s true motivation for maintaining romantic relationships with multiple women? How do you think he divides his attention and affection among his three sets of children? Is he capable of loving all of them, as well as all of their mothers, simultaneously?
- The narrator affectionately describes Audrey as a young girl, but as she grows older his relationship with her becomes more complicated. Why do you think their relationship becomes more complex? How much of Audrey’s present life do you believe to be true?
- Why do you suppose John is so persistent in his pursuit of a relationship with his mother and sister but not with his father and youngest half-sister? Do you think that Johnny’s anger affects his ability to connect with his family? Can you pinpoint other emotions that define him and his relationships?
- The epigraph, “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember,” not only calls into question the purported truth in the narrative but also implies that this novel is set in the past. How does the past affect the characters’ lives?
- What ideas about family ties are conveyed through this novel?
- There are a number of characters in Requiem, Mass. who straddle the line between eccentric and mentally ill. Does characterizing everyone as a bit off kilter cast the mentally ill in a more sympathetic light?
- One might say that the narrator is the only sane and moral person in Requiem, Mass. Do you think that this is fair or accurate statement? Why or why not? Why might Johnny be the only one to survive his bizarre upbringing unscathed?
About John Dufresne
John Dufresne is the author of six novels, including No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida.
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
“If Raymond Chandler were reincarnated as a novelist in south Florida, he couldn’t nail it any better than John Dufresne.”—Carl HiaasenMore
"Belongs on the shelf alongside John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel."—Steve YarbroughMore