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  1. Book ImageShadow Play: A Novel

    Charles Baxter

    "In his quiet cosmic wonderment, Baxter is the equal of John Updike and Anne Tyler at their largest and best."—GQ

Discussion Questions

  1. The original title for this novel was Leavings, before the author changed it to Shadow Play. The word “leavings” can mean “things left behind,” or it can refer to people leaving other people; it can even refer to waste. How would you relate these different kinds of leavings to each other in the plot of the novel? If something is left behind, or forgotten or discarded, is its loss always a source of grief or sorrow, or does its absence ever confer a certain kind of freedom?
  2. In the classic nineteenth-century German short novel Peter Schlemihl (1813) by Adalbert von Chamisso, the protagonist makes a deal with the devil. He sells his shadow for riches but is mocked thereafter by other people in his community for being different—having no shadow—and so his riches do him no good. How can this novel be read as a modern version of von Chamisso’s tale, and in what sense does Wyatt lose his shadow? Who or what is his shadow, and would you say that he ever gets it back?
  3. In this novel there appears to be a division in gender roles that grows wider from the midpoint of the story onward. Wyatt, Cyril, and Schwartzwalder seem to be concerned with one set of principles, and, in their very different ways, Jeanne, Susan, Pooh, and Ellen seem to be concerned with another. The men think a great deal about appearances (Schwartzwalder at one point says that appearances are not deceiving), and the women think a great deal about whatever lies behind the appearances. Jeanne becomes so disaffected and distracted from common language that she begins to make up her own words, her neologisms such as “corilineal.” In your reading of the novel, what are Jeanne and Ellen searching for, and would you argue that they find it?
  4. In several recent American novels, such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, and this novel, there is a preoccupation with the price Americans may be paying for prosperity, and a concern for those who are particularly vulnerable to making compromises for the sake of short-term gains. A critic might argue that these books are part of a genre of the contemporary “pollution-novel.” Indeed, the price of such prosperity may be paid by individuals and by communities as a whole, and all of these novels (Shadow Play included) make an effort to picture a community. How does Shadow Play portray the community of Five Oaks, or its other, smaller, communities, including the various families portrayed within it, starting with the family that Wyatt runs away from in Chapter One?
  5. After Cyril’s death, Wyatt goes through a spell in which he is “not himself.” How would you account for his behavior during the time when he misbehaves? If he has been an upstanding, solid citizen (even something of a conformist) up to this point, what has he become?
  6. Shadow Play contains several stop-time moments, including the narrative-spiral in Chapter One, the moments of frozen time in Wyatt’s meal with Cyril in Chapter Fourteen, and such moments grow pronounced and more frequent as the novel progresses, especially in those scenes that include Ellen. What is the effect of these freeze-frames, these moments of lost time and time-spirals, on the characters themselves? What sort of psychological conditions appear to give rise to them?
  7. A considerable part of Shadow Play is devoted to the faiths people live by and the elusiveness of God, and, perhaps in a metaphorical sense, salvation and loss. A recurring dramatic image in the novel has to do with drowning, and the novel continually goes back to images of water, both as liquid (with Wyatt and Cyril) and as solid (the story that Ellen tells Cyril about the face in the ice in Chapter Seventeen). If there is a common thread running through these episodes, how would you define it? Why does the image of water turn up so often? How are these characters lost, and how are they saved, if indeed they are saved?
  8. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the hero, crazed by his reading of medieval romances, goes on a solitary quest to correct injustice and to rescue those he feels are most in need of rescue. But Don Quixote often sees enemies that are not there; he hallucinates his own opposition. As a result, there are constant dramatic ironies at work in his story. Is that also the case in Shadow Play? Has Wyatt become crazed in his effort to right the wrongs that he sees, or does he simply see what no one else does, a genuine menace? If he wishes to correct a social injustice, why doesn’t he try to incite social or political (i.e., group) action?
  9. Geography seems to play a large role in this story, and there is a notable shift when Wyatt moves his family, including his mother, from the Midwest to Brooklyn at the end of the novel. In his meditation on New York, Wyatt thinks of its “pleasing luminous wreckage.” He sees this wreckage as a release and a relief. A release or a relief from what? Is there something puritan or puritanical in the Midwest that he needs to escape? Or something puritanical in himself?
  10. Shadow plays are, in Asia, created by using stick-driven puppets, and in this novel there are several references to plays and set-design and theater, and to the recurring sense that some of the characters have that other people are putting on a performance, an act. Jeanne feels that she herself is a character in a play, that she is reciting lines that have been written for her. How do you interpret this preoccupation with theater, actors, and play-acting?
  11. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to the object that Wyatt’s father, Eugene, is making, and at the end this object turns up again, an object that “never turned into anything recognizable . . . always . . . part of Wyatt’s inheritance . . . with no known use in the world.” How do you interpret this object and why is it a key to Wyatt’s inheritance, to the human being he has become?

About Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota.

Books by Charles Baxter

  1. Book CoverA Relative Stranger: Stories

    "In his quiet cosmic wonderment, Baxter is the equal of John Updike and Anne Tyler at their largest and best."—GQMore

  2. Book CoverShadow Play: A Novel

    "In his quiet cosmic wonderment, Baxter is the equal of John Updike and Anne Tyler at their largest and best."—GQMore

  3. Book CoverA William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations

    Three generations of writers celebrate a master whose life and work continue to reverberate in contemporary letters.More