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Two new reading guides for Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others courtesy of our friends at A Different Light/SF AIDS Foundation book club in San Francisco.
1. On page 2, Richard says that he and his partner Conrad have stopped using the word “monogamy,” but continue to say “I love you,” which Richard finds more important. But actions speak louder than words. What actions point to Richard and Conrad’s love, if any?
2. Richard is not as worried about Conrad having an affair with someone from Ohio as he would be if the paramour hailed from New York or Los Angeles. Are gay men from metro areas more menacing? Or is this just a comment on Conrad’s snobby taste?
3. On page 5, Richard talks about Americans undergoing an ego adjustment. What are some concrete examples of this in the book? Conrad and Doreen? Co-worker Brandon? Richard himself?
4. What type of relationship does Richard have with his part-time lover Benjamin’s own significant others (wife and children)?
5. How does Richard’s relationship with Benjamin compare with his relationship with Conrad? Who’s really the insignificant other?
6. On page 68, Richard mentions that he has no problem with acting as long as it’s good acting. Who’s doing the most acting and who’s the best actor in the novel?
7. Expanding on question # 1, on page 85, Richard suggests that love and tenderness kills passion. Love (emotional), passion (sexual), monogamy (loyal) are the usual ingredients of a successful relationship. Is one more important than the other? Can you have two and negotiate the third, as Richard and Conrad have done?
8. Richard tries to convince co-worker Brandon to stay at the company, but Brandon thinks it’s too stable and wants to go play poker in Las Vegas. What does Richard think of this impulsive jump? Who’s Richard’s safe(r) bet – Conrad or Benjamin?
9. Talking to his trainer on page 110, Richard says that “sometimes the most settled lives have the biggest distractions.” Can we ever settle or are we always looking for the next best thing?
10. Ironically, Richard talks about distractions while working out, his small distraction from his bigger distraction (Benjamin). Is he caught in a cycle?
11. Expanding on question # 6, on page 118, Richard states that “self-awareness and confession make up for almost any flaw, in my book.” It’s evident that he doesn’t follow his own ideology. Can we trust a hypocrite narrator? Do his flaws humanize him or did you find them infuriating?
12. At the end of the first half, Richard forms an unlikely alliance with Doreen, the most important woman character in the book and Conrad’s “wife.” Going into the second half, what do you think her motives might be?
13. Why is Doreen invested in Conrad having an insignificant other? What’s at stake for her?
14. The narrator says men should handcraft their relationships to better suit their needs. Do you think this is makes them psychologically evolved or as Doreen puts it, emotionally cut-off?
15. Richard and Conrad finally have a “little talk” on page 143. The conversation is rather anti-climactic with Conrad saying very little. What does it say about who’s in control and who is desperately trying to keep it together?
16. Why does the narrator put up with his overly sensitive, gossip fueling, religious assistant Anne?
17. What’s more difficult, telling your spouse about an impending surgery or an insignificant other? Why does Richard seem to be the go-to bad news bearer, except in his own life?
18. On page 154, Richard comments that the only way to keep the early affection glowing in a relationship is sadomasochism. Do you agree that we need to negotiate a “safe outlet for the inevitable desire to humiliate and punish the person you love”?
19. How’s Richard a poison and a cure for Benjamin’s sexual craving? Do you think he can be both or is he just a poison and deluding himself to justify his actions?
20. What’s the difference between the Connectrix building Richard works in and the one Benjamin designs, the “profitable traps he’s created for himself” (pg. 172).
21. Towards the end of the novel, Richard freezes his gym membership. Subsequently he begins focusing on the “main event” relationship. What’s the message about monogamy and insignificant others and potentially life-shifting distractions?
22. The narrator is never cleared about what happened between him and his insignificant others, but what signs point towards them getting reacquainted?