Monoceros - Book Club Guide
Monoceros by Suzette Mayr | Reading Guide | Coach House Books
Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros begins with a single dramatic event: the suicide of Patrick Furey, a gay teenager who was taunted by his peers and neglected by the adults to whom he went for support. The opening chapter is the only section to delve into Patrick’s consciousness. After that, the novel zooms out to explore the impact of Patrick’s suicide in the community at large. Through a series of first-person encounters, the reader learns about various people in Patrick’s life, including: Faraday, Patrick’s high school peer, who sees echoes of her own isolation in Patrick’s experiences; Maureen Mochinski, an English teacher whose guilt for not having supported Patrick is coupled with bitterness over her own flailing marriage; Walter, the high school guidance counsellor, who is spurred by the suicide to start publically embracing his own homosexuality, even though this decision threatens to explode his secret gay relationship with the school principal, Max; Ginger, Patrick’s secret teenage lover, who is unable to express his all-consuming grief; and Petra, Ginger’s girlfriend, who bullied Patrick during his life, and is now alternately guilt-ridden and defensive about the role she played in bringing about his suicide. The novel resists tidy conclusion or dramatic epiphanies. Instead, it explores the myriad, often messy ways in which people are affected by a single event. The novel also demonstrates that, even within a community where people are hesitant to confide in one another or to help each other out, their lives are still subtly interconnected.
Patrick Furey: Although a fully developed character in his own right, Patrick is also a symbol for the emotional turmoil that the other characters undergo. His untimely suicide, during the first few pages of the book, sets the rest of the story in motion. He is frequently referred to as ‘the dead boy’ by acquaintances, teachers and authority figures who didn’t know him well enough to remember his name but are nevertheless traumatized by his death.
Ginger: The popular pretty-boy who cheats on his girlfriend during a number of secret romantic trysts with Patrick Furey. After Patrick’s death, he is unable to express his sorrow publicly, since he was never open about the nature of their relationship. Although he is known as Ginger, Patrick’s grandfather and primary guardian refers to him by his real name, Tomáš.
Faraday: Faraday is an introspective teenaged girl who knew Patrick only as a casual acquaintance. She is important to the story less for what she does than for her insightful musings on the repressive culture that poisons her high school community. Faraday is also a unicorn fanatic, whose vision of a unicorn messiah – a mythical creature that will one day appear and heal her fractured world – provides one of the novel’s main thematic strains.
Walter: Walter works as the guidance counsellor at the school that Patrick, Ginger and Faraday attend. Although he is a deeply insightful character, he often avoids taking risky stances by speaking, instead, through weak pop-psychology clichés. He is also in a secret gay relationship with Max, the school principal. As one of the few people with whom Patrick spoke candidly of his homosexuality, Walter feels immense guilt for failing to come to the boy’s aid.
Max: The school principal, Max, is harsh, hyper-professional and deeply afraid that the truth about his gay relationship with Walter might one day surface and destroy his career. Although he is a tough disciplinarian, Max believes that his jurisdiction extends only to the boundaries of school property. He therefore avoids taking an active and professionally risky role in his community at large.
Mrs. Mochinski: A schoolteacher whose life is beset both by the trauma of her disintegrating marriage and by her own terror of the students that she is required to face every day. Following the initial announcement of Patrick’s death, Mrs. Mochinski is unwilling to open up and speak candidly with her students about the troubles that Patrick faced in life. She later comes to regret her silence. She is also referred to, in the story, by her first name, Maureen, and her maiden name, Miss Rule.
Petra: Ginger’s besotted girlfriend, who torments Patrick with death threats after she gets wind of his relationship with Ginger. Following Patrick’s suicide, several of Petra’s peers turn on her and accuse her of murder. These comments become yet another form of retaliatory high school bullying.
Joy: Joy is the fresh-faced, big-hearted and slightly naïve secretary who is assigned to work at the high school. She is talkative by nature, and she inadvertently pries into a number of awkward subjects, including Walter’s mysterious relationship with Max.
Gretta: Patrick’s mother, who is overwhelmed by grief at her son’s death. When alive, Patrick had attempted to come out to Gretta, who hoped that her son’s homosexuality was just a passing phase.
Jésus: The class clown who nurses a secret crush on Faraday, despite the fact that he bullies her mercilessly when in the presence of his friends.
Uncle Suzie: Faraday’s uncle, who doubles as a surrogate caregiver and best friend. He has a number of aliases, including Clem, the name he uses when waiting tables at a local steakhouse; Crêpe Suzette, the name he uses when performing in drag shows; and Colonel Shakira, after the Sector Six sci-fi heroine he frequently impersonates during drag routines.
Sector Six: A popular science-fiction television series that has Max, Walter and numerous other characters enthralled. Unlike most shows in its genre, Sector Six rejects popular notions of heroism in order to highlight ordinary characters acting in extraordinary circumstances. The theme song goes ‘No such thing as heroes, just a bunch of ones and zeroes.’
The mythic unicorn has its origins both in Ancient Greece and Ancient China, although the legend has developed a distinctly Christian resonance in the Modern Era. In Christian tradition, unicorns are solitary creatures that have a mystical affinity with female virgins. In Monoceros, Faraday is drawn to the image of chastity that the unicorn embodies. The unicorn can also be understood as a symbol of queerness. The European unicorn was a horse-like creature, with a spiralled horn, cloven feet and the tail of a lion. In other words, it was a creature whose physical features disrupted the allegedly ‘normal’ or familiar order of the world. In European mythology, explorers met this creature with a display of prejudice and hostility, despite the fact that it posed no threat to them.
The LGBT Movement in Canada achieved its most palpable victory in 2005, when Paul Martin’s Liberal Government legalized same-sex marriage. Martin’s legislation followed on the heels of a failed 1998 marriage-equality bill, put forward by the NDP’s Svend Robinson, Canada’s first openly gay parliamentarian. Despite these victories, the Canadian LGBT Movement still has a long way to go. Today, Canadian LGBT teens are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as their straight-identified peers. As Suzette Mayr explains, ‘In Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, there is still a publicly funded Catholic separate school system where it is perfectly all right to fire a teacher or staff member for being LGBTQ, where it’s perfectly all right to forbid students from creating gay-straight alliance clubs, and where homophobia is accepted as an institutional fact of life. Canada is really pathetic in this way. It’s just gross and embarrassing, and a big ugly secret.’
• Who is the novel’s main character? Does the novel have a main character?
• Despite the plethora of characters in Monoceros, there are very few (if any) heroes or villains. Almost all of the characters are at different times relatable, admirable and fallible. What does Mayr achieve by excluding heroes and villains from her story?
• Many of the most important characters in the novel are only loosely connected to Patrick. Sure, we hear from Patrick’s mother, Gretta, from time to time, and from his boyfriend, Ginger. But huge chunks of the novel deal with Faraday, who served Patrick at Tim Horton’s, or Walter, to whom Patrick was just another student. Why does Mayr pay so much attention to characters who didn’t really know Patrick?
• Most people would agree that discrimination is a bad thing. Is it a problem that there are no out-and-out bad characters in a book that deals with discrimination?
• Many of the character go by different names in different parts of the book. Mrs. Mochinksi is also Miss Rule, Maureen etc. Faraday’s Uncle Suzie is also Clem, Crêpe Suzette and, occasionally she takes on the identity of the television character Colonel Shakira. Ginger is also Tomáš, and even Patrick Furey is sometimes called 'the dead boy.' What does Mayr achieve by giving different names to the same characters?
•Mayr’s novel includes sections that look like obituaries. But they aren’t, and they deal with characters who are still alive. What do these documents represent? Why does Mayr use the obituary form?
• Mayr tells her story from the perspective of several characters, instead of just one. Wouldn’t that be harder to write? Why do you think she does this?
• Even in a novel that includes as many first-person voices as Monoceros does, it is impossible to give voice to all of the characters. Are there any characters you wished that you could hear from directly? Are there any characters who seemed to have been deliberately left out?
• It’s hard not to notice the similarity between the author’s name (Suzette Mayr) and Clem’s drag name (Crêpe Suzette). Do you think Mayr is trying to forge some sort of connection between herself and the drag queen character. But what kind of a connection is she hinting at?
• Why is the novel called Monoceros? Why use the Greek word ‘monoceros’ (also the name of a unicorn-shaped constellation) instead of the English word ‘unicorn’?
• A lot of the characters watch the show Sector Six. What role does the television series play in the book? Also, why did Mayr invent her own science-fiction show, instead of just having the characters watch, say, Star Trek?
• In James Joyce’s famous short story ‘The Dead,’ a married woman named Gretta Conroy confesses to her husband that she has never gotten over her first love, a handsome, delicate boy named Michael Furey, who fell sick and died at age seventeen. Gretta’s confession leaves her husband, Darcy, feeling jealous and insecure. What is Mayr suggesting by giving Patrick, ‘the dead boy,’ the same last name as Joyce’s character in ‘The Dead’? Why does Mayr name Patrick’s mother after Joyce’s character Gretta?
• In a number of interviews, Mayr acknowledged that she intended her novel to have funny moments, without being flippant or disrespectful toward its subject matter. Did you find the novel funny? What’s the point of including comedy in a story about tragedy?