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The Effect of Living Backwards
Heidi Julavits

 
Discussion Questions

1. Early in the novel, Clifford poses this question: “What if your childhood was all a big misunderstanding? An elaborate ruse? What does that say about failure? Better yet, what does that say about potential?” (p. 4). After reading the book, how would you answer those questions? At the time, Alice interprets them to mean that “since I had never been anybody, I was free to be anyone” (p. 4). Do you agree? The idea of “self,” a central, permanent identity, is something the novel constantly challenges. How flexible do you think the self really is? Where does it originate? Pitcairn asks Alice if she has ever surprised herself, and she replies, “Never. And I don’t say that boastfully” (p. 249). How does the hijacking gives her a chance to “be different”?

2. Clifford tells Alice that “reliving an experience alters it, until there’s no way of knowing the truth from the story” (p. 35), and throughout the novel Julavits returns to the themes of storytelling and stories over and over again, exploring their power and slipperiness. Do you agree with Clifford? Are any of the storytellers in this book reliable, to your mind? Whose stories do you believe? Do you think the “Camel Ride” story is as useful as Alice has always believed? Who does it reveal more about, Alice or Edith—both in the story itself and Alice’s decision to tell it? Alice later resists role-playing the ride with Clifford, arguing, “it’s just a dumb home movie,” which leads Clifford to demand, “You’re saying you’ve invested a random event in our life with more meaning than it deserves?” (p. 300). What is the “truth” of the story? How is affected by repeated retelling, and how has it affected Alice?

3. What IS the effect of living backwards? Or, what is the effect of the story of this novel being told, in a way, backwards? How is your reading of the “hijacking” colored by first reading about some of Alice’s experiences at the Institute? Did it make the novel more or less compelling?

4. How do Alice and Edith define each other and themselves? When Clifford tries to get Alice to role-play Edith, Alice tells us that “it was impossible for me to be Edith given the oppositional way we defined ourselves. I was everything she was not” (p. 299) and Pitcairn points out that Alice seems “very invested in projecting [Edith] as being a more successful, more valuable creature?” (p. 254). Is this true? If so, why? What does Alice stand to gain or lose from the comparison? Early on, Alice plays what she calls the trump card, a “mean and petty sibling maneuver,” telling Edith, “It just seems as if you’ve lost your spark” (p. 19). How does she know this will get to Edith? How does Edith react, and how does her reaction inform what happens during the hijacking? In what other ways does their competitive dynamic fuel the events of the book? What does Alice mean when she says that “I blame myself for showing her the wire cutters. She saw them, rightly, as a challenge” (p. 191)?

5. What do you think draws Alice and Edith to the Shame Stories? What is it about other people’s failings that attracts them, particularly Alice? “You don’t observe to empathize,” Winnie tells Alice, “You observe to keep score” (p. 213), and Alice herself wonders if “I was not so much interested in helping people as I was addicted to their failures and unhappiness” (p. 222). Would you agree? The Shame Stories often contain hints of the larger narrative. For example, Cyrus says that “I removed the framed map of Africa from my closet and hung it on a pink wall that Lydia had painted, in her opinion, ecru” (p. 81)—a reference to the map of the plane’s route in the passenger cabin, as well as the Banal Reassembly Test Alice describes on page 55. Winnie’s mother is sensitive to smells, as Alice’s is; the brothers in Gesina’s story wear green wool uniforms like Alice and Edith’s. What is the effect of these layered references? Whose stories are they, really—Alice’s, or the passengers’? What do they tell us about shame, or about the mutability of story-telling? Is anyone reliable? How does that affect your reading?

6. Alice makes two key decisions in the book: not to cut the accelerator cable, and to show the wire cutters to Edith. In a way, both decisions seem like gestures of weakness—she chooses not to take action, and not to keep her secret. But Alice argues that both choices are about control—proving that she is in control of the hijacking. “Why did I show her the wire cutters?” Alice asks, “Because I wanted her to see that I was the one with the ability to control our fate, not she, no matter what she’d been up to in first class while I wasn’t watching. I was still the one in charge” (p. 186). And in the cockpit, she is “conscious of making my decision on the basis of one set of overt desires—of wanting to manipulate my sister, of wanting to be, secretly, covertly, in ultimate control of this hijacking, which would stop the minute I chose it to stop” (p. 191). Are these her only motives? Do they make sense to you? Bruno argues that “Choices nearly always lead to mistakes” (p. 187) and also that “Choice is overrated” (p. 226). Do you agree? On the other hand, does he have a vested interest in encouraging passivity?

7. Bruno says that both Alice and Pitcairn “suffer from the classic good-girl syndrome, as we call it at the Institute. ‘Good girls” are people, men as often as women, who do what they think they should, rather than what they want. They are pleasers, not survivors” (p. 230). Do you agree with his definition, and that it applies to Alice and Pitcairn? Does Alice consider herself a “good girl?” How much of her identity is vested in this concept, and why? Is her decision not to cut the cable the act of a “good girl”? What about going back to the hotel to find Edith?

8. Late in the novel, Edith says that Bruno has been using them to prove a point about “the ‘moral no-man’s-land of sibling relationships’” (p. 292). What does the novel have to say about that particular landscape? Are the “rules” of sibling interaction different from those in other relationships? When Bruno threatens to disfigure Edith, Alice thinks, “But how can you be so sure that is not my fondest wish? It was not, of course, but you can never be certain with female siblings, especially those close in age” (p. 89). Would you agree? And is Alice being truthful in her denial?

9. Bruno tells Alice that it was in fact Edith who ratted her out about the wire cutters and followed her in the Medina. Do you believe him? He also says that “She will never have your best interests at heart, do you understand that? She will forever try to sabotage your life” (p. 305). Would you agree? With Edith lying in her lap in the burning hotel, Alice concludes “I knew she’d sold me out. I knew it as clearly as I knew that I was a lonely person to the bone, a person whose choices reflected her inability to ever love anyone as much as she loved this woman whom she goddamn, goddamn hated” (p. 314). Given this ending, do you think Julavits sees the sibling relationship as ultimately destructive, or ultimately redeeming? Or something in between?

10. Throughout the hijacking, Bruno sets up perverse “games”: Cyrus must choose which passenger should die, Winnie or Edith. Justin must shoot the already dead Cyrus—or Alice. Sad must shoot Brita, or be shot by Edith, who may be shot by Tom if she refuses to shoot Sad. What is the point of these games? How do Alice and Edith react to them? How are their choices informed by the strange decision-making games their father played with them? Edith suggests that Bruno might be making a point “about the pointlessness of the human condition” with the hijacking (p. 221). Do you agree?

11. As Edith begins to ally herself with Bruno, she insists “It’s the cutthroat who survives, Alice, not the most virtuous” (p. 217). Bruno himself tells Alice that survival is a game. Who are the ultimate survivors in this book? Are they the people you expected to “win” the game? Why or why not?

12. What is it about Pitcairn that so ignites Alice’s romantic imagination? As she hesitates in cutting the acceleration cable, Alice feels that Pitcairn “hadn’t needed me long enough, yet. I decided—unconsciously, and with self-defeating logic—that not cutting the cable would disappoint him and make him need me, because letting a person down in a drastic manner was the only way, in my experience, to make that person love you” (p. 191). Why do you think she has such a perverse view of love? Do you think there’s any truth to it? Why does Pitcairn “pass out” before their odd sexual encounter, and why does Alice find this freeing? One of the epigraphs of the book warns that “Reversals and peculiarities fall down upon those too proud of their erotic life.” Who, ultimately, do you think that refers to—Edith, or Alice? Is Alice proud, in some way, of her virginity, of her difference from Edith? Alice claims that “It was because of me that Edith could be such a curious slut. I made it possible” (p. 29). Is this true? What was in it for her?

13. The Big Terrible that Alice refers to is obviously 9/11. Why do you think Julavits chose to give it that euphemism? Could she have written a book about a hijacking without talking about it at all? Obviously, a hijacking—“real” or staged—presents a unique set of human interactions. Did Julavits’ decision to frame her story around this hijacking seem macabre, provocative, or inappropriate to you? Why or why not? Of course, literature is full of violence and cruelty—is writing about a hijacking markedly different from, say, writing a murder mystery?

14. How would you describe the overall tone of the book? Funny? Whimsical? Poignant? Suspenseful? Towards the end, Alice tells us that “This story is not meant to be humorous. This story is meant to winch your ribs open and tamper with your heart. This story is meant to make you realize that your chances of happiness in this world are terribly slim if you lack a fine imagination” (p. 322). Is this a statement we take at face value? What do you think Alice’s connections between a fine imagination and happiness are? Is she happy? Ironically, Alice informs us that “Third-person is more convincing, less personal, less assailable” (p. 189) although the entire book is written in first-person, with two key lapses. Do you agree with her verdict on third-person narration? How trustworthy is her first-person narration, in telling her own story and in telling the Shame Stories of the other characters?

15. As indicated by the title, the epigraph, and Alice and Winnie Sunderland’s names, The Effect of Living Backwards draws a bit of inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Interestingly, Carroll never names his Alice’s older sister, but the real Alice Liddell, to whom his book is dedicated, did have a sister named Edith—her younger sister.) Both books detail worlds where rules and notions of reality are constantly in flux. What other similarities do you see? Just for fun, assign some of the Julavits’s characters to Carroll’s—who is the White Rabbit? The Red Queen? The Blue Caterpillar?

 

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