Format: Trade Paperback, 376 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
ISBN: 978-0-7710-2263-0 (0-7710-2263-8)
Pub Date: March 1, 2005
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1. What’s in a title? Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life is a comic novel that can be read casually for belly laughs but becomes funnier and funnier the more closely it is read. Like Cervantes, whom he emulates and invokes through his repeated references to Man of La Mancha (the Broadway musical adaptation of Don Quixote), Trevor Cole doubles and triples the meaning of things. There are, for instance, five dictionary meanings of “performance” — a fulfillment of duty, a staging of a production, an achievement under test conditions, a public fuss or exhibition, the capacities of a machine. Is the title meant to suggest all of them? In what ways do each of these meanings define or describe the five acts into which the book is divided?
2. Wordplay involving names is one of the earliest literary devices, which goes right back to the opening pages of the Bible, where Adam literally means “the man.” Is the Norman in Norman Bray meant to suggest the Norman Conquests which were the aristocratic colonization of England by a small region of France? Bray suggests the sound of a donkey or jackass, or a harshly played brass instrument, or a pompous English aristocrat. Which force is stronger in the title character — the would-be golden aristocrat or the brassy jackass? Is there an even trickier wordplay at work? Does Bray suggest “donkey,” which carries a hint of Don Quixote, the role that most defines this actor?
3. The subject of the once widely sung English folksong “The Vicar of Bray” boasts in his refrain that whatever king may reign he will remain Vicar of Bray. No matter how often this man changes his religion, he remains true to his ruling principle to live and die the vicar of Bray, and to do so he habitually takes a middle position in everything. The opening words of this novel are “Watch the man being seated at a table in the middle. . . .” And the second sentence is “He has been shown a table to the side, but no, he prefers the one in the middle, so that is where he sits.” In what other ways is Norman Bray a “middling” person who has no higher or lower purpose than to remain true to the habits of his lifetime?
4. In the opening scene at the Skelton Arms, Norman fails to interest his pub waitress in finding him his favourite brandy or noting his gastronomic preferences in shepherd’s pie or succumbing to his “potent charms.” Norman decides “she is obviously a girl who doesn’t know what she wants, doesn’t know what sort of man he is, has no idea of his range of knowledge or experience. So, with some effort, he manages to feel sorrier for her than for himself. He will be satisfied with the shepherd’s pie, even if it is slightly less meaty than he prefers. He will make a point of it” [pp 6-7]. It will require a unique strength of will but, in his life and work, Norman has found it necessary to overcome discomfort, and so he has mastered the skill, a fact he would be happy to share with the waitress, if only she were less grumpy.” Trevor Cole uses this scene (and the following one in the Jarvis Street television studio) to establish Norman’s character as the sort of person we all know and rarely like because of their irritating ability to make themselves comfortable while being oblivious to the discomfort of others. It’s easy to see what makes Norman annoying, but what makes him fascinating enough to make his story interesting?
5. Feeling himself chronically underappreciated, Norman never connects the grumpiness of the various women in his life with his obliviousness to his failings as a lover, friend, surrogate parent, brother, and “leading man.” He regards women opportunistically. They are remote but still potential sources of sexual comfort and, more immediately and realistically, sources of income. He lives off of women. What kind of life do women find with him that’s worth the price they have to pay?
6. Although Norman Bray views women self-centredly and narrowly, the women in his life are very different, one from another. Both Gillian Swain, the professor of medieval literature who shared “her life, her home, her income” with him, and Miriam Ashacker, his former agent, are effective, successful working women. If they met, what would they have to say to one another about Norman and his failures?
7. Gillian’s children, Amy and David, both ask themselves and each other why they bother staying in touch with Norman. David knows that they don’t love him and is certain that Norman doesn’t love them, but Amy isn’t quite so clear in her mind. Why is she confused? What leads her to read her mother’s journals? What answers does she find in them?
8. Before becoming a novelist, Trevor Cole was a successful business writer. Norman Bray’s encounters with the banking system in the person of Howard Cantor, the personal loan manager, are as funny as Stephen Leacock’s. Leacock’s most dearly held belief was that the essence of progress is an ever-increasing capacity for human kindness, but his optimism was held in check by unease at the triumph of materialism. Does Trevor Cole share this belief and this unease? Does one outweigh the other?
9. What do we learn about Norman’s inner strengths and resources through his encounters with Rol Henninger, the bank-appointed employment counsellor, that we didn’t know before? In what ways does Henninger symbolize everything Norman Bray stands against? In what ways does Henninger force Norman to look at himself more closely and with greater self-discovery?
10. When Karina Lares becomes Norman’s tenant, she “introduces some rogue element” into his house that he thinks is sexual but which proves to be stronger, stranger, and more earth-shaking than that. What is it that she gives him that he has not found with any other woman? What is the source of her power?
11. Why was Norman given the “Mirror Award” for his performance in Man of La Mancha in Beverly? What did he reveal of himself to the cast? What secrets does that mirror hold?
12. Every reader knows people very much like Norman Bray, people who demand special treatment and are so wrapped up in achieving what they want they become blind to the needs and feelings of others. Common courtesy or empathy does not occur to them. To their way of thinking (and their way of thinking is the only one that really matters to them), they have superior talents, finer sensibilities, and more refinement than the rest of us. These are all classic elements of the clinically narcissistic personality. What do Norman Bray’s altered circumstances at the end of the book tell us about the possibilities for positive change and growth of self-awareness in such people? What are the likely implications and complications for those like Amy, who love them?
13. Bray is also an archaic verb for what happens when a mortar and a pestle grind against one another. In Norman’s tilts against contemporary theatrical windmills, which of his illusions get pulverized?
14. Man of La Mancha is described in this novel as a “sweetly tragic retelling of the Don Quixote saga.” In the musical version, Cervantes is in prison for debt. To protect himself from his fellow prisoners and win his escape, he tells the story of his greatest creation, his knight of doleful countenance, and the great forces of evil arrayed against him, and the women who protect him. Is it fair or accurate to say that Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life is a bitterly comic retelling, not of Don Quixote’s saga, but of the musical?
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