Synopses & Reviews
As a graduate student in upstate New York, Nathaniel Mason is drawn into a tangle of relationships with people who seem to hover just beyond his grasp. There's Theresa, alluring but elusive, and Jamie, who is fickle if not wholly unavailable. But Jerome Coolberg is the most mysterious and compelling. Not only cryptic about himself, he seems also to have appropriated parts of Nathaniel's past that Nathaniel cannot remember having told him about. In this extraordinary novel of mischief and menace, we see a young man's very self vanishing before his eyes.
The author of the National Book Award-nominated "The Feast of Love" returns with this ninth book. "The Soul Thief" concerns a mild-mannered graduate student, Nathaniel, who falls under the spell of an affected outsider.
About the Author
Charles Baxter is the author of nine previous works of fiction, including Believers, The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), Saul and Patsy, and Through the Safety Net. He lives in Minneapolis.
Reading Group Guide
“Gloriously done. . . . It's like watching fire slowly travel up a curtain, waiting for the moment the whole cloth will be engulfed.”
—The New York Times
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Charles Baxter's The Soul Thief, a spellbinding novel about a man who truly finds himself only after his identity has been stolen.
1. Is The Soul Thief a work of “metafiction”? What aspects of its narrative structure—and of the narrators themselves—might be considered metafictional? How does it differ from more conventional, naturalistic novels?
2. A fellow grad student, Bob Rimjky, says of Jerome Coolberg: “Really, all he wants to do is acquire everyone's inner life” [p. 15]. Why would Coolberg want to possess other people's inner lives? In what ways is this kind of appropriation similar to what novelists do?
3. Coolberg accuses Nathaniel of “willful incomprehension. And convenient amnesia. You're just like this country . . . a champion of strategic forgetting” [p. 193]. Is this true of Nathaniel? In what ways is America a champion of “strategic forgetting”?
4. After it is revealed that Coolberg himself is “the author” of Nathaniel's story, the narrator says that “the point cannot be that one person can take on another's life . . . The point is that although love may die, what is said on its behalf cannot be consumed by the passage of time, and forgiveness is everything” [p. 203]. In what ways is The Soul Thief about love and forgiveness?
5. The Soul Thief exhibits a sharp satirical wit. What are Baxter's chief satirical targets in the novel? What does his satire reveal about these subjects?
6. In his role as host of the radio show, American Evenings, Coolberg guides his guests to a revelatory moment that uncovers “the story's secret heart” [p. 156]. What is the secret heart of The Soul Thief? How is it revealed?
7. In what ways does the act of telling stories save both Nathaniel and his sister? What is Baxter suggesting here about the power of stories?
8. When Nathaniel's sister regains her powers of speech, Nathaniel rejects the idea that this was a miracle. Instead, he attributes her recovery to “the force of compassion, which under certain circumstances can bring the dead to life.” He goes on to say that “though a prejudice exists in our culture against compassion, there being little profit in it, the emotion itself is ineradicable” [p. 153]. Why would compassion have the power to bring the dead to life? Is Nathaniel right in suggesting that there's a prejudice against compassion in our culture?
9. Why does Nathaniel fall in love with Theresa and Jamie? In what ways is his love for Jamie more real, even though she is a lesbian, than his love for Theresa? Why isn't Nathaniel ever able to get over Jamie?
10. Coolberg asserts that we're all copycats and that what he's done is really no different than what everyone does. Is he right? Are we all adopting other people's personalities or identities? How should Coolberg finally be judged?
11. Nathaniel asserts that identities are nothing more than “a pile of moldering personal clichés given sentimental value by the fact that someone owns them” [p. 87]. Does the sense of personal identity have any inherent value beyond the sentimental, either in the novel or in “real” life? Does the novel make a distinction between a soul and an identity?
12. Nathaniel wonders why Gertrude Stein keeps intruding on his consciousness. Why won't Stein leave him alone? In what ways is Stein relevant to The Soul Thief?
13. Why does Baxter end the novel with Nathaniel offering “blessings on everybody. Blessings without limit” [p. 210]? What has brought him to this sense of gratitude, forgiveness, and all-inclusive love?