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Guide to Alligator by Lisa Moore

Alligator by Lisa MooreLisa Moore’s Alligator moves with the swiftness of a gator in attack mode through the lives of a group of brilliantly rendered characters in contemporary St. John’s, Newfoundland — a city whose spiritual location is somewhere in Flannery O’Connor country.

Its denizens jostle each other in uneasy arabesques of desire, greed, lust, and ambition, while yearning for purity, depth, and redemption.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does the first chapter—skillfully and shockingly—hurtle you forward into the novel’s world? What kind of pictures and devices does the author use to convey the sense that it may be an unusually dangerous and cruel place?
  2. The book’s narrative, like that of some independent movies, takes place in a kind of split frame, alternating the stories of Colleen, Frank, Beverly, Madeleine, and Valentin, and according them equal importance. The characters’ thoughts flash back constantly to the past, and then forward again. What does this disjointed framework say about the characters and their relationships.
  3. Newfoundland, thinks Valentin, is “a cold and ugly island that hardly existed,could not be found on many maps” (77). How does the island shape its inhabitants? Do they feel isolated, adrift, stranded in their own lives? How does Moore contrast this with the image of the cruise ships which are often docked in the harbor?
  4. As Beverly finds out that her teenaged daughter Colleen has been arrested, a TV screen in her home shows wrecking balls smashing into buildings all over the world. Where else do images from videos, computers, or TVs seem to parallel the characters’ emotions? What could Moore be saying about modern life with these comparisons?
  5. Colleen remembers that the Christmas cologne she gave David, her beloved stepfather, ended up “under the sink in the guest bathrooms . . . the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust” (p. 31). What are other times in the novel that the overt actions of love seem purposeless? Do Moore’s depictions of love found and lost, fought for and abandoned, long-lasting and strong, seem typical? What is the ideal form of love as presented in the novel?
  6. “There’s a point”, Isobel remarks, “when there’s more behind you than what’s ahead. It’s called regret. It can happen any time in a life—when what has happened is more vivid than what will happen” (p. 190). During the novel, Madeleine and Isobel often think back to their first loves, the most intense and satisfying that they’ve known. Isobel seems to be saying that there is only one “prime” in any person’s lifetime. Do you agree?
  7. When Colleen nearly dies in a car accident, the man she’s driving with tells her what he’s been thinking. He gives it to her straight. “This is for free, Colleen. There’s only life. There’s not the life you are living and the life you might have lived” (p.150). What life does she suddenly realize that she has been mourning for years? Do her personality and her actions change, after this incident, for the better? Is this true to real life?
  8. Frank’s thrift and his hard work are heroic. Yet in the novel’s harsh world, he can’t succeed. Why not? What qualities might be more useful to him than mere virtue?
  9. Frank’s terrible fate is foreshadowed throughout the novel. For example, there is a Haunted House walking tour whose leader always seems to point to Frank’s house, where a grisly murder once happened. What are other signs that a painful reckoning is coming?
  10. Beverly is perhaps the novel’s most ordinary character. She is also, unlike the others, patient and stoic. “It was a matter of putting your weight behind something, all your weight. Giving yourself over to a chore, believing it was worthwhile”, she thinks to herself (p. 100). Does her bland steadiness come to seem admirable to you? Or do you feel she plays it too safe?
  11. Madeleine is obsessed with the film she’s directing, a first feature which she hopes will be her final “monument” (p. 302). On its behalf, she’ll attempt the impossible—even airlifting horses by helicopter. Who are the other artists in the novel? What are they willing and unwilling to sacrifice for their art?
  12. With her “monument” still unfinished, Madeleine suffers a heart attack. “The great monuments,” she thinks as she’s dying, “You go out of your way to see them, but they never stick in your memory” (p. 303). During this final scene, she thinks of her ex-husband Marty and his new child. Does she have regrets? Why did she choose to leave him?
  13. Throughout the novel we are aware of worms clustering in the trees overhead, infesting them like a kind of plague. Not even the scientists are sure whether the worms will succeed in killing the island’s green elms. When Madeleine dies, the plague seems to dissolve in a rapture of white moths. Does this ending—painful death, mixed with release—seem hopeful to you, or despairing?
  14. Frank’s mother has died from cancer; Valentin’s has disappeared. Colleen’s mother is paralyzed by the loss of her husband, unable to fully love. Does their lack of a mother stunt these characters in any way? Do they bring to mind any fairy tales or myths?
  15. Valentin carefully plots a crime to make his fortune so that he can escape Newfoundland. Did you ever think he would succeed? Does he ever falter or show any compassion whatsoever? Do you think this is the end of his story?
  16. The novel’s heart of darkness—its green, lush center—is Colleen’s visit to the Louisiana reserve where Loyola lives. There, she is almost bitten by one of his alligators. What do you think the alligator in the title represents? Which of the characters risks the jaws of death, the way Loyola does?
  17. Frank and Isobel finally meet at the end, when she buys business cards from the copy shop where he works. Isobel wants to leave them grandly blank, but Frank says, “You’re going to have to say something” (p. 299). Now that Valentin’s great fire has burned itself out, are there new signs of affirmation and rebirth in the novel’s landscape? How does the author hint that Frank and Isobel’s lives, at least, are going to improve?

Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted (2005)

ReLit Award
Winner (2006)

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada and the Caribbean): Best Book
Winner (2006)

Thomas H. Raddall Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted (2006)

Bennington Gate Fiction Award
Shortlisted (2005)

Orange Broadband Prize
Longlisted (2007)

IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Longlisted (2007)

© 2010 House of Anansi Press

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Posted by Pearl on Aug 20 2010. Filed under Reading Guides. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
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