The Illusion of Separateness
Simon Van Booy, 2103
The characters in Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separateness discover at their darkest moments of fear and isolation that they are not alone, that they were never alone, that every human being is a link in a chain we cannot see.
This gripping novel—inspired by true events—tells the interwoven stories of a deformed German infantryman; a lonely British film director; a young, blind museum curator; two Jewish American newlyweds separated by war; and a caretaker at a retirement home for actors in Santa Monica.
They move through the same world but fail to perceive their connections until, through seemingly random acts of selflessness, a veil is lifted to reveal the vital parts they have played in one another's lives, and the illusion of their separateness. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Wales, UK
• Education—B.A., University of Plymouth; M.F.A.,
Long Island University
• Awards—Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award
• Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York City
Simon Van Booy is a British writer who lives in the United States. He grew up in rural Wales, but has lived in Kentucky, Paris, Athens, New York City and the Hamptons. Love Begins in Winter won the 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
Van Booy has written two collections of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love (2011 Finalist Award for The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature) and Love Begins in Winter, which won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the world's richest short story prize. The New York Times said that “Incurable romantics will savor Simon Van Booy’s tender, Maupassant-like fables.” While the Los Angeles Times said of Van Booy’s, The Secret Lives of People in Love” [that], “One worries, after reading a debut short-story collection this breathtaking, what Simon Van Booy could possibly do for an encore. Write something longer?”
Van Booy's first novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, was released in 2011 and was nominated for the 2012 Indies Choice Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, The Illusion of Separateness was released in 2013. Publishers Weekly gave the novel starred review, saying "the writing is what makes this remarkable book soar."
Works of philosophy
Van Booy is the editor of three volumes of philosophy, entitled Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don't Matter, which the Economist said “have an instinctive appeal.” The Wall Street Journal described Van Booy's books as “brimming with thoughts from history's pre-eminent ponderers.”
Van Booy's essays have been published in newspapers internationally, including the New York Times, New York Post, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Mail, (London) Times. They have also been broadcast on National Public Radio. Van Booy's essays cover topics such as fashion, literacy, history, travel, and living with his daughter as a single-parent.
Stage and screen
In 2011 Van Booy delivered his first full-length stage comedy, and wrote an award-winning short film for the Morgans Hotel Group called Love Is Like Life But Longer, directed by Poppy de Villeneuve, and starring Jeremy Strong, Maya Kazan, and Joan Copeland.
Teaching and lecturing
Van Booy lectures frequently at schools, universities, and libraries in the US, UK, and China. He teaches part-time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and at Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus. He is an advocate of education as a means of social reform, and involved in the Rutgers University Early College Humanities program (REaCH) for young adults living in under-served communities.
In 2009 Van Booy’s collection of short stories, Love Begins in Winter, was launched at Partners & Spade in New York City, a studio and storefront which “produces films, books, apparel, and conceptual products as well as marketing and branding projects for select corporate clients.” Van Booy was the curator of an exhibition of props and dioramas of dramatic scenes from his story collection, which included custom-made stethoscopes (with quotes from the stories) and vintage Renault workshop posters, all designed by Van Booy. Since 2009, Partners & Spade have carried Van Booy’s “custom vintage Antarctic explorers’ skis,” and cold-weather hats, which he designed to support research in Antarctic regions and raise awareness for the Scott Polar Research Institute at University of Cambridge. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/17/2013.)
[F]ractured but fine-tuned narrative revealed through the sum of its pieced-together parts. The story is based on actual events and told from the perspective of six distantly related characters in alternating chapters stretching from New York in 1939 to France throughout WWII, and to East Sussex, England, and Los Angeles, Calif., both in 2010.... Using restraint and a subtle dose of foreshadowing,...the writing is what makes this remarkable book soar.
[A] spare, elliptical story of human connection, framed by the horror of World War II.... [T]he narrative leaps back and forth in time, introducing characters and events whose associations emerge slowly.... Verdict: At first glance, clues to what's happening seem uncomfortably scattered; at second glance, the story snaps together beautifully. A brilliant if elusive novel that shows how a single act can echo through time; definitely recommended, though not for easy-reading folks. —Barbara Hoffert
Wartime violence prompts a handful of lives to intersect deeply.... [T]he author retains an abiding interest in interconnectedness, and his tone remains poetic and optimistic.... [T]he overall sense is that Van Booy is foregrounding a we're-all-in-this-together theme that many novelists needlessly obscure. This gentle book feels like a retort: Why not just say how much we owe each other? And so Van Booy does.
1. Define the phrase "illusion of separateness." The author uses it three times—in the epitaph, as the name of a photo exhibit curated by one of the book's characters, and as the book's title. How do all three tie together? What is the author's message to the reader about "separateness"? Is it a part of the human condition that we feel isolated and alone? Describe the ways in which all the characters in the novel are connected.
2. In your group, have each member play the game "six degrees of separation." What, if any, links do you share that you had not realized—or consciously recognized—before?
3. Think about the various characters. How did their choices unite the circle of their connection? Focus on one. What might he or she have done that would have broken the link?
4. Does it matter that at the end of the novel, the various characters do not recognize their importance to each other? Is it enough that you, the reader, understand the link between them? How do such invisible links shape our lives?
5. At the beginning of the novel, after Martin discovers the truth of his existence, the author writes, "He had been reborn into the nightmare of truth. The history of others had been his all along." What is the author's conveying with these words?
6. Amelia describes being blind. "Being blind is not like you would imagine. It's not like closing your eyes and trying to see. I don't feel as though I'm lacking. I see people by what they say to others, by how they move and how they breathe." Think about this. Do you think that while sight affords us much, it also closes us off to other aspects of life, and makes us "blind" in another kind of way? Do you "see" with all of your senses? How can doing so change your perception?
7. Amelia tells us that she believes, "people would be happier if they had admitted things more often. In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment—we are all defined by something we can't change." Do you agree with her? How are each of the characters defined by something they cannot change? How do they adapt to this defining element? What about your own life? Is their something that you cannot change that would like to? How do you cope with this?
8. Discuss the origin of Mr. Hugo's name. Is this an apt moniker for him? Is he reminiscent of a character from a Hugo novel?
9. Analyze the structure of the novel. Why do you think the author chose this structure versus straight linear narrative? Would the story have the same emotional impact if it had been told from one or two character's points of view alone? What makes this a novel rather than a collection of short stories?
10. What was your emotional reaction to the book? Did you relate to one character more than another? What did you take away from reading The Illusion of Separateness?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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