Microsoft word - onepillmakesyousmallerrgg.doc
R E A D I N G G R O U P
One Pill Makes
by Lisa Dierbeck
A New York Times
Notable Book of the Year
ISBN: 0-312- 42286-5
About this Guide
Eleven-year-old Alice Duncan has a problem: growing at a breathtaking pace, her body has taken on a
life of its own. Heads turn whenever Alice leaves the house. Men everywhere are mesmerized by the
two huge globes that have miraculously sprouted from her chest. Full-figured and long-legged, Alice
freakishly towers over all of her peers. In school, among her fellow sixth graders, she is ridiculed--but
on the sidewalks of 1970s New York, Alice is popular, eye-catching, and sexy: an adult.
Young Alice is thus conflicted--and has no one to turn to. Her father, formerly a famous artist, has
checked himself into a chic mental institution; her mother has run off to Italy; and her thrill-seeking,
free-loving 16-year-old sister only wants to collect boyfriends and Led Zeppelin records. So, when she
is sent away to the Balthus Institute, a remote, under-populated summer camp that turns out to be an
exclusive art school, Alice finds herself immersed amid the gritty, exciting, and seductive glamour of
the contemporary art world. But once she meets J.D., an equally dangerous and charming local drug
dealer, Alice starts heading down a rabbit hole of perversion and distortion, mystery and betrayal,
unhappiness and self-gratification--in short, of growing up.
Cleverly based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
, One Pill Makes You Smaller
is an audacious and
fiercely original portrayal of one girl's perilous crossing into adulthood. Although its situations and
subjects are at times quite disturbing, this novel is "written in exuberant, gorgeous, propulsive prose,
[and] impossible to put down. [Dierbeck's] characters leap off the page with raw, anarchic chemistry;
her dialogue crackles with electricity. Alice's odyssey through a dark wilderness of the soul becomes a
celebration of art, our flawed humanity, and life" (Lauren Slater, author of Prozac Diary
1. What links did you find in how One Pill Makes You Smaller
addresses the notions of both
parenthood and morality--or the lack thereof? What about the links between artistic expression and personal experience?
2. Describe Alice Duncan. In what ways is she a victim? In what ways does she personify
empowerment, skill, control, and drive? What makes her different from other coming-of-age protagonists you might have encountered in past readings? What makes her similar to other such protagonists? On finishing this novel, explain how you felt about the way Alice "turned out"--especially in the book's final two chapters.
3. Youth is a key theme in these pages--its sweetness and innocence, of course, but also its perplexing
and fleeting qualities. How, if at all, would you characterize Alice's trustfulness, kindness, charity, wonder, and creativity as extensions, or by-products, of her youth? And how does the loss of Alice's youth over the course of this novel affect these related traits?
4. When does One Pill Makes You Smaller
take place? When it is set? To what extent is it "of its
time"--and to what extent is it timeless?
5. Both high and low culture run through the very bloodstream of this novel, in basically equal
measure. Which, if either, does the novel side with or favor? Explain. In your view, is this book finally critical or celebratory in its take on art--and artists, and artistry? Again, explain.
6. This novel is set in two very different realms: New York City and rural North Carolina. How
accurate, realistic, and/or genuine did each of these settings strike you, as a reader? Given the novel's troubling themes, difficult subjects, and harsh depictions of, for example, sex, adolescence, friendship, and family life--and given its thorough and deliberate echoing of Lewis Carroll's famous fiction--how successful is author Lisa Dierbeck in her effort to create for this book a world that is at once realistic and fantastic, painful and fanciful, urgent and dream-like? How does Dierbeck achieve this paradoxical setting, or doesn't she? Be specific in answering; refer to passages from the text.
7. Approximately the middle third of this novel depicts the seduction, intoxication, and molestation of
Alice in disturbing if not sickening detail--and with uncanny and engaging psychological insight. This nightmarish series of events has been fully orchestrated and executed, as we see, by J.D. That being so, explain these concluding remarks of the "Alice Underwater" chapter: "What happened between them would never feel, to Alice, like J.D.'s doing. It would seem for many years afterward as if she'd raped herself."
8. Many famous names appear throughout the novel. List as many as you can recall offhand. Next,
explain how such names function humorously, ironically, or otherwise when applied--as they are in these pages--to ordinary house pets, small towns, etc. In particular, consider Salinger, Balthus, Dodgson, and Chaplin--how do the private lives and personal affections of these four celebrated artists reflect Dierbeck's novel as a whole?
9. Reviewing Alice's classroom experiences at the Balthus Institute, try to articulate the opinion or
commentary this novel makes about art schools, creative writing programs, filmmaking workshops, etc.
10. Nietzsche is referred to more than once in this novel; Wittgenstein is also mentioned. The driver
who picks up Alice at the bus stop in Dodgson is working on a degree in linguists; later, at the art camp, Alice's works are criticized by some for being "merely beautiful." Discuss the philosophical dimensions of One Pill Makes You Smaller
, the concepts and beliefs that are explored, subverted, or embraced here.
11. As a group, talk about the narrator of this novel. Who is telling us this story? How and where do
the narrator's voice, intelligence, perspective, tone, and eye for detail mirror Alice's own? How and where do they differ? How empathetic is this narrator? And how objective?
12. Finally, consider this remark about Dierbeck's novel by writer Pagan Kennedy (author of Black
): "[It] exposes the two opposing forces--puritanism and hedonism--that have shaped American society." Would you agree with this? Explain why or why not. And, in your view, which of these two forces ultimately wins out in One Pill Makes You Smaller
--which force triumphs, in the end? Again, explain.
Praise for One Pill Makes You Smaller
"One Pill Makes You Smaller
is both instantly familiar and a little bit curious . . . Bracing . . .
[Dierbeck] takes many risks in this fine first novel, and one of the larger risks is overturning the
traditional optimism of the coming-of-age novel, the sense that its hero or heroine is about to be set
free in a wider world."-- The New York Times Book Review
"Dierbeck is an undeniably talented writer--especially when handling difficult material concerning
Alice's confusions over her body, her identity, and the adult world at large."--The Washington Post
"A stunning debut novel. Dierbeck's book is a wonderful, frightening, funny riff on Alice's Adventures
. Realistic and tough and altogether exhilarating. An up-all-night page-turner."--Newsday
"Provocative . . . A nuanced study in moral ambiguity; an expansive piece of cultural commentary. An
unsettling and original book."--The Boston Globe
"A mordantly funny, intelligent, and accurate look at one girl's experience growing up. Alice's
experiences are miserable, harrowing, illuminating, and wonderful, and fortunately for the reader,
Dierbeck allows her character the intelligence and breadth to have them all."--Mary Gaitskill, author
of Bad Behavior
"Wildly original . . . A miraculous fusion of dizzy confabulation and all too real grit and danger.
[Dierbeck's] sharp, vulnerable Alice is one of the most delightfully surprising heroines I've met in
contemporary fiction. The deepest pleasures of One Pill Makes You Smaller
come from love and
language, from the thrill of discovery, from Dierbeck's passion for her people as she leads us into their
magical, furious, twisting tales."--Melanie Rae Thon, author of Sweet Hearts
"A strange and extraordinary journey through a looking glass darkly . . . By turns terrifying, funny,
sinister, and, it must be sheepishly admitted, titillating . . . Dierbeck has a photographer's eye for detail
and a poet's heart for language."--David Rakoff, author of Fraud
"Fascinating, unsettling . . . A dreaminess suffuses One Pill Makes You Smaller
, as Dierbeck creates
an unforgettable, surreal atmosphere, and writes crackling, wicked dialogue. The book is thoroughly
engaging, extremely disquieting, and at times hilarious . . . [An] inspired novel loaded with creepiness
and shock."--The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Dierbeck shoots down the rabbit hole of 1970s misbehavior with this psychedelic debut, crafting a
weird and inspired paean to lost innocence . . . This unsettling and disorienting--but also deliciously
pop--account of deplorable actions and shattered innocence is a tour de force, a meshing of the myths
of the counterculture with the fantastic universe of Lewis Carroll . . . Genuinely original, compulsively
readable . . . Sure to stir up controversy."--Publishers Weekly
"This book is both an intensely individual story of sexual awakening and betrayal, as well as a
kaleidoscopic portrait of the historical milieu in which that betrayal occurs. [Dierbeck's] writing here
is intense yet restrained, deeply empathic but never melodramatic, unflinching in its moral purview
without sermonizing; that it is often unsettling and just as often slyly comic is a testament to her
rigorous control over her material. I have been following Lisa's career as a short-story writer for the
past couple of years, and I see in this novel all of the various fine qualities I've seen in those stories.
[One Pill Makes You Smaller
] is a wholly original work of fiction, and marks the auspicious debut of a
distinct and important perspective in American letters."--Dale Peck, author Hatchet Jobs About the Author Lisa Dierbeck
lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals
and anthologies, and has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Dierbeck has also written for Elle
, The New York Observer
, and The New York Times Book Review
. This is her first novel.
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