1. The narrative is framed by four castles – a sandcastle at Coney Island, the Castle Oil Co. gas station, the Castelo São Jorge in Lisbon, and a former White Castle that has been taken over by Rastafarians and turned into a vegetarian restaurant and home base for The Gun Court of Zion, a black separatist militia. How is each castle described, and what do those descriptions say about the relationship between them? What are the differences in Peter Elazigui’s perception of each castle? Why do you think Peter eats a piece of the castle in Lisbon? How do the events surrounding his resulting sickness cause the reader to question his or her own assumptions about Peter’s relationship with his father? How does this relate to the theme of misdirection we see throughout the work?
2. Peter’s father tells him: “I only wanted to be a hero to you.” In light of the subsequent events in the narrative, what do these last words suggest about Peter’s father’s awareness of the government conspiracy to cover up the existence of the “gray gold?” What does it mean that both the pimpled man beneath the roller coaster at Coney Island and the bank teller in Lisbon both repeat Peter’s father’s last words to him? How are Peter’s feelings towards his father significant, and do we as readers share them?
3. When Peter accurately and unknowingly describes the location of the mines in which the gray gold was found on his father’s childhood farm in the Philippines, do you think this is a repressed memory, a genuine vision, or an early example of the psychic manipulation that is revealed later in the story? Why? What are the separate loyalties that weigh Peter down over the course of the narrative? What is suggested by Peter’s later alignment with Jah Stitchie of The Gun Court of Zion, given that the group’s espoused tenets run counter to Peter’s own interests?
4. If your own decisions were coerced through subconscious manipulation, of which you were never aware, would this lack of awareness itself constitute a type of free will?
5. Peter first meets Luis Powell at the magic shop next to the Castle Oil gas station, where Luis is transforming lemons to limes and back again. What is indicated by Luis’ reluctance to perform more dangerous or consequential magic tricks, such as sawing his assistant, The Lovely Mariposa, in half? Luis never explains his “Jungian Saxophone” illusion – do you think he’s really playing the saxophone telekinetically? What does Peter’s attraction to The Lovely Mariposa show about his desires, sexual and otherwise?
6. In Peter’s memory, his father often speaks in platitudes we later see on billboards, magazine ads, and television commercials used as government propaganda. Does this link suggest collusion between Peter’s father and the Americans found dead in the mines beneath his childhood farm, or does it cause us to question the veracity of Peter’s memories themselves? Do you think his father’s neglect was actually an act of protection, as Luis suggests? What could Peter’s father have been protecting him from?
7. From the opening paragraph, in which a snake hidden inside a conch shell at the aquarium bites Peter Elazigui, through to the tornado that sucks up a train “like a toddler slurping a strand of spaghetti,” the prose uses metaphorical images of a battle between the linear and the circular. Why? How does this recurring metaphor influence the structure of the narrative? Given that the gray gold is never described, do you assume its shape is spherical or angular, or some combination of the two?
8. When The Lovely Mariposa is hit by a plane, we are told that the heat from the subsequent explosion immolates her into near-nothingness. Do you think Peter’s subsequent “hysteria” is The Lovely Mariposa’s will being transmitted to him as he inhales the countless microscopic pieces of her body, or has he simply been overcome by grief? Are Peter’s feelings significant, and do we as readers share them? How else does The Lovely Mariposa’s consciousness pervade the rest of the work?
9. What do you think a castle tastes like?
10. What are the conflicts between the economic ideology and the religious teachings of Jah Stitchie, and do these conflicts invalidate the dogma of The Gun Court of Zion or strengthen it? Why? Is there an indication in the text that Jah Stitchie’s algorithms for predicting the stock market are plausible, or is his success just dumb luck? When Jah Stitchie is arrested after following Peter’s psychic guidance and Peter is asked about the failings of his prescience, why does Peter insist that he gave true answers to false questions?
11. On his drive through the salt flats, Peter sees a billboard on which years of pitted winds have stripped the layer of covering whitewash, and the following message has again become visible: “He who is not man, feeling, or force of will, yet exists within their unification, God is in the contradiction of all things; He is not even God; He is everywhere and nowhere, neither the shell of the nautilus nor the horns of the ram but the logarithmic spiral that shapes them both, neither love nor pain but the difficult and imperceptible journey between the two; He who makes the grain of sand mirror the mountain which gave it birth, He who resides six inches off the border of our ever-expanding universe, He who occupies the vast empty space in an atom – neither electron nor nucleus – that makes everything more nothing than something; God is the heat from a prayer which one keeps in in the unholiest of places, the human heart; He is the joke that gets funnier the more times you hear it, He is the weight of an orgasm, and He is the mathematical impossibility that is the soul, your soul, which could never not be.” Do you agree?
12. Why is the middle third of the story told from the point of view of a computer?
13. What would you say to your father if you had one chance to speak to him again?
14. Why does Luis not take the payout after Peter tips him off that the gas station slot machine is about to hit a jackpot on three consecutive pulls? Are luck and fate also constructions of the powers that be, to be manipulated as crudely as a used car salesman running back the odometer on a lemon? Is the Gun Court Dollar worthless, given that it’s backed only by gray gold, or does this prove Jah Stitchie’s alignment with the shadow government? Why is Luis Powell the only person who acknowledges Peter after his identity has been erased? Is it significant that Luis is aging in reverse? Is there a connection between the slot machine and the tornadoes that occur in greater strength after each jackpot?
15. How is the last chapter a microcosm of the work as a whole? Why do all the castles fall simultaneously? Which castles do you think will be rebuilt? What might grow from the hollow ground of Peter’s father’s farm? Why does Peter feel both “terror” and “ecstasy” when he learns that, despite no longer having a body, The Lovely Mariposa is pregnant? What is the significance of those feelings, and do we as readers share them? Is there hope of a resolution from this state of constant change? Do you think Peter will serve as an attentive father to his child or is he doomed to repeat the sins of his own family?
16. Is the unity of terror and ecstasy a reasonable approximation of love?
17. How much would the average-sized newborn weigh if it were made of gold?