Below, you will find a series of questions intended to enhance your book club’s discussion of Three Is the Loneliest Crowd. These questions can help your reading group find new ways to think about and discuss this novel. We recommend that you accompany your discussion with a velvety plum Merlot and sliced blood oranges arranged elegantly on a plate–and enjoy!
1) At first, Jessica and Agatha are strangers to each other and, of course, themselves. Though Jessica doesn’t know Agatha, the author makes it clear that she knows enough to know that Agatha (as a person in specific) or Agathas (as a type of person in general) exist(s). In Chapter One, she stands behind the woman she does not know as Agatha or as an Agatha and inhales her perfume. She thinks, Diamonds. She thinks, I could really use an escape. When she smells that perfume with its diamonds and weekends on Jonathan’s collar, is this a cliché? If so, are clichés the most effective way for us to learn?
2) Explain why Jessica imagines Agatha(s) in a black dress with red heels. Explain why Agatha (as a person in specific) owns six black dresses but no red heels. Is Jessica’s Agatha more Agatha than Agatha’s? Can we ever really know ourselves and the color our shoes should wear?
3) In Chapter Three, Jessica scrubs the kitchen linoleum with a toothbrush. Jonathan sits in the living room, and he looks at pretty much nothing. He is thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt. He is thinking about Agatha. He draws two circles and two circles inside of those two circles. He draws this with permanent marker. He draws this on the white wall. Later it is revealed that the toothbrush Jessica used belongs to Jonathan. What does Jonathan deserve? What does this tell us about human intimacy? Is there anything one can ever say?
4) When we watch as Agatha stops by the avocados at Food World, she squeezes each one. She is both gentle and not gentle. Everything is too green for her. Why can Agatha accept no one else’s vision of peace?
5) In Chapter Four, Jessica holds up a pair of brown pumps and a pair of red pumps. She wants to know which will best match her navy blue dress. She asks Agatha for advice, as always, as she always seems to have the best collections of words. This time, however, Agatha lets her head speak for her. She shakes it, slowly, to the left and then to the right. When Jessica sighs and says, “Nothing matches, nothing ever matches enough,” what is she saying about the way women love?
6) In the bookcase section of Chapter Five, Jonathan describes bolts as male and nuts as female. What is he saying about the way he sees Jessica? What does Jessica think he is saying about the way he sees her?
7) Agatha says that she hates Jessica for her miniature dachshund, her cabbie hat, and the photograph where she frames her right eye with a sideways peace sign. Are these legitimate reasons for jealousy, and if so, should Agatha have built that staircase to Jessica’s bed?
8) In Chapter Seven, Agatha finds a yellow finch. She cuts a door in her chest, small and large enough for the bird, and then closes the door when she wants to feel the thrum and hum of its wings. Is the bird satisfied? Is she?
9) Some say that love is a question. Some say that there are questions for which no answer exists. If you believe that love is a question for which no answer exists, are you obligated to say that Jonathan was right to blame Agatha’s teeth?
10) During the ice storm, Jessica worries while Jonathan takes a shower. She worries that he isn’t warm enough, that his body won’t be able to gather and hold heat. She lays Jonathan’s thermal undershirt and pants on the bed. She is careful to keep them from wrinkling. She knows this is as far as she can go when it comes to telling Jonathan what to do. Is she right to hope that this arrangement is suggestion enough?
11) In a flashback, we watch as Jessica and Agatha first meet. They’re in a crowd of people. Every person in that crowd is counting the fire trucks outside of the elementary school. At first no one remembers: is Thursday a fire drill day or not? At first no one can tell: is this real or is it unreal? Jessica and Agatha try to think of answers. They try not to look at or recognize each other or themselves. When the third fire truck drives away, the crowd begins to disperse. Agatha asks Jessica if she can hear an alarm. Jessica says no, she guesses not, but she thinks she can see some blue lights. Take some time, as a group, to reflect and consider if warnings and drills are ever effective, or if they simply allow us to pretend we’re prepared.
12) Because she doesn’t want to fight over thermal underwear again, Jessica zips her hoodie all the way up then slides the hoodie over her hair and half of her forehead. She arranges herself on the couch in such a way as to appear very, very asleep. Jonathan wears the thermal pants under his sweatpants. He does not wear a shirt. In the apartment complex past the bi-way and the reservoir, Agatha plugs in her percolator then waits and waits for her water to boil. It doesn’t. Agatha had forgotten about the freezing rain, how it burdened the power lines until they broke. For which character is the accompanying metaphor most accurate and true? Is there a difference between accuracy and truth?
13) Why do you think that Jessica packs the last of the green beans in Tupperware before she walks into the blizzard with no coat but with a corkscrew, her old diary, and a magnum of Merlot?
14) When Jessica leaves Jonathan, she leaves a closet full of bad hangers. She sets an oscillating fan on high and aims it into the closet. The fan pushes the hangers together into a clutter of clatters then turns so the hangers can have peace again. Jessica watches the process one and two and three and four times. She nods succinctly. She is satisfied. In Chapter Eight, it takes Jonathan two hours to find the source of the clatter. It takes two more hours for him to realize that Jessica’s pantsuits and perfumes and collected spare buttons are gone. It takes two more hours for him to realize that the Jessica who wore pantsuits and perfumes and collected spare buttons is gone. He sleeps that night on the back porch, in a sleeping bag against the concrete. When he dreams, he dreams that he loses all of his teeth except a single incisor. This disappoints him. Why can’t Jonathan finish anything, even in his own sleep?
15) Explain why Jonathan brings Agatha a grocery bag of blood oranges when he comes to tell her he belongs to her.
16) Explain why Jonathan never says that he belongs to himself.
17) Agatha takes the grocery bag and crushes each blood orange beneath her navy pumps until she feels the peel give way and the pulp squeeze free. Are her actions justified? Why does Jonathan wait to leave until the last orange is destroyed?
18) In the final chapter, Jonathan and Jessica and Agatha are all at the community pool. With their new sunglasses and new spouses and new jobs and new bodies, they almost do not recognize each other. Jessica is the lifeguard, which has its own significance. She whistles with her whistle every time a child walks too quickly alongside the pool. Agatha has a five-year-old daughter who is constantly and consistently thirsty. Agatha feeds five quarters into the vending machine and asks for a bottle of water in return. The machine gives her a Mountain Dew. She’s heading to the clubhouse to complain when she hears the whistle, shrill as any disappointment. Her daughter has removed her floaties and half of her ladybug swimsuit. Jonathan rubs sunscreen over his wife’s white shoulders and back and arm and hands. He hides his new gut under a gray t-shirt. In the pool, his nine-year-old son aims at super-soaker at each of the other swimmers’ eyes in turn. The whistle blows. Jessica screams, “Hey,” a sound that for Agatha and for Jonathan, each in their separate lawn chairs and flip-flops and marriages and mortgages, creates a revelation they do not wish to maintain. Agatha gathers her towels. Jonathan turns his face, then his back. Jessica yells, “Out of the pool, mister. No second chances allowed.” Can you feel change happening inside of you? What does your mirror say? Discuss what you would do if you looked up and noticed a gun aimed in exquisite precision straight at the skin above the bridge of your nose.
ABOUT “THREE IS THE LONELIEST CROWD : DISCUSSION QUESTIONS”:
I was late to the Miranda July Party, as I usually am with such things, and didn’t read her much-lauded No One Belongs Here More Than You until 2011. By that time it seemed that everyone had attended the Miranda July Party, which was a good thing, as I became pretty obsessed with the book and turned to Google to find out what other people were saying about it. Most of the links led to book club discussion questions about the book. Instead of allowing the reader to dwell inside the mystery of July’s language, the book-club questions forced the reader into banal readings of the text.
I was baffled. All of this time I had imagined the Miranda July Party like a rave in an aquarium, and these questions made it seem like a Tupperware party. I was also oddly inspired—though the questions seemed to discuss Tupperware-like stories dramatically different from the ones that I had read and experienced, they still suggested—and thus, created—something new. I decided to see if I could find some way to turn the tables on this form that had taken the mystery out of July’s work by using it to make a narrative utterly dependent on mystery. “Three Is The Loneliest Crowd” is the result.–EB
Emma Bolden is the author Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) and medi(t)ations (forthcoming from Noctuary Press). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and one of nonfiction. Her poetry and prose has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, the Southern Humanities Review, the Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and Copper Nickel.