1. The importance of language lies at the center of this novel, told as an interior monologue by the introspective and fittingly named Ramble. Begin your discussion of the work by considering the numerous ways in which the author demonstrates Ramble’s love of language. How does this help Ramble, and how does it impede her? Think about the trustworthiness of words as a means of communication.
2. While Ramble’s name aptly describes her tendency to meander in the telling of a story, why is it an ironic name for her in another sense? Why do you think she is referred to by her last name only by young people, and by a vague term of endearment (“girly,” “darling”) by older people? Look at other names in the novel and consider whether they carry a sense of their bearer’s character.
3. How effective did you find the narrative, told as it spills from Ramble’s mind, spinning through the details of her present and past, stopping for multiple asides as she feeds her fascination for etymology? Did this method of narration bring you closer to Ramble? What about the other characters?
4. The novel opens with Ramble mulling over her husband’s unexpected ending of their marriage over lunch. How does she respond to his verbal attack? What are his stated reasons for his decision? How does Ramble feel? Why do you think she experiences guilt? Talk about what we learn about Ramble both from Con’s statements and from Ramble’s interpretations and reinterpretations of his words.
5. Con’s departure serves as a starting off point for Ramble to analyze her relationship with him, and her life in general. How far would you agree that his act of leaving her serves as a catalyst—if by catalyst we mean something that provokes significant change?
6. As Ramble replays Con’s spiel in her mind she translates particular phrases or dwells on certain words (“I think you need to widen your social circle” becomes “make your own fucking friends”) until the original speech has been transformed. What does this say about the integrity of language? Find other instances in the novel where language shifts or becomes confusing or misinterpreted—often with tragic or comic results.
7. Expanding on this theme, given that all events in the narrative are filtered through Ramble’s mind and we have seen the elastic nature of language and its interpretation, how reliable a narrator can she be? How far are we able to know Ramble? Consider whether we ever see Ramble through another character’s eyes.
8. Rambles states that if she were told she had only thirty seconds left to live she would “be passive and yet violently alert” (p. 26). To what extent would you agree that this describes her state throughout the novel? What are your feelings for her as the heroine of the novel—or would anti-heroine be a more accurate description? Are you able to empathize with her? As the novel progresses do you find yourself agreeing with Con, especially with his accusation “you don’t know how to relate to other people?”
9. It is interesting that Ramble chooses not to tell her mother about the dissolution of her marriage. Why? Talk about Ramble’s relationship with her mother. Why do you think both Con and Johnson seem to admire her mother? Describe and discuss her relationship with her father.
10. As Ramble plumbs her family history a pattern of mismatched relationships appears—Con and Ramble, Ramble’s parents and her grandparents, Stella and Alphonso Ramble. Find examples that illustrate each couple’s differences. Consider the fact that Stella Ramble remained married but had an affair while her father chose to leave his marriage after many years of unhappiness. Where does Ramble fit into the scheme of things? Perhaps this is one possible reading of the novel’s title When to Walk?
11. Her grandmother, Stella Ramble, suffers a form of dementia and has very little short-term memory. Why is this especially distressing to Ramble? Why do you think she is so eager to find out more about the photograph of the hat shop?
12. The fluid nature of truth and falsehood perhaps forms the novel’s core and ripples throughout Ramble’s thoughts and actions. Consider her fascination with Edward Lloyd, king of the perfect liars in 1840s England. How does the nature of Ramble’s work fit into the theme of truth and deception in the novel?
13. Misinterpretation of words is rife throughout the novel. In the light of this viewpoint consider the role of Beata with her stilted English.
14. Humor simmers beneath the surface of the novel, often appearing as pathos or comic absurdity. How would you describe this brand of humor? Find examples to illustrate your viewpoints. Discuss the importance of jokes and puns to the humor of the novel, to Ramble’s character, and as they affect the overall theme of language in the novel.
15. Mrs. Shaw flits briefly into and out of Ramble’s life but wreaks great changes with her ungrammatical advice “sort your head out a little bit previous next time you’re, right, in trouble, whatever, so they can’t get you, you know?” (p. 165) and her note “Be smart.” Talk about the character of Mrs. Shaw and the ways in which she complements Ramble. Think about whether they might be alike in some ways. Does Ramble take her advice or does it just happen to parallel her own thoughts? Why is Mrs. Shaw’s best story about the perfect lie so fascinating to Ramble?
16. It seems that, with the arrival of Mrs. Shaw, Ramble becomes more self-conscious about her limp and describes herself in no uncertain terms as “a cripple” and addresses herself as “gimpy legs.” Why do you think this is? Ramble’s physical condition plays a central role in the narrative on both a figurative and literal level. Expand upon the use of her infirmity as a metaphor for her inaction. Take into account the novel’s title.
17. How is Ramble’s deafness relevant to the novel as a whole?
18. Mrs. Shaw introduces Ramble to a world she has never known, that of petty crime, and along with it a whole new set of expressions (rinsing, a trip around the world). Find other examples of subjects in the novel that possess their own special words or idioms.
19. Ramble states that she married Con because it was the “brave thing to do” (p. 64). What do you think she means by that? Think about the importance of music in their relationship as a method of communication. What was the significance of Con’s decision to compose using headphones, especially in view of Ramble’s statement “When I married him, I was pleased to be able to hide in the noise of his life” (p. 158). Compare the use of music in Ramble’s parent’s marriage.
20. Do you agree with Con that “There can never be anything dishonest about trying to make music do what it does as perfectly as possible” (p. 218)?
21. Discuss the character of Johnson Pike, and analyze where he fits into the novel. How surprised are you to discover that he finds Ramble sexually attractive? Does this change your view of her? Did it make you reconsider the frankly self-deprecating image of herself that Ramble has been presenting? How far do you agree with Johnson when he says “Switch your brain off, Ramble” (p. 195)?
22. What is your feeling as you hear Con’s voice on the stairs and realize that he has come back to Ramble? What does this say about your affinity for Ramble?
23. Chart the movement of Ramble’s feelings over the course of the novel from feeling “bewildered” and “guilty” at the beginning to her decision to “be smart” (p. 233). How does she get from “waiting to find out what happens next” to understanding that “I was in it: next had begun. Next was now” (p. 233)?
24. Consider the irony of these two understatements and how they complement each other “The usual: library, Stella Ramble, work, the usual” (p. 213) (Ramble’s answer to how she has spent her week), and Con’s desperate plea to “let’s just look forwards and try to forget all the stupid details” (p. 219).
25. The novel ends on a positive note with Ramble boarding the night bus and viewing herself as someone worthy of a good friend. What do you project for her future?
Suggestions for further reading:
Men and Women by Robert Browning; The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov; Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald; I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; American Purgatorio by John Haskell; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
Nil By Mouth, dir. Gary Oldman (1997); Wonderland, dir. Michael Winterbottom (1999)