This reading group guide for Half World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Scott O’Connor. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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The year is 1956 and CIA analyst Henry March has uprooted his wife, Ginnie, and his children, sensitive Hannah and autistic Thomas, to bring them to a new home in Oakland, California. Tasked with running clandestine mind control and hallucinogenic drug experiments on unsuspecting men, March sets up shop in a makeshift brothel on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill with his partners Jimmy Dorn and Dr. Cameron Clarke. March attempts to keep his family life separate from his work across the bay; but when maintaining dual identities proves impossible, he vanishes suddenly, leaving behind his family and the truth about what happened within the brothel walls.
Almost twenty years later, Dickie Ashby is dispatched to investigate a series of bank robberies in Orange County that appear to be somehow connected to the CIA’s mind control experiments. His investigation leads him first to a group of young radicals obsessed with finding March, and eventually to Hannah March, whom he decides to protect no matter what the cost. Lyrically written and utterly compelling, Scott O’Connor’s Half World
is a fresh and revealing exploration of a hidden chapter of American history and the individuals impacted by the actions of a government hungry for progress at any cost. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How do March, Dorn, and Dr. Clarke justify their actions at the Telegraph Hill apartment? What do they believe they are accomplishing, and why do they feel that their violence, brutality, and manipulation are essential to the job? Is it patriotism that drives them, duty to their superiors, belief in the project, or something else?
2. March’s sudden disappearance leaves a void in the lives of his wife, children, and his partners Dorn and Clarke. Who is most impacted by March’s betrayal and why? How does March’s disappearance impact Hannah and Ginnie’s relationship in particular? How does March’s betrayal compare to that of his CIA mentor and colleague, Arthur Weir?
3. From “the incident” at the CIA Christmas party (“March standing before them, a pale ghost,” there, and then gone) to creating a new identity for himself as Henry Gladwell to constructing a life for himself as “the white ghost” in Mexico, March spends most of the novel trying to disappear. What drives March’s obsession with distancing himself from his life and who he is? Why is becoming a ghost preferable to being a man? By the end of the novel, have March’s efforts to disappear proven successful?
4. Young Hannah is deathly afraid of a nuclear attack on San Francisco, “radiation in the air; desperate criminal activity; still-falling masonry.” She implores her father to photograph the city for her to ensure her that things are normal and she is safe. How does such a fearful child grow into an adult who seems to actively courts danger, from hitchhiking with strangers and leaving her apartment and gallery unlocked to taking in Dickie and venturing to Mexico to seek her father? Why does Hannah remain obsessed with a photo of her father taken outside the Merchants Exchange in San Francisco?
5. When asked by her new neighbors in Oakland what her husband does for a living, Ginnie identifies Henry as a photographer. Years later, we learn that Henry is working as a photographer in Mexico, among the other jobs he takes on there. Hannah also works as a photographer in Los Angeles, capturing images of runaways and architecture in between her corporate gigs. Why is photography the art form that Henry and Hannah choose to capture the world? Why do Henry and Hannah prefer photographing people who are unaware of their cameras and believe that “there was some sacred space that disappeared when they were aware”?
6. Dickie lies to the Sons about his experiences with mind control but feels liberated by telling them the truth about the rest of his life, from Vietnam to Ann Arbor to Portland. How much of Dickie is truly invested in the mission of the Sons, and how much of him is pretending to be one of them? How does Dickie’s life change when he participates in the bank robbery and shoots one of the guards?
7. How does Dickie’s relationship with Mary Margaret and the fallout from the bombing in Portland compare to his loss of his mother and witnessing his father’s descent into dementia? How does the way in which Dickie is impacted by the events in his constructed life differ from the way that he is impacted by events in his “real” life?
8. Years after his experiences at Telegraph Hill, Denver Dan/Lawrence Tarhammer has renamed himself Robert Zelinsky, a science fiction writer whose novels about mind control recount stories similar to his and galvanize young radicals. Why is it important to Zelinksy to document these cases of mind control? How did the mind control experiments and fallout from them shape his own life? Were you surprised to see the extent to which Zelinsky’s life was transformed by what happened that night in Chinatown? How does he become crucial in connecting Dickie’s story to March’s story?
9. Reading Zelinsky’s novels, Dickie observes: “The books have a lot of this kind of doubling back, characters wondering what memories can or can’t be trusted, who and what’s been planted to push them forward on their missions versus what’s real, what’s actually been lived.” How is this statement applicable to Dickie’s assessments and memories of own life? How is it applicable to Hannah’s?
10. Twenty years after the Telegraph Hill experiments, Jimmy Dorn is sick, isolated, and deeply impacted by what he’s done. How has Dorn’s work with March affected his life and relationships? Why doesn’t he seek treatment for the cancer wreaking havoc on his body? What drives Dorn to go after Dickie and March? What would it mean for him to die without confronting March?
11. As an adult, Thomas rides the rails in Chicago, looking for men who have no home, no friends, who are vagrant, alcoholic, and struggling—just the type of men that March and Dorn sought to bring back to the apartment in the early days of their work in San Francisco. How is the work done by Thomas and his father different, and how is the work similar? How do projects with such disparate ends come to rely on the same type of recruits?
12. From Henry March/Henry Gladwell to Richard Ashby/Dick Hinkle and all of the Sons, many characters in the novel have multiple names and dual lives. What does having an alias do for these characters? How does constructing a second identity provide the characters with a refuge in which to hide from themselves, as well as from others? What do these dual identities say about human nature?
13. Half World
spans decades and employs multiple narrative voices to tell the story. How did the continual shift in narration impact your reading of the novel? How would the story have been different if the entire novel was told from March’s perspective, or Hannah’s, or Dickie’s?
14. By the end of the novel, which of the characters, if any, have achieved what they set out to accomplish? Which have found redemption?
15. Discuss the book’s title. What is a “half world”? Which of the characters is living in a half world? Is it possible or even desirable to leave a half world for a whole world? Enhance Your Book Club
1.Watch the film The Manchurian Candidate
2. Read the documents from the 1977 hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to look further into Project MKULTRA: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/13inmate_ProjectMKULTRA.pdf.
3. Visit Scott O’Connor’s Tumblr, whoishenrymarch.tumblr.com, to see photographs of Los Angeles in the 1950s and the 1970s, listen to songs that Scott listened to while writing, and learn about some of the events and ideas that inspired the novel.
4. Read Johnny Tremain and discuss the Sons of Liberty, and how this group influenced the Sons in Half World.
A Conversation with Scott O’Connor How did you first come across Project MK Ultra? Was this the starting point for the novel, or did you begin somewhere else and bring in the idea of mind control experiments later?
I was interested in writing about the origins of the CIA, and came across some throwaway references to failed early projects and Agency embarrassments. One of these had to do with agents opening safe houses and hiring prostitutes to surreptitiously drug johns with LSD, and that’s when the antenna went up.
What kind of research did you do for the novel? Were you able to interview any CIA agents involved in MK Ultra or any individuals claiming to have been subjects of mind control experiments? Is STORMY meant to be LSD, or is it another drug of your own imagination?
I read widely, visited archives and locations, talked a little, listened. Most of the work is imaginative, trying to conjure a time and place and the people who could have been there. STORMY was, in fact, the Agency’s pet name for LSD.
Did you base the characters of March and Dorn on real individuals?
No. Characters are amalgams of many things. There may be some research into historical figures (often from histories seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand), but there is also personal observation, and memory, and the mining of many of my own traits which all combine to start a character off. As the writing of the book progresses, they take on a life of their own within the world of the novel.
Weir says “I’ll take a bad poem over a good newspaper any day,” and after his disappearance, March “spends hours with [Weir’s] books, reading and rereading poems he had memorized long ago, forcing himself to see them stripped of his early impressions.” It seemed surprising that Weir, and then March, would be interested in poetry. How did you decide to make this a shared passion of the two men?
Many of the CIA’s early officers had Ivy League educations. They were incredibly well read. James Jesus Angleton, who was the Agency’s head of counterintelligence for many years, was a poet and editor in his younger days. Poetry was seen as something to decode, a text with hidden meanings. There was an intellect and sensibility to which both poetry and intelligence work appealed to.
Why did you decide to have Thomas be autistic? Do you think that some part of March recognized that his son could grow up to be the sort of man that he and Dorn sought to bring back to the brothel on Telegraph Hill?
I never really intended for Thomas to be autistic. The definition of that word has changed a lot in fifty years. I try not to diagnose characters. Thomas is Thomas, if that makes any sense. That said, there is an incredible, wrenching documentary by David E. Simpson called Refrigerator Mothers that looks at the history of autism diagnosis and treatment that haunted me throughout the writing of the book.
Henry March is well aware that he is preying on men like the man Thomas will become. For Henry, this becomes impossible to reconcile.
Did you find it difficult to write about the type of brutality, violence, and manipulation that March, Dorn, and Clarke impose on their subjects?
There were moments when I wondered what kind of dark line I was following. But all sorts of scenes are difficult. Characters acting charitably to one another is hard to write, too.
What is your take on Project MK Ultra and various CIA mind control conspiracy theories? For example, some claim that Sirhan Sirhan was under mind control when he assassinated RFK, and that Jonestown was a site of MK Ultra experimentation. Do you think there is any truth to these theories?
ULTRA was a deviously perfect design. Every participant at every stage was deniable, making it almost impossible to discern what was real and what was fantasy or madness. It has become the Great American Conspiracy Theory. Everything is possible, but it’s hard to say what’s probable. I have no idea how far it actually extended.
Until Lawrence Tarhammer shoots the convenience store worker in Chinatown on Halloween night, the experiments at Telegraph Hill seem to have little impact on the outside world. How did it feel to cross that line and show the ways in which the experiments could go horribly wrong? Tarhammer’s action really kicked the book into high gear for me. That scene pulled the story along through to the end.
How did you decide how to end the novel? Did you consider any alternative outcomes for the various characters?
The end came at the end of writing the first draft. The last twenty pages, all in a rush, after years of trying to figure it out. Once it emerged, there was never another possibility.
What writers and novels, if any, influenced this book?
Michael Ondaatje, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Don Delillo, T. S. Eliot, C. P. Cavafy, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Larkin, Philip K. Dick. . . . The list could go on and on. Cormac McCarthy has said that “books are made out of books,” and I think it’s also safe to say that writers are made out of other writers.
What message do you hope readers will take away from book? Do you think Americans need to be more concerned about what the government and the CIA might be doing today without our knowledge?
I think we’re very good at avoiding serious discussion of what we allow governments to do in our names. It’s easy to be outraged. It’s harder to debate what actions we’re willing to take, or ask others to take, in the name of security or safety. These are incredibly complex issues, but we’re far too disconnected from actions we don’t think affect us directly. They always affect someone. We need to be more knowledgeable, and more empathetic.
What are you working on next?
I just finished a small batch of short stories and have started work on a new novel.