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On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction Reader’s Guide

By Karl Iagnemma

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction by Karl Iagnemma


Karl Iagnemma’s prize-winning short fiction brings a vibrant and innovative new voice to the genre. On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, his first book, has earned acclaim from critics coast to coast, who hail his imaginative, arresting approach to matters of the heart and mind. This is a story collection whose characters include a frustrated academic seeking a mathematical formula for romance, a nineteenth-century phrenologist in love with a con artist, and a woman who is adept at carving magnificent wooden mannequins but struggles to sculpt a fulfilling relationship. Encompassing the historic and the contemporary in a tone that is at once frank and wise, savage and lyrical, Iagnemma’s works comprise an astonishing range.

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Karl Iagnemma’s On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction. We hope they will enrich your experience of these beautifully crafted stories.

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction
Karl Iagnemma
Delta Trade Paperback, ISBN 0-385-33594-6
Also available as a Dell ebook, ISBN 0-440-33389-X


On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction
Karl Iagnemma

Delta Trade Paperback
Also available as a Dell eBook

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The collection’s title, drawn from a chapter in the first narrator’s dissertation, conveys an aura of research findings and careful scrutiny of data. If this collection were indeed a scholarly exposition, what would the findings be? What consistencies and anomalies do these stories convey about the nature of human romantic interaction? Do the stories have a sum?

2. Discuss the ways in which intellect and emotion are portrayed in the book. Do you believe mind and heart to be consistently at odds with each other or inextricable?

3. One of the most inventive aspects of the collection is its diversity of characters, and the fact that all of them work in a rarefied field. What universal qualities do these disparate (and often desperate) men and women possess? Were there any characters whose experiences seemed far removed from your own at first but proved to mirror your personal history in some way?

4. The stories in this collection, each of them originally published in somewhat different form, caught the attention of editors at some of the most competitive literary journals in the country. How do you personally define exceptional writing? What literary techniques (such as the use of fresh metaphors or taut narrative tension) appear to be at work in this collection?

5. Discuss the collection’s range of time periods and settings, from frontier America to ultracontemporary urban life. Have scientific enlightenment, increased civil liberties, and other hallmarks of the modern world improved the lives of lovers?

6. What does the title story indicate about the nature of attraction? If Alexandra’s father composed a similar formula for winning your heart, what would the factors and variables be?

7. In what way does the history of Slaney provide a fitting backdrop for the title story?

8. In “The Phrenologist’s Dream,” what does Jeremiah need from Sarah? Discuss the hopes of Jeremiah’s customers; is his spurious occupation a commentary on any particular human urge?

9. “Zilkowski’s Theorem” melds the arenas of academia and love to create a rich portrait of humiliation and vengeance. By the end of the story, are Henderson and Czogloz even?

10. In “The Confessional Approach” and “Kingdom, Order, Species,” the author writes from a first-person female point of view. Besides gender, what else do the narrators of these stories have in common?

11. Discuss the ethical dilemma encountered in “The Confessional Approach.” How do you interpret the closing scene? In what way did Kennison impact Freddy’s self-perception and the future of his relationship?

12. What does “The Indian Agent” indicate about the narrator’s approach to Christianity and to honor? Does “The Indian Agent” contain any elements of a love story?

13. In “Kingdom, Order, Species,” Woody Plants underscores Kaye’s experience of the world. When John Poole inscribes her book with the phrase “lawless in the pursuit of knowledge,” does this refute or confirm what she previously believed about the order of things?

14. The ore miner’s wife misinterprets her husband’s mathematical symbols as being demonic. Discuss the many historic tensions reflected by her fear, such as tensions between religious and scientific leaders or between philanthropists and the researchers they support.

15. In what way does “Children of Hunger” pay homage to those who play supporting roles, some of which prove to be physically and emotionally treacherous? Do you believe the story reflects the mind-set of most driven achievers?

About this Author

Karl Iagnemma’s short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies and have won the Paris Review Discovery Prize. His writing has also appeared in Tin House and Zoetrope, among other publications. He is a research scientist in the mechanical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently at work on his first novel, to be published by the Dial Press.

“Richly imagined and laced with delicate ironies.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Iagnemma’s fiction can make even the most ardent math-hater appreciate the parabolic nature of life’s ups and downs.”—Los Angeles Times
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