Reading Ideas For Ness’ The Act and the Answer Five Days Until Chaos Walking Trilogy Finale

The first book we will be reading in the Hogwarts Professor Book Club is Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men, which will be published on 28 September. The thing is that Monsters is not a stand alone work; it’s the final novel in Mr. Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. If you haven’t read the first two Chaos books, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer, then you have a bunch of great reading to do in the next five days. No joke, get to it! In terms of the “parable fiction” I described earlier this week as the fruit of the Harry Potter tree, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking is an allegorical challenge while being a great read.

Last week I wrote out five “reading ideas” for Knife of Never Letting Go. My job today is to provide the same sort of  questions and thoughts for your reflection on your first or second trip through the second book, The Ask and the Answer, ideas that will simultaneously encourage you to make return trips to the book while not spoiling firsttimers’ experience of the story. In the next few days before Monsters of Men‘s publication, I’ll put up some speculative notes about the last book that will assume you’ve read Knife and The Ask.

Here are my first five ideas to spur your thinking:

(1) Review the five “reading ideas” I wrote up for Knife of Never Letting Go. As you’d expect, Act and Answer is a continuation of the themes begun and structures used in Knife: what it means to be a man, mirror composition, satirical and allegorical commentary on 21st century life in the UK and US, and multi-valent names. I’d note especially the notes on Mr. Ness as an ex-patriot (sic); there are signs in Act that he is writing an allegorical, wish fulfillment version of US history in which colonial fundamentalists get their just desserts from the natives they enslave and the women they demean and subdue.

(2) If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, I think you’ll recognize and enjoy Mr. Ness’ use of the split screen composition. Todd and Viola stand in for Mark and Jane Studdock, of course, and the two camps they experience when separated are as opposed as Lewis’ NICE and St. Anne’s. Or are they? Or are they relatively masculine and feminine faces of the same reality, the will to power? As the Nietzsche quotation in the frontispiece and the complementary nature of the title suggests, Act and Answer is not offering the ‘light and darkness’ options the Studdock’s face.

(3) Forgive me, but, despite no little effort in searching, I have been unable to find the illustrator who first made popular the anarchist’s font that is so much a part of Chaos Walking, from cover title to thoughts-in-text (yes, I will be greatly pleased and relieved to be told the name I cannot remember!). I’d ask you to note the use of fonts in the book, in which character, emotion, and strength are depicted visually in the type of letters used for a person’s noise, male or Spackle. It’s taken directly from comic book and graphic novel usage, and, I blush to reveal my foundations, I found it very effective. It also, I think, points to a shared aim in allegory and archetypes that this kind of novel has with comic books.

(4) If you’ve just finished The Hunger Games trilogy, I think you will be startled by how much The Act and the Answer resonates with Mockingjay, the Games’ series finale. The Healer and President Clinton, I mean ‘Coin,’ are almost shades of one another, if Ness’ depiction is much more detailed, engaging, and sympathetic to wind up in the same place. Certainly, Hunger Games veterans will pick up the anti-television broadsides in Act and Answer when the Noise becomes something characters can aim and have to arm themselves against.

(5) As mentioned above, there are signs that Act and Answer is a postmodern parable of political correctness in hyperdrive. The power-mad all-male fundamentalists commit torture and war crimes against women and native populations while brain washing and manipulating hoi polloi to participate in their atrocities. This acts as something of an apology for those who resist, especially the freedom loving, anti-chauvinist terrorists. All the PoMo topoi and memes are here: ‘Speak Truth to Power,’ ‘You are your choices,’ ‘Selfless Love is the answer to the blinding metanarrative.’ That the bad, bad guy is all but revealed as the devil living in the Cathedral seems to close the door on a Christian or even a non-denominational but spiritually edifying meaning.

There is some hope of that still, though. The Cathedral is still the city center, if something of a ruin, and where the crucial decision Todd makes at story’s end is appropriately made (however tragic that choice!). I suspect the anti-religious point to Mr. Ness’ prose may be more about the face of Islam in the UK, that his “I am the Circle” mantra being used to silence conscience indicates more than the surface allows, that his shared mind theme requires a Christian logos world view contrary to the materialist vision, and that the love-conquers message and preliminary victory of Todd and Viola promises another rise-from-the-dead.

I’ll post some speculative notes Sunday and look forward to reading your thoughts. If you haven’t read The Knife of Never Letting Go, get on board, get a copy, and get reading. The discussion of Monsters at month’s end – beginning on the 29th if I can get a copy on the 28th — promises to be a reward worth many times whatever investment we put into reading the series’ openers now!


  1. Maybe more comments from me later, but I have to say (I’m on page 170 or so of the Ask) that I’m almost annoyed by the similarities between this book, Mockingjay, and That Hideous Strength. In many ways, I think I find Lewis’s split-screen more compelling: maybe because I was at least sure that Jane was on Ransom’s side, and Ransom is on God’s side. Right now it’s like I’ve got nothing to root for, and, therefore, no reason to finish the book. I don’t like the President; I don’t like the Healer. So how can I like the ending? I doubt the colonists confronted with Noise and a civil war when they land are gonna make anything better. But, like I’ve said, these are only third-way-through speculations.

  2. Well… I finished it…

  3. I’m about half way through The Ask and the Answer. I have to say that I think Wilf is the most interesting character in the series so far. He’s definitely the one character who comes across as uniformly good. He is also presented as a simpleton. However, it’s clear that there is much more to his character. I think it will be interesting to see how much of the depth of his character is explained versus left for conjecture.

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