About the book:
Lee Cotton is a black boy born white-skinned in segregated Eureka, Mississippi, in 1950. Over the course of Lee’s first twenty years, he will fall in love with the daughter of a local Klansman, get kicked senseless and left for dead on a freight train headed north, end up in St. Louis as a white man, and be drafted into the psych-ops corps in Nevada. There, a drunken accident will separate Lee from another part of his identity and change his fate yet again. Before he returns to Mississippi, he will experience up close and personal the women’s liberation movement and the dawn of the Lesbian Nation.
Lee Cotton’s voice—equal parts Delta Blues and Motown—takes us on an exhilarating freedom ride through America’s preoccupation with identity politics. His funny, forgiving charm ultimately embodies a serious message: The freaks and oddities of this world may well be divine.
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
About the author:
CHRISTOPHER WILSON earned his Ph.D. in humor and works as a consulting semiotician. His first novel, Mischief, was short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award. He lives in London.
Click here to download a pdf of the reading guide for Cotton.
1. Christopher Wilson is British. Do you think his portrayal of the United States is accurate? Do any details or themes in the novel ring false to you? Do you think foreigners have any advantages over Americans in writing about the United States?
2. Why don’t Schwarz and Molloy want a “white white boy”? Why is a “white black boy” or a “brownish white boy” more valuable for their purposes than Lee is (pages 13–15)? What does this say about the nature of race? Discuss the “One-Drop Rule” (a real law) that the attorney invokes when “authenticating” the young Lee’s race (page 17).
3. How do you define race? Is it a matter of culture, or genetics, or appearance? If you met someone like the young Lee, would you consider him “black”? Would you say Lee is black his whole life, or does his race depend on how he identifies himself? Is there a difference between changing race and changing sex?
4. How does Lee’s mind reading work? Why, for example, can he taste the food people are eating in a diner, to the point that he doesn’t want to eat his own food, (pages 50–51)? What other physical sensations does he pick up on and how? When he reads people’s thoughts, they follow the patterns of speech—stutters, sentence fragments, et cetera (page 35–36). What does this say about the nature of thought? Do you think in words?
5. Is Lee’s mind-reading ability a blessing or a curse, and why? Would you choose to have such an ability?
6. How do Lee’s various identities qualify him to be an Interventionist? Why was he “heart-hunted” (pages 310–11)?
7. Critics have compared the character of Lee to Huck Finn and Forrest Gump:
“Huck Finn meets Myra Breckinridge? Candide meets Yossarian? . . . Credit Christopher Wilson with having great taste in muses, and especially for knowing how to fuse them into a character who is, paradoxically, a complete original.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Lee tells his story in such a guileless, funny and attentive way that you’ll be reminded of Forrest Gump.”—The Arizona Republic
Discuss these comparisons. What other books does Cotton remind you of, or what other fictional characters does Lee remind you of?
8. How would you describe the style of Wilson’s writing in this novel? How does he use wordplay and double entendres?
9. Why does Lee never end up with Angelina? He says several times that he feels they are destined to be together, and they meet at pivotal points throughout his life, yet she is never ready to be with him. What purpose does she serve in his life? Do you think Angelina interferes with or helps Lee’s progression towards his destiny?
10. Why does Lee have a natural talent for photography? Does his mind reading ability help him? If so, how?
11. Lee ultimately finds the company of the “Sisters,” the lesbian community in San Francisco, to be dissatisfying: “The trouble is, some people won’t meet you halfway, heart to heart, skin to skin, without you first buying wholesale from the warehouse of their opinions” (page 230). How does this reflect the problems Lee has faced in his other identities, and the broader themes of the novel?
12. Read Lee’s description of the difference between what men and women look for in a romantic partner (page 247). Do you agree with it? In what other ways do Lee’s views of love and sex change after he becomes a woman?
13. According to his biography, Wilson earned a Ph.D. in the psychology of humor. How does he use humor in the novel? Did you find the novel funny? What episodes or passages did you find most humorous, and why?
14. Discuss the role of destiny in the novel. When they first meet, James Jones tells Lee, “You can’t buck your purpose. You’ve got yourself a chronic bad case of Fate” (page 43). But in talking about white Southerners, he says that “everyone [is] born to a time, place and parents without their choosing” (page 42). Is there a difference between these types of destiny? How much do the circumstances of our birth determine our destiny? Do you believe individuals have preordained destinies? Is Ethan unable to change the course of his life because he is fated to follow that course, or because of the nature of time? What determines whether people rise above the prejudices and disadvantages of their upbringing?