Kurt Vonnegut is back. With Hocus Pocus he returns full-size and industrial strength to the powers of his best early work: The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse- Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Slapstick (1976). By comparison, the four intervening novels—Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galapagos (1985), and Bluebeard (1987)—seemed slight, single-minded, imaginatively anemic. Now, however, they begin to look less like unsuccessful novels and more like brilliant cartoon sketches for what may well prove Vonnegut’s best book—better even than Slaughterhouse-Five despite the latter’s Tralfamadorian reach, wildly original structure, and moral as well as narrative power.
Vonnegut’s self-effacing greatness derives in large measure from his abandoning conventional narrative poses and his reimagining himself in terms of the novelist-as-smuggler trafficking in contraband stupidity. In Hocus Pocus the stupidity is not only pervasive, as it is in even the very earliest Vonnegut, the novel Player Piano (1952) and the stories collected in Welcome to the Monkey House (1968); here it is omnifarious and proliferating. In retrospect, ice-nine and the firebombing of Dresden seem like events in some nostalgically remembered golden age when stupidity was single and death both specific and speedy. Vonnegut has served as contemporary America’s Charles Dickens, or more appropriately, its Mark Twain, its Bitter (Ambrose) Bierce—a dubious honor in the age of consumer fiction, when even moral outrage becomes simply another form of entertainment. Popular as ever yet perhaps marginalized as never before, he perseveres. At once scathing and sympathetic, Hocus Pocus, along with Barbara Ehrenreich’s collection of essays on the 1980’s, The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990)’ ought to be made required reading for all Americans of or anywhere near voting age. Not only would these two educate their readers on contemporary issues and inanities far better than the series of sound bites and photograph opportunities that pass for news in 1990, but they also might actually begin to rouse their readers from the ranks of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” which found its fulfillment in what Hocus Pocus calls “the comatose Ronald Reagan.”
Hocus Pocus is, in form and substance, very Vonnegut: the short sections, the deadpan humor, the simple, almost avuncular prose, the brief refrain (“Cough, cough”), and the continuing but now deepened weariness of the long-distance moralist. Self-consciously “making the most of the raw materials of futility,” Hocus Pocus becomes the latest and perhaps greatest manifestation of the “low” style that Vonnegut has raised to the very highest levels of postmodern art: a monument in the form of a gravestone, the verbal equivalent of the crude drawing that appears on several of the novel’s pages, first in the dedication to socialist Eugene Debs, whose own preference for and dedication to the low Vonnegut records both as Debs’s epitaph and as the novel’s epigraph: “While there is a lower class I am in it. Where there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” Like Debs, Vonnegut appeals to his reader’s sense of “common decency” (Slapstick’s catchphrase), and a reader would have to be either heartless or (as will be explained soon) exceptionally (fool )hardy to read this novel and not accept the truth of those proverbial scraps that litter the text: “How embarrassing to be human,” “The worst flaw is that we’re just plain dumb,” “We could have saved it [the planet] but we were too doggone cheap.” It is, however, not merely the abstract truth that the novel asks its reader to acknowledge but also the personal responsibility that he or she must also accept. “Bear with me,” its narrator, Eugene Debs Hartke, advises. “This is history. I am trying to explain how this valley, this verdant cul-de-sac, got to be what it is today.”
Today is the year 2001, and what this valley at the westernmost extremity of New York’s Finger Lakes has become is, along with the rest of the country, an economic, an ecological, and more especially a moral disaster area, so far gone (prison ships anchored in New York harbor, local police forces backed up by infantry and armor, glaciers moving south) that even Japan, which bought it up from a greedy ruling class, is withdrawing its army of occupation, the cadres of businessmen sent to protect its economic interests. This is not the 2001 of Arthur C. Clarke, whose “space odyssey” (novel and Stanley Kubrick film) ends with the dawning of a new, interstellar stage in human development. It is instead the 2001 of fun-loving, motorcycling billionaire Arthur K Clarke, the novel’s Malcolm Forbes. Against the one Clarke’s overly optimistic, escapist imagination and the other’s pleasure-seeking arrogance and cheerful indifference to all but the rich, Vonnegut posits an alternative futuristic fantasy, one that includes its own still more blackly humorous mirror image.
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