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SOURCE: "A Long-Awaited Return," in Chicago Tribune Books, August 19, 1990, p. 6.
[In the review below, Garrett claims that in Hocus Pocus, Vonnegut returns to the high quality of his earlier works.]
Once upon a time, I, too, was a Vonnegut groupie. In that world, which every day seems a little better than this one, we waited, eager and conspiratorial, for the man who had written the short stories later collected in Canary in a Cat House (1961) and the novel Player Piano (1952) to bring out his next book. We few. We happy few.
There was a little wait before that marvelous and wacko novel The Sirens of Titan (1959) appeared, offering the wild and woolly and deterministic adventures of one Malachi Constant, his wife Beatrice Rumsfoord and their little boy, Chrono. And best of all, it introduced us to what was to become Vonnegut's outer space Yoknapatawpha—the planet Tralfamadore, "where the flying saucers came from."
Next we were blessed with Mother Night (1962) and its impeccable moral—"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be;" Cat's Cradle (1963), featuring the inimitable Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three odd children; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), which introduced us to one of Vonnegut's most enduring characters—sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout.
So far he had endured the services of four casual publishers, very few reviews, next to no money from his writing; and we, his devoted readers, still knew most of each other by name. We knew next to nothing then about Vonnegut's private life, with its full share, and then some, of trouble and woe and even tragedy. But we loved his bleak, black, essentially sophomoric and sentimental humor, and we rejoiced in the crazy quilt of mordant fun and games that was a novel created by him.
Then some strange things happened, beginning with a piece by critic Robert Scholes—"'Mithridates, He Died Old': Black Humor and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr."—and leading, swiftly enough, to a new publisher, a new novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) that rose to No. 1 on the bestseller list and became a popular movie in 1972. And so to riches, fame and almost overnight, as these things go, to a bulging six-foot shelf of books and articles all about Vonnegut, his texts and subtexts, signs and symbols, sneaky similes and sly metaphors. He looks likely to be the last American literary "discovery" of this century, a star of first magnitude, soon a public figure, yet one more highly regarded and well-rewarded sage in residence.
Then it seemed to us, his old and longtime fans, that he started acting and writing like a sage, too, sounding more and more like some kind of weird cross between former senator Eugene McCarthy and that ancient and indefatigable flower child, the Maharishi. And so as the new books came along, nine by my count, we shrugged and yawned and went our separate ways. I remember laughing out loud when I looked among the cook books in our local bookstore and found Breakfast of Champions (1973).
Then please come home, old fans, and gather around, you new ones. With Hocus Pocus , Kurt Vonnegut seems to have rediscovered himself. The book purports to be the autobiographical manuscript of one Eugene Debs Hartke (the book is dedicated to his namesake, Eugene Victor Debs, 1855–1926), West Pointer, Vietnam veteran ("If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me."); former college professor at Tarkington College, a school mainly for the...
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dyslexic and learning disabled, where there is a Pahlavi Pavilion, a Somoza Hall, a Vonnegut Memorial Fountain, and a remarkably imaginative computer called Griot; a teacher at Athena, a prison run, like much else in America, by the Japanese Army of Occupation in Business Suits; and now, himself, a prisoner awaiting trial for his part in the largest prison breakout in American history.
Although the story ranges freely in time covering all of Hartke's life and a good deal of our history, it is set in the amazing literary year of 2001. (Hartke saw the movie in Vietnam.) Now he finds himself "in late middle age, cut loose in a thoroughly looted, bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV, with virtually no health services for the poor."
In this new/old world I.G. Farben owns Du Pont, Italians own Anheuser-Busch, President Mobutu of Zaire has bought an ice-cream company in San Diego, the Sultan of Brunei has the First National Bank of Rochester, N.Y., the Shah of Bratpuhr controls meatpacking in Dubuque and the Encyclopedia Britannica is "owned by a mysterious Egyptian arms dealer living in Switzerland."
For consolation, Hartke has his memories, good and bad, a wealth of events and an album of major and minor and always memorable characters, including, too briefly, a mortician named Norman Updike. And he has some useful books—The Atheist's Bible, Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" as well as the old magazine Black Garterbelt, which has a story in it, "The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore," which argues that "the whole point of life on Earth was to make germs shape up so that they would be ready to ship out when the time came" and that human beings in the cosmic scheme of things are only "germ hotels."
The form of any Vonnegut novel always has some new wrinkles. According to "K. V." who merely edited this book, Hartke is writing it down "in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards." Adding: "The unconventional lines separating passages within chapters indicate where one scrap heap ended and the next began. The shorter the passage, the smaller the scrap." Some scraps are a phrase or one word only, others go on for pages. There are other idiosyncrasies of text, including the author's flat refusal to use "foul language," leading to many a strained euphemism, all of them adding to Vonnegut's familiar and inimitably goofy charm.
Form and content, Hocus Pocus is a classic—weird, but good. We are older and so is he more relaxed and tolerant, if not one bit kinder and gentler, and as funny as anybody in the funny business.
The moral? Read Vonnegut's lips: "Just because we can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe."
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Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007
(Full name Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, screenwriter, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Vonnegut's career through 1997. See also Kurt Vonnegut Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 22.
Vonnegut gained a worldwide following in the late 1960s with the publication of his best-known work, Slaughter-house-Five (1969). Considered a major voice in contemporary American literature, Vonnegut populates his novels with characters searching for meaning and order in an inherently meaningless and disorderly universe. Known for his iconoclastic humor, Vonnegut consistently satirizes contemporary society, focusing in particular on the futility of warfare and the human capacity for both irrationality and evil.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922. He was the third child of Kurt, an architect, and his wife Edith (maiden name Lieber). Both the Vonneguts and the Liebers were formerly prosperous families who had lost their fortunes after World War I. Vonnegut entered the University of Chicago in 1940 to study biochemistry. He began writing for the student newspaper in his sophomore year, penning anti-war articles. After Pearl Harbor, Vonnegut reversed his opinions; in March of 1943 he entered the Army. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, held as part of a captive labor force in Dresden, and experienced the Allied fire-bombing of the city on February 13, 1945. Like the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut survived the bombing in an underground meat locker, only to be put to work by the Germans extracting corpses from the city's ruins. Upon his return home in 1945, he married Jane Marie Cox and enrolled at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1947. In the same year, Vonnegut began working for General Electric Research Laboratory as a public relations writer. He wrote fiction in his spare time, publishing his first story in 1950, and was soon able to quit his job and write full-time. In the 1960s Vonnegut accepted an appointment to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He began to attract popular attention in the 1960s when his anti-war message made him a favored figure among the counter-culture; his popularity continued to increase after Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted as a film. He has seven children: three from his first marriage to Jane Marie Cox, three nephews adopted after the deaths of his sister and her husband, and one adopted with his second wife, Jill Krementz. Vonnegut lives in New York City.
Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), did not attract popular or critical attention, but it established many of the traits which continue to typify the author's style. The novel is futuristic and explores the relationship between changing technology and the lives of ordinary humans. His second work garnered greater critical reception. The Sirens of Titan (1959) is a science fiction parody in which all of human history is revealed to have been manipulated by aliens to provide a space traveler with a replacement part for his ship. This novel, as well as the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), exhibits Vonnegut's unique combination of black humor, wit, and pessimism. Cat's Cradle is an apocalyptic satire on philosophy, religion, and technological progress while God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater concerns the idealistic attempts of an alcoholic philanthropist, Eliot Rosewater, to befriend the poor and helpless. Rosewater finds, however, that his monetary wealth cannot begin to alleviate the world's misery. Like Rosewater, Vonnegut's protagonists are idealistic, ordinary people who strive in vain to understand and bring about change in a world beyond their control or comprehension. Vonnegut tempers his pessimistic, sometimes caustic commentary with compassion for his characters, suggesting that humanity's ability to love may partially compensate for destructive tendencies. Two of Vonnegut's novels have dealt directly with World War II. In Mother Night, a spy novel, an American agent who posed as a Nazi propagandist during World War II undergoes a personality crisis when tried for crimes he committed to insure his covert identity. In Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps Vonnegut's best-known work, the author confronts his personal experience as a prisoner of war who survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, a city of little military or strategic value. The absurdity of this event is filtered through the numbed consciousness of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier who escapes the insanity of war through schizophrenic travels into time and space; these journeys assume realistic stature when compared to his irrational wartime experiences. Considered a classic of postmodern literature, Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a fragmented, non-chronological style to emphasize the confusion and absurdity of wartime life. Vonnegut's subsequent novels have achieved popular success but have not always elicited critical praise. In 1971 he wrote his best-known play, Happy Birthday, Wanda Jane, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s wrote several screenplays for television. Vonnegut's most recent works include Hocus Pocus (1990) and Timequake (1997). In both of these novels Vonnegut presents his ideas in new and unusual literary forms. Hocus Pocus purports to be the autobiographical manuscript of Eugene Debs Hartke, a teacher and the last American out of Vietnam, who was fired for being too pessimistic and later charged with engineering the escape of African-American inmates from a prison. Hartke writes observations about his life on pieces of paper and Vonnegut masquerades as the editor. In Timequake Vonnegut merges parts of a problematic and incomplete novel with commentary about his life and views. The result is part memoir and part political novel. "In a nutshell," observes Thomas Disch, "everyone on Earth has to relive the 1990s on automatic pilot, observing but not participating in their lives." The book is a "stew" in which Vonnegut combined "the best pickings from a novel that wasn't working and interspersed them with a running commentary on his own life and the state of the universe. The mix is thick and rich: a political novel that's not a novel, a memoir that is not inclined to reveal the most private details of the writer's life," Valerie Sayers comments. Vonnegut has stated that he is retiring, and that Timequake will mark the end of his fiction-writing career.
Vonnegut's first decade of work did not attract much critical attention: most early discussion of his writing centered on how to classify it. Citing his futuristic settings and the paramount role of technology in his work, some critics insist that Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. Others argue that despite these elements, Vonnegut is ultimately writing about the universal human condition and that he only employs science fiction devices to create distance and irony, just as he employs satire to the same effect. In recent years Vonnegut has come under fire from commentators who claim that he has failed to develop stylistically and that his characters are little more than mouthpieces for his opinions. Such critics claim that Vonnegut's work after Slaughterhouse-Five has offered more or less the same style, theme, and message. Tom Shone, for instance, writes that "all the same subjects are there, novel after novel" and that "Vonnegut's highly distinctive style has eclipsed Vonnegut the author." Others remain enamored of Vonnegut's distinct style, praising him for continually presenting his message in a deceptively skillful manner. John Irving remarks, "Vonnegut's subject has always been doomsday, and nobody writes about it better. That he is also so terribly funny in how he describes our own worst nightmare is, of course, another element that confuses his dumber critics."
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SOURCE: "Kurt Vonnegut: So It Still Goes," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 33, August 19, 1990, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, Cantor concludes that Hocus Pocus is a vehicle for Vonnegut to communicate his despair over humanity.]
Woody Allen once observed that 80 percent of life is showing up. The other 20 percent—the part that stands between me and stardom—is making yourself likable, like George Burns, Jack Benny, Bill Cosby, or my pal (hah! don't I wish it!) Kurt Vonnegut. The amiable Vonnegut persona—a wry man who is a tad curmudgeonly, but as moral as he can honestly be—is, from book to book, Vonnegut's most substantial, continuing creation. Many people may be just, or think they are but it seems that few of us have doing justice as our aspiration—and they may do more harm than good. But if, like Vonnegut's narrators, they're not self-righteous, but are by some miracle filled with good humor, I find such people more than likable. I want their friendship because I trust their judgements.
Vonnegut's novels are ways to spend some time with this unself-righteous yet just character, who in this book is called Eugene Debs Hartke. In his combination of decent aspiration and flaws Hartke is a depressed everyman—if we still thought everyman was a decent guy. Hartke cares for his mad wife and grandmother, but he also likes to romance middle-aged women when they're emotionally vulnerable. And he repeatedly counts the cost of being a Vietnam vet, though he sounds to me more like a sad, wised-up WWII dog-face than a Vietnam desperado: "If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me." In Vietnam, Hartke was known as "the preacher," and he is a preacher still. For all he has done and all he has seen have made him despair. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, or as Hartke quotes a friend, human beings are "about 1,000 times dumber and meaner than they think they are."
The last U.S. soldier out of Vietnam, Hartke teaches at a college for the rich and learning-disabled in upstate New York, until he loses his post because a character who sounds veddy veddy much like William Buckley finds his despair un-American. He then crosses the lake to teach at a segregated prison. When all the convicts escape and kill the staff of the college, Hartke's blamed—for black convicts must have had a white mastermind. Put in prison himself, he writes this book about being the last U.S. soldier in Vietnam, etc.
But the plot for me is just a clothesline on which Vonnegut can hang out some simple truths, tell some jokes, give quick-change renditions of lives that almost always come to pratfall endings, and becomingly model his despair. That, for example, the American rich "had managed to convert their wealth … into a form so liquid and abstract,… that there were few reminders … that they might be responsible for anyone outside their own circle of friends …"
Or that lobsters are boiled alive.
Along the way, as always, Vonnegut shapes some parables to embody his disappointment in humanity and to remind us of what sound and fury we create while signifying … well, you know. In this book, Hartke recounts a science fiction story in which Vonnegut's favorite aliens, the Tralfamadorians, are using the earth to breed hearty germs suitable for space travel, so they can cover the universe with life. The T'dorians made humanity mess up nature to impose trying circumstances on their germs, weeding out weak bacteria-astronauts. So that explains the stupidity of human history! (And, from the Vonnegut/Hartke p.o.v. what an odd desire on Tralfamadore's part: "To me, wanting every habitable planet to be inhabited is like wanting everybody to have athlete's foot.") In previous novels, you may remember, history was explained as a shipwrecked Tralfamadorian's way of sending a message home, a savage semaphore system, with exploding bombs as dots and dashes. Vonnegut's mood has not lightened.
But then, why should it?
Still, considering what a worthless lot we are, why does Hartke/Vonnegut care so much, grieve so repeatedly? As if life were a long education in the unchanging senselessness of life, and the only residue of our previous ignorance is the ineradicable feeling that it might have been different (kinder? gentler?). So why act decently? "It could be … somewhere in the back of my mind I believed that there might really be a big book in which all things were written, and that I wanted some impressive proof that I could be compassionate recorded there." Vonnegut's despair is the sign that he believes life should be transformed, even perhaps that it could be—though it won't be of course, except for the worse. His sadness is the negative proof of the existence of, well … what? God? Or a big book somewhere that God long ago abandoned?
Poor man, I hope his despair continues.
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Player Piano (novel) 1952; also published as Utopia 14, 1954The Sirens of Titan (novel) 1959Mother Night (novel) 1962Canary in a Cat House (short stories) 1963Cat's Cradle (novel) 1963God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine (novel) 1965Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories) 1968Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (novel) 1969Happy Birthday, Wanda June (play) 1970Between Time and Timbuktu; or, Prometheus-Five: A Space Fantasy (play) 1972Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday! (novel) 1973Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: Opinions (essays) 1974Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! (novel) 1976Jailbird (novel) 1979Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (autobiography) 1981Deadeye Dick (novel) 1982Galápagos (novel) 1985Bluebeard (novel) 1987Hocus Pocus (novel) 1990Fates Worse than Death (essays and speeches) 1991Timequake (novel) 1997
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SOURCE: "Vonnegut in Prison and Awaiting Trial," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, pp. 4, 10.
[Irving is an acclaimed American novelist and short story writer. In the review below, he praises Hocus Pocus as one of Vonnegut's best novels and discusses the merits of Vonnegut's writing.]
The novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.
—D. H. Lawrence
Kurt Vonnegut is a friend of mine. He was my teacher at the University of Iowa; he is my neighbor in Sagaponack, Long Island—it is a three-minute bike ride from my house to his. When I moved into my house, he gave me several plants—shrubs, actually; blue hydrangea and purple lilac. They are doing very well, largely because he told me how to care for them. He is a much better gardener than I am, but I am a better cook than he is: I go to his house to admire his bushes but he comes to my house to eat. Kurt also gave me an interesting wedding present: two very tall and heavy brass candlesticks. He presented them unwrapped with a ribbon tied around just one of them. "Anyone getting married ought to have a pair of these," he said. My wife and I light them and look at them almost every night, and we still don't know what he means. Maybe he means that, if the marriage doesn't work, we are well-armed to clobber each other with the candlesticks; if the marriage does work, we can defend ourselves from our dinner guests.
Kurt and I like each other's writing, but we hardly ever talk shop to each other. He has said some very kind and generous things about my work. I have written about his work before, in the New Republic; frankly, I have not yet grown tired of telling people why I think he is so special.
More than 20 years ago, in an interview, Vonnegut said: "We must acknowledge that the reader is doing something quite difficult for him, and the reason you don't change point of view too often is so he won't get lost, and the reason you paragraph often is so that his eyes won't get tired, so you get him without him knowing it by making his job easy for him." I especially love the "get him without him knowing it" part, but Vonnegut has been almost too successful at that. Among his more stupid readers are those critics who can't tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing; because his books are so easy to read, Vonnegut is accused of "easy" (or lazy) writing. I think you have to be a writer yourself to know how hard it is to make something easy to read—or else you just have to be a little smart.
Vonnegut's subject has always been doomsday, and nobody writes about it better. That he is also so terribly funny in how he describes our own worst nightmare is, of course, another element that confuses his dumber critics; for if doomsday is serious—and the end of our world, as we know it, surely must be—how can Vonnegut be both a serious fellow and a most comic novelist? Well, in his own time, I'm sure, the Immortal Bard of Avon must have confused such critics, too. In a Playboy interview, in 1973, Vonnegut was asked why his books were so popular with younger people; he said: "Maybe it's because I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what God is like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they're settled." I especially love the "as though they're settled" part, and please note the irony in "full adults."
In Jailbird (1979), President Nixon's "special adviser on youth affairs" conceives of this telegram to send to the President:
YOUNG PEOPLE STILL REFUSE TO SEE THE OBVIOUS IMPOSSIBILITY OF WORLD DISARMAMENT AND ECONOMIC EQUALITY. COULD BE FAULT OF NEW TESTAMENT.
And in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), the hero, Eliot Rosewater, is described as suffering from the disease of idealism—"it attacks those exceedingly rare individuals who reach biological maturity still loving and wanting to help their fellow men." Vonnegut is similarly afflicted.
He is also highly gifted in the craft of storytelling: While keeping to a single narrator, to a one-person point of view, he yet manages to interweave a half-dozen narrative threads and different periods of time, and a dozen or more major-minor characters; and he conducts this interweaving so seamlessly that he makes his job look easy to stupid readers. To the majority of his readers, who are not at all stupid, Vonnegut manages very difficult material very well.
Now he gives us his 17th book, Hocus Pocus, a tale told by Lt. Col. Eugene Debs Hartke, the last American to leave Saigon. "I invented justifications for all the killing and dying we were doing, which impressed even me!" Hartke says. "I was a genius of lethal hocus pocus!" Sound familiar?
After the war, Hartke gets and then loses his job at a college for dyslexics—on the surface, he is fired for his sexual escapades with the president's wife, but in truth, he is let go for his cynicism. He erects a display of nonfunctioning perpetual-motion machines in the Science Building and labels them an example of "The Complicated Futility of Ignorance"; he tells students how we lost the Vietnam War. Of himself, Hartke says: "If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me."
Like so many Vonnegut narrators over the years, Hartke is a prisoner facing trial. Howard Campbell in Mother Night (1966) is writing from an Israeli jail, awaiting his trial for war crimes; Walter F. Starbuck in Jailbird (1979) is a Watergate criminal—after he serves his term, he is found to be a criminal again ("I am a recidivist," he says; so many of Vonnegut's narrators are). But Hartke is not in jail for his crimes in Vietnam. He is facing trial for masterminding a prison break. Vonnegut's criminal narrators may be guilty of much, but they are typically innocent of the crime for which they are charged.
The year is 2001; all prisons are "color-coded," and Hartke, having lost his job at the college for dyslexics, is teaching at an all-black prison when the escape occurs. No one believes that blacks are smart enough to engineer their own escape. That Hartke is charged at all is, he says, "a racist conclusion, based on the belief that black people couldn't mastermind anything. I will say so in court."
The prison is guarded (and run for profit, successfully) by the Japanese; they own most of the United States, at least everything that the Germans don't own. Nobody of any importance uses dollars any more; anything that's worth buying is best paid for with yen. "There I was in late middle age," Hartke says, "cut loose in a thoroughly looted, bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV, with virtually no health services for the poor." Sound familiar?
The Japanese warden at the prison, a witness to and survivor of Hiroshima, tells Hartke: "What a clever trap your Ruling Class set for us. First the atomic bomb. Now this. They looted your public and corporate treasuries, and turned your industries over to nincompoops. Then they had your Government borrow so heavily from us that we had no choice but to send over an Army of Occupation in business suits. Never before has the Ruling Class of a country found a way to stick other countries with all the responsibilities their wealth might imply, and still remain rich beyond the dreams of avarice! No wonder they thought the comatose Ronald Reagan was a great President!" Sound familiar?
While the escaped prisoners are raping and murdering their way through the college for dyslexics, Hartke ruminates on the miraculous good fortune that the college students are away on vacation—just imagine how much more raping and murdering there could have been! He also speculates that the government is likely to bomb both the college town and the prison. Why? "How many Americans knew or cared anyway where or what the Mohiga Valley was, or Laos or Cambodia or Tripoli? Thanks to our great educational system and TV, half of them couldn't even find their own country on a map of the world. Three-quarters of them couldn't put the cap back on a bottle of whiskey without crossing the threads." That's why. Vonnegut is very funny, but he's not kidding. Remember the Alamo? Here is how Vonnegut remembers it that the martyrs at the Alamo had died for the right to own black slaves. They didn't want to be a part of Mexico any more because it was against the law in that country to own slaves of any kind."
Is Vonnegut an anti-American? Don't be silly! "I have no reforms to propose," he writes. "I think any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever the people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today." And furthermore, "All nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo." So much for government; as for religion: "The most important message of a crucifix … was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority." As for the conquest of space and the presumed superiority of human beings: "Wanting every habitable planet to be inhabited is like wanting everybody to have athlete's foot." Vonnegut does not worship a single sacred cow—not even "high art" escapes unscathed. "Making the most of the materials of futility," he calls it.
The only precept that Hartke honors is taught to him by his grandfather: "that profanity and obscenity entitle people who don't want inconvenient information to close their ears and eyes to you"; therefore, Hartke's language is squeaky-clean. He also tries to be kind; his illegitimate son is named Rob Roy, after the mixed drink of that name, but Hartke indulges his son's belief that he is named for the novel by Sir Walter Scott. "What good would it do him or anybody else to know that he was named for two shots of Scotch, one shot of sweet vermouth, cracked ice, and a twist of lemon peel?" What good, indeed!
On a personal level, Hartke's failure is as painful as Vietnam; as he awaits his trial, his wife and mother-in-law are in an insane asylum—both of them went crazy in middle age, and now Hartke's children suspect that the same craziness awaits them. "Our children, full-grown now, can never for-give us for reproducing," he says. "What a mess."
What a metaphor! It stands so directly for the national and planetary disaster that we are leaving to our children. Anyone who thinks Vonnegut isn't "serious" is truly full of doo-doo.
Hocus Pocus is as good as the best of his novels—these being, in my opinion, Cat's Cradle (1963), Mother Night (1966), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Jailbird (1979); although, how long has it been since you've read a first novel as good and prophetically on-target as Player Piano? And for the appreciative Vonnegut reader, those crafty Tralfamadorians are back in Hocus Pocus; I don't want to spoil the story, but everyone on Tralfamadore knows "that germs, not people, [are] the darlings of the Universe." And those escaped prisoners who rape and murder the faculty of the college for dyslexics, and many poor souls in the college town, guess what they are called: "Freedom Fighters!" Sound familiar?
Vonnegut quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Jean-Paul Sartre to Eugene Debs; unlike most writers, however, he is honest and unpretentious enough to admit his source. "I have lifted this speech from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," he says (repeatedly). "If more people would acknowledge that they got their pearls of wisdom from that book instead of the original, it might clear the air."
Accordingly, I must confess that I lifted that D.H. Lawrence quote from a little paperback called The Writer's Quotation Book. I have no idea where Lawrence wrote that business about "subtle interrelatedness"; I suppose I can't really be certain that he did write it. As usual, Vonnegut has helped to clear the air.
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SOURCE: "And So It Went," in Time, Vol. 136, No. 10, September 3, 1990, p. 73.
[In the following review, Skow praises Vonnegut's message in Hocus Pocus, but criticizes his writing.]
The knock against Kurt Vonnegut, back a couple of decades ago when he was a cult author, was that he pandered too glibly to the natural cynicism of the disaffected young. He was too quick, it was said, to detect the smell of society's insulation burning—and to sigh "So it goes"—when there was nothing more in the air than, say, a harmless whiff from a distant war or the neighborhood toxic-waste dump. No more; his news in Hocus Pocus is that our charred insulation no longer smolders. It has burned itself out, and civilization's great, tired machine is not dying, but blackened and dead.
The form of the new novel is the author's standby, the diary of a bemused old man who has survived civilization's downfall. Perhaps because of this resemblance to his other books, or simply because the freight of anger and disgust is so heavy it upsets the novel's balance, the element of Hocus Pocus that is storytelling seems perfunctory. Eugene Debs Hartke is the diarist, a gung-ho U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam War; then a professor of science at Tarkington, a college for dyslectics in New York State; then briefly the warden of a prison for blacks into which the college is transformed; and finally, in the year 2001, the scapegoat defendant after a prison breakout.
Hartke describes fuel and food shortages, and a state of permanent riot amounting to a national decline so profound that even the Japanese in their business suits—the "army of occupation"—are walking away from properties in the U.S. and going home. "The National Forest," he complains, "is now being logged by Mexican laborers using Japanese tools, under the direction of Swedes. The proceeds are expected to pay half of day-before-yesterday's interest on the National Debt." In this dark mood, Hartke admires a science fiction story in which the revered Kilgore Trout (we assume, though the finest of pulp writers for some reason is not identified), in a journal called Black Garterbelt, explains the meaning of life. Germs, it seems, are being toughened by higher beings for the rigors of space travel; and human society—Mozart, mutant turtles and all—has amounted to nothing more than a convenient Petri plate.
Fair enough, but Hartke is not a vivid enough central figure so that his dismay illuminates the wreckage. Too much about him seems random, taken without calculation from the parts bin. Why, for instance, has the author named him after Eugene V. Debs, the great U.S. socialist? Merely, or so it appears, because Vonnegut likes the contrast of Debs' nobility ("While there is a lower class I am in it … while there is a soul in prison I am not free") with the grubby hopelessness of Hartke's world. And what about that college for dyslectics? Is dyslexia a sign of national decay? Has the author turned symbol monger? If not, what's the point?
The body of Kurt Vonnegut's writing contains some of the most uncomfortably funny social satire in English. What is offered here is something else, a try at prophecy in the darkest and gloomiest biblical sense. As prophecy it is major or minor, right or wrong, the reader's choice. As literature it is minor Vonnegut.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998
SOURCE: "Familiar Characters and Tricks of Vonnegut," in The New York Times, September 8, 1990, p. 16.
[In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt characterizes Hocus Pocus as a "contest between comedy and despair" in which the latter gains the upper hand.]
It should come as no surprise to Kurt Vonnegut's readers that one of the characters in his 13th and latest novel, Hocus Pocus, is Hiroshi Matsumoto, a survivor of Hiroshima.
But what may be modestly alarming is the almost affectionate mordancy with which Matsumoto's experience is described: "When the bomb was dropped, he was playing soccer during school recess. He chased a ball into a ditch at one end of the playing field. He bent over to pick up the ball. There was a flash and wind. When he straightened up, his city was gone. He was alone on a desert, with little spirals of dust dancing here and there."
Of course, it isn't Mr. Vonnegut who describes this frightening scene. It is one Eugene Debs Hartke, who, according to an introductory editor's note by K.V., wrote the whole of Hocus Pocus on little scraps of paper while waiting to be tried for some crime that will eventually be divulged by his narrative.
Eugene Debs Hartke, too, is a familiar Vonnegut creation. Not only is he hated by his children, who have promised never to speak to him again for innocently marrying a woman with insanity in her genes, he is also loathed by himself for all the killing and lying he did in Vietnam. So if there's anything you don't like about Eugene, he has probably beaten you to it. Besides, he has tuberculosis.
In Hocus Pocus, as usual in Mr. Vonnegut's fiction, there is a contest between comedy and despair, between the vaudeville curtain and the apocalyptic cloud. In the author's more recent novels these elements have finished in a tie, with the darkness of the author's vision balanced by the lightness of his style. Something was bound to give.
The lightness is there in Hocus Pocus: the diagrams in Mr. Vonnegut's hand, the typographicaltics, the cute tag lines. Opposite the title is a page filled with silhouettes of little men to illustrate the narrator's remark, "If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me."
There are lines separating passages within the novel's chapters to indicate where one scrap of paper ends and the next begins. As K.V. writes in his editor's note, "The shorter the passage, the smaller the scrap." Typical scraps end with lines like: "What a planet," "There went the ball game," "What a story!" "Too late now" or "So now I have tuberculosis. Cough, cough, cough."
There are even funny passages in Hocus Pocus, like the scene in which Eugene's long lost illegitimate son shows up and asks a series of questions based on lies Eugene told the boy's mother during their one-night stand; or Eugene's account of the perpetual-motion machines built by the founder of the college for the learning-disabled wealthy, where Eugene used to teach: "The longest my students and I could get the best of them to run was 51 seconds. Some eternity!"
But darkness and despair seem to have inched ahead in Hocus Pocus. True, many of Eugene's blacker lines can be dismissed as excessive. Of the notorious Donner-party cannibalism incident he writes, "People who can eat people are the luckiest people in the world." And some of the shorter scraps of the novel have entries like: "And the worst flaw is that we're just plain dumb. Admit it! You think Auschwitz was intelligent?" or "How embarrassing to be human."
Still, Eugene's tortured conscience can sneak up and whack you one. One of his students recalls how as a boy he got stuck between floors in a Bloomingdale's department-store elevator. He "believed himself to be at the center of a major event in American history." He was sure that everyone from his parents up to the President of the United States was aware of his problem. But after the elevator jolted upward and the doors slithered open, there were only customers waiting impatiently for the riders to get out so they could get in. To which Eugene responds that what the student has described "to perfection" is what "it was like to come home from the Vietnam War."
Elsewhere, Eugene reads an article called "The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore" in a magazine, Black Garterbelt. In it, an anonymous sci-fi writer describes how the wise inhabitants of Mr. Vonnegut's imaginary planet once dreamed of spreading life forms throughout the universe. They concluded that the most practical space travelers would be germs, but none were yet tough enough to make the trip. The elders decided it was up to earth's people to develop strong enough germs. So they fed a counterfeit line into the earthling's Creation myth: "Fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the Earth."
And there's Eugene's description of those "little dust devils" that Hiroshi Matsumoto saw spinning in the "blank tableland" when he picked his soccer ball out of that ditch.
But if you find yourself succumbing to the author's nuclear apoplexy, you need only to think about this atomic scene as carefully as Mr. Vonnegut seems to want you to do. Of course it isn't real. No one would have survived a nuclear explosion by ducking into a ditch. It is a cartoon conception, with the dust devils out of some "Roadrunner" short.
Similarly, all of Mr. Vonnegut's prose techniques are so worn and slick from use that they bounce away harmlessly. His vision may have darkened but he has been at his games too long to make one take him seriously.
Hocus Pocus: It's trickster's phony incantation. Most depressing of all are the holes in this performer's gloves.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1282
SOURCE: "Still Asking the Embarrassing Questions," in New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, p. 12
[McInerney is an American novelist. In the following review, he discusses the balance between pessimism and humor in Vonnegut's novels, focusing on Hocus Pocus.]
For purposes of comparison with our own stodgy, inherited universe, contemporary philosophers sometimes conjure up the concept of possible worlds. They've got nothing on Kurt Vonnegut, who in 12 previous novels has frequently resorted to other planets for slyly comparative purposes. But unlike most contemporary philosophers—who fastidiously restrict themselves to questions of linguistic and logical analysis—or most contemporary novelists, for that matter, Mr. Vonnegut is still asking the big, embarrassing, childish teleological questions. He is probably our leading literary big-question asker. He keeps posing the kind of questions, as he himself once put it, that college sophomores ask. Like, why are we on the planet? Or, why is there war? And, is technology inherently lethal? Unlike most sophomores, he has the imagination to illuminate these questions.
Although it is set in the near future, Hocus Pocus is the most topical, realistic Vonnegut novel to date, and shows the struggle of an artist a little impatient with allegory and more than a little impatient with his own country. Nationality has previously been a spurious category—a granfalloon—in the Vonnegut world view. The possible world portrayed here verges shamelessly on the actual.
Like many of Mr. Vonnegut's novels, Hocus Pocus is a retrospective first-person narrative in which several time and story lines gradually converge. It is told by one Eugene Debs Hartke and purportedly written in prison on scraps of paper, each scrap a thought, story or digression unto itself—a form ideally suited to Mr. Vonnegut's thumbnail essayistic bent and his high-speed forward- and reverse-narrative time travel.
Hartke is a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Vietnam War, a thoughtful but not tormented man who killed many human beings on the orders of his Government and dispensed many official lies as an information officer. After leaving Vietnam and the Army he becomes a teacher at Tarkington College in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, a gentle institution that specializes in nurturing the dyslexic and moronic sons and daughters of the ruling class.
After years of pleasant academic rustication, Hartke is fired from the college at the behest of a rightwing television demagogue who feels that Hartke is too pessimistic. Pessimism, as everyone knows and as the board of trustees reminds him, is un-American and probably even anti-American. A physics teacher, Hartke has made the mistake, among others, of informing his students that the idea of perpetual motion is a pipe dream. Unpatriotically, he explains, "I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them."
When he is dismissed, ostensibly for sexual misconduct, Hartke finds employment just across the lake at the former state prison, run by a Japanese corporation that operates it much more efficiently and profitably than the state did. "Color-coded" prisons have become a growth industry, in part because most productive domestic industry has disappeared. "Poor and powerless people, no matter how docile, were no longer of use to canny investors." The prison where Hartke works, near the college town of Scipio, is populated entirely by black inmates, the Supreme Court having decided that it was cruel and inhuman to confine one race with another. America has been largely resegregated—black insulated from white, rich from poor.
Hartke manages to teach some inmates how to read, though the immediate reported benefits of literacy are mainly an increased pleasure in masturbation and wider circulation for the anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." "The lesson I myself learned over and over again when teaching at the college and then the prison was the uselessness of information to most people, except as entertainment."
When gang members launch a military operation to break out a drug dealer, the entire prison population escapes and crosses the frozen lake to the Tarkington campus. For a variety of reasons, not least the racist supposition that blacks could not possibly have planned the escape, Hartke is eventually arrested as the leader of the uprising and incarcerated himself. Prison may not be such a bad place to be in the year 2001. Most of the United States has been sold to foreigners, and what is left is broken down and depleted. Black markets, race war, martial law, tuberculosis and AIDS are all somewhere between endemic and epidemic.
Like Eugene Debs Hartke, Mr. Vonnegut has always been a pessimist—"a pillar of salt," as he describes himself in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Lot's wife, he looks back at the carnage. In this case, he also looks forward, somewhat in the manner of another biblical personage, Jeremiah.
The bitter ironies in his books have always been tempered by a whimsical stoicism, despair averted by glimpses of individual compassion and the mild palliative of "harmless untruths" like the pleasantly ditsy religion of Bokononism in Cat's Cradle. He is a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a cynic who wants to believe. His fiercest social criticism is usually disguised in parable. In Cat's Cradle, for instance, a substance called Ice Nine, which on release freezes all the water on the face of the earth, stands in for nuclear weapons. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians provide a cosmic perspective on the inexplicable suffering and horror of the firebombing of Dresden. In Jailbird, the terrestrial rape of the environment is echoed in the story of the planet Vicuna, where scientists found a way to convert time into food and energy, thereby running out of it.
As if racing against such a clock, Mr. Vonnegut is working much closer to the ground in Hocus Pocus, which has more in common with Anthony Trollope's book The Way We Live Now than with Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. It is the most richly detailed and textured of Mr. Vonnegut's renderings of this particular planet. Unlike many of his major characters, Hartke seems like a real person, and Scipio seems like a real town. Some readers may miss the wilder leaps of imagination and the whimsy, but what is gained is a muscular dignity of voice that only rarely is tendentious. And, like outer space in The Sirens of Titan, Hocus Pocus is not without "empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death."
If he eschews parables, Mr. Vonnegut still finds abundant metaphors for our current situation. Hartke compares the land of the free and the home of the brave to a vast plantation, the soil and labor of which has been exhausted. The owners, whites of European descent, are selling it off, dispossessing the laborers. The buyers, mainly Japanese, find themselves as an army of occupation in a hostile, primitive land, bogged down in a terrible quagmire that may prove as destructive to their nation as Vietnam was to ours. Prisons spring up like the antibodies that attempt to form hard protective shells around the germs of tuberculosis, which is enjoying a comeback.
But don't worry. There is sort of a bright side to all of this. The science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout briefly appears—along with others in Mr. Vonnegut's repertory company, represented by a story called "Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamador," in which he speculates that the whole point of human history is to breed strains of germs powerful enough to travel through space and spread DNA throughout the universe. Once we are through trashing and poisoning the planet any germ hardy enough to survive here could presumably make it anywhere.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3460
SOURCE: "Black Magic," in Nation, Vol. 251, No. 12, October 15, 1990, pp. 421-25.
[In the review below, Leonard praises Hocus Pocus and discusses Vonnegut's fatalistic message.]
Hocus Pocus seems to me to be Vonnegut's best novel in years—funny and prophetic, yes, and fabulous too, as cunning as Aesop and as gloomy as Grimm; but also rich and referential; a meditation on American history and American literature; an elegy; a keening. "How is this for a definition of high art," we are asked by the antihero, Eugene Debs Hartke: "'Making the most of the raw materials of futility?'"
But Hocus Pocus has been not so much reviewed as consumer-tested, like a bar of chocolate, as if all Vonneguts were Hershey's, needing only to be categorized as Semi-Sweet, Special Dark or Bitter Almond. Without even bothering to cut a new stencil, critics perceive him as an amusing atavism of the 1960s. Or a celebrity-guru who has reached the bottom of his cracker barrel. Or a Pet Rock. Or an old fart. It makes you wonder why a writer ever tries to do something different. It also makes you wonder what it is a reader really wants from a writer who's been around so nobly, so long.
We take our leave of a Vonnegut novel, even Hocus Pocus, feeling … what? Certainly not comforted, nor galvanized, nor whammied. More … reflective, as if emerging from the vectors of a haiku. I spent one Christmas with him, years ago, in New Hampshire. We happened, in an orchard, upon stricken boughs of black apples. Helicopters had sprayed Stop-Drop on these apples during the October picking season, and then an early frost had killed them off, and so they hung there, very Japanese. Vonnegut said, "If you don't write about those apples, I will." He never did. Maybe they were too conveniently symbolic. (Stop-Drop, after all, is a kind of Ice-9.) But that's not how a novel of his feels, either.
Another time, I think in Maine, Vonnegut got down and dirty with Ray Mungo, who explained that his communards were leaving for the wilds of Canada because they "wanted to be the last people living on the earth." Vonnegut wondered, "Isn't that a sort of stuck-up thing to want to be?" And, of course, stuck-up writers are a dime a dozen: the wart hog postmodernist, the history-devouring sage, Umberto Eco. We never feel, after reading Vonnegut, that he thinks he's any better than we are. (We probably should, but we don't.) We feel that a sad man, inside his funny jokes, despairs of our ever getting his plain-spoken point, and we're grateful that he goes on anyway, trying all over again to make us braver and wiser, but the mind clouds as the lips grin, and we go about our chastened business with a blank uneasiness. He's such a fatalist.
Let me try again: At the end of the American Playhouse public-television production of Terrence McNally's short play Andre's Mother, the mother (Sada Thompson) and the lover (Richard Thomas) go to Central Park to mourn Andre's death from AIDS. Unable to speak their grief, they send up little white balloons. It is a kind of naming. That's what a Vonnegut feels like, only his balloons are black, like those apples.
We began taking him for granted after his megabucks Dresden novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Part of it was his own fault. His next time out, in Breakfast of Champions, he detached himself from his creations, cut the strings as if they were marionettes or kites. He was 50 years old: "Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career." Readers hate this, which is why Conan Doyle had to bring back Sherlock Holmes, and why Nicolas Freeling is resented for having lost interest in Van der Valk, for having invented Castang instead. Besides, with Breakfast, weird personal stuff started creeping into Vonnegut's fiction—like his dead father. He dropped the "junior."
But by that time, we felt we'd gotten the message, and it wasn't "Greetings!" The Sirens of Titan asked us how to cause "less rather than more pain," how to "love whoever is around to be loved." Mother Night warned that "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Bokonon told us in Cat's Cradle to "pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea what's really going on." God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater wanted to know how to love "people who have no use." Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five overheard Eliot Rosewater telling his psychiatrist, "I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living."
Art, of course, is a wonderful lie. After catastrophes and revolutions, Hiroshima and "the Nazi monkey business," God was telling us through Vonnegut that we'd have to invent the meaning of "all this" for ourselves, dream it up. This is why his characters left town so often, left Mother Earth herself, for outer space, Tralfamadore. On Tralfamadore, novels have "no beginning, no middle, no end, no moral, no causes, no effects"; they're just clumps of symbols. Vonnegut seems to need Tralfamadorians the way Garcia Márquez needs angels and Toni Morrison needs ghosts and Shakespeare needed clowns. Just maybe, by the transcendent power of the imagination, we could reverse the charges, call back the bombers over Dresden:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen…. The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes…. When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
Then again, maybe not. Breakfast of Champions was gloomier. Imagination was not enough. In Breakfast, for instance, the sci-fi novelist Kilgore Trout imagined "a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to realizing that they were making champagne."
Bummer! So much for the chronosynclastic infundibulum. But Vonnegut went on dreaming after Breakfast, with or without his critics. ("Yes," he said in Slapstick, "and while my big brother meditated about clouds, the mind I was given daydreamed the story in this book. It is about desolated cities and spiritual cannibalism and incest and loneliness and lovelessness and death.") It's just that he dreamed his way into different sorts of heads, heads attached to symbolic citizens—writers, soldiers, artists, politicians—whose moral autonomy wasn't what it ought to be. The weather inside these heads rained confusion; history came down hard and hurt; we were killing the planet. The transforming powers of the romantic self needed some group help, some civic assistance, a home front.
Slapstick is a fairy tale, set in the future instead of the past. There are monsters who mean well, a witch, a Tom Thumb (he's Chinese), a noble steed named Budweiser ("golden feathers hid her hooves"), a perilous journey with a gift (a Dresden candlestick stolen from the tent of a sleeping chieftain), an Island of Death (where "people lit their homes at night with burning rags stuck in bowls of animal fat") and a ceremony (the 100th birthday party for the last American President, who is writing his memoirs, which is the book we are reading). There are three ideas many another postmodernist would kill for: a gravity that's as variable as the weather, a Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, and a blueprint for abolishing loneliness in the following way: A computer will establish 10,000 brand-new "extended families," giving "proportional representation to all sorts of Americans, according to their numbers," by randomly assigning everybody in the country a new middle name which consists of "a noun, the name of a flower or a fruit or a fish or a mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element—connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty." Thus each individual instantly acquires 190,000 cousins (same middle name) and 10,000 brothers and sisters (same middle name and number). Daffodils, Orioles, Berylliums, Chipmunks, Bauxites, Strawberries and Pachysandras form clubs and even "parliaments" to take care of one another.
One more misbegotten "granfalloon," like the Communist Party.
And yet: Slapstick also proposes that, even if we aren't "really very good at life," we must nevertheless, like Laurel and Hardy, "bargain in good faith" with our destinies. And there are instruction manuals for this bargaining: Robert's Rules of Order, the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Bill of Rights.
None of these books was written by a Tralfamadorian.
Jailbird's about Harvard and Nixon; Sacco and Vanzetti; Hiss and Chambers; trade unionism, corporate greed, the Holocaust and Watergate—not to mention Roy Cohn. There are catacombs under Grand Central, and harps on top of the Chrysler Building, and even Nixon's "unhappy little smile" looks to Starbuck "like a rosebud that had just been smashed by a hammer." Some fairy tale! "Strong stuff," says Starbuck, whose girlfriend tells him: "You couldn't help it that you were born without a heart. At least you tried to believe what the people with hearts believed—so you were a good man just the same." And she reads Starbuck's books the way we ought to read Vonnegut's: "the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave, old enemies. Their magic would become hers."
To the three how-to manuals mentioned in Slapstick, Jailbird adds a couple more: Lincoln's "with malice toward none" Second Inaugural—Vonnegut may look like Mark Twain, but he feels as bad as Honest Abe; "Strange mingling of mirth and tears, of the tragic and grotesque, of cap and crown, of Socrates and Rabelais, of Aesop and Marcus Aurelius," said Robert Ingersoll of Lincoln—and most radical of all, Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Kilgore Trout, one of the few Vonnegut characters besides Wanda June to survive the defenestration of Breakfast, is in jail for treason because he has preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Galapagos is about evolution, Deadeye Dick is about the neutron bomb, and Bluebeard about the Abstract Expressionism of Evil. Strong stuff!
Like Starbuck in Jailbird, Rabo Karabekian in Bluebeard tries "to believe what the people with hearts believed," so perhaps he's a good man "just the same"—a child of survivors of the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, which gives us one more genocide to grieve; a veteran, like all Vonnegut's antiheroes, of World War II, which he spent commanding a platoon of artists "so good at camoflage, that half the things we hid from the enemy have to this very day never been seen again"; a postwar intimate of Pollock and Rothko; a man once divorced, once widowed, twice a failed father. Although Rabo paints, he isn't very good at the modern art that renders "absolutely nothing but itself." Much of his own work's been destroyed "thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvas and the acrylic wallpaint and colored tapes I had applied to them." He rusticates in misanthropic Hamptons exile with an empty pool and a locked potato barn, inside which we'll meet his last will and testament, his secret witness.
There are the usual dark chords. We are reminded of the industrial know-how a genocide needs "to kill that many big, resourceful animals cheaply and quickly, make sure that nobody gets away, and dispose of mountains of meat and bones afterwards." (On the college lecture circuit, Vonnegut speaks of "humanity itself [as] an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again.") But there are also the usual grace notes—those lovely moments that seem to fall in Vonnegut's pages like autumn leaves. According to Rabo, for example, God Almighty Himself "must have been hilarious when human beings so mingled iron and water and fire as to make a railroad train."
But what we've picked up, of importance, along the way in these late novels are more books of recipes—Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Picasso's Guernica, Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland. This is the library of how-to (and etiquette) instruction manuals—cookbooks and sacred civilizing texts; a nest of brains where we sit down to read the latest novel by the last innocent white man in America, a theoretician of Chaos before James Gleick explained it, a Green before they got together in political parties in places like Germany; a Johnny Appleseed of decencies; a Space-Age Buddha; Vonnegut at 68.
We should know he's up to something special in Hocus Pocus just from the name of his antihero, Eugene Debs Hartke. Eugene V. Debs, of course, was the American labor leader who said, "While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free." Debs tried to keep us out of World War I but lost out to the more practical-minded Samuel Gompers. He will lose out again with Hartke, who wanted as a boy to go to the University of Michigan but who ends up instead, after cheating in a high school science fair, at West Point. From West Point he goes to Vietnam. ("If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being," he says, "there would be little pictures of people painted all over me.") From Vietnam, he goes to teach the dyslexic children of the Anglo-Saxon filthy rich at Tarkington College in upstate New York, where there's Samoza Hall and a Pahlavi Pavilion. From Tarkington, he goes to teach black and Hispanic illiterates at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution at Athena, "a brutal fortress of iron and masonry on a naked hilltop," directly across the valley from the college.
For different reasons, in the year 2001 learning-disabled children of the filthy rich and illiterate black and Hispanic dope dealers can't read the Writing on the Wall. Even if they could, according to Hartke, "Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe."
We are reading the story that Hartke has written down on stray scraps of brown wrapping paper and the backs of envelopes while awaiting trial, like Howard Campbell Jr. in Mother Night, like Kilgore Trout in Jailbird, for treason. There's been a failed revolution. The blacks and Hispanics escaped from Athena, crossed the frozen lake in the valley, ate the horses and the campus dogs and killed some white people in the "emerald-studded Oz or City of God or Camelot" of Tarkington. Before they all got murdered in their turn, they declared a sort of Paris Commune. Since it's assumed by the triumphant military government that blacks and Hispanics couldn't possibly have plotted this revolt on their own, Hartke must have done it for them. Besides waiting for his trial, he is also adding up the number of women he's gone to bed with and the number of men he's killed, and he's afraid he'll come to the exact same body count.
I'm not going to tell you about Hartke's crazy wife and mother-in-law, who make spiderwebs of toilet paper all over the house. Or just how our prisons came to be "color-coded." Or what we're supposed to think of GRIOT, the computer program of the sociobiologists. Or why Hartke thinks "the two principal currencies of the planet are the Yen and fellatio." And never mind what goes on at the Black Cat Café. But there are some things you need to know.
In the year 2001 the Japanese run our prisons and hospitals, though they were smart enough to pass on our inner-city schools. Koreans own The New York Times. Italians own the St. Louis Cardinals. Among the trustees of Tarkington College are a thinly disguised William F. Buckley Jr. and a thinly disguised Malcolm Forbes (who shows up with Elizabeth Taylor on a motorcycle). These trustees are told, though they refuse to believe it, that they've treated America as a "plantation," and now that "the soil is exhausted, and the natives are getting sicker and hungrier every day, begging for food and medicine and shelter," and the water mains are broken and the bridges are falling down, "You are taking all your money and getting out of here."
They are told this in the valley where once upon a time were built the covered wagons that went west—maybe even the prairie schooners for the fast-food Donner Party. There are also in this valley Indian ghosts, severed heads, a floating castle and twenty-seven perpetual-motion machines "with garnets and amethysts for bearings, with arms and legs of exotic woods, with tumbling balls of ivory, with chutes and counterweights of silver." As if to balance this "magic of precious metals"—as everything in Hocus Pocus is exquisitely balanced, from the dyslexics and the illiterates to the number of women loved and men murdered—there is a carillon of thirty-two bells made "from mingled Union and Confederate rifle barrels and cannonballs gathered up after the Battle of Gettysburg." At Gettysburg, in fact, the man who started Tarkington College was shot by Confederate soldiers because he looked so much like Abraham Lincoln.
Mention is also made of Lee, Custer and Westmoreland.
A critic doesn't have to work very hard to figure out that, for Kurt Vonnegut, the Civil War between whites and blacks is far from over and the Civil War between rich and poor has only begun: That's what he's writing his novel about. Nor need you be a semiotician to notice that he does his dreaming about the Civil War inside the fevered head of American literature.
It's not just that the prisoners skating over the frozen lake are right out of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor that we meet James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser and a mortician with the name of "Norman Updike." Like Mailer and Arthur Miller, Hartke can't stop brooding about Marilyn Monroe. Edgar Allan Poe is quoted. We're actually introduced to Moby Dick (at least to his penis). I'm sure there are New England Transcendentalists hiding like angels in these hardwood trees. "Tarkington" probably refers as well to Booth—like Vonnegut, an Indiana novelist, although he went to Fitzgerald's Princeton instead of Vonnegut's (and Pynchon's) Cornell. Remember the Penrod stories and The Plutocrat? Like Cheever's Falconer, Hocus Pocus is a Sing Sing/Attica novel. Hartke's scraps of paper remind me of those "odds and ends of thoughts" that Dr. Reefy, in Winesburg, Ohio, scribbled down on bits of paper and then stuffed away in his pockets to become "little hard round balls." I wouldn't even be surprised if one reason Vonnegut left all the dirty words out of Hocus Pocus was that he felt as playful as Mark Twain felt when he left all the weather out of The American Claimant.
If I seem to be working too hard, it's because nobody else did—except Vonnegut. Like Walt Whitman (and Allen Ginsberg), when Vonnegut goes to the Civil War, he's a male nurse. Leaves of Grass is another of his sacred texts. American literature itself, the lens through which he looks at history, bloody history, is a comfort and a subversion. According to Hawthorne: "'Faith!' shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying, 'Faith! Faith!' as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness." And Melville, on reading Hawthorne, stopped to shake his head: "For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance … this black conceit pervades him through and through."
Black conceits, black apples, black balloons. Strong stuff!
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SOURCE: "Any Old Irony," in Spectator, Vol. 266, No. 8467, October 20, 1990, pp. 31, 33.
[In the following review, Buchan states that Hocus Pocus has many elements in common with Vonnegut's earlier novels.]
This is Kurt Vonnegut's 17th novel to appear in England, so the British reader should know what to expect. It's all here in Hocus Pocus, vintage Vonnegut: the short narrative units, the repetitions as in a roundelay, the intergalactic knowingness and the small-town good sense, the good humour, the tricks of typography, the exclamation marks as in a debutante's letter, the diversions, the threadbare coincidences.
Let me say right off that I can't begin with this stuff. Even when I was a hippy, I couldn't stand Vonnegut. Vonnegut, along with a Californian novelist of cloying whimsy called Richard Brautigan, were the only novelists read in my circle of friends. I rebelled against this orthodoxy—I thought rebellion against orthodoxy was the point about being a hippy. I also thought Vonnegut's relativism was dead fishy. There is a passage in Slaughterhouse-Five that greatly impressed my friends:
All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.
This statement, I now see, is nonsense.
Kurt Vonnegut began his writing career in science fiction. Early books such as Player Piano and Cat's Cradle caught the spirit of the 1950s and early 1960s, when a lot of things seemed possible that don't seem possible now. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's masterpiece, he feels sufficiently at home in the genre to use it to creep up on and describe what is obviously his capital experience: his capture by the Germans in the Ardennes, his deportation to Dresden and the fire-bombing of the city. The approach is circuitous. Vonnegut's main character, an optometrist called Billy Pilgrim bursts into tears long after the war when he hears, at a party for his 18th wedding anniversary, a barbershop quartet. He lies down and is transported back in time to Dresden in February 1945:
The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet. 'So long, forever,' they might have been singing, 'old fellows and pals; so long forever, old sweethearts and pals—God bless 'em—'
I know no passage in a later book that delivers authentic emotion in such a strange shape.
In the later books, Vonnegut has pieces of science fiction lying about—I suppose to remind the world of his humble literary origins, rather as a Mafia don might display a cobbler's last in his office. Vonnegut's most tiresome character, a science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout, keeps turning up. Trout's stories can be found only in old-fashioned soft-core magazines, though his maker—in Breakfast of Champions (1973)—promises him an implausible posthumous fame. In Hocus Pocus, Trout surfaces anonymously and gratuitously when the lead character comes on an old copy of Black Garterbelt in his wartime bootlocker. He sits down and reads a science-fiction story about the planet Tralfamadore (an old friend from Slaughterhouse-Five). But in truth, science fiction for Vonnegut is now nothing more than a mechanical literary device to give distance and irony. He also uses commercial and bureaucratic language, capital letters in odd places, drawings, TV and barrackroom medical terminology for the same general purpose.
Hocus Pocus is set in the future, or rather in a parody of the mid-1980s US. The 82nd Airborne is fighting the Drug War in the South Bronx; great American corporations have been sold to Koreans and Omanis; in small-town bars, the good ol' boys say, 'Give me a Wop', when they want a Budweiser because Anheuser-Busch is Italian-owned. All the rich and powerful in the story are in fact paupers, because they have put their money in a company called Microsecond Arbitrage which is going belly-up. With Vonnegut, one could always detect liberal anger behind the so-it-goes smile, but here for once he comes right out with it:
There I was in late middle age, cut loose in a thoroughly bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV, with virtually no health services for the poor. Where to go? What to do?
The story takes place in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It concerns Eugene Debs Hardtke, a good soldier in Vietnam, now a good professor of music appreciation and, I think, literature at a minor college for the dim children of rich parents. Across the lake from Tarkington College is the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution: the precise bureaucratic euphemism prepares the reader, even at this early stage, for some pretty heavy irony. You just know that Vonnegut is setting you up for the congruences between the two institutions, not their differences, and this is what happens. Hardtke is fired from Tarkington for being unpatriotic and promiscuous; he moves across to teach at Athena; there is a mass jail break; the prisoners escape across the ice and lay waste Tarkington; they are subdued and Hardtke is appointed warden of a new prison at Tarkington; and then he is imprisoned there.
In a realistic novel, these leaden echoes across the lake might not be so obtrusive. But Vonnegut despises the realistic novel. He has no time for novelistic free choice: his characters act as they do because of bad chemicals in the bloodstream, because their families are 'booby-trapped' with dyslexia or madness, or because they're programmed by Tralfamadorians or some such. The prison has been contracted out to a Japanese corporation and the warden is a survivor of Hiroshima:
Warden Matsumoto was an odd duck. Many of his quirks were no doubt a consequence of his having had an atomic bomb dropped on him from childhood.
Vonnegut's characters are types of this cartoon quality: they have only one characteristic or attribute. There is Ernest Hubble Hiscock, who flew into a Japanese carrier at Midway; Damon Stern, who rides a unicycle; Tex Johnson, who gets crucified in the college belfry; Mary Alice French, who won first prize at the Ohio Science Fair. These characters, about 40 of them, parade quickly across the stage or rather tap into one another like billiard balls. That's all there is by way of narrative link, except some fraudulent coincidence and a bit of repetition. There is one repeated phrase—'buried next to the stable, in the shadow of Musket Mountain when the Sun went down'—which had me chewing the carpet by the end.
On the way, there are good passages. It may be his experience of war, but Vonnegut has an eye for extreme dislocation. There is a scene where Hardtke, fishing on the lake with his mad mother-in-law, sees a prison truck break down and there, stepping out of it, for the first time, prisoners, black men. At that moment, his mother-in-law catches a pike. Later, a Malcolm Forbes character arrives at Tarkington to collect a degree with a retinue and a blown-up replica of his Irish castle, which then sails away over the prison. Vonnegut also understands better than anybody the role of TV in the US and how some Americans have difficulty remembering which is reality and which is commentary on it.
When I came back out, the TV set was displaying a program I had watched when I was a boy, Howdy Doody. I told Donner the Warden wanted to see him, but he didn't seem to know who I was. I felt as though I were trying to wake up a mean drunk. I thought I might have to fight Donner before he realised that Howdy Doody wasn't the main thing going on.
But in Hocus Pocus, Vonnegut is handling themes—war, return from war, madness—that he did well in Slaughter-house-Five. The parade of Tom-and-Jerry characters adds nothing to our knowledge. The book ends with Hardtke enumerating both the people he killed in Vietnam and the women he has slept with. Guess what, it's the same number and there's a riddle and a drawing to show it! So it goes.
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SOURCE: "The Wages of Rage," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 42, October 21, 1990, p. 15.
[In the review below, Streitfeld argues that society is the main character in Hocus Pocus and that Vonnegut's sense of dismay with America is the novel's overriding tone.]
Sixty-seven years old and recipient of as large a measure of fame as any writer in our time, Kurt Vonnegut still does what he can to enlighten the masses. He meets the public, gives lectures, talks to the press, opens himself up. An incident arising out of one such encounter last year, when Vonnegut spoke at a California university and gave an interview to a reporter for the local paper, bears repeating.
The interview, as printed, was less than laudatory. When Vonnegut saw a copy, he fired off a letter to the reporter, telling her that the story had "a paragraph of pure editorializing suggesting to most readers that a vain and shamefully overpaid phony and hypocrite had passed through town …"
He added that the reporter gave him no inkling she felt this way, and asked: "Is it fair or even decent for a so-called reporter to keep such scorn concealed, so that the scorned person cannot try to deal with it until it appears in print?"
Vonnegut then forgot all about the story—until his letter turned up for sale from a California rare-book dealer noted for both the high quality and high price of his material. In this case, the 450-word letter, plus photocopies of two stories by the reporter, was offered for $350.
To show what a good deal it was, half the letter was quoted in the catalogue. Since copyright law forbids quoting extensive passages from unpublished letters without permission, Vonnegut was angry again—so he instructed his lawyer to get in touch with the bookseller.
A minor episode, no doubt. But when you consider it in light of Vonnegut's career, it takes on a larger significance. For hasn't his anger about various situations, tragedies and indignities been not only the engine that has powered more than a dozen works of fiction over 40 years, but also a profitable activity?
That's true for his publishers, for opportunists like the reporter and the book dealer, and of course for Vonnegut himself. "It's just a matter of luck whether you make a fit with your society or not," the writer says modestly, sitting in his Manhattan kitchen. "It's a real Adam Smith market. There's only about 300 of us who make a living from this."
His new novel, Hocus Pocus, is fitting in nicely. The public likes it, the critics have generally voted thumbs up, and the author himself, grading this book as he has done with his previous efforts, gives it an A. Perhaps part of its appeal is the picture it paints of this country slowly sinking in its own sludge:
The year is 2001 now.
If all had gone the way a lot of people thought it would, Jesus Christ would have been among us again, and the American flag would have been planted on Venus and Mars.
No such luck!
As in most Vonnegut novels, people are secondary to the main character, which is society. His training as an anthropologist—an M.A. from the University of Chicago—allows him to see culture as a gadget. And a glance at the newspaper tells him all he needs to know about the world. But his final verdict is surprising: "There is some wickedness, but almost all of it is ignorance and stupidity. I think we are a good-hearted people."
Oh, yeah? What about the looting of the savings and loans?
"That's some people," he says, and then adds: "If any of my kids did what Neil [Bush] did, I would never speak to that kid again."
So he'd be upset?
"Filled with hate! Filled with hate!"
But even Vonnegut isn't completely consistent. On his front door of this one-time G.E. public relations man is a faded sticker: "Boycott G.E. Stop Nuclear Weapons." In his kitchen, meanwhile, he has an enormous G.E. refrigerator.
"Do I?" he asks, turning to look. "I don't even know."
He worked for the company in the late '40s, quitting in '51 when he started earning enough on his short stories to live on. "I was so proud of this country when I worked for GE. It was a great company then and a great country then. And now, I have such a sense of letdown."
People who like his books, he believes, feel the same way. "In one of my books I had the motto, 'Lonesome no more.' I suggested that to Sarge Shriver when he and McGovern were running for president and vice president. I get letters from people saying, 'you think just the way I do.'" And he laughs a great big rumbling laugh that seems to frequently issue from him. "They thought they were all alone."
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SOURCE: "One-Liners," in Observer Review, October 21, 1990, p. 58.
[In the following review, Bell argues that the narrative of Hocus Pocus becomes secondary to themes that Vonnegut wishes to discuss.]
Here comes another of Vonnegut's exemplary tales about one man unravelling the tangle of his life and trying to find out What Really Happened. It is full of wit, humanity, cruelty and trite narrative devices.
This time, as editor 'KV' explains, the imprisoned hero has committed his story to scraps of paper, thus allowing scope for the elliptical, the gnomic and the discursive. Often, these entries are one-sentence paragraphs.
That's one. Eugene Debs Hartke, a West Pointer named after the only socialist ever to mount a real challenge for the presidency, was in charge of the helicopter evacuation from the US embassy in Saigon. His experience of war looms large as memory and metaphor.
That's another entry. Hocus Pocus is composed of defeats. In 2001 the United States is foreign-owned, its ecology ruined, its economy shattered. Most of the book's characters are mad (Hartke's wife and mother-in-law), sad (his many lovers), drunk (ditto), drugged (America in general), suicidal (any character impeding the narrative) or affectless. The remainder are the Ruling Class, the rich who sold out to the Japanese and who, squatting on their assets, treat their fellow Americans as aliens.
They run Tarkington College, where Hartke finds a job teaching their idiot children until he is implicated in the biggest jail-break in history. The college serves for a satire on the education industry, with its Pahlavi pavilion, Samoza Hall and Vonnegut Memorial Fountain. The racially segregated, profit-making Sony-owned prison does for a parallel skit on, well, racism and profit.
The trouble with Vonnegut's devices (that was another: his hero acquires TB) is that they make it easy for him to subordinate narrative to theme. The snippets form a thread on which he strings pearls of faux-naif wisdom. Thus: 'The prime two movers in the Universe are Time and Luck.' Or, '"Life's a bad dream", he said. "Do you know that?'" Or, 'All nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo'.
You can do anything with a character in this form, load any amount of historical tonnage on him. Vonnegut has done it before. Hartke brings to mind Eliot Rosewater, Walter F. Starbuck, Billy Pilgrim and the rest. The author is, as usual, worried about war, money, history, psychological imbalance and chaos.
It is all done with voice. Vonnegut is a master of the first-person, manic-depressive stand-up. His statements may be hackneyed but they are, usually, funny. That is true even when the irony is leaden and the plot becomes absurdly self-referential, like a ball of string needing only one tug to pull it apart.
The best joke sits among the publishing details, beneath the copyright notice: 'Kurt Vonnegut has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work.'
'Hoc est corpus.'
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SOURCE: "Life as a Cruel Joke," in Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 1990, p. 1146.
[In the following review, Montrose characterizes Hocus Pocus as a novelized essay and praises Vonnegut's masterful style.]
Hocus Pocus presents a dystopian America where the future (2001) is like the present, only more so. Everything has worsened: the economy, the ravaging of natural resources, crime, the drugs problem, urban decay, poverty. Petrol and food are rationed. The rich have sold Big Business to foreigners and live off the proceeds. The only surviving "American enterprises" are Mafia-controlled. Nor is public property exempt. National Forests have been sold to a Swedish timber corporation; prisons are run, for profit, by the Japanese (they have, however, declined to take over innercity schools). The novel, like most of Kurt Vonnegut's since Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), takes the form of a grimly comic autobiography replete with vicissitudes, guilt and futility: life as a cruel joke. The autobiographer, Eugene Debs Hartke, recounts his story while awaiting trial for organizing the biggest prison break in American history.
Like most Vonnegut heroes, Hartke is beset by fate, inadvertently becoming first a career soldier, then a teacher. As a much-decorated officer in Vietnam, he was nicknamed "The Preacher", so adept was he at delivering "lethal hocus pocus", the official lies which justified the war to his men (who "died for other people's vanity and foolishness"), the press and television. As a professor at a college in upstate New York for the "learning-disabled … plain stupid or comatose" offspring of the wealthy, he turns into an enemy of what Vonnegut once termed "the American way of thinking about America", debunking the self-seeking myths of the "Ruling Class". Eventually, he is summarily fired after falling foul of a right-wing television and newspaper pundit. This reverse saves his life: he obtains (by chance, naturally) a residential post at the nearby maximum security prison (whose Warden survived Hiroshima) and thus avoids the bloodshed which ensues after the convicts, all black, break out and overrun the college and surrounding town. Hartke is accused, falsely, of masterminding the escape, because of his reputation and because the authorities believe that "Black people couldn't mastermind anything". Obviously, he will be found guilty.
To some extent, Vonnegut is, like Gore Vidal, an anti-historian of America, undermining popular fictions, removing varnish and inserting warts—although his methods are quite different (Vidal offers detailed portraits, Vonnegut lightning sketches). Here, Vonnegut condemns the "Ruling Class" as greedy, hypocritical and hubristic. He also despairs of mankind as a species, notably its capacity for vainglory and destructiveness. In his finest novel, The Sirens of Titan, he derided that former trait by portraying the whole of human history as having been manipulated to assist an inconsequential mission by an alien creature. In Hocus Pocus, a short story by an anonymous writer (Kilgore Trout, surely) posits that humans were developed by "intelligent threads of energy trillions of light-years long" solely to devise survival tests for germs, the true "darlings of the Universe".
Derided, also, is the human propensity for ruining the planet while arguing about the costs of rectifying matters. A minor character proposes that a gigantic epitaph be carved in the Grand Canyon "for the flying-saucer people to find … WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP". Only he didn't say "doggone", adds Hartke, who eschews, "obscenity" throughout since it entitles "people who don't want unpleasant information to close their ears an eyes to you".
To varying degrees, from Breakfast of Champions (1973) onwards, the purpose of Vonnegut's novels has been moral instruction. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in that. Unfortunately, these later novels have had little to match the quirky invention of the best of Vonnegut's earlier work—The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five—while characterization has thinned to the point where Hocus Pocus almost resembles a novelized essay; one set of colourless mouthpieces utters Vonnegut's sentiments, another provides those to be demolished. Fortunately Vonnegut remains an effectual stylist, combining deadpan irony and faux naïveté. As usual, his central narrative winds through a mosaic of aphorisms, verbal tics, digressions, homilies, obscure facts. Familiar ingredients reappear: hereditary insanity (Hartke's wife and mother-in-law are afflicted), obesity, suicides and outlandish deaths, war, outrageous fortune (even multi-millionaires are but a swift plot-twist away from penury), man-made catastrophes, white-collar crime, alcoholism…. This compendium of devices and concerns may have hardened into a formula, but it has not yet ceased to be a diverting one.
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SOURCE: A review of Hocus Pocus, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, 1990, p. 24.
[In the following review, Lubold argues that the key to Hocus Pocus is the way in which Vonnegut takes the concerns of today and portrays them in the extreme in his futuristic setting.]
Vonnegut's new novel is about a man who has returned from Vietnam, and is now, in 2001, recalling events when he worked at a school in Upstate New York and later staged a prison break in a nearby prison. Now he awaits trial for this crime. But Hocus Pocus delivers a lot more; in fact, any plot is secondary to the author's presentation of the confusing and bizarre reality of the 21st century.
Vonnegut fuses his version of a futuristic reality with one which is familiar to the one we now face in the 1990s, with the Japanese buying up everything from national park concession stands to movie studios, and with African-Americans, who continue to be thrown in jail. It's an eerie resemblance, because he takes these issues and transmutes them into an extreme, causing us to reflect on our own experience and what we will be confronting soon, if Vonnegut's wild scenario ever comes true.
Life becomes chaotic for Eugene Debs Hartke, who teaches at Tarkington but who later must stand trial for his involvement in a prison break. Add to this his insanity from his participation in Vietnam, which stimulates Vonnegut's imagination, providing him with a metaphor for the way we must abide by what we are told to do, whether it is right or wrong. The juxtaposition of Hartke's reflections about Vietnam upon the suppression of the society gives the impression that there is a relationship between the way Vietnam vets went off and fought a war and how segments of our society are drafted into playing a certain role.
Meanwhile, the Japanese yen has become the preferred currency to the less-than-valuable dollar, which, even in 1990, isn't all that ridiculous.
The kind of society he portrays is worrisome; he has extracted all of these present-day concerns into an anarchic mess, with people finally paying for their earlier sins. But the plot (and that is a narrow way of defining what actually happens in the book) is a weave of strange predictions and ideas. But there is much more than can be alluded to here; more readings of the book would reveal more ways of looking at a planet and a people who seem bent on self-destruction.
What is important about the book is how Vonnegut's style makes the book work, and whether that style will either overwhelm and intimidate, or leave you wanting more, either way it will provoke.
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SOURCE: A review of Hocus Pocus, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 135-36.
[In the excerpt below, Phillips criticizes Vonnegut's style in Hocus Pocus.]
In closing [Hocus Pocus], I was reminded of John Jay Chapman's remark: "When I put down a book by Stevenson, I swear I am hungry for something to read." Kurt Vonnegut's book left me hungry indeed; it is almost totally devoid of some standard ingredients of fiction—dialogue, form, confrontation, coherent plot. The author relies almost totally on the narrator and his one point of view. And the narration comes to us tricked-up with "unconventional lines separating passages within chapters" which "indicate where one scrap ended and the next began. The shorter the passage, the shorter the scrap" ("Editor's Note"). The narrator did not have access to uniform writing paper, see? The writer, locked up in a library and facing trial, was desperate to express himself. His name, Eugene Debs Hartke, is clue to Vonnegut's social concerns within the novel. Anyone who owns an aging VW Beetle is fine. The narrator manages to disparage rich kids, Japanese entrepreneurs and all prosperous foreigners, optimists, and people who are mentally ill. At one point the narrator's wife and mother-in-law are both carted off to an asylum, much to his relief. The narrator's definition of high art is, "Making the most of the raw materials of futility."
The snippet-technique soon begins to wear. One card or shard reads, in its entirety, "Vietnam." Another states grandly, "There is so much we have to learn about TV!" And because the narrator has developed TB, many cards are devoted to his cough: "Cough, cough. Silence. Two more; Cough, cough. There. I'm ok now. Cough. That's it. I really am OK now. Peace." One wonders what the author would have put on the paper had the narrator suffered from, say, postnasal drip?
The author's, or the narrator's, international vision embraces such statements as, "All nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo." Such euphemisms fill the book with cuteness. Repeatedly he refers to when "the excrement hit the air-conditioning in Vietnam." Either Vonnegut wants to make sure he makes his point, or he is unaware of his repetitiousness; how many times need we be told that the Chemistry Department of Harvard University developed napalm?
One has to admit Vonnegut is capable of provoking a smile, as when he describes some natives as being "just as white as Nancy Reagan." But the slap-dash quality of Hocus Pocus is disconcerting. For instance, "After Lyle Hooper was executed, with a bullet behind the ear, I visited the Trustees in the stable. Tex Johnson was still spiked to the cross-timbers in the loft overhead, and they knew it. But before I tell about that, I had better finish my story of how I got a job in Athena."
Vonnegut's penchant for reiterating a phrase ("And so it goes," was the litany in Slaughterhouse-Five) is here reduced to "What a planet!" His inventive powers seem to be wearing thin. It is difficult to disagree with his fine ecological feelings in Hocus Pocus. On the other hand, it was André Gide who observed, "Fine feelings are the stuff that bad literature is made of."
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SOURCE: "The Wrecked Generation," in Times Literary Supplement, November 15, 1991, pp. 8-9.
[In the review below, Wood discusses the role of comedy in Fates Worse than Death.]
Dreamy, hectically anecdotal, slovenly and bearish with the truth, Kurt Vonnegut's writing has always handled fact with comic negligence. It has a kind of epistemological cockiness, amassing detail only to mock its sureties. Knowledge enters his books with a hiatus, a cloudiness. Consider, for example, his fondness for place-name couplets—Genoa, Italy, or Hellertown, Pennsylvania, or Indianapolis, Indiana. He loads his sentences with all kinds of names: "They were Lance Rumfoord, of Newport, Rhode Island, and his bride, the former Cynthia Landry, who had been a childhood sweet-heart of John F. Kennedy, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts." This is a kind of nonsense verse—mildly subversive, rhythmical, sprawling, but comically precise ("the former Cynthia Landry"). It is not that names like George Minor Moakely or Miss Francine Pefko or Indianapolis, Indiana are intrinsically funny (as bad English comic writers seem to think); what is comic is the author's belief that he can locate himself and his readers through names. Such earnest striving merely unmoors us, of course.
Autobiography, with its traditionally zealous relation to the real and historical, is a fine playground for Vonnegut's games. Like its predecessor Palm Sunday, this latest collection of essays and speeches [Fates Worse than Death] is rigged with digressions, self-mockery, useless gossip and parenthetical ironics. There are many piercing jokes. The book's comic circuitry is bathos, from high to low and back again. The prose makes wild connections, but abjures argumentative termini. As in Vonnegut's fiction, it is hard to know what to believe. "All persons," runs Vonnegut's smirking disclaimer, "living and dead, are purely coincidental and should not be construed." It is entirely appropriate that the book should open with a photograph of Vonnegut and Heinrich Böll, laughing together. Vonnegut, as ever, looks mild, open and dreamy. The two writers, he tells us in his preface, were talking about how best to fake a wound so as to avoid fighting in an army. "Böll said that the correct way to shoot yourself was through a loaf of bread, in order to avoid powder burns. That is what we are laughing about." A page later, Vonnegut comments on the preface he is just finishing: "Only now am I sticking this coverlet, as my editor, Faith Sale, and I prepare to put the creature to beddy-bye." Faith Sale: probably she is Vonnegut's editor. But something about the insouciance of that sentence wraps her status in doubt, co-opts her as one of Vonnegut's creations, one of his names.
This is a matter of style, of course, as it is in all great comedy. Though Vonnegut's prose has lost some of its verbal affluence (there is much less flossing and polishing than there used to be), Fates Worse Than Death still reminds us of the vigour of the contemporary comic American voice from e. e. cummings, through John Berryman to Vonnegut and Pynchon. We might call this voice the unbearable lightness of style. It has a perilous levity. It is a language of rapid evasion and denial, with all kinds of ironic buoyancies. In Berryman's Dream Songs for instance, and in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, rages, griefs and complaints are moving in proportion to the denial of them which the language effects. Poised between innocence and the irony of forced jollity, it is a way of childishly baring one's soul. One thinks of Berryman's "I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation", or one of the lines from Song 14: "Life, friends, is boring". This is Vonnegut's tone also; the shoulder-shrugging surrender of "Life is sure funny sometimes" (Cat's Cradle) or "Hi Ho" (Slapstick) or, most famously, "So it goes" (Slaughterhouse-Five). It is perilous because one word out of place will turn this unbearable lightness into unbearable heaviness. In this book, while discussing his father (gentle, tolerant, serene) and his mother (neurotic, alcoholic), Vonnegut's tone never trips. But he almost loses it when discussing a fellow writer, Donald Barthelme, who died aged fifty-eight, at the peak of his talent: "At a memorial service for the brilliant author Donald Barthelme (who was surely sorry to die, since he was going from strength to strength)…." The lightness here, and at a couple of other moments, seems a little too airy. Most of the time, however, Vonnegut is more grounded. The key is rhythm and pacing, as in this description of his son: "He is now a pediatrician in Boston, with a wife and two fine sons, and two fine automobiles."
Vonnegut's prose is rude, gassy and sublime. It throws out splinters of comedy with great ease. There are many conversational quips, most of them coyly clothed in brackets. Gossiping about Tennessee Williams, for instance, he suddenly cracks: "(He and T. S. Eliot grew up in St Louis, but Williams admitted it. He didn't all of a sudden start talking like the Archbishop of Canterbury.)" Other jokes are larger, and in the service of his decent political radicalism (there are speeches and essays here about America's war-greed, the folly of "surgical" bombing, the cruelty and secret longevity of Western imperialism—Vonnegut's usual quiver of themes). Writing about how liberty was not born in Boston or Philadelphia in 1776 because "slavery was legal" and women were unfree, he adds: "Liberty was only conceived in Boston or Philadelphia. Boston or Philadelphia was the motel of liberty, so to speak."
Vonnegut is lovable because he is warm, sentimental (in the cute and compact way a cartoon is sentimental) and self-mocking. All of the speeches reproduced in this book end with "I thank you for your attention." On the page, and so often followed by gossip and chat, this formal gratitude takes on a sly ambiguity. Unlike the audience at a speech, we hear this of our own volition. So he has no need to thank us. But he retains this line because it is humble, but also because in its uselessness, it comically undercuts pomposity. Vonnegut has radical charm. The effect of a speech on liberty, followed by this refrain of "I thank you for your attention", and then tailed by "(After that speech, a bunch of us were loaded onto a yellow school bus and taken to a Spanish restaurant)"—the effect is that of the author offering himself up at various levels, on different frequencies, with all kinds of shadings, without insistence.
Vonnegut has always put himself on to the page. John Updike, praising him as an "imaginer" rather than a "self-dramatizer", once referred to him as one who "disdains the personal". Yet this is not the sense of him that his readers have. One feels a powerful impact of vision and soul. This vision is politically radical, dreamily utopian, and it has a number of recurring themes and places (Ilium, New York, Tralfamadore, and so on). We feel his presence as an author, which may be why he writes so well and so naturally about other American authors. The most interesting part of this book is about what Vonnegut calls "the compressed history of American authorship". This compression has to do with the foreshortening of American writers' lives (Barthelme and Hemingway are Vonnegut's examples) and the speed with which an entire generation disappears—"I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation". Vonnegut, like so many of his fellow writers, seems mainly cross with America, rather than God, for doing this wrecking. One senses that, at sixty-seven, he is amused and surprised to find himself a survivor.
The more Vonnegut writes, the more American he seems—a kind of de-solemnized Emerson, at once arguer, doubter, sermonizer and gossip. Indeed, Emerson's opening question of his essay Experience, "Where do we find ourselves?", might well stand as an epigraph to Vonnegut's questing work. Like that of the great essayist, Vonnegut's prose seems radically accountable: a man lives behind it.
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SOURCE: "Just a Few Quick Ones Before I Go," in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8523, November 16, 1991, p. 45.
[In the following review, Clark argues that Fates Worse than Death lacks coherence.]
Kurt Vonnegut, German-American author of Slaughterhouse-Five, the consummate work on the bombing of Dresden, fears he will live little longer. Paying tribute to fellow Germanic writer Heinrich Böll in the preface to his latest book [Fates Worse than Death], he mentions that Böll died in 1974 at the age of 67. Then he adds, sorrowfully but proudly: 'One year short of my age now, and I smoke as much as he did'.
Therein lies the reason for this somewhat pointless 'autobiographical collage of the 1980s'. Vonnegut is determined to make a collection of a lifetime's loose witticisms before he kicks the bucket. Some of the book is made up of throwaway remarks he made in private conversation years ago. More of the book is made up of throwaway remarks he wished he had made but thought about too late.
The rest consists of lectures and sermons he has delivered, not all of which impressed their audiences. The greater the disparity between the reception a lecture received and the reception Vonnegut thinks it deserved, the longer the excerpt reproduced in this book.
After transcribing one particularly meandering speech to students of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vonnegut admits:
What a flop! The applause was polite enough … But nobody came up front afterward … What makes the students of today so unresponsive?
Many things do, but nothing so much as whimsical speeches delivered by old men. Vonnegut would do better to cut his losses, forget the speech and set to work on writing a real book.
This volume, an appendix from beginning to end, brings out Vonnegut's worst tendency: to babble, both in writing and in speech. It reads as if Vonnegut has had electrodes fitted to his head and connected to a teleprinter—I say teleprinter rather than computer terminal, because the teleprinter unfortunately has no editing function.
Every odd thought has been recorded, every opportunity to namedrop has been taken ('I never met John Steinbeck, but I know his widow, Elaine, and she is about my late sister's age') and when he remembers jokes he begins to recite them only to be distracted before he reaches the punchline. Often he ends paragraphs with dissociated and pointless asides:
T. S. Eliot, whose poems about cats inspired that last-named musical [Cats], owed an unacknowledged debt, it has always seemed to me, to Archie and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, whose wife was the former Mrs Walter Vonnegut.
Vonnegut is best when relating his wartime experience (little of this book has anything to do with the 1980s). Although he writes as a benign, former angry young man, much of what he says about Dresden and other Allied bombing raids has gained poignancy since he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. For example, he writes of Roosevelt's government's
tall tales of delicate surgery performed by bombers equipped with Sperry and Norden bombsights. These instruments were so precise, we had been told, that a bombardier could drop his billets-doux down the chimney of a factory if ordered to.
Had Vonnegut, a POW in Dresden at the time of its bombardment by American explosives and (several hours later) British incendiaries, been in Baghdad last January he might already have started writing Slaughterhouse-Six. He might have done justice to 45 years worth of improvements to the art of bombing.
This collection, though, is sprinkled only with a few pacifist's whinges. Vonnegut complains several times of the bombing of Colonel Qaddaffi's 'daughter' in Tripoli in 1986, when surely he accepts that the showing of the 'daughter's corpse' was a crude publicity stunt by the 'colonel'.
Vonnegut appears to suspect that his book is rather feeble. One chapter from the end he writes:
Most people my age and of my social class, no matter what job they held, are retired now. So it seems redundant (even silly) for critics to say, as many do, that I am not the promising writer I used to be.
Perhaps it is. In that case I shall merely wish him a long and happy retirement.
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SOURCE: "So It Still Goes with the Sermonettist," in Observer Review, December 22, 1991, p. 43.
[In the following review of Fates Worse than Death, Cunningham praises Vonnegut's wit in addressing the problems of modern American society.]
Kurt Vonnegut is the conscience of Middle America. The fates picked out an ordinary GI kid prisoner-of-war, one of us, one man out of the whole US, to endure and miraculously survive the fire-bombing of Dresden. Thus Vonnegut became a unique witness against the human awfulness Dresden symbolised.
He chose to do his testifying by playing Huck Finn, a Holy Fool, a zany and practical joker with a canny touch for textual transgression—mixing up the genres, defying distinctions between high and low modes, straight fic and Sci Fi, novels and sermons. No wonder he became the preacher of post-Holocaust righteousness Americans hate to love and love to hate. They ban his books from schools, and invite him to address graduation ceremonies.
Fates Worse Than Death is the latest volume of his cunning, rambling, edgy sermonettes, his wry, moral bomblets chucked night after night from podium and pulpit into gatherings of shrinks and museologists, Anglicans, architects, MIT graduands and the like. Rumours that the old boy was losing his knack of drilling straight into the nerve of western complacency can, on the evidence of this marvellously tetchy wit, be discounted.
Historians of American puritanism will, of course, recognise the old-fashioned, prophetic, conversionist drift. And Vonnegut devotees will be very familiar with the potent combination of freethinking and Sermon on the Mount that energises his assaults on modern Beelzebub in his native land: censors of books, Neo-Conservatives, tele-evangelists, Henry Kissinger the carpet-bomber of Hanoi, Ronnie Reagan the drowsy monger of easy showbiz wars and killer of babies (Gadaffi's baby in particular), Charlton Heston the spokesperson of the National Rifle Association, and heroic bomber pilots who drop their loads of death and scoot away. Infantry-man Vonnegut never forgets that George Bush was an airforce flyer.
Familiarity with Vonnegut's drives and aims does not blunt the force of his barbed pieties. Not least because these are sustained by a very moving family pietas and a fine staunchness towards old army buddies and fellow-writers in the cause. Vonnegut's wonderfully looping celebration of his German clan's summers at Maxincuchee Lake makes an extraordinarily Chekhovian and Updike-like narrative, a short-story in effect, about the gains and losses of kinship, and the powers of affection and guilt as they run through families.
It sounds a kind of keynote within this artfully ragged, carefully intermittent personal record, so haunted by a mad and suicidal mother, a sad architect father frustrated by the Depression, a son who went temporarily insane and a wife who died, and by the need to make replacement communities of like minds contra mundum, in solidarity with his new Vietnam-photographer wife, with his old army friend from Dresden days, the recently dead Bernard V. O'Hare, even with fellow-clarinetist Benny Goodman.
'I used to play a little licorice-stick myself,' Vonnegut keeps telling us he once told Benny Goodman. The jesting self-send-up is usual, and so is the well-rehearsed one-liner. For this is a preacher who offers his truths in punch-lines, his rebukes by motto. And the throw-away lines have become the grimmer the more our culture has become throw-away.
'So it goes', the shrugging acceptance of Apocalypse Then in Slaughterhouse-Five has been replaced by 'What a Mess'—an awful truth about global auto destructiveness, our un-green Apocalypse Now, the terrible suicidal moment when we all drink the Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.
'Imagine being American', Vonnegut invites us—and worse, think of being not liked by Walter Cronkite, the Man Most Americans Trust. Worse still, imagine being Huck Finn with nowhere to go at the end of your story, no clean territories to 'light out to', no innocent geography left.
The way Vonnegut imagines the plight is American all right, but it's a dilemma he makes you feel the whole world had better attend to, or else.
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SOURCE: "Novelist on the Half Shell," in Washington Post Book World, September 21, 1997, p. X01.
[In the following review, Disch argues that Timequake discloses much information about Vonnegut himself.]
Timequake is a novel by, and starring, Kurt Vonnegut. His co-star, and virtually the only other "character" in the book, is his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, who figured in two earlier Vonnegut novels, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Trout has also published his own novel, Venus on the Half Shell (1975), but since it was written, without Vonnegut's consent, by Philip Jose Farmer, that book cannot legally be accounted part of the Trout oeuvre, though it enjoys its own peculiar and illegitimate glory as one of the few novels published by a non-entity.
It may be that the concept for Timequake is a steal from Thorton Wilder's Our Town. (Vonnegut discreetly acknowledges as much.) In a nutshell, everyone on Earth has to relive the 1990s on automatic pilot, observing but not participating in their lives. But what Wilder made poignant, Vonnegut simply doesn't engage with, for he refuses to deal either with the helplessness and/or horror of such an experience or with the trauma of release. No matter—intensity was never Vonnegut's forte. And anyhow Wilder had already done it.
What Vonnegut does, which no one can do better, is give a big postmodern shrug. The experience is shifted to the expert shoulders of Trout, who once again plays Mortimer Snerd to Vonnegut's own Charlie McCarthy. Like Philip Roth's Zuckerman, Trout represents his creator's self-love and self-loathing at a level of imaginative intensity that mere memoir would not allow.
And that is not to reckon with the man's own immense self-regard. Vonnegut namedrops like a rainstorm: A.E. Hotchner, Heinrich Boll, Dick Francis, Gunther Grass, Andrei Sakharov, and a host of showbiz stars that his own celebrity has brought within a handshake's distance. The extended Vonnegut family is all on hand, as at a wedding, each with a characterizing anecdote. The author's bibliography and the salient facts of his public career are offered as candidly as on a resume.
And then there are the sententiae: There shall be no more war, we must love one another, etc. He echoes Henry Fonda, echoing John Steinbeck, echoing Eugene Debs, that as long as there is anyone poor or downtrodden or in prison, he, Kurt Vonnegut, is poor, downtrodden, and imprisoned, too. Oh dear, as Vonnegut might say.
Of his writerly life we learn that he still works, virtuously, on a manual typewriter, corrects his copy with pen or pencil and then mails these pages off to his long-term professional typist in the country. This necessitates a walk first to the store, to buy a single manila envelope, and then to the post office, where he waits in line to buy a stamp. The process becomes a parading of Vonnegut's rectitude and unassuming human dignity relative to those boobs among us who use computers and fax machines or play the lottery.
If all this seems insufferably smug, it is, but since it comes from Vonnegut, America's favorite grumpy old man, you've got to love him. He has so cornered the market on elderly curmudgeonliness that his very belches (and there are plenty of them, including three or four really moldy dirty jokes) have a fragrance of temps perdu.
In a well-advised "Prologue," Vonnegut forewarns his readers that Timequake took 10 years to write, at the end of which, 74 years old, "I found myself in the winter of 1996 … the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point, and which had never wanted to be written in the first place…. Let us think of it as Timequake. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two. Hokay?"
Hokay with me. (Though why not, in that case, put that title on the cover?) The fact is that Vonnegut's fame and bankability are such that he is now beyond rejection or even criticism. As for Trout—now a hack sci-fi writer in his eighties—though reduced to the condition and appearance of a bag lady he's still going strong, churning out unpublishable stories full of idiot-savant wisdom. His stories are, in synopsis, truly stupid, and we must be grateful that Vonnegut has had the discernment to imagine Trout's stories rather than write them.
And yet, as with Mortimer Snerd, it is Trout who may be the more memorable character. He is one of those, like Forrest Gump or Sherlock Holmes, who take their creator captive and become the boss. Even Vonnegut seems to be aware of this, for if the book has any message, it is that offered by Trout: "You were sick, but now you're well again, and there's work to do."
One may have doubts about this as a panacea to the world's problems. But as solace and wish-fulfillment, it's on a par with Voltaire's advice, as mediated through Candide, that we should tend to our own affairs, a counsel of perfection to which the reader can only answer, Hokay.
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SOURCE: "Vonnegut Stew," in The New York Times, September 28, 1997.
[In the following review, Sayers describes Timequake as a mix of novel and memoir.]
Like so many of my peers, I began reading Kurt Vonnegut while the Vietnam War was raging. By the time I discovered his great World War II novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, the earth had shifted under my feet. Vonnegut, satirist and tragedian, seemed like a literary elder bearing witness. (Some elder; he was in his 40's then.) And I knew I was embarking on a lifelong relationship. Vonnegut thought the big thoughts—about war and death and how we ought to treat one another—and regarded them not only as transformative but as useful, stylish, even fun. He was not chained to any one idea about "story structure" but was the prankster of italics, exclamation points and one-sentence paragraphs.
He was a word cartoonist, a wise guy, a true subversive!
Nearly 30 years later, Vonnegut is still making the pompous look silly and the decent and lovely look decent and lovely. His new so-called novel, Timequake, is, as Vonnegut describes it, a "stew." He has taken the best pickings from a novel that wasn't working and interspersed them with a running commentary on his own life and the state of the universe. The mix is thick and rich: a political novel that's not a novel, a memoir that is not inclined to reveal the most private details of the writer's life.
The bits of the novel that Vonnegut has rescued (or chopped up and put on to simmer) are odd and confusing—but I am often thrown by the plots of fantasy and science fiction. Once Vonnegut has discarded big chunks of the original book (who knows how many?) and has summarized the plots of several others, the remaining story is murky, to say the least. But no matter. Whenever faced with a Vonnegut plot I cannot altogether follow, I always read faster. The man's mind is racing, and it is exhilarating to give chase.
The fictional settings include the real-life American Academy of Arts and Letters and a writer's colony called Xanadu. As usual, Vonnegut is both celebrating and satirizing the writing life. It is this tension between admiration and disdain that informs his view of his characters, too. The old Vonnegut alter ego, Kilgore Trout, science fiction writer, is on hand to deliver the wry and trenchant lines about art, poverty and violence. The other major characters, a blond secretary and a black security guard, telegraph Vonnegut's sharp interest in class and race more than they suggest real people. As Trout himself puts it, "If I'd wasted my time creating characters … I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter."
Much of Vonnegut's work (including the crystalline autobiographical opening of Slaughterhouse-Five) has thumbed its nose at conventional form. But what really matters here, at least philosophically, is free will—that familiar Vonnegut theme. The original novel's premise, Vonnegut tells us, was that "a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum made everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done during a past decade, for good or ill."
But the bones of that story—the so-called fictional ingredients of the brew—are not the most savory items. The real pleasure lies in Vonnegut's transforming his continuing interest in the highly suspicious relationship between fact and fiction into the neatest trick yet played on a publishing world consumed with the furor over novel versus memoir. Timequake has parlayed his unworkable novel into a highly entertaining consideration of the relationship between the writer's life and the writer's imagination. Some of its juxtapositions are unsettling, especially the fictional-nonfictional scenes of marriage. Some are hilarious. Much of the autobiographical material appeared in Vonnegut's Fates Worse Than Death (1991), yet even these reworked scenes seem written here for the first time. The portraits of Vonnegut's first wife and brother, both recently dead, and his sister, long gone, are beautiful, sharp, critical, loving.
"All Vonnegut men," Vonnegut's aunt tells us, "are scared to death of women." The book returns, painfully, relentlessly, to Vonnegut's mother, who committed suicide and who, by his account, was preoccupied with class and money. Her obsession must be terrifying for a highly successful writer who has for years been quoting his own hero, Eugene Debs: "While there is a lower class, I am in it." He quotes his son, Mark, who survived a crackup and is now a pediatrician: "We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."
I take perfectly seriously Vonnegut's solutions for American society, including his proposed amendment to the Constitution: "Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage." I'm glad he's still going around inventing new forms to contain his vision of a decent society, even if he had to dismember a novel to do it.
At 74, Vonnegut has had enough of the writing life, he tells us in the preface, and Timequake was obviously inspired by his sense that his life's work is winding down. But let me be just the latest to declare that this work has been a blessing. Vonnegut may not have finished the novel, but for a generation of readers he still writes the book.