Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.

I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?

Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.

Continue reading

Advertisement

THE SIRENS OF TITAN – Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The Sirens Of Titan

I generally read up on book before I review them, and it doesn’t happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that’s available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment.

A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay. It’s written by Herbert G. Klein, and in doing so he tackles a lot of other aspects about this novel. It’s here.


The Sirens Of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel. Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my all-time favorite books, was published 10 years later. The general consensus is that SH5 is Vonnegut’s masterpiece, so I did not expect Sirens to top it, just as I didn’t expect Cat’s Cradle to top it. To be clear: it didn’t. If I have to believe what I’ve read, it is only in Sirens that Vonnegut really found his voice, and it indeed reads as what I’ve come to expect from him: similar in themes & method. But, it does not feel as invested and personal as SH5. Just below all the satire of his most known book is a thick layer of emotion, and that’s lacking here. As a result, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters & the storyline.

Still, Vonnegut had had his share of bad luck by 1959, and one would imagine that to be an emotional reservoir for any writer. Power reader, music historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia points out how the biographical does seep into this book, in yet another excellent text on Sirens, to be found on Conceptual Fiction.

Continue reading

ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT – Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

img_20160914_153857047Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.

The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All StreetsGreat DayGuns Before ButterHappy Birthday, 1951Brighten UpThe Unicorn TrapUnknown SoldierSpoilsJust You And Me, SammyThe Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.

The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.

confetti-8-vonnegut Continue reading

CAT’S CRADLE – Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

Cats CradleThe cover at the left is a total fraud. Vonnegut doesn’t really write science fiction, nor is this, at heart, an apocalyptic book – his work is firmly rooted in a tradition of absurdist critique. Just as Slaughterhouse-FiveCat’s Cradle starts as a book about a writer wanting to write a book. And also Cat’s Cradle is war related, as the yet-to-be written book will be about the (fictional) father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. It quickly evolves into a travelogue of the protagonist visiting San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island with a fictional dictator, on which the children of Hoenikker find themselves in possession of the final remnants of their father’s last invention, Ice-9, a chemical with the potential to destroy the world. And, importantly, everybody on the island is a Bokononist: a follower of a fictional religion.

Bokononism’s main creed is that truth is problematic, and that we should all just live by the harmless untruths that make us happy. Humanity’s ability to lie to ourselves is probably the most important theme in the book.

(…) the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.

&

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

Cat’s Cradle is often funny, with deadpan cynicism pervading the 203-page novel. I laughed out loud several times. It’s divided in short chapters of about a page, and the pacing is generally fast and smooth. Wikipedia quotes Vonnegut himself on this: his books “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.” Nevertheless, I felt it dragged a wee bit in the middle, but it quickly found its relentless pace again.

My guess is that Vonnegut is an active nihilist. That’s not a negative. He tackles themes like the stupidity of humans, nationalism, the moral responsibility of scientists working on weapons, colonialism, soldiers being too young, the duties of artists and writers, free will and human progress extremely well, and does so without fleshed out characters, imaginative world building or an intricate plot.

He shrugged. ‘People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.’

&

‘Sometimes the pool-pan,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bookman translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God’.

&

‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God. ‘Certainly,’ said man. ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God. And he went away.

Cats CradleI don’t think Cat’s Cradle is as good as Slaughterhouse-Five, since it feels as if Vonnegut is simply less involved in telling this particular tale. The book’s tone feels less personal, less written out of an internal necessity. It’s also a whole lot less absurd and outlandish than his most known book. Cat’s Cradle‘s prose isn’t as poetic as Slaughterhouse‘s either.

It’s also not as bleak, as it focuses more on the theoretical possibility of the world’s destruction, and less on Death and the horrors that have already actually happened. As such, it’s a bit less compelling. If you like satire, it’s still a great, great book though –  Slaughterhouse-Five makes for impossible competition, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Readers that have enjoyed other works of Vonnegut probably won’t need encouragement or convincing. Readers new to Vonnegut that are still not convinced his books might be something for them can sample an exemplary passage from Cat’s Cradle after the jump. It’s a good example of how he is a sharp observer of human dialogue, of his pacing, and of the fact that absurdist fiction is more than able to put the finger to the human wound…

Recommended.

Continue reading

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE – Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Slaughterhouse 5First thing first: this is no science fiction book. It’s a book about human life, war and the non-existence of free will. The time travel elements are a metaphorical narrative device to convey a sense of being mentally disoriented, among other things. The science fiction elements are metaphorical as well, and the book explicitly talks about SF in that regard. So, I would rather qualify this book as a novel in the grotesque tradition. All this doesn’t mean a SF fan shouldn’t read this short, quick book, because, well, you should. Slaughterhouse – Five is brilliant. It remains very fresh & crisp, it’s creative, poetic and captivating, contains highly imaginative imagery, and makes very, very sharp and deep observations about, well, a lot of things.

Vonnegut manages to both convey feelings of dread, meaninglessness and cynicism, and at the same time keep up the wonderous joy of life via a healthy dose of absurdism and lightheartedness. While the book certainly has a message and Vonnegut is very open about his viewpoints, he doesn’t fall in the trap of making his Dresden book a moral sermon. It doesn’t try to be serious, it just presents things as they are. In that way, it had the same feel as the 3 war books from the 40ies and early 50ies by famous Belgian writer and Nobelprice contender Louis Paul Boon – masterpieces as well (all three translated in English as My Little WarChapel Road and Summer in Termuren).

Let me end with a quote by one of the book’s aliens, describing their literature to the protagonist. Obviously, the quote is meta, but not annoyingly so, since it’s so brutally honest and upfront about it.

There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no cause, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

Needless to say, I believe Kurt Vonnegut succeeded splendidly by the standards of his own mission statement.

5/5

PS – I wouldn’t call this an anti-war book at all. By Vonnegut’s own admission, he could have just as well written an anti-glacier book.

 

“This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings. It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground. Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.”