Sunday, July 09, 2006

Kurt Vonnegut, American Genius

"Vonnegut is George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer" is the description that adorns most of Vonnegut's novels. Although I have no idea who Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon are, the description is at least somewhat true with regard to the Orwell comparison. Each tome from this masterful author exposes the absurdities of society in troubling, yet uniquely humorous, ways.

Many have already discovered all that his books have to offer, but I am a bit of a late comer to the game since I so rarely read fiction. A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me the book Galapagos to read during my vacation to the Galapagos Islands. It is one of the most bizarre stories I have ever read and, to this day, I cannot definitively say whether I liked it or not. The only thing I am certain of after reading the book is that Vonnegut must have done a lot of drugs in his lifetime.

When I went to Egypt last January, one of my cousins asked me to bring her some Vonnegut novels since they were hard to come by in Egypt. It was a pleasant surprise that anyone in Egypt had ever heard of Vonnegut, let alone wanted to read his stuff. When I stopped in Paris for my layover on the way, my friend from law school who lives there kept one of the books and, within days, sent me a rave review of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

Perhaps it was time to give Vonnegut another chance.

Slaughterhouse Five jumped off the shelf at the used book store a few months later and gave me a new appreciation for the literary legend. The story follows an American soldier fighting in World War II who finds himself in an abandoned slaughterhouse during the firebombing of Dresden. Zig-zagging through the soldier's past, present and future, Vonnegut develops his characters in a way that brings you into their minds for a birds-eye view.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is a satire about inheritance. Elliot Rosewater, the rich son of a senator, controls a family trust that becomes the subject of a family feud. Mr. Rosewater, however, is off his rocker so his chances of defeating the corrupt lawyer representing the other wing of the Rosewater family are slim. The ending is too good to give away and this book is a must read. It is entertaining from beginning to end.

A few weeks ago, Cat's Cradle kept me company on the train. It has an end-of-the-world theme like Galapagos and shows how the road to the end is paved with endless human stupidity. In contrast to most American tripe, there is no judgment as to whether the end is good or bad or whether some hero could have made any difference. Throughout the book, you get the sense that Vonnegut views humanity as a bunch of actors in a really bad play, who are simply playing the characters they were born to be.

It is in this book that Vonnegut coins the term "granfalloon", which is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Granfalloons include alumni associations, patriotism and the like. This word is both humorous and relevant to so much of the stupidity peddled in our media that I intend to appropriate it in future posts.

Currently, I am working on a non-fiction collection of speeches and observations, entitled Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. This is Vonnegut as himself and only confirms how insightful and enduringly satirical he is. So much is worth sharing, but a few reflections are particularly relevant -

If I were a visitor from another planet, radioing home about Earth, I wouldn't call Americans Americans. I would give them a name that told a lot about them immediately: I would call them Realtors.

I would call the Republicans Super Realtors. I would call the Democrats Inferior Realtors.

The Super Realtors, with Dr. Kissinger as their representative, have worked out crude agreements with the few other truly terrifying powers of the planet as to what can be done and what must not be done with the real estate of the meek.


The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead.

Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners. When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain: Winners will win.

The Democrats have been the larger party in the past -- because their leaders have not been as openly contemptous of Losers as the Republicans have been.

Losers can join imaginary parties. Losers can vote.

Losers have thousands of religions, often of the bleeding heart variety. The single religion of the Winners is a harsh interpretation of Darwinism, which argues that it is the will of the universe that only the fittest should survive. The most pitiless Darwinists are attracted to the Republican party.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a
life that
made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Slaughterhouse Five
How nice - to feel nothing and still get full credit for being alive.
Slaughterhouse Five


At 10:40 AM, July 10, 2006 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...

I've never even heard of him, but I'm down to give him a shot.

At 7:41 AM, July 11, 2006 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been a Vonugut fan for a while now, but not a rabid one. His books are really refreshing in that its unlike pretty much anything I've ever read.

But c'mon - you don't know who Flash Gordon is?! Flash! Savior of the Universe! King of the Impossible!


He's an old school comic book character. Football star goes into outerspace and fights all sorts of crazy villains, chief among them being the evil Ming the Merciless. It's really bizarre 1930's sci-fi pulp action stuff.

At 9:52 AM, July 11, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Ok, I did know that. :-)

At 10:09 PM, July 11, 2006 , Blogger Chris said...

Huh. I thought Flash was a song by Queen. Go figger... :-)

I've never read Vonnegut for some reason. I'll be sure to put him on my list. (First I gotta finish Farmer's "Riverworld" series, then re-read "Watership Down." THEN Vonnegut.)

At 12:21 AM, July 12, 2006 , Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

You are slowly coming over to the literary will be assimilated...resistance is futile.

I just finished another "social novel" called White Noise. Its by a guy named Don Delillo. Not as straight ahead as Vonnegut (amazing how Vonneguts narrative style is all over the place but his commentary is very direct and clear), but keep it in the back of your mind in case it jumps out at you the way Slaughterhouse 5 did.

At 6:34 AM, July 12, 2006 , Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

Amazing, but not amusing - Vonnegut is one of the best known authors of the last 50 years and Flash Gordon, fer chrissake! I suppose a time will come when one hears the same about Spiderman or Batman and I'm glad I won't be around to see another century's culture disappear into the ground as though it never happened.

At 9:33 AM, July 13, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

In College, I watched a Film called Flesh Gordon!!!

As for the film Flash Gordon, I particularly like the line " On no, not the Boreworm's".

It's been years since I read Vonnegut, maybe it's time for a refresher. Thanks for the suggestion.

At 2:35 PM, July 14, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

Wow, reference to a "blue" movie, can kill a discussion thread quickly :)

At 3:57 PM, July 14, 2006 , Blogger Chris said...

I rent 'em for the soundtrack... :-)

At 8:20 AM, July 15, 2006 , Blogger Odysseus said...

Reading Vonnegut in college was a formative experience for me. I like how he navigates his way through society by regarding people as machines. Much easier to understand that way. My favourite book of his was "Breakfast of Champions." Anyone who likes Vonnegut would also find Bradbury and Huxley to be interesting, at least "Farenheit 451" and "Brave New World."

At 9:05 PM, July 16, 2006 , Blogger Boris Yeltsin said...

I know what you mean, when someone turns you on to an author who makes you think, 10 levels deeper than what's on the surface. There are some bloggers who I really like, who fall into this category:
Intellectual Insurgent
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I wish I had the inclination right now to embed the links, but it's late and I'm tired.

It's refreshing to read someone whose cynical thoughts paralell my own about American politics, but I'm going to go one step further in the cynicism department, and say that America is a one party system with 2 divisions: Republican and Democrat.

Just like GM has decided that the upper-crust won't buy a car with a name-brand that the commoners use, they have separate divisions: one for the commoners: Chevy, and one for the upper-crust: Cadillac. So to, is the American political system.

Whether you buy a Chevy Cobalt, or some exotic Cadillac, the profits all go to the same place, and that same place dictates American tastes through clever advertising which tells us that what they want to make available in terms of new features is exciting for us, because it's profitable to them.

BTW: if you ever want a real quick read that's super funny (in my opinion) pick up the book (for God's sake, not the movie) "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson.

The movie absolutely blows, but the book is priceless!

At 11:01 PM, July 16, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Thanks for the tip Boris. It's been a while. Nice to have you back.

At 8:30 AM, July 17, 2006 , Blogger Odysseus said...

Nice comment, Boris. More to the point, check out "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72." Anyone who reads that will understand better why the US is like it is today, and why the Democratic party is not a reliable alternative.

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