Monday, 28 April 2014

Kurt Vonnegut Writes Good Books

Or why you should read The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I recently read an article about Revenge Porn. That phenomenon where men post salacious photos of past lovers to get back at them for hurting their feelings and make themselves feel better. It is so satisfying that other men join in and use the internet to shame the women and harass them and tell everyone in their lives to ruin their relationships and maybe even career. And some men find this so fun that the supply of angry ex-lovers gruesome enough to post revenge porn isn't enough so they steal photos from women's computers. Photos taken just for them. Photos taken to keep track of weight loss. Photos taken by doctors for surgeries. Photos that are not even them, but just their faces faked onto other bodies. Photos all that were never meant to be publicly seen.

And what is so bad about these photos is that they depict these women wearing no clothes, or less clothes than normal. These women are shamed in some way for being naked. Naked in the way every human being is when they are born, or when they clean themselves, or when they change their clothes. Showing the same skin that every human being has covering their bodies. And because they are naked these women are shamed for enjoying sexual intercourse, which is a thing that most human beings enjoy. So Revenge Porn is humiliation for having skin and liking sex by showing private photos publicly.

If you are at all an empathetic person Revenge Porn is enraging and disgusting and sad. It is an unbelievable testament to the petty cruelty of humanity and the hideously unfair and different way men and women are treated. It is also, if it weren't so heartbreakingly tragic, roll-on-the-floor funny. It is completely ludicrous to shame women for having skin and liking sex and it is fucking insane that nakedness is a shameful taboo when it is so universal. Revenge Porn makes me want to laugh and cry and rage all at once.

A lot of things about life make me feel this way. 

So it goes. And so on.

Kurt Vonnegut clearly feels this way too and has written many novels to reach into the ghastly joke of life and try to find meaning in it and to come to terms with the awfulness and hilarity and wonder of being alive. They are amazing and wonderful books that are as funny as they are bleak and heartbreaking in their honesty. They are absolutely books you should read.

The Sirens of Titan is a novel about finding the meaning of life on Earth. In the novel Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy space explorer and his dog Kazak, become caught and trapped in a chronosynclastic infundibulum, a spatial phenomenon that grants Rumfoord knowledge near omnipotent knowledge of the past and future and a limit omnipresence within the solar system. Rumfoord, laden with the powers of prediction, seeks out Malachi Constant, the richest man on Earth, and prophecies that Malachi will go on a journey from Earth to Mars to Venus to Earth and then onto Titan. Rumfoord also promises that Malachi will have a child named Chronos with Beatrix Rumfoord, Winston Niles Rumford's semi-widowed wife, and that he shall find paradise on Titan in the arms of the three sublime Sirens of Titan. What follows is a tale of tragic destiny, bleakly funny misunderstanding, prodigious manipulation, and, at the very end, the true meaning of life on Earth. The Sirens of Titan is sublime and nonsensical.

Cat's Cradle is a novel about the precarious insanity of modern life. The narrator of the book, Jonah, while attempting to write a book about the atomic bomb tries to learn about its father, an absentminded and unempathetic Scientist, Felix Hoenikker. In the process he learns that the father of the atomic bomb developed an even more perfect doomsday weapon and, upon his death, gave the keys to the worlds destruction to his children: a nihilistic midget artist, a horsefaced housewife with a cheating husband and a love of the clarinet, and a loser son who has fled to the island nation of San Lorenzo. And on San Lorenzo, with its dire poverty, unstable political system, and strange religion constructed out of comforting lies, everything comes to a head and the very existence of life on Earth will hang in the balance. It's a book that perfectly captures the dangers of Science and the insanity of the arms race and hilariously depressing position humanity finds itself in.

Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut dealing with witnessing the Firebombing of Dresden. If you are unfamiliar with this event, basically the Allies dropped a huge number of incendiary devices on the city of Dresden in Germany during the World War 2. This caused a firestorm that decimated the city and killed as many as 25 000 people. So it goes. Dresden was at the time a cultural capital of Germany, an open, undefended city with virtually no military value. Thus the firebombing raids killed almost exclusively civilians and refugees. So it goes. It was also pretty transparently a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut was there as a prisoner of war and witnessed this massacre. Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who is unstuck from time and randomly jumps between different moments in his life. From World War 2 where he is a prisoner who is sent to Dresden just before the firebombing, to when he is a depressed middle-aged Optometrist in middle america. From the evening of his wedding, to his time as a zoo specimen on an alien planet with a beautiful actress. From his childhood to his dotage as a widower who his family suspects is losing his mind. From his birth to his death and back again. It's a book that encapsulates the wonderful, absurd, fanatastic complexity of life and the grim, brutal finality of death. So it goes. Life as a joke, death as its punchline. It is also, through its device of time travel, a great instrument examining the nature of guilt and the horrible limitations of our at-this-moment worldview. It's easily one of the best books I have ever read. 

Breakfast of Champions is kind of like a primer novel on modern life in the United States for extraterrestrials. It tells the story of pathetic Science Fiction author Kilgore Trout travelling to the Midland City arts festival and inspiring the mentally unstable businessman Dwayne Hoover to go on a rampage of violence. Along the way we get a picture of Hoover's life in Midland City as he goes insane and Trout's life as he experiences misfortune travelling to Midland City, Dwayne Hoover, and a meeting with his maker. What is maybe the most remarkable thing about Breakfast of Champions is how it is written: the novel, in the simplest, most unbiased way possible, explains the vagaries and injustices of American life complete with illustrations. Breakfast of Champions assumes no knowledge, offers no justifications, and just lays it all out. This approach shows the absolute hilarious absurdity of life as well as the soul-crushing sadness of this same madness. It's something that everyone needs to experience.

Everyone on Earth ought to read at least one of these books. They are so beautiful and smart and funny and sad and perfect. Everyone. The question then is, which is the first one to read. I think the answer is Slaughterhouse Five, it is certainly, in my opinion, the most assured, the most complete artistic vision. It is a remarkable piece of literature. I think you could also do well reading Breakfast of Champions. It is so amazingly weird and wonderful, and is like this grand culmination of the other three books. (Incidentally Vonnegut used this book to retire his recurring characters from his earlier works and to off load a collection of ideas he had, so maybe the culmination analogy is apt?). So, pick either Slaughterhouse Five or Breakfast of Champions. You have to. Do it.

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