Thoughts: Miscellaneous Vonneguts

Hey, Dove isn’t the only one who can do bookpinions! (Although she’s always more perceptive when it comes to books, to be fair, so hers are probably more interesting)

A while ago I decided to set myself a reading challenge. My three favourite ever novels, at that time, were Mrs Dalloway, The War of the Worlds, and Slaughterhouse 5. But if those books were so great, what were the rest of the authors’ oeuvres like? So, I decided to try reading every novel by these three. For HG Wells, that remains something of an aspiration – Wells wrote over 50 novels, with terrible early-twentieth century titles like Apropos of Dolores, All Aboard for Ararat, Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island and the incredible The Bulpington of Blup that seem perfectly tuned to put off any potential readers – but I managed to read all of Woolf’s novels* last year, and I got the final three Vonneguts for Christmas.

These were:

  • Deadeye Dick
  • Bluebeard
  • Hocus Pocus

I was a bit nervous about going into Vonnegut’s final novels – how many authors remain on top of their game after thirty or forty years? Plus, Vonnegut has a knack of writing novels that, from the Wikipedia plot synopsis, sound dire. I mean, Galápagos is one of my all-time favourites now, but when I first read that it was narrated by a ghost a million years in the future after humanity has evolved into seals, I definitely didn’t go out of my way to seek it out, and Slapstick, with its plot about grotesque, hyper-intelligent psychic twins, microscopic Chinese people, and government-enforced middle names is almost as offputting as the title The Bulpington of Blup.

At some point (when I get my own copy of Breakfast of Champions, which I first read in a holiday villa in Spain), I want to write something fairly in depth about Vonnegut’s works, but for now, I’ll just say a little something about the three.

All three of the novels are first-person. Depending on how you determine it, all Vonnegut’s novels after Slaughterhouse 5 are (kind of – Galápagos is narrated by a ghost, and Breakfast of Champions and Timequake are narrated by Vonnegut himself, rambling autobiographically between sections of story). The narrative voices aren’t really distinguishable – they are all clearly Vonnegut’s personality, each time with a different name badge pinned on. They are all weary, disgusted by the cruelty of the world but resigned to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any way to change it.

Deadeye Dick and Hocus Pocus especially feel similar. In each, the main character has spent his life repenting for cruelty committed in the past – in DD, killing a pregnant woman with careless gunplay, in Hocus Pocus, fighting and encouraging others to fight in Vietnam – and in each the story comes to a fairly abrupt end by the slaughter of a town – Midland City perishes in a neutron bomb accident (which may be a deliberate test) and Tarkington College campus is overrun by escaping convicts. Of the two, I preferred Hocus Pocus, partly because it has one of the most remarkably prescient pieces of science fiction I’ve ever read: GRIOT™

GRIOT™ is described as a computer game, although it’s anything but fun. You tell it the characteristics of a person – age, sex, race, education, occupation, drug use and so on – and it crunches that, comparing it a gigantic database containing the lives of millions of different people, in order to predict the future for that person. It tells Hartke that most of his fellow Vietnam veterans are burnouts, that his alcoholic lover is now likely dead of liver disease and it tells the black escaped prisoners that they are certain to end up back in jail (even though society might have given some of them a second chance if they were white). Right now, there are a dozen different types of GRIOT™ in development – computers that predict health insurance premiums, credit risk, employability, and even determine appropriate sentences for criminals – with all the same risks of entrenching society’s biases.

The last book is Bluebeard, which doesn’t fit the pattern of the other two. It follows Rabo Karabekian, a minor character from Breakfast of Champions – an abstract expressionist painter rather in the mould of Rothko. The story starts with Karabekian, who hasn’t been productive since the death of his wife, mooning around his estate in the Hamptons, when he meets a ravishing young woman called Circe Berman on his private beach. She worms her way into his life, and reignites his creative spark and… yes, I can already hear you going “Eugh, it’s one of those.”

But what I found interesting about Bluebeard is that it almost plays out like a parody of the usual “artist suffers mid-life crisis” plot. For one thing, Berman is actually a far greater artist than Karabekian in most ways – she’s author of a series of wildly successful books for teenage girls, which even pretentious novelists respect (and despise) for their realism and psychological depth. For another, there’s no romance between Berman and Karabekian, and almost no sexual tension. Finally, it’s ultimately Berman who gets what she wants – the chance to look into the potato barn (like Bluebeard’s ill-fated wives). Karabekian’s growth is limited to finding the confidence to write his memoirs and show her his final masterpiece.

So yes. At some point, I will ramble at greater length, but this will do for now.

* Except… I haven’t yet read Flush. At the time, I saw that it was considered a biography rather than a novel, and decided I didn’t have to bother with it. However, it is heavily fictionalised and it’s about – indeed, from the perspective of – a dog, which probably puts it back into the creative category.

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