Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the Coffee Table: Kurt Vonnegut

Title: Galápagos
Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Image via Shifting Baselines

When I first started The Armchair Squid a couple years back as a sports blog, I'd pondered possibilities for new directions down the line. Science fiction seemed a strong candidate - another interest I pursued as a child despite the rest of my family's indifference. I expected, however, that film or television would be the likely blogging gateway to the sci-fi world. Instead, it was books.

In anticipation of this possible transition, I've tackled a few sci-fi classics over the past year - Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau, From the Earth to the Moon, I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles - but have not posted reviews. With the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge behind me, I felt the time had come for The Squid to branch out. I decided to begin with an old friend.

I first read Vonnegut in high school when Cat's Cradle was assigned to my 11th grade English class. To say I was impressed is putting it mildly. Apart from his great humor, Vonnegut's bold irreverence for the novel form was very refreshing to a 16-year-old kid who was just beginning to catch on that school could be fun and intellectual exploration gratifying. I later read other books on my own: Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and Palm Sunday, a collection of essays. The latter contains many wonderful musings on the writing craft which I still bear in mind whenever I read fiction.

All of that said, Galápagos is a fun read but not Vonnegut's strongest effort. The basic story, a random assemblage escaping from the mainland to ultimately offer humanity a new beginning, would have been plenty interesting enough without Vonnegut's typical temporal wanderings. Maybe I'm too old to be impressed by all of that anymore. For me, a great read is when you forget you're reading a book at all and suddenly realize you've plowed through 100 pages in one sitting. Vonnegut seemingly never wants you to forget that you're reading. While marking those characters soon-to-die with asterisks provides modest levity to an otherwise dark tale, I found the practice jarring. My Wife hates Vonnegut, as she explains in her Slaughterhouse Five post. I now feel that I can understand why.

Of course, Vonnegut has very tough competition at our house right now: J.R.R. Tolkien. I recently finished reading The Hobbit to Our Girl and we're now several chapters into The Fellowship of the Ring. In film or print, all I really want is a good story told well and very few can match Tolkien on that measure. Not many can claim to have created such a rich and textured world as Middle Earth. If the literary profession were a boxing circuit, I doubt Vonnegut would even survive the first round against Tolkein. To his credit, though, Vonnegut would be the first to concede his opponent's superiority.

I anticipate many re-reads in my science fiction explorations: Douglas Adams, certainly, and probably full immersion in Asimov's oeuvre at some point. I think Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are also both worth another look, if only to remind myself of why I loved Vonnegut in the first place. And yes, I still do, even though Galápagos didn't do it for me. I leave for now with the author's interview with Jon Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Kurt Vonnegut
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

And here is his list:


Give us this day our daily bread. Oh sure.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Nobody better trespass against me. I'll tell you that.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are the merciful. You mean we can't use torture?

Blessed are the peacemakers. Jane Fonda?

Love your enemies - Arabs?

Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. The hell I can't! Look at the Reverend Pat Robertson. And he is as happy as a pig in s**t.

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