Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

<em class="BookTitle">Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons</em>, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Delacorte, 1974, 285 pages, $??.?? hc, ISBN 0-440-08717-1

In the big list of things I still have to do, “Read more Kurt Vonnegut” remains essential.  While Vonnegut is best-known for his fiction, his public persona is equally well-defined by the non-fiction he has written over his long career.  Published in 1974, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons collects some of Vonnegut’s non-fiction pieces dating from 1965 to 1974.  This period is significant in that it marked a significant transition for the author: Two of his best-known novels, Slaughterhouse Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), were published during this period, and his profile appreciated accordingly.  Read the collection carefully, and you can almost see the transition, as Vonnegut goes from writing semi-journalism pieces, to opining professionally, to becoming the subject of lengthy interviews.

An unusually interesting preface presents Vonnegut at his best: self-reflective to the point of self-deprecation, expressing complex ideas with short sentences and simple vocabulary.  It’s easy to become a Vonnegut fan when he seems determined to undermine the false elevation of the writer in the reader’s mind.  I suppose that this, in large part, also accounts for Vonnegut’s reputation as a humanist.

For Science Fiction fans with lengthy memories, the book opens big with a short piece examining Vonnegut’s relationship with the SF genre as of 1965: Vonnegut found himself identified with the genre through what he wrote rather than his intentions.  (“I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer” [P.1]) Having no association with the SF community, he spends much of the essay looking at the genre from a bemused observer’s point of view, eventually concluding that the genre is infantile, self-centered and doomed to disappear, since “all lodges [dissolve], sooner or later.” [p.5] SF fans will find it hard not to cringe at the accuracy of the statement.  (Amusingly, the book also collects “Fortitude”, which is nothing but a Science Fiction play in one act.  Vonnegut himself published in acknowledged SF magazines early in his career, making some bewildered statements seem disingenuous.)  Curiously, this essay is seldom acknowledged in SF circles.

But then again, I do live a sheltered existence, and it’s pieces like “Brief Encounters on the Inland Waterway” that make me wonder at how much of the world I still don’t know.  The Inland Waterway, or more accurately “Intracostal Waterway”, is a set of waterways allowing boaters along the eastern and southern American seaboard to navigate from New Jersey to Texas without having to brave the open sea.  Vonnegut used it to travel from Massachusetts to Florida aboard the Kennedy family yacht, and reports his impressions in a series of short, simple vignettes that give a feel for an entirely different world than highway driving.  Digging a bit deeper, I was even more surprised to find out that the Intracostal Waterway links to a nautical route called “The Great Loop”, a component of which passes not a kilometer away from my house.  So, yeah; I live next to a water highway leading straight to Florida.  That’s not exactly the kind of discovery I expected when I picked up Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons at a used book sale, but I’ll take it.

Other pieces mix reporting with opinion.  “Teaching the Unteachable” is an acid look at the racket of university writing workshops; “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas” is a half-serene, half-sceptical profile of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; “There’s a Maniac Loose Out There” offers an impressionistic account of Cape Cod dealing with a serial killer, somewhat reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson (whose Fear and Loathing: On the campaign Trail ’72 is favourably reviewed later in the book); “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky” is a portrait of the historical celebrity, whereas, more grimly, “Biafra: A People Betrayed” offers impression on the war-torn African country.

But reporting isn’t Vonnegut’s strength as much as his commentary is.  America from 1965 to 1974 was a cauldron of controversies and revolution, and Vonnegut was there to comment upon the events.  Various pieces consider the American Space Program as an expensive fireworks show, bombing in Vietnam as ineffective torture and American politics as set-dressing for a war of the winners against the losers.  Various addresses to various audiences offer Vonnegut speaking directly to his audience.  The book ends on a lengthy and revealing Playboy interview discussing his inspirations, history, writing methods and progressive prominence as a writer.

The result, as you may expect, is a quirky packaging of pieces that show Vonnegut during one of his most vital periods.  It’s a great way to get acquainted with Vonnegut’s voice, even though I suspect that fans of the author will get the most out of it.  It’s funny; it’s deceptively easy to read and it combines sympathy with cynicism in a way that only Vonnegut could achieve.

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Delta, 1973 (1999 reprint), 302 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-385-33420-6

(Experienced as an audio book, as performed by Stanley Tucci) Caedmon, 2003 , 6.5 hours (unabridged): ISBN 0-06-056497-0

Meet Kilgore Trout, perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Kurt Vonnegut, creator of perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Dwayne Hoover, a man at the end of his sanity, uniquely predisposed to mistake Kilgore’s stories for the awful truth. Meet the town of Midland CIty, a city in the mid-west where the id of America is hideously exposed. Meet a bunch of characters without secrets to you, the reader, thanks to him, the writer.

By now, Breakfast of Champions is a minor classic of American literature, and Kurt Vonnegut one of its undisputed demigods. This novel shows why he’s held in such high esteem: Breaking every rule of conventional fiction, it still manages to entertain and remain relevant more than thirty years after publication. It helps that it’s often laugh-out-loud funny in a deadpan fashion.

In some ways, it’s the story of a successful middle-age man going mad. In others, it’s a road trip by a rotten SF author throughout the wasteland of twentieth-century America. It’s about Vonnegut, it’s about modern culture, it’s about life as lived by those strange human creatures. And so on.

While the comparison may send some Vonnegut fans into early graves, there’s some similitude between his stylistic quirks and the type of prose favoured by later writers such as Chuck Palahniuk. In Breakfast of Champions, three recurring motifs quickly become apparent.

The least significant of those is the recurring enumeration of items, habits, names, quickly followed by “…and so on.” Vonnegut himself explains the significance of that particular quirk in-text, but it does bring to mind similar prose tricks in other authors.

That Vonnegut would himself (as the author) comment on that recurring pattern of writing is in itself an example of a stylistic trick. Vonnegut sometimes (presumably) slips into autobiography with this novel, establishing parallels between his live and elements of his characters, but that’s not the least of the author/work transgressions in this book. Vonnegut tells the reader, in advance, what’s going to happen and why. He plays with the omniscience of the narrator if it was a toy, telling us things about his characters and their surroundings just for the heck of it. Near the end, he practically disengages from the story, allowing us to read about the author commenting his story rather than the story itself.

This, in turn, feeds into the constant sense of detachment exhibited in the novel. Cultural detachment, especially. He chooses to tell the story almost as if he was narrating to an alien in one of Trout’s stories. Facets of early-seventies pop-Americana are laboriously explained, with constant reminders that however weird it sounds, that’s the way things were there and then. Early readers of the novel must have felt the dissonance with pleasure. Thirty years later, it acquires another layer, as we readers born after the novel’s publication date have become, in a sense, aliens to the period thus described. Those laboriously explained cultural markers become historic footnotes required to understand the universe being described.

It all amounts to, well, a lot of fun. Deliciously weird, and not without its dark sarcastic laugh-aloud moments, Breakfast of Champions demands a certain energy from its readers, but rewards them richly. I have often been bemused by Vonnegut’s work, but seldom less than satisfied. The pattern holds true here. Plus, any novel starring a science-fiction writer (even if he’s the worst one in the universe) gets mad props in my ratings.

I experienced the novel as an unabridged audio-book as performed by character actor Stanley Tucci. I didn’t do so by choice (I was suffering from the after-effect of eye laser surgery, hence being unable to read “real” books), but it was certainly an occasion to experience Vonnegut’s prose and not rush through the book. As a result, several of Vonnegut’s recurring motifs became clearer, and the steady ploughing ahead of the “story” was most clearly felt. I also loved Tucci’s voice performance as Kilgore Trout, as he infuses the character’s speaking cadence with an oddly likable mischeviousness. A perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s own text.

[December 2005: …but not a perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s book, which includes a number of naive illustrations that add another layer to the narrative.]