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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

EverythingWasBeautifulVonnegut

Reading from Part Four of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut speaks on the beauty of war in reverse, and the limits of curiosity in the 4th dimension:

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NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Nowhere does Bokonon warn against a person’s trying to discover the limits of his karass and the nature of work God Almighty has had it do. Bokonon simply observes that such investigations are bound to be incomplete.

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

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Martin Ansin's illustration for George Saunders' short story, "The Semplica Girl Diaries." The New Yorker, October 15th, 2012

Martin Ansin’s illustration for George Saunders’ short story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” The New Yorker, October 15th, 2012

I’ve just finished Tenth Of December and it’s reaffirmed my belief that George Saunders is my favorite living writer, a title he’s held since shortly after the death of Kurt Vonnegut.  Granted, I’d already read a few of the stories in this latest collection, but those were even better the second time, especially “Escape From Spiderhead.”

Saunders can still crack me up with his futuristic pharmaceuticals and endearingly irrational everymen, like in “My Chivalric Fiasco.”  And he can still devastate me like a ball of lightning to the gut.  “Puppy” is particularly crushing, even though it exploits the ultra-easy sympathy-squeezer of an adorable dog-in-peril; the story’s transcendent thanks to some well-woven dramatic irony, and an unimpeachable eye for detail (an upper-middle-class character seems somewhere between fascinated and appalled by the clutter in a less-fortunate character’s house: “some kind of crankshaft on a cookie sheet… a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint.”)  Tenth Of December‘s title story is also a killer, bringing us to the edge of surrender right before it flips us around and fills us with the urge to clutch everything we hold dear and sob with gratitude.

I can get why some readers might see a lack of cohesion in Saunders’ collections, which tend to oscillate between realism and surrealism without warning.  But me, I’m used to it, and it all makes perfect nonsense.  Saunders’ surrealism illuminates realities I wasn’t consciously aware of, and his realism feels like it could explode into surrealism at any moment.

If anything about Tenth Of December feels out of place to me, it’s the cover.  It has none of the oddball imagery of past Saunders covers, opting instead for black-and-white minimalism.

PastoraliaPersuasionReign_of_Phil_cover10thDec

Tenth Of December‘s cover certainly has thematic significance, symbolizing the title story’s dangerous divide between solid white ice and the deadly dark water below.  But it also feels like an extra-conscious effort (probably on the part of the publishers) to steer Saunders’ work into more mainstream territory.  And hey, it seems to be working.  Saunders has been beloved for a while, but now it’s like he’s American Fiction’s It Boy.  It’s about damn time.

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No, slavery is not a Spaghetti Western, so it’s a good thing Django Unchained is also a Horror-Comedy-Bromance-Blaxploitation-Myth.  And since American Racists have been extra mouth-foamy post-Obama, Django‘s also a very-necessary 165-minute assault on their heinous idiocy.  Not that the racists are gonna watch and learn, or anything.  If they do watch, they’ll probably root for the slave-drivers, then walk out before things get real messy, and convince themselves The South Will Rise Again.  But maybe, just maybe, some seeds of dread will take root.

Of course Django is appalling and uncomfortable.  I’ve rarely squirmed so much in a movie theater as I did during the Mandingo fight scene.  (Mandingo fighting may be pure fiction, but as metaphor, it’s apt.)  The movie’s funny as hell, too, and frequently goofier than typical Tarantino.  Some may think those wacky proto-Klan members create tonal whiplash, but I think the ridicule nestles perfectly beside the raging vengeance.

Sometimes the violence does go so far as to undermine the drama, like during the clusterfucky first climax.  So much blood’s a-poppin, danger practically loses all meaning.  And for as long as Django is, it feels like a couple of key scenes have been deleted- scenes that would make Django’s journey that much more emotionally satisfying.

In the end, though, it’s still incredibly satisfying: as entertainment, as catharsis, as meta-folklore. “We are what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut said, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Django Unchained could add something to that.  (Just another one of the many things Tarantino movies have said, in case you’ve been too lazily dismissive to notice.) “Be careful about who you really are as well,” the movie seems to say.  “Because someone might pretend to be just like you… right before they get antebellum on your ass.”

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Vonnegut reads from Breakfast Of Champions:

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Not that it’s a huge tragedy that Jordyn Wieber and numerous other Olympians won’t qualify for things they should’ve qualified for, but these Kindergartenish Olympic rules about handicapping better athletes for the sake of diversity remind me an awful lot of the sad, hilarious world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

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In the few years since Kurt Vonnegut died, it seems his wacky, socialist-tinted viewpoints have, alas, only gotten truer and truer, what with the housing bubble and the bank bailouts and all the other infuriating bullshit.  In a way it makes me extra-sad he’s not still around to comment on the whole mess, just like I’m extra-sad that Hunter S. Thompson didn’t live to see the hilarious, head-slapping superstardom of Sarah Palin.

From 1965’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each citizen should be limited.  This oversight was engendered by a weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.

Noah and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal office-holders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss up great hunks of it for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land where Noah and his kind were standing.

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America.  Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created.  Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage.  And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised a means of getting paid enormously for commiting crimes against which no laws had been passed.  Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.

E pluribus unum is surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many.  An even more instructive motto, in the light of history made by the Noah Rosewaters, might be: Grab too much, or you’ll get nothing at all.

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