Got to Get Back to the Start

pratchett-discworld.jpgThe end of the world, via scientific calamity, and falling off the literal edge
of the world – that’s one connection between Cat’s Cradle by Kurt
Vonnegut and The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett. The other link? My
attempt to see what two writers, well-known to others, not so familiar to me, were doing at the beginning
of their careers.

That attempt went very well, as far as I can tell – I was highly impressed by both books, but I also found out that these are not necessarily the authors for me. I now see why I might not have pursued them. More on that in a minute.

I’ll start with Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s book that came out in 1963, became a bestseller and launched his career. I didn’t care for this book all that
much in the beginning, but I kept going because the writing is so
smooth. Then the pieces of the plot start clicking together about
two-thirds of the way through, and every step after that felt masterful and smart.

It’s a book about a biographer, not the most promising of subjects – in this case, the biographer is writing about the life of a deceased nuclear physicist named Felix Hoenikker. The biographer becomes friendly with Hoenikker’s family, and the section where we learn about Hoenikker’s kids and their peccadilloes seems long and pointless.

Then our biographer goes to a (fictional) Caribbean island named San Lorenzo, chasing his material, and we encounter a ton more exposition about San Lorenzo and its dictator, Papa Monzano, and its resident cult figure, Bokonen. Again, I was baffled by these sections, and, again, I kept reading because of Vonnegut’s lovely writing. It’s an easy book to pick up and read and continue reading.

That gives the final third of the book a considerable portion of its kick. There’s a reason why we had to learn so much about the Hoenikker kids – I had a memorable “Oh shit!” moment when I realized what pratchett-vonnegut.jpgwas going to happen. Catastrophe is on Vonnegut’s mind, and the human race’s endless capacity for self-destruction. Cheerful stuff! The book might read like a light satire, but Vonnegut follows his theme to its logical end, so kudos for that.

Over to Pratchett, and the very first entry in his long-running Discworld series. I was surprised by The Colour of Magic: I liked this book, even though I’m not a fan of light
fantasy or light science fiction,  by which I mean humourous material
like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Pratchett’s Discworld. That stuff is all perfectly fine
for someone who might enjoy it, but I don’t go head over heels for it like many
others do.

In The Colour of Magic, a wizard named Rincewind and a “tourist” named Twoflower find their way through various nonsensical adventures across the lands of Discworld, encountering various fantastical beings (I wasn’t expecting the parody of the Pern books!) and barely escaping with their hides intact. I quite enjoyed the escapades of Hrun the barbarian hero, who expects nothing less than the most dazzling treasure, the most exotic ladies, and a never-ending series of perilous moments along the way. As my description indicates, the book has a strong “they went here, then they went there” feel to it; I didn’t mind, since each stop was generally entertaining, if not memorable.

For both Vonnegut and Pratchett, I’m not that familiar with their
other books. I’ve read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and for
Pratchett, I’ve read Monstrous Regiment and maybe one other title but I
can’t say for sure. I admired both Cat’s Cradle and The Colour of Magic
a great deal but I’m not sure if I’ll write up a big Vonnegut/Pratchett
reading list as a result. For one thing, a little of each goes a long
way. For Pratchett, Discworld has certainly been one of the biggest
successes in publishing, but the subsequent books, all 37 of them (!), have a notion
attached to them in my head that they will be very similar (I know, I
know, that’s not the case, but that’s certainly my impression). For
Vonnegut, it’s more his philosophical point of view that leaves me less than enthused about diving headlong into his oeuvre. Laughing at the inevitable self-destruction of all humanity? I’m glad Vonnegut was there to write that book, but a drop of that particular potion goes
a long way.

That’s okay though – it’s okay to take a sample of something and move on. That’s been one of my big insights for my own reading habits lately, and one that came to me by the simple fact of time constraints. I’m a completist by nature, or at least I was when I still felt like I had time to read, say, 37 Discworld novels in a row. I liked The Colour of Magic, I got my entertainment value from the book, and now I’ll move on to something that might suit me more closely. Ditto for Cat’s Cradle, with “nihilistic encounter with the abyss” swapped into that sentence in the place of “entertainment”.

4 replies »

  1. hey everybody–
    sorry if you were trying to leave comments and were taunted by the “chuck your 2 cents into the gutter” while there was no comments form. we had some technical difficulties. they’re better now.


  2. The technical difficulties actually allowed me to formulate a lot of different thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut…
    I also recently re-read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, as well as Breakfast of Champions.
    A friend of mine was wearing a t-shirt that said “Breakfast of Champions” and I asked him if he had ever read the book. He hadn’t, and in fact hadn’t really managed to read any Vonnegut; said he couldn’t get into it. So I decided to let him have a try at reading my old paperback copy of Breakfast of Champions, but then decided that maybe it wasn’t the best book for him to start with. Most of the characters in Breakfast of Champions are drawn from Vonnegut’s previous books, and I decided it would be a richer experience to read Breakfast of Champions after having read some earlier books by Vonnegut.
    So I pulled out by old paperback copy of Cat’s Cradle. I remembered that book as being pretty accessible when I first started reading Kurt Vonnegut back in high school. I loved Vonnegut back in high school. It was a revelation to me that you could write fiction in that kind of frank, confiding voice – a voice that may in fact be the principle character in all Vonnegut’s books. The first Vonnegut book I read was actually Slaughterhouse Five (or The Children’s Crusade) but the second Vonnegut book I read was Cat’s Cradle.
    It’s not as good a book as Slaughterhouse Five, nor Breakfast of Champions. In retrospect, if I were to recommend two books by Kurt Vonnegut, it would be those two – to be read in that order. Slaughterhouse Five is to me the novelistic equivalent of Spalding Gray’s monologue, Swimming To Cambodia (I recommend Jonathan Demme’s film version) and Breakfast of Champions feels something like … well, pick your own favorite thing that is both funny and sad, and seems to break the rules about what’s OK in polite society. Something by George Carlin maybe?
    But Cat’s Cradle does have some things going for it. For one thing, it’s more like other books. Unlike Breakfast of Champions, a relatively normal narrative frame is maintained, there is a clearly designated protagonist, and Vonnegut’s trademark omniscient narrator rears his head but does not puncture the frame. Unlike Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative proceeds in chronlogical order and is relatively “realistic” when evaluated in terms of science-fiction. There’s really only one science-fictional premise: that is Ice 9. But the peculiar thing about Cat’s Cradle is that it’s not really science-fiction. You might have thought Kurt Vonnegut was a science-fiction author if you had only read his earlier work: Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, or his short stories (collected in Canary in a Cathouse and in Welcome to the Monkey House.) But Cat’s Cradle only uses science-fiction in service of, well,,, Fiction. I find myself comparing Cat’s Cradle to Aldous Huxley’s Island, although any comparison is really a disservice to both books; the only resemblance is in the trappings. The creative trappings of Cat’s Cradle come from Bokononism, the island religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut for this novel that he gradually expounds to the reader, along with specialized vocabulary.
    In a way, this is a cheap trick: inventing a vocabulary that the reader must learn as the book progresses, creating an kind of artificial investment on the part of the reader relative to the project of reading the book. There is certainly precedent for this in science-fiction, for instance Heinlein’s invention of the Martian term “grokking” serves a similar purpose in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. But the range and extent of Bokononisms in Cat’s Cradle actually reminds me more of how Anthony Burgess made use of “Nadsat” slang in A Clockwork Orange. And in that respect it is brilliant. Like the idea of Ice 9, this tactic is bent to the needs of Fiction, and is not just window dressing on a “what if” story.
    As with Mark Twain, I actually prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s essays, short stories and assorted works more than his novels. And even Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions have many different stories intertwined – they do not have the straightforward narrative of Cat’s Cradle. In retrospect, I have to admit that Cat’s Cradle is probably not the book to recommend if someone is only going to read one book by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a fine book to start with, but not to finish with. And it is also missing the more hopeful humanism that is found in many of Vonnegut’s other books. In fact, I would say it is probably his most pessimistic book – the only one where he truly deals with the nihilism of armageddon. He deals much more softly and sympathetically with the folly of mankind in his other books, and Breakfast of Champions actually provides a kind of reprieve to his characters, even the ever-present third-person omniscient narrator.


  3. Mr. Dave – thanks for the commentary about Vonnegut! That’s precisely the kind of viewpoint that I’m missing, as someone who hasn’t read widely in Vonnegut’s bibliography. I’ve taken you up on the suggestion of Breakfast of Champions – it’s now on my request list at the local library.
    (And I did enjoy Cat’s Cradle a great deal, if that didn’t come through in my review).


  4. Yes, it sounded like you didn’t really enjoy Vonnegut and found him too nihilistic, and I guess that’s why I came out to defend him.
    I recently re-read Breakfast of Champions and I do have one warning, which is that Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t deal very well with race.
    At one point he tries to present a sympathetic portrait of a poor uneducated black man, but ends up making him a clownish caricature. Of course, many of his caracters are rather clownish caricatures – Vonnegut sees human beings as rather ridiculous and pitiable (worthy of our deepest sympathy.) I guess it wouldn’t bother me if he didn’t also use the “N” word in reporting how white people speak or think about black people. Though to be fair, he also uses pretty much all of the 7 dirty words that George Carlin tells us you can never say on TV. (Which list, interestingly, doesn’t include the “N” word.)
    I think Vonnegut actually had the best intentions when he wrote this (way back in 1973) – to present what he sees as the reality and the ridiculousness of racism in America. Nonetheless, many readers may find it problematic.


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