Kurt Vonnegut’s Anti-Science Fiction Novel

Breakfast of Champions isn’t one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best novels. He famously gave it a C on his report card of his own works:

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I tend to agree with Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions a weird free-wheeling kind of novel, but for all it’s faults it does have something interesting going for it.

For one thing, Vonnegut is a master world-builder. This is maybe the largest hurdle between a would-be science fiction writer and a quality piece of writing. It’s hard work to convey an entire world to a reader so that they enjoy the process rather than feel burdened by details which may have nothing to do with the story.

Breakfast of Champions isn’t a science fiction novel, not really, but it feels like one precisely because Vonnegut isn’t building a far away planet or a technologically advanced spaceship. Instead he builds the world around us, i.e. planet Earth, like a science fiction writer might who happens to be from another planet.

One of my favorite examples is a minor one, a description of a chicken:

A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this:

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The idea was to kill it and pull out all it feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs—and then chop it into pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it, so it looked like this:

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This description has almost nothing to do with the story but Vonnegut places it perfectly so that we are delighted by his observation. And the whole point anyway is to make fun of bad science fiction writing which uses too much spurious detail.

The other thing Vonnegut does well is to use a story within a story. I usually hate when novels do this but I don’t mind when Vonnegut does it because they are mini-masterpieces in and of themselves.

Here is my favorite:

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.

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Congratulations, Mr. Ishiguro

This is a rare thing. The Nobel Prize committee picked someone I actually read. And not only that! They picked my favorite living novelist.

A British noveltist, Kazuo Ishiguro is the writer of The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and most recently The Buried Giant. It would be impossible (and pointless) to neatly sum up Ishiguro’s writing as a whole. The settings and situations in his imagination couldn’t be more varied: post-WWII Japan, Aurthurial Britain, a post-apocolyptic euro-netherworld, etc. But the common thread that runs through all the novels, regardless of how the drama unfolds, is a meticulous commitment to human nature as the real measuring stick by which the events in his stories are given proportion and weight. With Ishiguro the entire plot could hang on the description of a facial expression or a simple hand gesture.

Ishiguro writes with subtlety to such great effect in part by being a highly political writer, though not in the normal sense of that word. He’s not out to preach any doctrine but is interested in how large social movements effect the lives of ordinary people. In a 1995 interview at the University of Washington Ishiguro explained:

“I discovered something I became very interested in. The idea that somebody could give their best efforts, out of idealistic intentions, to a cause, only to find out towards the end of their life that their society has completely changed its values. And they are obliged to accept that all their efforts were, not only in vain, but had contributed to something bad. And of course if you look at Japan before and after the war, you see a lot of ordinary people who did this. I’m not talking about the war criminals or people who did hideous things. I’m talking about just ordinary people who, because they didn’t have a remarkable perception about the values of their time, just wanted to do their job and do the right thing.”

Take, for instance, a famous passage from The Remains of the Day. The narrator is an English butler named Stevens who is traveling to see an old friend, Mrs Benn, who he worked with during the war years. Stevens is scrupulous to a fault, always focusing on the little details of his job and of little tactile observations. It becomes clear, as Stevens continues to travel and reminisce at the thought of Mrs Benn, that his employer all those years go was a prominent and politically active Nazi sympathizer. Slowly our perception of Stevens’ myopia and reservedness changes. Though not directly implicated in any of his employer’s actions, still, Stevens’ unquestioning loyalty as a butler, to whoever he happens to serve, eventually calls into question his entire life. We feel that maybe Stevens is retreating from something much larger and insidious than grandiose landscapes and overstatement:

And yet tonight, in the quiet of this room, I find that what really remains with me from this first day’s travel is not Salisbury Cathedral, nor any of the other charming sights of this city, but rather that marvellous view encountered this morning of the rolling English countryside. Now I am quite prepared to believe that other countries can offer more obviously spectacular scenery. Indeed, I have seen in encyclopedias and the National Geographic Magazine breath-taking photographs of sights from various corners of the globe; magnificent canyons and waterfalls, raggedly beautiful mountains. It has never, of course, been my priviledge to have seen such things at first hand, but I will nevertheless hazard this with some confidence: the English landscape at its finest—such as I saw this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.’… And yet what precisely is this greatness? … I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

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Start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“Every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it’s better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images. ” – Italo Calvino

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I find a lot of people are very interested in the idea of Greco-Roman mythology but don’t know where to start in their exploration. With all due respect to academic introductions to mythology—I am thinking of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for example—I believe the best way to learn about mythology is to jump right in and get your hands dirty with the original source material. Hesiod’s Works and Days is a popular option or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You certainly can’t go wrong with either of those choices but there is another option that I think may be more accessible to the average reader, and no less substantive.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is my choice. It’s an incredible book with more in it than I could possibly describe in one or one hundred blog posts. Written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, Metamorphoses is a poetic re-telling of 250 various Greek and Roman myths, reinterpreted through Ovid’s indelible vision of Greek literature and of life.

My personal favorite story from the Metamorphoses, a good place to start for the would-be mythology geek, is Ovid’s version of the story of Phaëthon. An underrated one, in my opinion.

Phaëthon, an otherwise pretty regular kid, learns that he is the son of Phoebus (who is confusingly both Apollo and not Apollo) god of the sun. This knowledge of his parentage turns Phaëthon into a pompous turd. One day one of his friends gets fed up and challenges him. So Phaëthon travels east to the sun palace to get proof from Pheobus himself:

There stood the regal palace of the Sun, soaring upon its many lofty columns, with roof of gold and fire-breathing bronze, and ceilings intricate with ivory, and double-folding doors that shone with silver… [Phaëthon] had climbed the steep path leading to the dwelling place of his reputed parent, he went in and turned at once to meet his father’s gaze–though at some distance, for he could not bear such brightness any closer.

Phoebus sat in robes of purple high upon a throne that glittered brilliantly with emeralds; and in attendance on his left and right stood Day and Month and Year and Century, and all the Hours, evenly divided; fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown, and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain, and Autumn, strained from treading out her grapes, and Winter with his gray and frosty locks.

Surprisingly Pheobus is happy to oblige Phaëthon’s request. In fact he permits him to ask for anything as a proof of their relation. Phaëthon asks if he may drive his father’s sun chariot through the sky for one day. Pheobus responds:

Your deed reveals the rashness of my speech! Would that I were permitted to rescind the promise I have given! I confess that this alone I would deny you, son!

Pheobus describes as a warning his daily routine. Far from being a stroll through the sky, it is a treacherous journey:

“The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits.  I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation. Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do?”

Phaëthon completely ignores his father’s pleading, missing not only the dangers that lie ahead which he is completely unprepared for, but also his father’s own respect for his daily task. The ordering of the cosmos and the passage of time. Obviously Pheobus takes his job very seriously and is even reverent and humble towards it. But still poor dull Phaëthon insists that he drive his father’s chariot:

The boy has already taken possession of the fleet chariot, and stands proudly, and joyfully, takes the light reins in his hands, and thanks his unwilling father.

Once morning comes the outcome is what you might expect:

When the unlucky Phaethon looked down from the heights of the sky at the earth far, far below he grew pale and his knees quaked with sudden fear, and his eyes were robbed of shadow by the excess light. Now he would rather he had never touched his father’s horses, and regrets knowing his true parentage and possessing what he asked for. Now he wants only to be called Merops’s son, as he is driven along like a ship in a northern gale, whose master lets go the ropes, and leaves her to prayer and the gods. What can he do? Much of the sky is now behind his back, but more is before his eyes. Measuring both in his mind, he looks ahead to the west he is not fated to reach and at times back to the east. Dazed he is ignorant how to act…

But Phaëthon is far from the only person effected by his actions. What follows from his inability to control the chariot is an apocalyptic earth-destroying fire:

Great cities are destroyed with all their walls, and the flames reduce whole nations with all their peoples to ashes. The woodlands burn, with the hills. Mount Athos is on fire… Then, truly, Phaethon sees the whole earth on fire. He cannot bear the violent heat, and he breathes the air as if from a deep furnace. He feels his chariot glowing white. He can no longer stand the ash and sparks flung out, and is enveloped in dense, hot smoke. He does not know where he is, or where he is going, swept along by the will of the winged horses.

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How Flannery O’Connor Writes a Freak

For my money Flannery O’Connor wrote a better and more convincing freak story than Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson or Cormac McCarthy. In her stories there is always something meaningful at stake. When asked about freaks in Southern literature she said that Southern writers can still recognize a freak because “to be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” O’Connor practiced what she preached. A highly theological writer herself, many of her stories are case studies re: a kind of freak that is only possible in a universe big enough to contain both Heaven and Hell.

I always thought writing a story about a freak would be easy. The weirder the better. But you figure out sitting down to write one that it’s much more difficult than it looks. If a freak is too weird the reader cannot relate to them and therefore doesn’t care to read about them, but if a freak isn’t weird enough they aren’t a freak. They’re just a little weird.

“Good Country People,” is a helpful object lesson in how to navigate this problem. Hulga Hopewell, the main character of the story, is painted in absolutely unflattering terms and yet we still care about her. Below are some of the physical characteristics O’Connor uses to describe Hulga:

large blonde girl

had an artificial leg

thirty-two years old

highly educated

large hulking

constant outrage

her eyes icy blue

her remarks were usually so ugly

her face so glum

standing square and rigid-shouldered

neck thrust slightly forward

poor stout girl

had never danced a step or had any normal good times

big spectacled

her arms folded

nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help

had a weak heart

six-year-old skirt

yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it

blank and solid and silent

wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt

she did not own any perfume

round freezing-blue eyes

You get the idea. There is almost nothing positive written of Hulga; but I was pulled into her character because O’Connor switches her third-person narration to and from the point of view of Hulga, Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Hopewell), and a more omniscient classical third-person narrator. This has the effect of giving the reader a view from many angles. It becomes clear throughout the first part of the story that Hulga is possibly being unfairly judged by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have very different ideas about life. Many of the descriptors above come from either the mouth or mind of Mrs. Hopewell in response to the antagonisms between them. Mrs. Hopewell is also a fan of platitudes and obvious statements like “nothing is perfect,” “it takes all kinds to make a world”, “they’re just salt of the earth people,” etc. which she often uses as stand ins for actual conversation with Hulga. All these subtle moves had me rooting for Hulga even though the surface of the story is unforgiving to her. But Hulga is not only a freak to her mother. There is a cast which supports Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, a tenant family which lives in the house, foregrounding the notion of good ol’ fashioned hardworkin’ country people who don’ have time to thunk ‘bout the meaning of life and such—distancing Hulga from the consensus in the house and adding irony to her situation.

In this way O’Connor is trusting us to make up our own minds about Hulga. We know she isn’t overly pleasant but we’re not sure we trust Mrs. Hopewell either and consequently discount some of what he hear about Hulga and perhaps even feel sorry for her.

But these complications in point of view only serve to make Hulga an outcast. A freak is something more. I think this is why O’Connor risked overstating her case by taking one of Hulga’s legs. This type of move is classic O’Connor though she doesn’t do it without purpose. The leg serves an important narrative function which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read the story. But the missing leg doesn’t make Hulga a freak either. It’s more like a symbol-laden prop for the Southern gothic style.

The definition of freak, the real enchilada, comes from Mrs. Hopewell herself as she’s observing Hulga from a distance. A definition we can perhaps all relate to.

It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she [Hulga] grew less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.

Less like other people and more like herself.

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W.H. Auden Clearly States the Problem

There is a special place in my heart for the poet W.H. Auden (See my previous post on The More Loving One here) because for my dollar he deals, as poets go, most directly with the conundrum of the human spirit in the age of technology. And we can hardly say to have faced up to this problem in our own time. There are articles published all the time which nobody reads about the disturbing correlations between the use of social media with depression and anxiety, especially among young people, and it’s no wonder why. But things are not poised to get any better any time soon. Quite the opposite. And as time goes on we continue to come up with canned excuses for keeping certain types of technology in our lives which only act as a weight around our neck. We must obviously bow to the god of convenience.

One of my favorite meditations on this subject is Auden’s preface to The Sea and the Mirror, a poetical commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it Auden questions whether or not science and art are sufficient to fill our desperate need for meaning. O what authority gives existence its surprise? / Science is happy to answer / That ghosts who haunt our lives / Are handy with string and wire. But this is hardly satisfying. Our wonder, our terror remains. If we turn to art then for an answer still we will meet The lion’s mouth whose hunger / No metaphors can fill.

I am sometimes put off by poetry because to me there is nothing worse than trying too hard. And there is a lot of poetry that tries very hard to be poetry and that comes across in reading. But Auden is one of the exceptions. His style is effortless. I don’t think there is one line where he takes liberty with my trust as a reader. There are no easy answers. And I find a good dose of old-fashioned congenial Britishness is never a bad companion on one’s quest for meaning anyway. Enjoy:

The aged catch their breath,

For the nonchalant couple go

Waltzing across the tightrope

As if there were no death

Or hope of falling down;

The wounded cry as the clown

Doubles his meaning, and O

How the dear little children laugh

When the drums roll and the lovely

Lady is sawn in half.

 

O what authority gives

Existence its surprise?

Science is happy to answer

That the ghosts who haunt our lives

Are handy with mirrors and wire,

That song and sugar and fire

Courage and come-hither eyes

Have a genius for taking pains.

But how does one think up a habit?

Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye

To the Flesh and the Devil who heat

The Chamber of Temptation

Where heroes roar and die.

We are wet with sympathy now;

Thanks for the evening; but how

Shall we satisfy when we meet,

Between Shall-I and I-Will,

The lion’s mouth whose hunger

No metaphors can fill?

 

Well, who in his own backyard

Has not opened his heart to the smiling

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard

Was sober when he wrote

That this world of fact we love

Is unsubstantial stuff;

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.

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Zac Brown & the Art of the Ballad

Country music is a genre with such a rich tradition in storytelling it is basically a trope. But the lonely troubadour singing sans his wife and dog is a caricature not because it’s true, but because it represents a very small portion of highly visible country music which has been infected with the same plug-and-play formulas endemic to every sub-genre of pop music. The same goes for the lazy whiskey-drenched summer fling and the scorned lover whose strong personality is underscored by a particular style of boot.

Zac Brown, my favorite modern day country artist, said it best in a 2013 interview:

“To me, country music has always been the home for a great song. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”

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by Jason Bullinger, heyreverb.com

I originally became interested in Zac Brown because his sound was everything I admired in country music without any of the negative baggage. His gruff baritone voice is not overly twangy. He plays a nylon-string acoustic guitar on most songs that opens up the instrumentation to more folksy tonal qualities.

But most importantly, his lyrics are connected to this great storytelling tradition in country music. This is the tradition of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard whose songs are Shakespearean in scope. There are almost no tropes and no sentimentality.

A great entree into this kind of country song is Zac Brown’s Colder Weather.

Colder Weather is a deceptively complex song. It’s the story of an estranged couple parting ways, though it isn’t clear why:

She’d trade Colorado if he’d take her with him
Closes the door before the winter lets the cold in,
And wonders if her love is strong enough to make him stay,
She’s answered by the tail lights
Shining through the window pane

He said I wanna see you again
But I’m stuck in colder weather
Maybe tomorrow will be better
Can I call you then
She said you’re ramblin’ man
You ain’t ever gonna change
You gotta gypsy soul to blame
And you were born for leavin’

The piano starts as the driving force through the first verse and chorus, like a typical ballad. But the song slowly builds into the second verse by introducing slight percussion and slide guitar as reinforcement, and then additional strings and bass in the second chorus.

As the song reaches it’s peak at the bridge, the lyrics change tense from the third to the first person. This has the effect of changing the song from a story to a confessional. This is no longer a song about an unnamed guy and his girlfriend. It’s a song about Zac Brown. Vocally, he jumps octaves at almost the same time the tense changes, easing the transition:

Well it’s a winding road
When your in the lost and found
You’re a lover I’m a runner
We go ’round ‘n ’round
And I love you but I leave you
I don’t want you but I need you
You know it’s you who calls me back here

But what I think makes this a great song is the metaphor it’s based on. I am a sucker for a good metaphor. It’s never clear whether the cold weather is actual weather preventing them from being together or whether it’s really emotional distance that cannot be bridged, you were born for leavin’. Their meeting is always deferred, maybe tomorrow will be better, which, for me, makes the story more poignant. Far from a sentimental love story, it’s a tragedy. The cold indifference of the weather is likened to that mysterious urge to either stay or leave, which cannot be controlled or understood. Things will never change for them but on the other hand, there’s always tomorrow.

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Joy Williams: Microfiction isn’t Easy Fiction

Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…

But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.

My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:

Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.

Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.

I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.

Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.

She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”

It made me shudder. It was beautiful.

“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”

My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.

Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:

“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”

But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.

I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.

She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.

Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.

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