Posts Tagged 'kurt vonnegut'

What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

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’Cide by ’cide.

Last year in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I quoted a comment the author made years ago in an interview. The subject was suicide:

As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.

It made me think of a bit in Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches where the narrator, who often eases himself into sleep by imagining ludicrous methods of killing himself, visualizes a Rube Goldberg suicide apparatus:

If you kill yourself, you are being inconsiderate, because others must deal with the distasteful mess of your corpse. The self-filling grave solved that.

The self-filling grave involves a shotgun, a tripwire, and a “complicated system of pulleys and weights” that releases a load of earth over your corpse as you fall. This passage stuck in my memory because I’d had a similar fantasy, except with a vat of acid.

When I was twenty or so and sad and aimless and lonely, in emails to my friends back home I would occasionally crack wise about my upcoming suicide. Until one day the phone rang and it was a friend who feared I was about to hurl myself off a bridge.

I tried to explain: No, I have no intention of killing myself. I’m just saying it’s comforting to know that it’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fallback in case things get really bad. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Please can we stop talking about this. Really I’m fine.

And I learned to stop talking about it: no point freaking out my friends and family. I’m twenty years older now, and perhaps a shade wiser; less prone, anyway, to hyperdramatizing every slight and setback. But I’ve been carrying the old suicide charm around in my back pocket this whole time, and even now, every so often I’ll pull it out and give it a wistful caress.

I’ve got this buddy – let’s see; I’ve used X. and Y. already in recent months, so I guess I’ll call him Z. – who’ll fall sometimes into a state of deep apathy. He was in a highway accident years back – he calls it sheer bad luck, but I’d guess reckless driving played a part – where if his tumbling vehicle had tumbled an inch to the right or left, he would now be dead. Since then, he says, he hasn’t much cared whether he lives or dies. He’s flirted with suicide more than once: had a rope around his neck, had a gun barrel in his mouth; and in between, snarfed chemicals of uncertain provenance in the vague hope he’d be spared the trouble of waking up next morning.

When he muses about killing himself, I find myself echoing that friend who called me twenty years ago to dissuade me from jumping off the bridge: I tell Z. he’s got a lot to live for – things are gonna start looking up any minute – his friends and family would be heartbroken if he died – and so on and so forth. He just shakes his head in frustration. “You can’t understand,” he tells me. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t possibly understand.”

Maybe on these occasions it would help if I shared with Z. my own daydreams of self-obliteration. Maybe it would lend my platitudes the sheen of authority. But I’m afraid he wouldn’t take me seriously – he’d conclude that to me suicide is, so to speak, a conversation piece: an antique blunderbuss to hang above the fireplace; while to him it’s something you keep loaded and ready by the door for when the wolves get too close.

But then, maybe like me and Kurt Vonnegut (who died at age 84 of “injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan home”), Z. really has no intention of killing himself. He just likes to fantasize about it.

Much of our opinionating these days consists of declarations that you, the privileged reader, couldn’t possibly understand what I, the long-suffering author, have been through. If you’re not gay you can’t know how discouraging it is to grow up in a world where heterosexual marriage is held up as the endpoint of romantic fulfilment. If you’ve never been homeless you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel the indignant stares of middle-class people when you blemish their parks and sidewalks with your untidy existence. If you’re not a person of colour you can’t conceive how much emotional labour goes into merely standing up under the daily bombardment of racist microaggressions.

In a sense this is all very true: I can’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than myself, a straight white male middle-class Gen-Xer from the Canadian prairies. It’s certainly easier to project myself into the mind of a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. than to imagine life as a Lapp reindeer-herder, or a Sentinel Islands hunter-gatherer, or a minor party functionary in Pyongyang, or a black female multimillionaire tennis superstar.

But even being a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. doesn’t entitle me to pretend to know what my friend Z. is thinking. Even if like him I’d been in a car accident, gotten divorced, tried coke and heroin, felt the barrel of a gun in my mouth, we’d still be separated by a billion little experiences, every one of them big enough to contain a Russian novel’s worth of suffering and self-blame.

I suspect if people could read each other’s novels they’d discover that we all have more in common than we realized. We’ve all felt belittled and condescended to. We’ve all suspected we were being judged not on our personal qualities, but on our reputations, our appearance, or the company we keep. We’ve all lain awake thinking, “No-one would even miss me if I vanished off the face of the earth.”

The most universal experience of all is knowing that no-one else could possibly understand what we’ve been through.

M.

Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.