The Complete Works of Kurt Vonnegut Part 1: Timequake, Galapagos and Deadeye Dick
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In the following series of articles, I will rank all 14 of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel from bottom to top. But, before we get there, I will give a rambling, eccentric preface that I hope would make Mr. Vonnegut,the granddaddy poo-ba of preface’s, proud.
I reached a personal, literary milestone of sorts yesterday.
I finally read the last of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.
I’d saved Hocus Pocus for last,being the only of Vonnegut’s books that I have ever found to be primarily available in trade paperback.
His other works (save Timequake) are all available in fun, color-coded Dial Press editions that spot a giant V on the cover and feature a small image that sums up a key theme/event from each book.
EXAMPLE: A bullet whizzing past a vacuum cleaner for Deadeye Dick.
Being color coded, slight variations of one another, these Dial Editions were like little nuggets of crack to the collector curled inside of me waiting to pounce upon anything that seizes my fancy.
Because of this, I have written each work in Vonnegut’s arsenal in a different color, hoping to awaken that same, irrational collecting gene that surely lies dormant in all humans, a relic from our hunter-gather days where humans would primarily gather things together, such as fruits, water, and baseball cards.
The first Kurt Vonnegut novel I ever read was Slaughterhouse-Five, which was required reading for my 8th grade Advanced English class.
The same 8th grade class that introduced me to 1984, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies.
The same 8th grade class that helped make “Eighth Grade Wunderbar”
The same 8th grade class taught by Mrs. Koopman and during which she, normally a very nice woman, was really really pregnant.
Her severe pregnancy made her and I’s relationship comparable to an emotional Pit and the Pendulum, with every crass comment of wise-ass essay I wrote for class bringing the blade one notch closer to cleaving my grade in twain.
I was excited to read Slaughterhouse Five. My Mom was an old Kurt Vonnegut fan and described for me how, in one of Kurt’s books:
“Aliens communicated by farting and tap dancing.”
Which to me, at the time, sounded like the basis for the best book ever.
Two days later I put down Slaughterhouse-Fivehaving read it cover-to-cover.
I’d hated it.
How could this be? It had everything I’d wanted in my fiction but was afraid to ask:
1. Felt-tip-pen drawings of boobies
2. Human’s in a zoo
3. Vivid descriptions of the decor inside adult book stores.
4. World War II
After reading Slaughterhouse-Five for a second time, I realized that, despite the book being Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous and, therefore, most read, it was a terrible first book of his to start out with.
Once I’d gotten six or so Vonnegut books under my belt, familiar characters, places, and phrases began popping up in alarming numbers. Vonnegut, it seems, was one of those authors who liked to write in-jokes for himself and any reader voracious enough to consume all of his writings then regurgitate them onto a blog for examination.
SIDE NOTE: I think Kurt Vonnegut would have made an excellent bloger.
BACK TO THE POINT: Slaughterhouse-Five contains three major characters from other Vonnegut books whose relevancy in this story is confusing to anyone who hasen’t read the original books these characters are from.
After disliking Slaughterhouse-Five, I probably would have given up Vonnegut for good if it had not been for five major factors:
1. I was in college.
2. I was poor.
3. I could sell my body’s precious plasma ($25 per bag!) at a low-rent medical center one town over called Biolife.
4. During the plasma extraction time, which usually lasted an hour, my choices of entertainment were:
-Stare at the needle in my arm that was big enough to deliver a deadly payload of heroin to even the sturdiest of 80’s arena rockers.
-Read last years copy of Field and Stream cover to cover.
-Finally read some of the 1,000+ books I’d bought from Salvation Army over the past few years.
So I’d often dive into novel while my precious fluids were being pumped into a bag beside me. Nothing fills a person with self worth like discovering you can sell your body’s liquids for cash.
I was always told that my plasma would be sold by Biolife to aid children with immunity deficiency disorder.
Instead, I always fantasized that, once my bag of plasma was filled, the staff brought it to a dark, secret room in the back where they would pour it upon a pale, 700 pound vampire in a jacuzzi.
Salem’s Lot, incidentaly, was one of the first books I read while being de-jucied at Biolife.
Little to say, the book did little to dispel my vampiric fantasies.
Once Salem’s Lot was finished, I needed a Stephan King break, and The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut seemed the natural choice.
There were planets and vaguely roman people on the cover.
It was sure to be vampire-free.
I LOVED IT
Not only was it one of the best science fiction books I’d ever read, it was one of the best books I’d read period. It combined story, characters, humor and philosophy into an intricate tapestry, as only the best of Vonnegut’s books can do.
FLASH FORWARD TO THE YEAR 2009
I had become a resident of New York City by this point, and like most people in the big apple, I had a good 2 hours or so of public transportation time to kill everyday.
Time to kill + public transporation = books!
or, for some,
Time to kill + public transporation = I’Pod and I’Phone and I’Mac and I’Spy
Thus did I begin another reading binge, thus did I begin to burn through the books on my shelf again, their numbers having been pruned by an uber garage sale that prefaced my move to NYC.
Thus did I read Cat’s Cradle.
Thus did I love it
Thus did I become obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut.
I’m not sure when I decided to read all of Vonnegut’s novels, I think it was after reading Breakfast of Champions and feeling that I should have read God Bless You Mr. Rosewater first.
There were just so many in-jokes that I missed!
After a while, I noticed that my writing was beginning to reflect the amount of Kurt Vonnegut I was reading. I began to try and play with the format of my blogs and become aggressively satiric .
Top Five Lies Adults Tell Kids
and more so
How to Handle Customers and WIN
were my specific send-ups to Vonnegut’s writing style, but almost all of my posts have a little Vonnegut (or Sedaris) embedded into them.
I’m a writer. I can’t help but steal.
AND NOW, FOR THE POINT!
The preface is officially over, now onto the main course.
This list, like any ranking list, is completly based upon my prefrences and biases.
If you feel differently about these rankings, you are fully entitled to your opinion.
You are also free to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut, to take a flying fuck at the mooooooooooooon.
14 – Timequake
You were sick, now you’re better, there’s work to be done
– Kilgore Trout
Is it unfair for me to place Timequake, which was Vonnegut’s swan song to the genre of fiction, on the bottom of the heap?
Perhaps, but there is shall remain.
The basic premise of Timequake revolves around Vonnegut’s favorite character, hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, and how his personal efforts help to save millions of lives after a “Timequake” has occured.
The titular “timequake” in the novel is a cataclysmic event in which the entire universe flashes back and has to live the previous ten years over again, making exactly the same victories, making exactly the same mistakes.
Hows that for free will?
What makes this book feel incomplete is that it is incomplete. In the book’s premise, Vonnegut admits that he had been trying to write
“Timequake One” for the past decade (his last published novel prior being Hocus Pocus in 1990)
The version that eventually made it to Barnes and Nobles nationwide is “Timequake Two,” half of which is a story about the the Timequake and Kilgore Trout while the other half is composed of Vonnegut’s musings about his family, his brother’s dying of cancer, and a general acknowledgment that “he ain’t no spring chicken no more.”
It seems that, somewhere along the certainly frustrating process of writing Timequake, Vonnegut realized that this was probably going to be the last fiction book he would ever write, and wanted to depart the genre he had changed so much with some final thoughts of himself and his work.
What resulted is an awkward mis-mash of 1/2 novel and 1/2 memoir that never really gels.
This one’s only for the die-hards kids, and that’s why Timequake is on the bottom.
Galapagos is a prime example of how one of Vonnegut’s favorite literary devices, extreme fore-shadowing,can go awry.
The entire novel is based around the shipwreck of The Nature Cruise of the Century on the fictional Galapagopian Island of Santa Rosalia, with the ships small and motley crew eventually becoming the last remaining members of the human race after a vaguely defined disease renders all females on the main-land infertile.
This another of Vonnegut’s books that, for a first time Vonnegut reader, would lose much without prior knowledge of his other books and characters.
The book is narrated by the ghost of Leon Trout, the son of Kilgore Trout, who is a Vietnam draft dodger that was decapitated while working on the ship destined for The Nature Cruise of the Century.
After turning away from Kilgore (and the afterlife) several times, Leon is then forced to remain on the earth for the next million years to witness the evolution of the shipwrecked passengers of The Nature Cruise of the Century into a sort of hybrid seal-human creature which dwells mostly in the oceans.
Without previous knowledge of who Kilgore Trout is, the identity of the narrator certainly loses its importance to the reader and the story as a whole.
There are a few other illusions to different characters, namely Bunny Hoover from Breakfast of Champions who is named as being the product of infidelity between a character in Galapagos, James Wait, and Celia Hoover, a main character in Deadeye Dick and wife of Dwane Hoover, the main character from Breakfast of Champions.
All of that aside, however, the biggest problem with this book is the aforementioned over-use of foreshadowing. Vonnegut spends so much time talking about what is going to happen that we miss out on character development in the present. Even characters as potentially interesting as James Wait, who is a professional con artist that used to be a child prostitute but now weds, beds, and steals from rich old widows, is left underdeveloped by the constant overshadowing of the wreck of The Nature Cruise of the Century
If there’s any saving grace to Galapagos, it is in the always painstaking research done by Vonnegut about Darwin and Galapagos in general, and the sheer potential of the characters that he presents, none of which couldn’t use a lot more development.
Overall, another book only for the die hards, but much more of a complete story then Timequake.
12. Deadeye Dick
Deadeye Dick marks an end to what I call Vonnegut’s Midland City Trilogy which are:
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Breakfast of Champions
Midland city comes up again in later books, but never again with such prominence.
Also, in Deadeye Dick Midland city is demolished by a Neutron bomb.
Hows that for closure?
The main character, Rudy Waltz aka Deadeye Dick, is a self proclaimed “neuter” (person who drifts through life with a constantly unaffected temperament) after a tramatic incident during his childhood changes his life forever.
The incident – Rudy fires off a single shot from his father’s Springfield Rifle that hits and kills Eloise Metzger on the second story of her house across town. Eloise Metzger, a pregnant mother, only wanted to vacuum the upstairs bedrooms that day, but wound up getting blasted away.
These are dangerous times.
There are several characters, once again, that pop up from previous Vonnegut books, namely Celia Hoover, the wife of Dwane Hoover from Breakfast of Champions and the Mother of Bunny Hoover from Breakfast of Champions and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.
Celia, whose death-by-drano is touched upon in Breakfast, is a major character in Deadeye Dickand her demise marks a climax of sorts in the in the book’s action.
Some familiar Vonnegut themes permeate throughout:
– Amphetamine addiction.
– Told in a 1st person, flashback narritive.
– Melancholy, middle-aged male protagonist.
– Nazi sympathizers.
– Un-talented painters.
– Wacky Parents
Thus, like Hocus Pocus, Deadeye Dick develops a bit of the “been there, done that” crutch that plagues several of Vonnegut’s later works.
The best parts of Deadeye Dick come when the narrator switches the action to a faux playbill style, with scenes written as they would for an acting copy of a stageplay.
RUDY – There’s broken glass everywhere in this neighborhood.
CELIA – I would gladly walk over glowing coals for you. I love you. I need you so.
Once again, my biggest criticism I have of Deadeye Dick is that it just doesn’t break a lot of new ground in Vonnegut land.
Not the best choice for a first time Vonnegut reader, but a better place to start then Timequake or Galapagos.
There you have it, #’s 14-12 on my best of Vonnegut countdown. To continue, click below.
IF YOU LIKE THIS POST, VISIT www.scottymwatson.com
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
It’s now totally clear why you sold me your copy of Slaughterhouse 5..
Oddly enough I think Timequake was the second Vonnegut novel I read, and I loved it. The first was Breakfast of Champions, which I loved because of its deceptively simple, anarchic, yet smart style of humour – although I never find myself wanting to recommend that one as a first Vonnegut book to people.
I think I just liked TQ because of the way Vonnegut writes about things in a way that is simultaneously funny and profoundly sad. That is of course prevalent throughout pretty much all his other work, but being relatively new to him it struck me quite considerably here, as it may well have done had I started with any other of his novels I suppose. Still, I have a real soft spot for this one, although I’m aware that for other fans of his it was a disappointment.
Of his novels, I only have Player Piano and Hocus Pocus left to read (then I need to finish off his short stories and non-fiction), but of those so far, my least favourite has been Deadeye Dick, which just seemed rather too bleak and lacking anything he hadn’t said or done already. Really interested to see the rest of your countdown.
I took great joy reading through all of Vonnegut’s novels, especially because he was such a clever prankster and stuffed all of them with little nods and references that only someone reading through all of the books one by one would get.
It might take a while before I finish this list, as much time has passed since I read his works and I might have to read them all again to pick up the thread. In the meantime, feel free to check out part II of the list after you’ve read Hocus Pocus to see if you agree with my thoughts on the book.