Me and the Literary Establishment

I got my second story workshopped in class last week. I turned in a heavily revised version of “A Rat Problem”–what I have since changed to just “Rat Problem.” Aaaaaaaand it filled the class with wonderful bewilderment–wonderful because they said my writing style was very strong and that I have a good sense of dialogue and action; bewildering because they had no idea what to make of the ending. A few of them got it, although they weren’t certain in the conclusions they had reached. So I got things to clarify …

My professor says I’m “afraid of character.” I told him there is a difference between being afraid of character and being much more interested in the systems that construct that character. This, evidently, is one of the last things you want to say to a literary fiction professor. I’m surprised he didn’t burn me at the stake.

It really brings into focus how much I need to break myself away from the “literary establishment,” for, if nothing else, my simple sanity. Part of me, naturally, really wants to be accepted in this incredibly exclusive club as they wield considerable cultural clout. But. The tradeoff is having to write very specific stories–stories that, frankly, do not interest me as an artist. Don’t get me wrong. The literary elite are very good at what they do, and I enjoy reading (some of) their stories. But I have other things to say.

When I think about this stuff, I like to remind myself of my two favorite authors: Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. Pynny is shunned by most of the literary world because of his ontic antics and the sprawling, bloated, massive narratives that are his calling cards. Gravity’s Rainbow, what is hailed by most as his masterpiece (no argument here), was in fact rejected by the Pulitzer Advisory Board as “turgid,” “overwritten,” in parts “obscene,” and overall “unreadable.” But I can say with confidence that he doesn’t give a fuck what they think. The more I learn about him actually lends me to believe that some of the things he does, he does in order to disrupt their contented modes of reading. Kurt Vonnegut was similarly shunned as merely a science fiction writer by the literary world for much of his career. It wasn’t until Slaughterhouse-Five that they realized how good science fiction can, in fact, be. But, again, he wasn’t writing for those jackasses.

And neither am I. I have finally zeroed in on what it is I want to say to the world and I don’t need anyone’s approval to say it (though it is nice to hear that people are listening (Comments, please …)). Literary fiction is a genre like any other and grad school has showed me that I want to write something else. That’s a hard pill to swallow when that particular genre is held up as the be-all-end-all of literature. But I need to accept it. And I think, slowly but surely, I will.

See the cat? See the cradle?

“I can’t understand why so many people rank it so highly. There is no accounting for taste, I guess.”
avid reader “Emmy Lou”

“This book is absolutely horrible. Seriously, it’s hideous.”
Hemingway Hater

“If I could give negitive [sic] stars I would.”
A reader

“What can a thoughtful man hope for mankind on Earth, given the experience of the past million years? Nothing.”
– Bokonon

Kurt Vonnegut has finally surpassed Thomas Pynchon as my favorite author, and he did it with his novel, Cat’s Cradle. Cat’s Cradle tells the story of a man named John. “Call me Jonah,” he says in the first line of the novel, “because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.” John is a Bokononist and he writes us his story “to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to.” A karass, he explains, is what Bokonon calls a group of people who (unknowingly) work together to do God’s work. John first encountered members of his own karass while he was conducting research for a history book entitled The Day the World Ended, about the day America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He did not finish the book.

As I. Ujevic writes, “this is the first book in my life that I threw into the garbage.”

Cat’s Cradle is a satire, and within its pages Vonnegut charges straight at our society’s greatest institutions, including religion, American idealism, and the progress accorded to scientific research. John first pursues his research for The Day the World Ended by contacting the children of the late Felix Hoenikker, the key researcher in the development of the atomic bomb. The Hoenikker children, John realizes as he writes, and most definitely Dr. Hoenikker himself (regardless of the fact that he was dead), were part of his karass. Newt (Hoenikker’s youngest) tells John that on the day the bomb was dropped Dr. Hoenikker was frightening him with a game of cat’s cradle, a game formed by a long loop of a string, making virtually no attempt to represent a cat or a cradle. The notion of truth is Vonnegut’s biggest target for satire here. People revere Dr. Hoenikker as a hero for creating the atomic bomb, but those same people didn’t see the terrible indifference and careless irresponsibility with which he approached his family—with which he, in fact, approached all of life. Julian Castle, a philanthropist John is hired to write an article about while researching his book, turns out to be a blatant misanthrope. Even the first words in The Books of Bokonon are “All the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Newt constantly makes reference to cat’s cradle—a game with no cat, no cradle, no meaning or value of any kind but that is nonetheless a childhood favorite. The game becomes a symbol of the characters’ (all nothing more than grown-up children) pursuit of some deeper significance for their lives—a long, drawn out game with no discernible end. Or as JP stated, “The title of the book has to do with a very minor incident and it should have been called ice-nine.”

John continues pursuing biographical information about Dr. Hoenikker when he discovers that Hoenikker, in addition to working on the atomic bomb, created a substance called ice-nine—what turns out to be a wampeter, or an object that is the center point of a karass. As Tom Newbro (or “shnowbrow”) states, “This is where the book starts to become horrible…”

John’s research eventually leads him to share a plane with two of the three Hoenikker children (now adults) as they travel to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, the birthplace of Bokononism and the residence of the third Hoenikker child. Bokonon also lives on the island. He and his friend, Edward McCabe, shipwrecked there and, seeing the desolate and miserable lives of the islanders, took it over, hoping to create a utopia. Bokonon created Bokononism to give whatever hope to the people a made-up religion can with its foma, or comforting but harmless untruths. Then he asked McCabe (now the political leader of the island) to exile him and outlaw Bokononism, making it more exotic and adding a deeper meaning to the islanders’ lives.

Vonnegut’s real genius rests in his ability to make us laugh about some of the scariest parts of our culture. And in the humor we are able to view our lives from a different angle, questioning the things we take for granted, the foundations upon which we build our lives. It was enough to garner A reader’s coveted “el Stinko Award,” who called it “a pointless, plotless book” that “should not be considered as any sort of literary achievement.”

John begins the book with a Bokononist warning: “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book.” I, however, highly recommend Cat’s Cradle to anyone able to get past that initial warning. It is a wonderful (if harrowing) look at the lives we live. It was published in 1963, with America firmly planted in Vietnam, trying as fast as it could to create more efficient ways of killing other human beings. The American Ideal of democracy was a righteous one, and anyone not wholly committed to its enemies’ destruction could easily be labeled an enemy themselves and a traitor. Now, in a post-9/11 world, America is engaged in another war for democracy—trading communists for terrorists—and any opposition to America’s righteous cause is oftentimes met with suspicion and hate. Cat’s Cradle remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. But vincent vega said it best:

“This is a decent sci-fi escape, but nowhere near as good an escape as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, or Star Wars: A New Hope. This isn’t very challenging, and you may feel compelled to read it because of the almost too simple story, and easy going language. This is basically a book about a mad scientist who tries to take over the world by freezing it over with a substance called Ice-Nine . . . not very complex or deep, a basic fable, but still entertaining. But as entertaining as Star Wars? NO. I recommend renting the star war movies or getting the star war books, especially the ones with Jabba the Hut. Cat’s Cradle has no point or meaning to it, unlike Lucas’s prophetic, amazing vision. Vonnegut is funny, but not very intelligent.”