Utterly Indifferent

One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity.  It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels.  Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory.  From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it.  It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.

The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth.  Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God.  Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth.  One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant.  Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars.  Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.

Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power.  Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story.  Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories.  Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens.  Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes.  Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion.  None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.