Next Up Mother Night

Unstuck in time.

Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s picture of an asshole.

My sanity-vanity project for 2021: (re)reading the 14 novels of Kurt Vonnegut, in order.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of Player Piano.

Player Piano

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Paul’s rebellion is vintage Vonnegut—wildly funny, deadly serious, and terrifyingly close to reality.

Previously unread. Owned.

The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan is an outrageous romp through space, time, and morality. The richest, most depraved man on Earth, Malachi Constant, is offered a chance to take a space journey to distant worlds with a beautiful woman at his side. Of course there’ s a catch to the invitation—and a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life that only Vonnegut has the courage to tell.

Previously read. Owned.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of The Sirens of Titan.
Cover to The Dial Press edition of Mother Night.

Next Up ➙ Mother Night

Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy during World War II, is now on trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. But is he really guilty? In this brilliant book rife with true gallows humor, Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of gray with a verdict that will haunt us all.

Previously unread. Owned.

Cat’s Cradle

Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet’s ultimate fate, it features a midget as the protagonist, a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer, and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny. A book that left an indelible mark on an entire generation of readers, Cat’s Cradle is one of the twentieth century’s most important works—and Vonnegut at his very best.

Previously read. Owned.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of Cat’s Cradle.
Cover to The Dial Press edition of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Eliot Rosewater—drunk, volunteer fireman, and President of the fabulously rich Rosewater Foundation—is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature … with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is Kurt Vonnegut’s funniest satire, an etched-in-acid portrayal of the greed, hypocrisy, and follies of the flesh we are all heir to.

Previously read. Owned.

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five combines historical fiction, science fiction, autobiography, and satire in an account of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a barber’s son turned draftee turned optometrist turned alien abductee. As Vonnegut had, Billy experiences the destruction of Dresden as a POW. Unlike Vonnegut, he experiences time travel, or coming “unstuck in time.”

Previously read. Owned.

Cover to the Modern Library edition of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Cover to The Dial Press edition of Breakfast of Champions.

Breakfast of Champions

In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most beloved characters, the aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth.

Previously read. Not owned.

Slapstick

Slapstick presents an apocalyptic vision as seen through the eyes of the current King of Manhattan (and last President of the United States), a wickedly irreverent look at the all-too-possible results of today’s follies. But even the end of life-as-we-know-it is transformed by Kurt Vonnegut’s pen into hilarious farce—a final slapstick that may be the Almighty’s joke on us all.

Previously read. Owned.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of Slapstick.
Cover to The Dial Press edition of Jailbird.

Jailbird

Jailbird takes us into a fractured and comic, pure Vonnegut world of high crimes and misdemeanors in government—and in the heart. This wry tale follows bumbling bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House to the penitentiary as Watergate’s least known co-conspirator. But the humor turns dark when Vonnegut shines his spotlight on the cold hearts and calculated greed of the mighty, giving a razor-sharp edge to an unforgettable portrait of power and politics in our times.

Previously unread. Not owned.

Deadeye Dick

Deadeye Dick is Kurt Vonnegut’s funny, chillingly satirical look at the death of innocence. Amid a true Vonnegutian host of horrors—a double murder, a fatal dose of radioactivity, a decapitation, an annihilation of a city by a neutron bomb—Rudy Waltz, aka Deadeye Dick, takes us along on a zany search for absolution and happiness. Here is a tale of crime and punishment that makes us rethink what we believe … and who we say we are.

Previously unread. Not owned.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of Deadeye Dick.
Cover to The Dial Press edition of Galápagos.

Galápagos

Galápagos takes the reader back one million years, to A.D. 1986. A simple vacation cruise suddenly becomes an evolutionary journey. Thanks to an apocalypse, a small group of survivors stranded on the Galápagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave, new, and totally different human race. In this inimitable novel, America’ s master satirist looks at our world and shows us all that is sadly, madly awry—and all that is worth saving.

Previously read. Not owned.

Bluebeard

Broad humor and bitter irony collide in this fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, who, at age seventy-one, wants to be left alone on his Long Island estate with the secret he has locked inside his potato barn. But then a voluptuous young widow badgers Rabo into telling his life story—and Vonnegut in turn tells us the plain, heart-hammering truth about man’s careless fancy to create or destroy what he loves.

Previously unread. Not owned.

Cover to The Dial Press edition of Bluebeard.
Cover to Berkley edition of Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus

Here is the adventure of Eugene Debs Hartke. He’s a Vietnam veteran, a jazz pianist, a college professor, and a prognosticator of the apocalypse (and other things Earth-shattering). But that’s neither here nor there. Because at Tarkington College—where he teaches—the excrement is about to hit the air-conditioning. And it’s all Eugene’s fault.

Previously read. Not owned.

Timequake

There's been a timequake. And everyone—even you—must live the decade between February 17, 1991 and February 17, 2001 over again. The trick is that we all have to do exactly the same things as we did the first time—minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again. Why? You'll have to ask the old science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. This was all his idea.

Previously read. Not owned.

Cover to the Berkley edition of Timequake.

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Not affiliated with the forthcoming documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time.

Copyright © Bix Frankonis. All rights reserved. So it goes.

About becoming unstuck in time.

Here is a profile photo of Bix.

I’ve read, over the decades, nine of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels. (If you want to know my favorite, it’s quoted at the bottom of this site.) At some point late in the hell that was 2020, and notwithstanding that hells typically do not respect the borders of any calendar, I’d the idle thought that an epic Vonnegut read in the new year might be one way to contribute to my personal recovery—what I’ve taken to calling my “sanity-vanity project” for 2021.

Typically, at any given time I’ve one fiction and one nonfiction read underway. Some of these novels will serve as that fiction read, while others, I suspect, I’ll try to wedge in as a third concurrent book. Either way, the sorts of random thoughts, observations, and highlights that in previous incarnations I’d have tweeted or blogged instead will be recorded here.

Don’t overthink that reading the novels in order doesn’t seem to be all that unstuck in time. The goal itself is meant to orient me in a kind of separate mental life during this first post-2020 (and post-authoritarian regime) year—also, domain name registration for that famous phrase describing Billy Pilgrim’s condition was all of $1.98.

To a degree, though, it is my having quit social media that brought to mind becoming unstuck in time, as deleting my accounts yielded the realization that my relationship to how I spent my time had been dramatically distorted by the rhythms of the feed—even without the added vagaries of an algorithmic timeline.

(Literally, everything from the capacity or nature of my own thoughts to my ability to focus on, say, housework, shifted with surprising rapidity in the weeks after my escape from the feed.)

There are major goals my life needs to grapple; finally becoming nearer to self-sufficiency after all those decades as an undiagnosed autistic being no small such. Those are complicated and complex goals, many accompanied by all sorts of physical and mental baggage.

Reading all of Vonnegut’s novels, then, could be considered a “starter” goal: am I capable of any kind of sustained mental effort in the new year? (Or, a second sustained mental effort; there’s the weekly psychoconsult.)

Mostly, though, I suppose I’m just curious. I’ve not read any Vonnegut for at least a decade; most of what I’ve read would have been two decades ago or more. How does what Vonnegut wrote, and how I read what he wrote, feel today? What sort of refuge or recovery can he bring me after a year in which so often, as in Slapstick, the very gravity of the earth could seem off?

Whatever the case, 2020 ends and 2021 begins. There’s no magic switch tripped upon reaching another interyear midnight. There’s just finding ways to reach the next one.

“So it goes.”

Coming soon.

Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s picture of an asshole.

Coming later in 2021.

Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s picture of an asshole.

Bix’s notes on Player Piano.

A note about these notes: I’m not intending anything earth-shattering here. There’s unlikely to be any grand literary analysis, and I’m not also reading anything about the books. Mostly, I just expect stray observations as things strike me; so, then, should you.

*

It is with no small sense of irony that in the wake of having escaped being consumed as part of the social media Feed, I begin this epic Vonnegut (re)read with a novel (says its promotional copy) about “a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines”. I’ve attempted this book before, decades ago, and couldn’t gain traction. Weaned as I was on later Vonnegut books, it read as somewhat unreflective of his later—to me, earlier—style.

*

Ilium, of course, is named for (although not an analogue for) the city of Troy in upstate New York. In the real world, I was born about fifteen miles to the southwest, at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. Nearly thirty-nine years later, as if a Vonnegut novel, my father would die in a room at the selfsame hospital.

*

I’d have preferred a warning that early in the book there’s a cat death. Did I really not even make it that far my first attempt?

*

This is an interesting book to read right now, what with the early exchanges between Paul and Katherine about “how the First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, then the Second Industrial Revolution devalued routine mental work” and whether there’d be a Third such revolution of “machines that devaluate human thinking”.

Also interesting in light of the world-building establishing that in this postwar America, “any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government, either in the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps. Is this a book about the “dignity of work” or about the dignity of human beings regardless of their ability to work?

This isn’t just of academic interest to me, as my own ability to contribute economically is in doubt, and whatever the case in Proteus’ America, our own often views such people as having little human worth.

*

Halyard explanation to the Shah about how postwar America works frames things as a “liberation” of people from “production”. I’m struck by the aside that “there were many skills difficult of uneconomical to mechanize” in New York City, leaving “a high percentage of people” who have not been so liberated. I wonder how many of those skills were akin to the “unsanitary, inefficient, and probably dishonest bartender” in Homestead that Proteus et al failed to replace with an all-mechanized bar.

*

“Paul had been thinking of hiring a psychiatrist to make him docile, content with his lot, amiable to all.” One sentence that tells you a lot about the world in which Proteus lives. I once wrote about mental health practice that “if by social and coping skills you’re talking about how to move through the world without overly disturbing neurotypical standards, then you aren’t engaged in psychology or social work, you instead are engaged in a form of social control

I also wrote that “these professions and these activities should not be thought of solely as efforts to heal and help the individual, but to heal and help the society around the individual”. Are we closer to Paul’s ideal or mine?

*

I had to go check to make sure that I wasn’t imagining that “EPICAC” was a joke. It is, of course, effectively a homonym of ipecac.

*

Paul musing about Bud’s punchcard, containing all the information any machine would ever need to know about him in order to determine his worth to society—everything from aptitude-test scores to “unnamed units of measure” determining whether one has “a high, medium, or low personality”. All turned into “one graph—the profile”.

“As an old joke had it, the machines had all the cards.”

*

There’s a remarkable conversation in which Katherine becomes offended that Bud could design a mechanical process to do part of her job. One in which a guard at the front gate could select one of five buttons for a type of visitor and one of four buttons for type of visitor activity, and would be told precisely what permissions the visitor has according to company police.

Paul points out that it would be just as easy, of not easier, to just “tack a memo about policy on the guard-house wall”. Bud’s decision is pure techbro disruption: he concedes but “it was clear he thought it was a pretty drab man who would think much of that solution.”

This is a book published in 1952.

*

First actual mention of Albany itself, where, as I said, I was born, comes in the following context: “A psychiatrist might help. There’s a good man in Albany.”

*

It was a matter of record. Everyone’s I.Q., as measured by the National Standard General Classification Test, was on public record—in Ilium, at the police station.

I can only think of all the books I’ve read over the past two or three years discussing the racist, nativist biases of I.Q. tests.

*

Lasher:

“What do you expect? […] For generations they’ve been built up to worship competition and the market productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men—and boom! it’s all yanked out from under them. They can’t participate, can’t be useful any more.”

And then what about people like me, who arguably can’t be of any economic even outside the novel’s mechanization of job after job after job. Of what human worth am I?

*

Lasher again: “At the bottom of it will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity.”

What if you apparently can’t participate in the sense of economic usefulness? Are you afforded even less dignity than the workers Lasher is worrying about here?

*

It’s not lost on me that Lasher in sense of talking about Trump’s purported “forgotten man”, except that the novel appears not to have a race consciousness within its class consciousness. (Setting aside that a race unconsciousness itself can be a kind of unspoken race consciousness, in that it still affects the world around it.)

*

It me, who has no station in life and likely never will: “He felt oddly disembodied, an insubstantial wisp, nothingness, a man who declined to be any more. Suddenly understanding that he, like Anita, was little more than his station in life.”

(It really did not occur to me that this book would send me spiraling through all my feelings of being a failure and a fuck-up because I’m of no economic use—up to and including to myself.)

*

The only thing worse would be complete idleness, which Paul could afford, but which, he was sure, was as amoral as what he was quitting.

Fuck you, too, book.

*

Given the above irony I felt starting in on this Vonnegut (re)read just after quitting social media with a book about “a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines”, I’m pretty amused by Paul’s plan to leave everything behind to become a farmer; literally I know two community managers who left the Bay Area tech scene to raise goats and farm hemp.

*

Finally, the book brought me someone to identify with: enter Haycox, who really does not want to be bothered, and scoffing at all the people who call themselves “doctor”.

*

Again, it’s disconcerting to see in a book from the 1950s things you’d still see today. To wit: the Shah learning what Wanda does with all this free time due to mechanization: “Oh, television. […] Watch that a lot, don’t we, Ed?”

*

I wondered early on if this was simply a book about the dignity of work, and that does seem to be where it’d heading. Paul tells Anita that in order to become successful the managers and engineers have “traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them—the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect.”

The useless, in other words, don’t even make it into the equation.

Later:

“Hell, everybody used to have some personal skill or willingness to work or something he could trade for what he wanted. Now that the machines have taken over, it’s quite somebody who has anything to offer. All most people can do is hope to be given something.”

*

Halyard: “The way they keep culture so cheap is by knowing in advance what and how much of it people want.” The algorithmically-driven free content of the modern internet.

*

Here’s a thing: somewhere around three-quarters through the book, my cognitive capacities got waylaid first by a small dental crisis and then, literally the very next day, a small medical one. I could neither take notes on the book nor, really even read the book with a mind toward note-taking.

*

This first outing—by which I mean in this reading challenge, not in Vonnegut’s bibliography—is something of a failure. Whether because of the aforementioned run of bad luck (e.g. dental crisis, medical crisis, then a second medical crisis, then needing to address rescheduling the dental crisis) or because it started to feel a bit too much like an assignment instead of an enjoyment, I can’t say. We’ll see what happens during the second book.

It’s entirely possible that the very idea of posting notes will take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. A flying fuck at the moon.

*

I'll just end my notes with this snippet.

The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

*

Bix’s notes on The Sirens of Titan.

A note about these notes: I’m not intending anything earth-shattering here. There’s unlikely to be any grand literary analysis, and I’m not also reading anything about the books. Mostly, I just expect stray observations as things strike me; so, then, should you.

*

I swear that I’ve read this book before, but for the life of me I’m not recalling any of it.

*

I’m skeptical that I’ve read this one before. And, really, I’m not finding much to make note of as I go, beyond marking a few passages as highlights, which I’ll just present here.

*

These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth—a nightmare of meaninglessness without end.

*

Constant smiled at that—the warning to be punctual. To be punctual meant to exist as a point, meant that as well as to arrive somewhere on time. Constant existed as a point—could not imagine what it would be like to exist in any other way.

This struck me mostly because of an experience I’ve described as the “autistic wave function”, wherein you become paralyzed with indecision due to all potential choices seeming to be present all at once; until that wave function collapses, you are all possibilities at the same time, a cognitively untenable superposition.

*

”You go up to a main, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’ And he says, ‘Oh, fine, fine—couldn’t be better.’ And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse. When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

*

Life was like that, Unk told himself tentatively—blanks and glimpses and now and then maybe that awful flash of pain for doing something wrong.

*

Unk had written the letter to himself before having his memory cleaned out. It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times.

*

His ship was powered, and the Martian was effort was powered, by a phenomenon known as UWTB, or the Universal Will to Become. UWTB is what makes universes of nothingness—that makes nothingness insist on becoming somethingness.

This is the sort of thing in this particular novel that struck me as very like Douglas Adams, although I recognize that the causality in that statement is entirely backwards.

*

These words will be written on that flag in gold letters on a blue field: Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself. “The two chief teachings of this religion are these,” said Rumfoord: “Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God.”

and

Oh, Mankind, rejoice in the apathy of our Creator, for it makes us free and truthful and dignified at last.

and

O Lord Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or driven us into the madhouse lies slain!

I’m down for this, in that I’m down for people who believe in God believing in this one.

*

Constant rubbed his left thumb and index finger together in a careful rotary motion. He watched this pointless enterprise for perhaps ten seconds.

It’s not stimming, but it reminds me of stimming.

*

It is grotesque for anyone as primitive as an Earthling to explain how these swift communications were effected. Suffice it to say, in such primitive company, that the Tralfamadorians were able to make certain impulses from the Universal Will to Become echo through the vaulted architecture of the Universe with about three times the speed of light. And they were able to focus and modulate these impulses so as to influence creatures far, far away, and inspire them to serve Tralfamadorian ends.

Weirdly, this is replicated decades later by Liu Cixin in The Three-Body Problem through the quantum entanglement of sophons.

*

There was nothing offensive in this love. That is to say, it wasn’t homosexual.

Oh.

*

And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the highest purpose of the creatures could be. The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn’t really be said to have any purpose at all. The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else.

This reminds me, depressingly, of Player Piano, which seemed to be saying exactly this thing about we humans: that we are pointless without productive use.

*

”The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody,” she said, “would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”

and

”Thank you for using me,” she said to Constant, “even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”

Where to begin. Not only does this echo the previous highlight, and Player Piano, but this literally is thank-you by a woman to her rapist.

*

Parenthetically, I feel like I must have read this at some point after all, because I have a deeply-buried recollection of the reveal of the true nature of the sirens. But I remember not one other bit of it.

*

”Indianapolis, Indiana,” said Constant, “is the first place in the United States of America where a white man was hanged for the murder of an Indian. The kinds of people who’ll hang a white man for murdering an Indian—“ said Constant,” that’s the kind of people for me.

*

Bix’s notes on Mother Night.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Cat’s Cradle.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Slaughterhouse-Five.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Breakfast of Champions.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Slapstick.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Jailbird.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Deadeye Dick.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Galápagos.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Bluebeard.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Hocus Pocus.

Coming in 2021.

Bix’s notes on Timequake.

Coming in 2021.