More Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus

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In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, it is the second definition of “hocus-pocus” which pertains to the title of this Vonnegut book from 1990. The second definition is: “nonsense or sham used especially to cloak deception.” In this book, Vonnegut undoubtedly relies on his experiences in World War II to construct the character of the protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Contrary to Vonnegut’s personal experience a as a soldier, however, Hartke was a career military man who rose the ranks to become quite an important cog in the machinery of the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, even supervising the final evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon (pictured above).

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The protagonist’s name comes, of course, from the famous labor leader/socialist Eugene V. Debs, and an outspoken anti-war “junior senator” from Indiana in the 60’s, Vance Hartke (below). In fact, one of my fellow-members of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club had met Senator Hartke on a couple occasions, describing him as one of the more “oily” politicians he ever encountered, and that Hartke had a habit of, when shaking one’s hand, kind of wrapping his other arm around his ‘victim’ and even changing his stance, thus preventing the recipient from making a quick exit(!)

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Part of the hocus-pocus perpetrated is in Hartke’s speaking to the newly arrived “recruits” and in his dealing with the press (likely enhanced by Vonnegut’s own experience working in public relations” for corporate giant, General Electric.)

Hartke’s military experience does not take place during the time frame of the plot of this novel, however, and we learn of it mostly through “flashbacks” and memories. In the novel, we learn that Hartke spent his post-war years teaching at “Tarkington College” in the finger lakes district of New York. After being the victim of a conspiracy he is fired from that post but promptly finds a new job across the lake, teaching at a prison whose administration has been privatized and is now run by the Japanese.

The novel is written by Debs from the prison where he is now an inmate. Among the many quirks of the novel, we are told that it was written in its entirety on small scraps of whatever paper Hartke found available, including matchbook covers, blank endpapers that he had ripped out of books in the prison library, brown wrapping paper, and backs of business cards. The other quirk, which frankly felt a bit gimmick-y to me, was that he would not write out any numbers in the book – e.g. instead of writing “two days later” he would write “2 days later.” I was never quite sure of any value added from this, but have come to expect quirkiness from Vonnegut and suppose at this point I would be disappointed if there weren’t any.

What I did like about this book was the humor that it contained. While Vonnegut is known for his humor, he outdid himself this time. I laughed out loud several times while reading. In one exchange, just after Hartke has been fired and is wandering around town he meets someone who is headed over to the prison for a job interview:

He said, “They’re hiring teachers over there.”
I asked if I could come with him.
He said, “Not if you’re going to teach what I’m going to teach. What do you want to teach?”
“Anything you don’t want to teach,” I said.

Another funny moment is when a minor character asks Hartke if he’d “seen him on “The Phil Donahue Show,” which Vonnegut describes as:

“a 1-hour show every weekday afternoon, which featured a small group of real people, not actors, who had had the same sort of bad thing happen to them, and had triumphed over it or were barely coping or whatever.”

Bull’s-eye,Kurt!

The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss this book last Thursday. Hocus Pocus was one of the more universally liked of our readings, earning an 8.4 rating in our traditional post-meeting informal vote. This is one of the highest ratings I can remember us giving.

Another intriguing component of the novel was the inclusion of a machine galled the “GRIOT,” which was designed to predict the fate of a person after certain basic information was entered into it. The relatively small amount of data needed for input is remarkable too: age, race, degree of education, current level of drug use – are those really the only significant contributors to our fate? While reading, I thought perhaps GRIOT was an acronym for something that the author purposely didn’t explain. The KVMLBC, however, includes in its membership a former literature teacher who informed us that “griot” is a west African world for the conveyor an oral tradition among families, who each would have a member designated as a griot. I think she said that griot was the word used for the stories being told as well. (I always learn something at these meetings) 🙂

We also have among our membership an amateur poet, who usually shares a work – somehow related to our current selection – with us at the end of our meetings. At January’s meeting, one of the other members questioned the poet about the rhyming structure used, and whether it had a name, etc. Apparently, this got our poet thinking, and he tried a new form this month, the “diamanté” poem. Wikipedia describes the form as:

“The poem can be used in two ways, either comparing and contrasting two different subjects, or naming synonyms and antonyms for another subject.

In the poems, the subject is named in one word in the first line. The second line consists of two adjectives describing the subject, and the third line contains three verbs ending in the suffix -ing which are related to the subject. A fourth line then has four nouns, again related to the subject, but only the first two words are related the first subject. The other two words describe the opposite subject the lines then are put in reverse, leading to and relating to either a second subject or a synonym for the first.

Here is the order:

                                   Noun

                       Adjective-Adjective

                         Verb-Verb-Verb

                      Noun-Noun/Noun-Noun

                         Verb-Verb-Verb

                       Adjective-Adjective

                              Noun”

Bill’s poem, which I snapped a picture of with my iPhone (to capture not only the words but the nice, aesthetic presentation) is shown below, with the author’s permission:

Have YOU read Hocus Pocus?  Any other Vonnegut? What do you think of one of Indiana’s finest authors?

Kurt Vonnegut’s Birthday is today.

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Born November, 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut would have been 92 today. I’ve probably posted more often about him than any other writer on this blog. Partly because he’s from my home town, partly because I participate in a book club that meets at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, but mostly because he’s just … awesome. Looking back, and in no particular order, here are a few of my favorites…

The Manned Missiles (short story) from 2012

Player Piano (novel) from 2011

Deer in the Works (short story) from 2010

Jailbird (novel) from 2010

Hocus Pocus (novel) from 2012

Basic Training (novella) from 2013

Kurt Vonnegut Letters (letters) from 2012

Bagombo Snuff Box (short story collection) from 2012

Timequake (novel) from 2012

Cat’s Cradle (novel) from 2011

The Lie (short story) from 2010

EPICAC (short story) from 2010

Which of Kurt Vonnegut’s works are your favorites?

February Reading – The Month Ahead

I used to post almost every month about what was coming up in my planned reading. This routine post often aged into a public record of my lack of resolve and general slacking, which may have led to my discontinuing it. I think I’m going to try to start doing it again though, as perhaps it will make me feel more accountable and get more reading done. (yeah, right) Anyway, here goes:

Sign-Talker by James Alexander

This book was recommended by my Mom (“Hi, Mom!”), who has read many of Thom’s books. I’ve read one other, “Follow the River,” much of which is set in the Kanawha & New River area in West Virginia, where I have family ties. The Sign-Talker is the fictionalized story of George Drouillard, a half-Native American hunter/interpreter who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I’m already pretty far into this one and may finish up tonight. That would be fortuitous since the author will be at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s monthly “First Friday” event tomorrow. I’d like to go meet him.

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the KVML Book Club’s selection for February. I know nothing about it and don’t even have a copy yet. It will be nice to return to Vonnegut this month, though, after struggling mightily to get through Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” last month.

Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia

The second book of my unofficial planned “twelve author biographies in twelve months” project. I started this biography of Jack Kerouac once a few years ago but didn’t finish. I plan to start from scratch. It’s huge.

MacBeth by Shakespeare

This is the February play for an online year-long Shakespeare reading challenge (that I’ve lost track of where it actually is; I’m so bad). I re-read A Midsummer Night’s dream last month and really enjoyed the return visit. Hopefully I’ll feel the same way about MacBeth. Plus there are witches in this one…

Short Stories

I’m one behind schedule in my one per week project, but I’m sure I’ll read a bunch this month. Next up is Lester del Rey’s sci-fi tale, “Instinct.” I’ve also been enjoying following the weekly short story meme over at Breadcrumb Reads. Learning of lots of new short stories and authors that I. Will be reading this year and into the future, I’m sure.

Well that’s my currently planned month of reading. What about you? What’s on your February reading list?

“The Great George Helmoltz Hoax of 2013”

A recurring character in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut is the oft-beleaguered high school band teacher, George Helmholtz. He appears in four stories that I can immediately recall (there may be another or two) – “The Ambitious Sophomore”, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”, “The Boy Who Hated Girls” and, from the collection “Look at the Birdie,” the very funny story “A Song for Selma.” In this last story, reference is made to a musical composition by the sixteen-year-old genius, Al Schroeder, entitled “Hail to the Milky Way.” Unlike the song from the title of this story, there are no lyrics mentioned to go along with “Hail to the Milky Way.” (although we are treated to the humorous acknowledgment that, with the furthest star in The Milky Way being “approximately ten-thousand light years away” that “if the sound of the music was to reach that star, it would have to be played good and loud.”

At The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meetings here in Indianapolis, we have previously wondered about this Helmholtz character, and whether he was based on a teacher Vonnegut knew at Shortridge High School, or if instead he was a conglomeration of several real people. At our most recent meeting last week, Bill Briscoe, the library’s historian, uncorked the revelation that he “had done some research” and that there was a music teacher during Kurt’s high school years named Herman George, upon whom the character was based. We were all fascinated and unaware – as yet – that Bill was reeling us in. For my part, the name was perfect – I could see Vonnegut combining Herman George & that famous name from science, Herman Helmholtz, into George Helmholtz. That would be so Vonnegut.

Bill went on to explain that he had even located Herman George’s son, who related that most of his father’s personal effects had been “lost in a fire,” but one thing from his papers that survived was a few stanzas of a song, “Hail to the Milky Way”(!) It should be mentioned here that Bill is also our club’s unofficial poet and our meetings usually end with him sharing his latest work (related to the book we’ve read that month). He brought the song fragment (though charred around the edges and encased in a plastic sheath) with him to the meeting and read the three verses it contained:

Hail to the Milky Way
And to the Sky we pray
While stars do dance and play
Hail, hail, all hail, we say!

Our galaxy we tout
It’s great without a doubt
It has such big clout
hail, hail, all hail, we shout!

Our universe is dear
Nothing else comes near
And so we raise our beer
Hail, hail, all hail, we cheer!

Bill passed around the alleged “artifact” but, as far as most of us were concerned, the jig was up. How conveniently the burned edges of his “historical document” circled the perimeter of the verses, and few could mistake the well-known style of our poet in residence. When the document reached me, I inquired aloud, “Are you sure this isn’t a Briscoe original?”

So, some fun was had and nobody got hurt. I think this would have been a meeting that Kurt Vonnegut himself would have heartily approved of.

(Below is a photo I snapped of this historical document – sorry for the focus issues…)

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A couple other examples of Bill’s work from prior meetings:  A tribute to Breakfast of Champions (extra credit goes to anyone who can identify the four initials on the olives); and, at bottom, a visually impressive poem from our meeting on Hocus-Pocus.

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“To Be Yourself is All that You Can Do”

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met last Thursday to discuss his final novel, Timequake. Published in 1997, it is the most autobiographical of Vonnegut’s novels (and they almost always are autobiographical to some extent). It is loosely constructed around an event called a “Timequake” in which history kind of “slips back” ten years and goes into a re-run. To those reliving the past ten years, it is nearly impossible to not drift into sort of an “autopilot mode” in which they know for certain that any free will is suppressed as the re-run plays out. Vonnegut uses this concept to explore the idea of free will and determinism. He more often, frankly, uses the book to comment on the human condition, and relate a lot of stories from his own life.

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(above: Chris Cornell & “Audioslave”)

While reading Timequake – as a fan of musician and songwriter Chris Cornell (front man for the band “Soundgarden” and later another favorite of mine, “Audioslave”) – I found myself often reminded of the great Audioslave song, “Be Yourself,” which includes the frequent refrain “(and) to be yourself is all that you can do…” Much of Vonnegut’s musing in the book settles back to this idea, probably most overtly in chapter 35, where after relating that geneticists are now “seeking and finding more and more genes that make us think this way or that way, just as a rerun or timequake would do.” He goes on to say that:

“…it appeared to me that Jane’s and my children, and Allie’s and Jim’s children, while not alike as grownups, had each become practically the type of grownups they had to be. All six are OK.”

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We had, as a guest at our book club meeting, author Majie Failey whose book about Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek,” I read last year. Somehow in our pre-game warmups before we started talking about Timequake, the matter of Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide came up. Mrs. Failey was of the firm belief that her death was accidental, citing several reasons why. One of our other members, Bob, pointed out that regardless of what we may believe, Vonnegut himself believed it, and it indelibly shaped the course of his life. He even states (chapter 26) “I’m a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives.” Perhaps his life and artistic output was what simply had to be, or to paraphrase the words of Chris Cornell, “all that he could do.”

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This book was not among my Vonnegut favorites (too much of a downer) but there were many things about it I liked. One was the expanded role of Vonnegut’s recurring character, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who usually serves as the author’s alter-ego. Vonnegut also has several  insightful things to say about art as well. For example:

“Many years earlier, so long ago that I was a student at the University of Chicago, I had a conversation with my thesis advisor about the arts in general. At that time, I had no idea that I personally would go into any sort of art.
He said, ‘You know what artists are?’
I didn’t.
‘Artists,’ he said, ‘are the people who say, “I can’t fix my country my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelves bars of music, be exactly what they ought to be.”’

True, Vonnegut didn’t make this statement himself, but it’s yet another “bulls-eye” found in his writing.

Our club’s resident poet, Bill Briscoe, composed a second “diamanté” poem for this book. A snapshot is presented below. Information on the “rules” of diamanté poems have been presented previously on my blog here.

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I look forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be discussing the posthumously published short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, a selection of Vonnegut’s previously unpublished work.

For those interested, here are the lyrics to the song “Be Yourself”:

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“Someone falls to pieces, sleeping all alone
Someone kills the pain, spinning in the silence
To finally drift away

Someone gets excited
In a chapel yard and catches a bouquet
Another lays a dozen, white roses on a grave

Yeah and to be yourself is all that you can do
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do

Someone finds salvation in everyone, another only pain
Someone tries to hide himself, down inside himself he prays
Someone swears his true love until the end of time
Another runs away, separate or united, healthy or insane

And to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
(All that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, be yourself is all that you can do

Even when you’ve paid enough
Been pulled apart or been held up
Every single memory of the good or bad
Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight
I’m sure everything will end up alright
You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
To be yourself is all that you can do

Oh, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can do