Martian Invasions and Chrono-Synclastic Infandibula (do I even need to add “Oh, my!” to that?)

We had another great & educational (for me, anyway) meeting at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library today. We had two new attendees – visitors all the way from Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois – and seven attendees who were “veterans” of multiple meetings already.

For the second month in a row** our discussion leader, Phil Watts (also one of the directors of the KVML), launched the meeting with the reading of a quotation from an article from the magazine “Stop Smiling” that Vonnegut had sent him personally a few years ago. Here is at least part of the excerpt:

“Kurt Vonnegut: I was born in Indianapolis, but I’m a Chicagoan who lives in New York. I went to the University of Chicago.

SS: Do you think the Midwest is a good place to grow up?

KV: If George W. Bush got mad enough at me and exiled me back to Indianapolis, I could make a decent life there. I could hack it in Indianapolis.”

This month’s quotation, however, reminded us all of how, at the end of the novel – when Malachi Constant returns to earth – he wants to go to Indianapolis (the reason Constant gives for this is that he had heard that Indianapolis was “the first city ever to hang a white man for the murder of an Indian”; one of our club members informed us that this was a reference to the Fall Creek Massacre). That’s why I love these meetings. Someone there “knows at least something about anything” it seems.

Our meetings always conclude with Phil asking us each to rate the book on a scale of one to ten, and Sirens of Titan seemed to receive the lowest marks of any we’ve read thus far. One member was enjoying it so little that he didn’t even finish (although toward the end of the meeting he – as did I – felt a little chastised (his word) by the rest of the group because of everything about the book that they pointed out and that he hadn’t considered.) I get a similar boost of my own opinion of the books at every meeting. This is why book club discussions are good! Divide and conquer! What you may miss or fail to appreciate may be gleaned from the book by a fellow reader.

I had a couple of impressions that I shared with the group. One was that how – now that I’ve read “a lot” of Vonnegut’s works – I’m really enjoying how often I see common threads or themes or even specifics. E.g., the planet of Tralfamadore figures both in this novel and also is where Billy Pilgrim “ends up”(?) in Slaughterhouse Five. Another was the similarity of the short story “Harrison Bergeron” from Welcome to the Monkey House to how people “handicapped themselves” in The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in Sirens of Titan. There haven’t been many authors of which I’ve read so much that I have begun to appreciate them on this level.

The second was how familiar the appearances of Rumsfoord (now existing as a wave phenomenon as a result of his intersecting a chrono-synchlastic infandibulum – no, I didn’t make that up – in his space travel) were to me. They sounded awful lot like the supernatural or hallucinated appearances of The Black Monk in Chekhov’s short story of the same name. Another eerie similarity was that Kovrin, the main character in Chekhov’s story, was – although brilliant (at least that’s my interpretation) – forcibly “cured” of his mania of greatness by the administration of medicines. Check that story out sometime (I have found it “for free” on line in many places).

For awhile, we also lapsed into a discussion of censorship after one member shared a personal story of how a baptist minister and his congregation in Richmond, Indiana, stormed a school that had the audacity to include Slaughterhouse Five in its reading list. One member of the club suggested today that we observe “a moment of silence” in respect of all the librarians who seem so often to be on the front lines against this brutish, bullying behavior.

I realize now, after rambling on for far too long, that I haven’t said much about the plot of the book, and – now that I think of it – I don’t think I will, other than to say that, despite how it sounds, it’s not really a “science fiction” book. In fact the blurb on the back cover of my edition is TOTALLY misleading and inaccurate. And this is a recent edition, not one published in the sixties trying to cash in on the popularity science fiction.

One final thought: one of our members commented on how reading Vonnegut “makes me think of the strangest stuff!” (me too!) and that the creatures called “Harmoniums” found in the caves of Mercury where Malachi and Boaz sojourn (there! I mentioned part of the story) made him think of the “Shmoos” from the old Al Capp cartoons. I had no idea what he was talking about and had to look that up. For once, it’s nice not being the oldest person in a group!

**(I liked the quotation Phil shared last month even more. It’s wonderful: “…as I say regularly in lectures, you practice an art to make your soul grow, not to make a career, be famous or be rich. It’s the process of becoming. It’s as essential to the growing up process as food, sex or physical exercise. You find out who you are that way. I used to challenge audiences, but I don’t face them much anymore. I’d say, “Write a poem tonight. Make it as good as you possibly can. Four, six or eight lines. Make it as good as you can. Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it to anybody. When you’re satisfied it’s as good as you can make it, tear it up in small pieces and scatter those pieces between widely separated trash receptacles and you will find out you have received your full reward for having done it.” It’s the act of creation, which is so satisfying.”)

Finally, the Siren – a classic character in literature for over 3,000 years…