God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Listen: while Kilgore Trout is writing about Bagnialto, Kurt Vonnegut is writing about Kilgore Trout and I’m writing about Kurt Vonnegut. We all have different levels of awareness, but we are all characters in the same plot.

Each time I read a book by Vonnegut I am surprised at just how mind-blowing it is. I don’t know why I never learn to see it coming. But I don’t. This time it’s Breakfast of Champions and I truly am overwhelmed by its abundance of brilliant ideas. It has Vonnegut’s usual tropes, including the one-liners on the beauty of simplicity (“every so often, somebody

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (picture from http://www.vonnegut.com)

would stop to put up a monument” ch.15), the major depressive episode bits, the social criticism and so on. The book also has, as usual, many insightful moments. Here they are mostly about people being machines and the only thing making them human is out awareness, that “unwavering band of light” (ch. 19).

But I want to talk about the narration instead. How quietly Vonnegut inserts references to the narrator since the very beginning, without explaining who he is. And all those ‘spoilers’, clues to how the story is going to end. (This reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five, and of how there is no time, all of history and all of the future is happening at once and always). So is the narrator God? If so, why is he watching television and how come he can mention his parents? About halfway through the book he mentions, quite casually, that “Jimmy Valentine was a famous made-up person in another writer’s books, just as Kilgore Trout was a famous made-up person in my books” (ch. 15).

Listen: the realization that the narrator is the writer was mind-blowing, and what made it even more so was that it shouldn’t have been. What is more natural than writing yourself, writing what you know? It’s the most truthful thing a writer can do. And yet it’s so uniquely Vonnegut. (Maybe that’s not exactly accurate: I was reminded of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Comforters, in which the main character, Caroline Rose, starts hearing typewriter noises and realizes that she is a character in a novel. It’s all very clever, and very funny too.)

Some of his drawings from "Breakfast of Champions"

The self-narration idea returns again and again throughout the book and is used to explore reality and our grasp of it. It’s funny that I happened to read this just now because that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what happens when I ‘read’ at life as literature. I don’t believe in fate but I find it hard not to go in that direction when I think of life as a plot. I suddenly get a strong feeling that everything that I’ve done so far is preparation for what will happen next. It’s a weird thought (not a psychotic one, I promise) but it’s entertaining. The thing about book plots – good ones at least – is that they convey a message. Recurring themes are supposed to be reflected in them… They are meant to have some point which the text is trying to make. Then I wonder what the themes of my plot are. There are certainly events that repeat themselves – similar reactions in different situations. But maybe that fits in better with a psychology theory or another than in a literary one. I pay also close attention to names: sometimes I hear someone’s name and think that had he been a character in a book, I would have really appreciated the writer’s brilliant naming. I once dated someone whose name was an almost-perfect (one letter away) anagram to Harry Houdini. It was very brief thing so I can’t say I know too much  about the guy; but had I written him into a story, he would probably be a character that had trouble committing to things, and keeps escaping at the moment of truth. Or something like that.

Anyway, Vonnegut. Or maybe: Anyway, life as a plot. Or possibly both. What does it mean, in a the text that is my life, that I’m reading Breakfast of Champions just now? I’ve had the option to do so before. I was close to reading it before, even. Something always got in the way. I was going to buy it but then decided on buying something else, etc. But this time I was reminded of the book – can’t even remember why – and I went to the library and picked it up.  So why now? Are any of the ideas in the book meant to relate to something that is happening (or about to happen)? Is the writer of my book trying to tell me something? This line of thought gets creepy after a while so I had better stop. Here’s a clever quote, so that you may have something to keep thinking about: “This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books” (ch. 19).

Who’s Afraid of Roman Polanski?

Scene from "Carnage". Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

I just got back from watching Roman Polanski’s new film, “Carnage”. The movie is based on a play by Yasmina Reza – who wrote a few more plays, apparently, which I should most definitely look into. In the spirit of the movie I am writing from my guts (the credits rolled not half an hour ago), and my gut feeling is that it was absolutely brilliant.

First I must admit that the reason I went to see the movie – which I only heard about a few hours ago when I was looking to see which movies were playing today – was that the description on IMDb reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Perhaps one of the reasons I feel so strongly about “Carnage” is that it is indeed very reminiscent of Albee’s play. The suffocating claustrophobia is a strong element in both pieces, as is the hostile and tense encounter of two couples. So is the slow uncovering of the characters’ true selves, letting go of their manners in order to air out what they really feel. Like Virginia‘s Martha, “Carnage” has one character who’s job it is to speak the cold and cynical truth: Alan. (I think it’s interesting that here it’s a man’s role). Since I don’t like it when reviews go on explaining the plot I’ll be brief: “Carnage” takes place in an apartment in New York, in which two married couples – Penelope &

Scene from Mike Nichols' version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Warner Bros., 1966

Michael, Nancy & Alan – meet to discuss a fight their boys had. It starts out very polite and mannered and slowly, with the aid of alcohol and pressure, the four characters become more and more free to fight about deeper issues, about morality, about who’s fault it was that one boy broke the other’s teeth and about their dysfunctional marriages.

What stands in the center of the movie – dare I say it? yes: the theme – is violence. First that of the boys; then the couples against each other; later the couples against themselves as well. Violence takes a concrete form in the discussion of the boys’ feud and of Penelope’s favorite topic, the harsh suffering of the people of Africa. More interestingly, it takes a more general, abstract form in the aggressiveness that pops up everywhere in the movie. There’s an interesting discussion about how innate violence and aggression is in our so-called civilized western society, and how futile it is to deny it. Penelope presents herself as a very moral person, with strong beliefs in art, peace, and society’s ability to overcome its violent instincts. But the artists she chooses to display on her coffee table are Bacon and Kokoschka. I don’t know much about Kokoschka but Francis Bacon’s imagery is certainly very raw and scary, full of anxiety. (I half expected to see a Lucian Freud book in her pile. It seems fitting.) She reacts very passionately when Nancy vomits all over her beloved Kokoschka, in a manner that is very ‘natural’, perhaps, but certainly challenges her claims about herself. Eventually Alan’s cynical approach gets her to admit that her obsession with African suffering is meant to make her feel better about her morality and feel more in control. Civility is nothing more than a defense mechanism.

Alan is an interesting character too. He’s the very prototype of the 21st century man: a tough lawyer with a suit and a cell phone attached to the palm of his hand. Alan’s having a pretty big work crisis, when it turns out that his biggest client, a pharmaceutical company, has been reported to knowingly sell a drug with very dangerous sides effects. Alan’s phone won’t stop ringing. At first only once in while, causing the rest of the group to sit and wait for him each time; as the movie progresses, the ringing becomes more and more frequent and the other characters more and more frustrated with it. His type of aggression gets, in this very efficient manner, a double expression. He’s both cold about his crisis – caring only about the company’s image and never concerning himself with the dangerous drug – and impossible to his wife. He refuses to “give a damn” about the situation with his son, and is constantly making obvious how much he doesn’t want to be in this meeting with Penelope and Michael. I found this point (the constant work phone-calls) easy to relate to, as I imagine many viewers will. It is a common modern illness to be so workaholic as to neglect everything and everyone else, and so very easy to relate to Nancy’s frustration: always having to wait for Alan, always being put aside because work is more important. This is also a well articulated comment on modern aggression. Penelope and Michael, representing the old world (writer, small shop owner) have no similar work-phone issues. They have other issues, of course; that is, violence does not go away nor did it suddenly appear: it’s just there all along human history, changing its face according to the circumstances.

I guess in the end Alan’s side of the argument wins. Violence is inherent, we are all dreadfully animalistic, and all it takes

Alan the typical workaholic. "Carnage", Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

to get it out of us is a few glasses of single-malt whiskey. He was also right about how many of our troubles are caused by over-thinking: the last image in the movie shows the two boys being very friendly despite their parent’s lack of success in solving the dispute.

Re-reading and editing my post I see that I’ve referred to it as a review. I take that back: this is only a response, a gut (plus editing) reaction to the movie. In the interest of making this post worth your time, here’s a review too: IT’S A REALLY GOOD MOVIE! THE ACTING IS GREAT! THE POPCORN WAS DELICIOUS!

Much Like Joyce, I Often Exercise Stream of Consciousness.

I was reminded today, re various social movements of recent months, of this quote by Oscar Wilde:

“Still, we have done great things.

– Great things have been thrust on us […].

– We have carried their burden.

– Only as far as the stock exchange.”

It’s as if he had predicted us all (or, more likely, humanity has not changed one bit). This one’s from The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a pretty great book, though I must admit I’m a much bigger fan of the plays. Especially The Importance of

Being Earnest – not the most original of choices, I know – if only for the clever name (and Miss Prism’s three-volume

novel). Liking a certain text usually means being predestined to hate any screen version of it, but I kinda liked the 2002 movie. True, it lost of lot of Wildeness and true, it was too showy which occasionally came at the expense of the wit. Still. I absolutely adore Colin Firth, not to mention

Rupert Everett as George the IV. "The Madness of King George", Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1994

Hugh Laurie as Prince Regent George the IV. "Blackadder the Third", BBC One, 1987

Rupert Everett, who is, by the way, a strong competitor for Funniest Depiction of George IV, along side Hugh Laurie in “Blackadder the Third”. And believe me, it’s a though one. Everett’s version in “The

Madness of King George” is a much round character; but then, you know, Hugh

Laurie. So there’s that. I mean, his Prince George is just “lucky! lucky! luck! luck! luuuck, luuuuck, *random chicken sounds*”. As opposed to Everett’s deliciously subtle cruelty. Definitely a though one. Incidentally, Alan Bennett, who of course wrote Madness, is alumni at Oxford – as was Wilde… And we have come full circle. Good night!

Hurray for Blogism

Having given it an acceptable – yet not excessive – amount of thought, I have decided to jump-start my blog with a festive post on some recent readings (hurray indeed!). I’d be lying if I said I had a very specific, well-thought plan for this blog. Like any lazy writer, I’m mostly hoping it will soon develop a life of its own, or some other similar cliché. Either way, in a very appropriate manner, it begins… with a book.

Well, two of them.

The first is Jonathan Franzen’s long-awaited Freedom. Though I am usually not one for all this Americana (college basketball, suburbia, green-vs.-corporate politics), I found myself enjoying it very much. Which is perhaps not much of a surprise – I loved The Corrections – but mostly, I think, it goes to show that well-built characters and relationships can survive any setting. What was extra clever about Freedom, and only revealed towards the end, was that it is in a sense a book about a book (well, manuscript). Despite everything Walter B. was put through by his horrific wife, he stayed put; what finally broke him down and forced him to regain control was Patty’s manuscript. Oh, the ars-poetica of it all. Sometimes the situation needs to be put into words for us to fully accept and understand it (more on this later. Probably).

I was also going to say something about His Loveliness, Stephen Fry’s (latest) autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. Then I realized I don’t really have anything to say about it. What is there to say? Some people are born with the right words, some achieve them and some have those words thrust upon them; Stephen Fry seems to be all and none at the same time. He has all the right anecdotes and all the wit to make daily events into anecdotes too, which is way more useful. Mr. Fry, I adore you! There, I said it.