“She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.” And maybe that’s just what is missing from school. Maybe that’s what is missing from our kids’ education. They should forget about so much nonsense at school, quit filling the kids’ teaching days with entrepreneurship and business and money-making activities and teach them to be honest. To be frank. To go straight to the point. To query about everything and not letting anyone dictate them what they can say/think and what not. And, if anything is not right, allow them to say it out loud regardless of its lack of political correctness… but of course, it is far easier to train the kids at being power-amassing machines (i.e. money) instead of trying to make them human beings. Plus nobody wants it. If you don’t believe me, just read any kid’s syllabus. Yes, the one ruled out by the government, the one teachers must follow regardless. And if you find in it any attention to the most humanistic aspects, please let me know.
“The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.”
“This book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.”
Welcome to a country where men are bursting with questions, where the national flag can’t reach the floor, where the national motif is in ancient greek even though nobody speaks or understands it, where there is an inverted pyramid with a glowing eye on top printed on the bank notes, where people are told that life began in 1492 when, as a matter of fact, “that was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.” Yes, welcome to a country as absurd as ours.
There is a quality in the small things (stupid for so many people, thrilling by others) that fascinates me. David Foster Wallace was a genius showing them. Vonnegut is also proving good at it: “Sparky could no wag his tail -because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was.” And this kind of small things touch me. And I don’t care whether the feeling is shared or not.
“He looked so much like a Chinaman that he had taken to dressing like a Chinaman.”
Sometimes the interesting point of some dystopias like this one is that they show you real things, tangible, present things, and they explain them to you as if they were brand new. In here, Vonnegut does it with almost everything because, as he states towards the end of the book, his intention with writing this book was that every single character in it and every single thing were equally important. And that means proper contextualisation of everything. So, he explains us the USA, the name of some well-known brands, the meaning of some swearing words, the normal size of penises, vaginas… and he does it in a cold, medical, descriptive manner: “excuse me I have to take a leak. This was a way of saying that the speaker intended to drain liquid wastes from his body through a valve in his lower abdomen.” Plus he adds pencil drawings to add up to the joke. And they certainly do.
“Almost all the messages which were sent and received in his country, even the telepathic ones, had to do with buying or selling some damn thing.” And if we should add cat videos, corny power points and fake news, we would have practically the totality of nowadays digital communication.
“I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.” Exactly, the damned combination of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, unsatisfying life with the obligation of having to live it out no matter what.
“The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.”
“In the interest of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.” And in here he is only talking about women but it is pretty obvious that it is not a one-gender thing but, unfortunately, a global disease that tends to be combined with hypocrisy and the thirst to grow socially and economically.
“Fascism was a fairly popular political philosophy which made sacred whatever nation and race the philosopher happened to belong to.”
“I had come to the Arts Festival incognito” tells us the author himself from the book. “I was there to watch the confrontation between two human beings I had created.” And the dialogue between the real Unamuno and the Unamuno character in Niebla comes to mind. And so do Kundera’s. And this constant presence of the author in the book is, maybe, one of its key points. The constant explanations, off-character and off-fiction that fill the pages with sweet irony.
“As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: they were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: it was a convenient literary deice for ending short stories and books.” And it is frightening how close to reality it actually is. And Vonnegut adds: “Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.” And what solution does Vonnegut give to this fake reality that our lives have become? “Once I understand what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other.” Any action as important as the next one. Of course this would bring chaos and confusion but “let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order.” And maybe, following Vonnegut’s train of thoughts, we would see that “there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”
“Most of the conversation in the country consisted of lines from television shows, both present and past.”
But why does Vonnegut decide to step into this novel? Because (following his own answer) just like Tolstoi freed his servants when he turned 50 and so did Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, Vonnegut wants to “set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.” And what bigger redemption is there than this one? To get free from the ghosts (even though self-generated) that have been chasing us all our life.
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (Penguin)