If you know me well, or if you’ve ever followed me on Twitter, you probably know who my favorite fiction author is. This week in April has been a meaningful celebration in remembrance of one Kurt Vonnegut, who passed on April 11, 2007. One of his favorite holidays, I think, was Earth Day. I credit him with being my biggest sole influence when it comes to Literary Fiction – how I have managed to make magical realism my game, but still carry an important message.
This article was written in 2013, edited in 2021.
My biggest issue when it comes to my fiction is that I over-write. Seems like the opposite of a problem for an aspiring novel-completer, right? I wish.
The ability to use as few words possible to say the most meaningful things possible is one that I greatly envy, hence the reason that I am consistently jealous of one Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author. Most young people probably know him because they had to read Slaughterhouse Five in high school; I found out about him from having to read Cat’s Cradle in high school, and it was the only book I read that year besides Gatsby that didn’t put me to sleep faster than a Nyquil overdose.
(I didn’t used to be as into literature as I am now. 2021 me is surprised that 2013 me felt this way).
The main reason that Cat’s Cradle stuck with me was the fact that each chapter – there are 127 of them – is no longer than about five pages each. Sometimes chapters are even one page, or half a page, in comparison to my chapters that will go for 30 or 40 pages. Each sentence in that book, too, uses the simplest structure and vocabulary usage possible, canceling out the transcending myth that the bigger your words are, the better your writing is. In Vonnegut’s case I find that the simpler something is written, the more you’re supposed to get from it.
Getting through Cat’s Cradle the first time was no problem, as at its surface level, it offered easy-to-read, sci-fi entertainment at the very least. Understanding the deeper meaning of it, though, took several reads and pauses, as most of Vonnegut’s stuff does, at least for me.
That’s why I love him so much.
After re-reading Cat’s Cradle nine or ten times over the course of three years, I decided it was high time that I check out the rest of Vonnegut’s work. Shortly after finishing a collection of his short stories, I went to Barnes & Noble and randomly picked the first Vonnegut book that caught my eye.
The Sirens of Titan caught my eye because the cover is neon green and purple, the most jarring color combination to my eyes besides orange and blue, which happens to be the coloration of the cover of Breakfast of Champions.
Like Cradle, the basic plot of Sirens is relatively simple in summary: a rich young man named Malachi Constant gets the future told to him by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy time traveler, and then proceeds to live out that future, but against his “free will.” Constant goes on a round trip journey through the universe, and some of the bumps on his path include: an invasion of Earth by Martians, a crash-landing on Mercury, a return to Earth in which he becomes the “savior” of a new world religion, and an eventual exile on one of Saturn’s moons.
And the best part about it? He came up with the idea for the entire book in one night.
That plot summary may make the book sound like it’s all over the place, but Vonnegut’s ability to write simply and straightforwardly makes it both the most compact and the most believable plotline I’ve ever read. He’s exceedingly able to make the extraordinary sound ordinary, and vice versa, and pack a meaningful punch with every sentence or line of dialogue he carefully placed in the story.
What the novel ends up being about, on a deeper level than just the plot, is the definition of human existence—which, Vonnegut reveals, is that the entire Earth exists solely to deliver a message sent by distant, Tralfamadorian aliens. When putting it that way—implying that none of us really have a choice in the purpose that we serve, and that that purpose could very well be completely ridiculous—humanity’s existence can seem pretty bleak and pointless. But that’s Vonnegut’s point, (that always seems to be his point), and he goes about making the point in a way that’s blunt and hilarious, while simultaneously dark and existential.
He means to poke fun at the seriousness humans place in all of the things that aren’t going to last, the things that are miniscule in comparison to the entirety of the universe, past, present and future. He means to ask us to ask ourselves if what we do and what we believe in even really matters.
That’s a tall order, but it’s one that we all have to face whether we like it or not.
In Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut questions the idea of free will, and how “free” it can actually be in such a pre-determined universe. He has several examples of mind control going on in the book; the structure of the Martian Army is especially intriguing, with its made-up conglomerate of generals who aren’t actually in charge of anything and don’t have any real power. They’re merely fake figureheads, put in place as a formality. The Martian soldiers are actually controlled by a buzzer that sends a shock wave through their brains if they develop thoughts that go against the regime—a buzzer that any common soldier could be holding at any given time, no matter their made-up rank.
It turns out that one of the commonest men of the bunch, Boaz, is one of the soldiers who holds a buzzer.
Kurt Vonnegut makes me relate to almost every single character of his almost instantly, even if I’ve only just been introduced to them, and even if they only appear on one page. Malachi, the protagonist of Sirens, is your standard “spoiled rich boy” who’s had everything handed to him, but hasn’t done anything with it. Relatable? Sort of; as of 2021, I have at least 500,000 words of fiction on my person, but haven’t done much with it yet.
It’s always fascinating to watch Malachi Constant try to sidestep the inevitable future that Rumfoord tells him about. Pretty early on, Rumfoord dictates to him everything that is ever going to happen in his life, including the wildest bits about intergalactic time travel, and Malachi’s reaction to this news—getting drunk, sleeping around, blowing all his money, escaping reality—is the reaction that many of us have in our own lives when we are faced with the scary and inevitable.
From everything tragic that happens to Malachi on, you feel for him, and watch in anticipated agony as his inevitable, unhappy ending comes closer and closer. The helplessness that you feel as you read is page-turning—you already know it’s going to happen, but watching how the hell it’s even going to manage to happen is most of the fun of trekking through the novel.
The character of Rumfoord, too, extracts your sympathy when you discover that he is trapped in what’s called the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, never allowed to materialize on any given planet but Titan for more than a few minutes. What Rumfoord ends up doing because of this fate, and because of his future-telling abilities, seems rather villainous—manipulating thousands in order to establish his church (The Church of the Utterly Indifferent ), maliciously withholding information from Malachi and his own wife in order to bring about his plan—but it also seems kind of warranted. He’s been granted such terrible knowledge, and he has no way to get rid of it or do anything about it—how unimportant he must feel as a human being. It begs the question: do any of us really want to know the real meaning of the universe? Or would knowing everything be too intense?
All of Vonnegut’s characters in Siren have such universal dilemmas: they don’t want to lose their innocence, they’re afraid of unknowns, of mysterious higher powers. Vonneget uses figures like Malachi, Rumfoord, Beatrice and Chrono to show that people are just pieces in a universe that controls itself.
It’s like Rumfoord says to his wife at some point, when she asks him why, if he can tell the future, doesn’t he just tell everyone everything that will ever happen?
“’All I can say is that my failure to warn you about the stock-market crash is as much a part of the natural order as Halley’s Comet—and it makes an equal amount of sense to rage against either one.’”
The book has been controversial, I gather, because of its anti-religious undertones, and what Vonnegut dubbed The Church of The Utterly Indifferent. The way that Vonnegut writes, however, doesn’t preach or imply that you should believe the anti-religious message of The Church. He simply places the reality of the situation out there for you—that none of us really knows what the universe will hand us—and you can interpret the situation however you want to. You can agree with the idea that the universe is controlled by a nameable God, or you can agree with the idea that the universe is chaotic, and the forces that control it are either mysterious or nonexistent. Whatever you believe, we’re all in the same boat anyway.
A character named Unk, a soldier in the Martian army, ends up getting his memory erased. He is confused, hurt, lost, and wishes that someone on Mars would tell him what he was really supposed to be doing with his life. Later on, Unk finds a letter addressed to him, and this letter is one of the funniest, truest, and most meaningful things I’ve ever read about human life.
While Unk reads the letter, full of personal anecdotes, hilarious insight, and useful points of advice, he becomes filled with these moments of great joy—finally, someone is telling him who he is and who he loves, and finally, he is having his memories restored. The letter warns him, however, of the dangers up ahead of him, that the Martian army is out to erase his memory over and over. It ends up telling him that he should escape, for his own good, and tells him about the family he needs to save.
For a while, he thinks that the author of the letter must be a friend of his, or someone objective who cares for him. But when he gets to the bottom of the letter, he finds that his own name, “Unk,” is the signature. He wrote the letter to himself before his memory was erased.
My favorite passage in the book reads:
Writing to or for yourself can literally save your life. What a powerful message.
I remember having to put the book down after getting to this page. If I was a person who enjoyed crying, I probably would’ve cried about it. (Not really, but it did hit me on a pretty emotional level). As a writer myself, this line told me that if I ever feel like I’m starting to lose the voice of my inner author, or if I ever feel that the world around me is trying to erase my identity, I should write, because my writing will always voice who I really am inside, and returning to it will always remind me of my faith in myself.
If none of this has convinced you to read the book, do it for the fact that Vonnegut is famous for his slapstick comedy (seriously, Sirens is hilarious), and do it for the fact that when it comes to science fiction, this man is a pioneer.
This book taught me things about life that I never expected to gain from a story about time travel and Saturn’s moons. It only reinforced my love of Vonnegut, and showed me that the deepest of messages really can be written with the simplest of words.