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The Cuckoo Clock in Kurt Vonnegut's Hell

By John G. Short

INSIDE the cover of the copy of one of Kurt Vonnegut's books, Mother Night, that belongs to the third largest library in the country is pasted a very-old-looking bookplate. The plate bears an oval portrait of a woman beneath which is written "IN MEMORY OF PERMELIA E. CHENEY HERSEY/ 1848 VE RI TAS 1926/ THE GIFT OF HER SON/ FRANK WILSON CHENEY HERSEY/ CLASS OF 1899/ FOR RECENT BOOKS IN BRITISH AND AMERICAN LITERATURE."

I decided that Frank couldn't have possibly known what he was doing when he gave us "this book." Nor could Permelia have known what she was doing when she conceived and raised a son in such a way that her death would cause him to provide us with a book by Kurt Vonnegut to read.

Then I decided that somewhere in the buying and selling room of the library which keeps seven million other books someone slapped this bookplate in this particular book on the basis of a decision-making process that was essentially random. But since the two had now been living together so closely for so long, I reasoned they must have come to share with each other some of their own individual meanings.

The picture was of a very quietly incredibly-beautiful girl dressed in funny - looking turn - of - the - century clothes, the kind of innocent girl I've always wanted to meet at a be-in. I guessed that if she were alive and at Harvard now and still looked like that, she would be deeply involved in relationships with two boys, and she would have one of the most serious and agonized minds in history.

Kurt Vonnegut, whose books are funny and whose mind couldn't be overly tortured, would, I thought, be pleased with my assumption that since a relationship between the bookplate and the book obviously existed, that relationship would have as much significance as the relationship between any other two objects, people, or ideas. The causes and effects of random occurrences being so complex that man can never foresee which events and relationships will become ultimately more valuable.

I finally concluded that since Vonnegut never explained, in so many words, what the title of the book, Mother Night, meant to the "I" of his narrative, obviously Permelia Hersey is, herself, Mother Night.

KURT VONNEGUT has written five novels (Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, Mother Night, and The Sirens of Titan); periodic short stories that keep popping up in magazines like Playboy and science fiction anthologies like Tomorrow, the Stars; a book of collected short stories called Welcome to the Monkey-house; and a new novel out this spring called The Slaughterhouse Five, the first two chapters of which were recently printed in Ramparts.

What Kurt Vonnegut does for us is to give us simple two-sentence to single-word answers to all those great questions we've forgotten we're asking while at the same time making the narrator seem disinterested, almost unconscious, of what he's told us. It makes us think we've discovered something on our own. We want to tell Vonnegut about what he's put there in his book. And because the thought is ours, we free-associate the thought into our own experience, the petty incidents of our own lives, until then it becomes crashingly meaningful to our personal existence.

Vonnegut writes his novel, as a series of events reported; his purpose, ostensibly, is to show us how one event led to the next event in a man's life, and how a whole situation of complicated events determined even further turns in his life. Vonnegut's casual comments revealing the true meaning of existence and identifying the nature of the values of most people in the population are either stuck in modifying clauses (so Vonnegut can be saying it without a heavy hand). Or Vonnegut puts great truths in the mouthes of characters who don't seem to be aware of what they've said--who are only interested in the ideas to the extent that they will determine future events in their lives (thereby letting the reader still think it is he who has discovered the great significance in the event).

He rarely uses adjectives that are of other than the visually descriptive kind (such as "orange," "six-foot," and "sad"). Experience, as it is related, is a series of intellectual predicaments; decisions are made neither by the debate of deep-rooted philosophies nor by the agonizing of mind-searching emotions, but by the empirical evidence of the accumulated experiences.

HIS CHARACTERS accept major defeats when they happen because they accept everything that happens. They even come to beg for defeat when it becomes clear that influencing cause and effect, indeed determining the course of their own lives, is for them impossible. Mother Night opens with the voice of Vonnegut coming at us through the mouth of a Nazi war criminal sitting in an Israeli prison awaiting trial. At the end of the book he does himself in when he suddenly finds he has the evidence to acquit himself.

The scope of time that Kurt Vonnegut deals with in his novels covers the entire length of a given man's life. It is as if Vonnegut sees this, not as the unit of man's work that turns out to be the most meaningful, but rather as the unit of man's hopeless groping for meaning that finally runs out on him. Yes, his characters do come up with sentences that explain their purpose in life, sentences which send us, the readers, into chuckles of heart-warmed complacency when we discover them; but Vonnegut's people never stop hoping for a better explanation of what's happening.

Because Vonnegut's people do all things (including suicide) as a matter of course, the books move right along from event to event unimpeded by emotion (most of which we are left to intuit or fabricate from our own experience). His books are unusually fast reading; and their being, as I've suggested, something of participatory novels, we find ourselves reading at a pace determined by what the book means to us rather than a pace determined by the looseness of the prose. Vonnegut told us, when two friends and I visited him at his home early this fall, that he thought it was terribly important for the writer to write for his reader--essentially to say what you want, but in the form your reader will accept because your object is communication.

Another thing we found out was that whereas it took him years to write Cat's Cradle, a crazy book with mini chapters that leaps forward and around so fast one would think it was written in weeks, he put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan, a much more intricate book, in one night. Vonnegut says he was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind. It's really amazing, but it makes you feel a lot better that Vonnegut always thought of it as a whole.

IF I COULD tell you just how great a book The Sirens of Titan is, I would tell you all these things; and they would make you feel happy.

The Sirens of Titan achieves an incredible complexity that probably only a style like Vonnegut's is capable of--a complexity that goes far beyond such intricate plots as Dickens' Great Expectations. Vonnegut's hero, Malachi Constant, moves through three sets of circumstances, three whole identies so remote from each other that he goes by three different names.

Yet throughout the book we are constantly aware of the whole, the governing force that determines all the happenings of the story, the answer to the suggestion Malachi Constant makes to explain his own good luck--"I guess somebody up there likes me."

Vonnegut not only explains the reason for one individual's undeserved good luck (really he gives us a philosophy to deal with excessively lucky people), but he also lets us find answers to such questions as what is the purpose of an individual in his own life, what is the meaning of the civilization of mankind, and what the progress of civilization is.

Now, we don't necessarily have to accept the naked answers Vonnegut gives us to our unasked questions. For example, the meaning of the civilization of mankind is five sentences; those five sentences don't describe the meaning--they are the meaning of civilization. But if we accept Vonnegut's world to work with, it gives us something all put together so we can see how everything relates to each other.

Though the plot is infinitely complex, the events are not merely strung out in a loose chain. The plot is always alluding back to patterns it followed earlier, answering questions it asked earlier, and suddenly giving vital purpose to what earlier seemed to be pages of merely pleasant digression.

The great achievement of The Sirens of Titan is to present us with a complexity, such as literature has never before offered us, that comes close to representing what we, at least in this century, understand to be the complexity of our own lives.

We get the feeling after reading any of Kurt Vonnegut's novels (excepting, perhaps, the first, Player Piano) that at least we now know what the situation is, that any explanation of cause and effect just ignores several levels of complexity and will be soon invalidated.

VONNEGUT also shows something about why it is that we think something is funny, why we can be happy and just glad. Vonnegut's books are very funny, easily the funniest things in print. Some people I know, mostly grown-ups, say that his books are almost exclusively funny. These grown-ups also like to give little names to what Vonnegut writes like "Black Humor," a phrase which is necessarily irrelevant if it is defined in terms of other people's writings.

We find often when we are laughing in Vonnegut's books that we are laughing because what he points out is true. The truth, because it really exists, is funny. When Malachi Constant's father found he couldn't buy the Mona Lisa, he debased her by using her in an advertising campaign for suppositories; the whole idea is funny because we know it could happen, and it's true that that is about the way a lot of people alive today think.

So the truth makes us laugh; to be happy is to know that something exists.

I occasionally wonder if Vonnegut's writing will lose its appeal a few ages hence. Certainly life will continue to become even more complex and our minds will want to identify that this is happening to us. But will people drift out of the particular absurdities they now languish in and start speaking in a new idiom different from the one Vonnegut's characters used to speak? And would such an occurrence make the then readers unable to recognize the truth in the writing and hence not laugh? Well, fundamentally I believe that it is the cliches that will never change, that, as our society mechanizes itself into inactivity, will still form the core base of something familiar.

AND NOW to offer an example of Kurt Vonnegut's explanation of human behavior, this is how he explains why Jones in Mother Night could seem perfectly normal and yet lead the insane "Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution":

"I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened to a system of gears whose teeth had been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even by a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy, pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.

"The boss G-man concluded wrongly that there were no teeth on the gears in the mind of Jones. 'You're completely crazy,' he said.

"Jones wasn't completely crazy. The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth hat are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.

"Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell--keeping perfect time for eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.

"The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases."

KURT VONNEGUT told us when we talked to him this fall that he had a new book coming out in the spring called The Slaughterhouse Five which was about war. He was, he said, in the infantry in France during the Second World War. They were over-run in the Battle of the Bulge, and most of the men around him were either shot or blown up during the action. Vonnegut and 45,000 other allied soldiers were taken prisoner and put in jails all over Germany.

He was being kept in Dresden the day allied bombers came over with a huge incendiary bomb attack that started a fire storm which killed 135,000 people. Vonnegut survived because he was in a cool meatlocker under a slaughterhouse. It all provides the base for his war book; it also is probably the basis of a lot of his other thoughts.

He told us one other thing before we left. We said, "You're a fatalist; but you still believe in the dignity of man."

"Yeah," he said, "well, all kinds of things are going to happen to you that you have absolutely no way of controlling; but you can always say something that God didn't expect to hear."

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