Thursday, 26 May 2016

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

To be the eyes and ears and 
conscience of the Creator of
the Universe, you fool.
In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes for The Simpsons, the repeated watching of which provided my frame of reference throughout a number of my formative years. I'm amazed because they have been prevalent throughout my life, and that they are connected.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer meant to be stealing Moe Szyslak's car so he can claim the insurance, but is instead at a drive-in movie watching a film called 'Hail To The Chimp.' Observe:




Hail To The Chimp is a nod by the writers to one of the many Kilgore Trout pr├ęcises* liberally littering the pages of BOC, thusly:
Trout couldn't tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket... Everywhere he went, bands would play "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.
I'd entirely forgotten this connection. It came as a surprise  like a smack in the mouth. I'd also forgotten how black, bleak and acerbic Vonnegut could be, odd since I'd not long re-read Mother Night for similar reasons** and I ended up, as is often the case, mildly depressed. But at least I wasn't Dwayne Hoover.

Hoover, owner of a car showroom and a serial entrepreneur, is experiencing upset due to the imbalance of bad chemicals in his brain. He is considering suicide, constantly searching for a sense of meaning, and finally snaps after reading a copy of a Trout story called Now It Can Be Told, an epistolary novel wherein the Creator of the Universe informs his own Adam, The Man, that he is the only truly autonomous being on the planet, and that all others are automatons, simply programmed to do just what they do, in a great big experiment exploring free will. Dwayne reads this rather too literally, finding in it answers to questions like why his son Bunny was gay. It was because he was programmed to be gay. And so on.

Parallel to Dwayne's story is that of Trout himself, invited to the very same city by his biggest fan, a man whom Trout travels to confront because of the affront of his having invited Trout there in the first place. In the end, Trout is the one to give his novel to Dwayne, watched sadly by the author, Kurt Vonnegut himself, safely hidden behind mirrored glasses and nursing a cocktail in the bar where the two protagonists collide.


Anyone who has read a draft of my own abortive novel would immediately see how this metafiction trope, the author appearing in his own novel (and his own drawings illustrating the action and descriptions throughout), would tickle me, or maybe how I was desperately failing to pay homage to Vonnegut by shamelessly and unsuccessfully copying him. 


Throughout, Vonnegut never fails to remind the reader the book is an artifice. He constantly offers his own, Creator-of-the-Universe-like commentary on America and its virtues and vices. He mentions his life outside the novel. He explains his mother had a surfeit of bad chemicals too and drank Drano until she died. It is a smorgasbord of blackly comic observational humour and satire, deeply upsetting if you're easily bruised, but something that represents the cognitive dissonance of the human experience–that deep down you know something is wrong, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. On the road, Trout interrogates an ex-miner.

Trout asked him what it had felt like to work for an industry whose business was to destroy the countryside, and the old man said he was usually too tired to care.
In short, it is a cautionary tale. With brilliantly wild asides, slapstick and deadpan delivery in spades, it lampoons humanity, expressing Vonnegut's own impotent fury at man's idiocy. But he does offer a smidgen of hope in the form of a clear directive, an instruction on what it is we're here for after all, straight from the author to his creation and into the cosmos, a way to reflect his often expressed notions of what it means to be human***. In response to the question, scrawled on the wall of the toilet in a New York theatre showing smutty movies, "What is the purpose of life?", Trout would have responded "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." 

It's as good a reason as any.



*For a for-fun-only run-down of all Kilgore Trout's works as represented in Vonnegut's fiction, you'd do well to check out Marek Vit's archived blog.

**Namely, I really like Nick Nolte and was feeling sorry for myself so wanted to watch a film with him in it, and I had a copy of the movie Mother Night to hand, which prompted me to re-read the novel. Oddly enough, Nick Nolte plays the cross-dressing Harry LeSabre in what I'm lead to understand is the worst film ever, the Alan Randolph version of Breakfast of Champions, also 'starring' Bruce Willis and Albert Finney. I've ordered a copy on Amazon to check, and you can do the same by clicking that picture down there.

***As follows, expressed in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965):
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies–God damn it, you've got to be kind.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

He did not believe himself, but he
believed in his mother's belief.
This review contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I'd forgotten all about Jim Carroll. When I was between school and university in 1995, and the Di Caprio movie of Carroll's diaries came out, it was all my friends and peers were talking about. Perverse then as I am now, I refused to watch it; didn't get around to it until I was nearer thirty than twenty. But then I was mooching around on iTunes and it happened to recommend, given recent purchases of The Replacements and The Dead Milkmen, 'People Who Died' from the album Catholic Boy by The Jim Carroll Band, a song by the way which is both rocking and crushing, and I was pulled in by the Ramones-esque guitars, the crisp, punchy snare sound, and Carroll's hip, New York voice singing lyric poetry about friends who've died in the most terrible fashion, self-inflicted and accidental, all of whom were friends of his.

His iTunes biog mentioned being an author, and the pieces clicked. I was (partially) defeated in my cynicism, went straight out and bought a hard-back of The Petting Zoo (I still don't want to read about a child's addiction to heroin), and was delighted to find a forward by Patti Smith, and saddened to learn he'd died alone in New York on September 11th 2009, a date filled with enough suitable pathos to elicit an empathetic if metaphorical tear. I also learned he'd left the manuscript unfinished, and that his friends and editors and completed the task as sympathetically as they could. In retrospect, this might explain a few things.

His iTunes biog also mentions how difficult it often is for poets to translate their talents to writing music and to other genres, and how Jim Carroll is a notable success. On the basis of The Petting Zoo they are not wrong–there is poetry on every page, but balanced in parts by some passages of clunky philosophical extemporising. But the essential story is of a wunderkind whose mojo is stunted after what, on the surface, might look like a very incidental encounter with an art exhibition, who undertakes a period of deep introspection, considering the arc of his life's narrative and what drives him to create, from where his talents are drawn, and how art and life interact. But his search for a way back to art forces irrevocable changes in his life and on those around him, and his eventual obsession results in him freezing to death in his studio apartment during some extremely unseasonable weather, while being lectured by an immortal raven whose advice had helped bring Billy to both his zenith and nadir in quick succession.

I was desperate to love this book. I probably do. But it has its flaws. Billy Wolfram is my age or thereabouts, and speaks to many of my own anxieties, of many of everyone's anxieties I don't doubt. Carroll's prose is in parts amazing and otherworldly. However, his dialogue is occasionally heavy and unrealistic. Some of the passages where Billy replays conversations and experiences with his childhood friend Denny where both talk about the facts of creation (Denny is an artist too, a musician) are sometimes artificial, or at least feel like they might not fit, might not be quite what Carroll would have wanted to say–they're too indirect, feeling like someone who has an incomplete grasp of the matter and is working out what he's trying to say as he goes along. By contrast, many of the passages on Billy's expired Catholicism flow freely as if from a full well of experience and studied thought. His car journey from the hospital back to his flat, throughout which he holds a conversation with the pretty enlightened Hindu driver is both thought-provoking and made me smile broadly. The story about the veal and President Kennedy is teeth-grindingly realistic and awful (although I wonder at its power to completely over-shadow the rest of his life), but in some instances the supporting cast, Denny, Martha, former agent Max, feel a little less than fleshed out. Billy himself is occasionally incongruent, but then that might be by design rather than accident or omission.

Reading this all back to myself, I notice two things: firstly, that I desperately need an editor to knock my prose in to shape, and secondly that I'm coming over slightly ambivalent about this novel. I want to clear up that second point–this is good, and I like it quite a lot. I just wonder what shape it might have had he lived to complete it himself.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Camera Killer by Thomas Glavinic

The whole area is cordoned off
and we're closing in.
I loved Night Work, Austrian Glavinic's own I am Legend, or maybe, more accurately, Last Man, given there aren't any vampires in it ('Neville, Neville!'). It was creepy as hell and completely unresolved, whilst being written straight, a little matter-of-fact, but cold and hard and sparse and brilliant! In fact, it put me in mind of Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (of which more anon) in so far as it was as though the Creator had lifted away all of the automatons whom He'd charged with interacting with the protagonist, in His divine experiment, leaving only the one real person and no explanation. Maybe His funding ran out!

I can't remember if I came to Glavinic through fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard or if it was the other way around, but either way I was eager to find other works of his translated from Austrian. At only 100 pages or so, I'd considered this a little too slim to be a good read so left it for last. In the end, I think I made a singular mistake–this is better (in a different way) to Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw, his chess novel.

Okay, so it's going to be hard to review this objectively without a massive hint of a spoiler. Anyone who doesn't want the surprise ruined look away now. Maybe go read my review of Indiana, Indiana instead.

Right. Here it is. I'm sure all the Eng Lit graduates out there took a look at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie at some point. You'll all know where I'm going with this. That was in essence a confessional novel. So is this. Although in retrospect it's given away in the very first line–"I have been requested to commit everything to paper."–it isn't until the very last page or so that the mystery is resolved. Our narrator is telling the story of his holiday with friends over the Easter weekend, which is tarnished by the reporting of an horrendous double murder, of two local children no less, by a man who filmed the whole thing. In reality, he doesn't actually do any of the killing, instead forcing the children into acts of suicide by threatening the rest of their family with terrible suffering and death. Anyway, this spurs on the media to a suitable and far too familiar frenzy, with one German TV news channel even going so far as to broadcast an edited version of the tape to its viewers. All the while the four friends (narrator and partner, and his friend Heinrich and partner) try to have a normal, relaxing, Easter weekend, playing games, eating and drinking, enjoying a little teasing and competition and attempting to patch up their typically slowly dissolving thirty-something friendships.

As the weekend progresses and they become alternately obsessed and repulsed by the media storm, they discuss the moral and ethical situation, try to find distractions, but are always pulled back into the story. As the net around the killer slowly tightens, we suddenly realise that the police are heading to the very house in which they're all staying–THE KILLER IS ALREADY IN THE HOUSE etc.

What sets this trite little morsel apart, though, is the bald telling, the humourless, emotionless voice of the narrator. He's reporting, as objectively as possible, on the situation as it unfolds, on the discussions amongst the friends and the reactions of the neighbours and the wider public. It's dry but taut with suspense! And the ending, although telegraphed so soon in the novel, is a slap-your-head moment. HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO BLIND etc. It's an optical illusion that once you see it, it can't be unseen and you have no idea how you could have seen it any other way before.