April 22, 2015

Vonne Gut Reactions: Hocus Pocus

It's been a long while since I last reviewed one of Kurt Vonnegut's books, stopping a book and a half short of finishing his main fourteen novels. From there, maybe it'll be on to his collections, maybe not.

If Hocus Pocus is any indication, though, we are far from Vonnegut's prime, and it would be seven more years until he published his final novel, Timequake. From 1959 through 1990 - when Hocus Pocus was published - Vonnegut published a new novel every two to four years. After 1990 Vonnegut had only one more novel in him, and that one came out in 1997.

Here's to hoping that Kurt went out in a blaze of glory, because Hocus Pocus isn't that. (All page numbers refer to the edition seen above, that with the two white hands around a view of a park.)
  • p44 - Our main character, Eugene Debs Hartke, find time and again that his life is influenced by chance. Here Hartke bumps into Sam Wakefield, a military recruiter, entirely by chance. His life's path - on to art school before the meeting - is forever changed. Vonnegut often wrote of chance having a much larger influence on our lives than most people would care to admit.
  • p67 - Hartke meets Alton Darwin, a mass murderer in the prison where he would eventually work. He compares himself to Darwin thusly, "He hadn't killed nearly as many people as I had. But then again, he hadn't had my advantage, which was the full cooperation of our Government. Also he had done all his killing for reasons of money. I had never stopped to that."
  • p117 - "A normal tour of duty in Vietnam was twice [6 months] and 1,000 times more dangerous. Who could blame the educated classes with political connections for staying home?" - Vonnegut wrote a number of times that the wealthy didn't have to send their children to war, that wars were fought on the backs of the poor.
  • p137  - "He was a cuckold in the present, and crucifixion awaited him in the future." We've seen a number of Vonnegut characters described in a similar way, who they are and who they will be at the same time.
  • p137 - Hartke reads a 'remarkable science fiction story" called "The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore." It's been far too long since I've heard anything about Tralfamadore.
  • p143 - Really, people were debating the realities of climate change as Vonnegut wrote this, too? Sheesh...
  • p154 - I think this is the only time that the phrase "hocus pocus" is mentioned in the book. "then my list of those whose lives I took shouldn't include possibles and probables, or those killed by artillery or air strikes called in by me, and surely not all those, many of them Americans, who dies as an indirect result of all my hocus pocus, all my blah blah blah."
  • p155 - Hartke is making a list of all the people he killed and women he slept with while he is in prison awaiting his trial for murders and kidnappings after the prison break. His lawyer asks him why. Hartke says, "To speed things up on Judgement Day."...his lawyer replies, "I thought you were an Atheist."...Hartke replies, "You never know." Vonnegut was a renowned Atheist, but he always held open the possibility that he might've been wrong.
  • p163 - The phrase "what's the hurry, son?" is repeated three times. Each time, it pulls Hartke into a totally different pathway in the world. Again, random chance, but this time with an echo throughout time.
  • p166 - A character relates a childhood story of being trapped in an elevator. He was panicked, but he assumed that the adults outside the elevator were focusing on this major event in American history, that even the President of the United States was being updated. Because of this, when the elevator doors opened, he assumed there would be a huge uproar when the doors opened. And there wasn't. There was nothing. Hartke asks, "You know what you have described to perfection?"..."What it was like to come home from the Vietnam War."
  • p176 - Vonnegut mentions the towns of Cairo, Illinois. Only, "he pronounced it 'kay-roe.' "...and Peru, Indiana pronounced "pee-roo" not "puh-roo"...and Brazil, Indiana being said as 'brazzle.' I know all of those towns...and Versailles, Indiana - ver-sales.
  • p185 - "I have looked up who the Freethinkers were...who believed...that nothing but sleep awaited good and evil persons alike in the Afterlife, that science had proved all organized religions to be baloney, that God was unknowable, and that the greatest use a person could make of his or her lifetime was to improve the quality of life for all in his or her community." - that sounds a whole lot like Vonnegut's humanism.
  • p200 - "The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore" explains that the Earth was created in order to improve the space-travel-readiness of bacteria from Earth and that the words of the Bible were written down from those same alien bacterial engineers. That's about right for Vonnegut's beliefs about organized religion.
  • p238 - A Japanese man is discussing the parallels between war and commerce. "So now we count dollars the way you used to count bodies. What does that bring us closer to? What does it mean? We should do with those dollars what you did with the bodies. Bury and forget them! You were luckier with your bodies than we are with all our dollars." - Vonnegut has long had a disdain for commercialism.
  • p242 - "I think any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever the people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today." - Yup, vintage Vonnegut right there. The wealthy are running our world. The rest of us are at their whims.
  • p251 - Vonnegut relates the story of "a talking deer in the National Forest...who gets tangled in barbed wire during the summer months, trying to get at the delicious food on the farms. He is shot by a hunter. As he dies he wonders why he was born in the first place. The final sentence of the story was the last thing the deer said on Earth. The hunter was close enough to hear it and was amazed. This was it: 'What the blakety-blank was that supposed to be all about?' " Yup, Vonnegut.
The whole story, honestly feels like Vonnegut-by-numbers. All of the beats are there, even the occasionally humorous beats.

But the book feels flat, empty, like not much of anything.

The story of Eugene Debs Hartke isn't interesting. He seems to bop from pillar to post, to deal with women either as someone to sleep with (the majority of women) or to take care of (his wife and mother-in-law), and to drift from one job to another without any care or control of what he wants to do.

He seems a passive participant in his own story. Meh...

Hopefully I'll get something better from Timequake

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