Sunday 13 January 2013

Sirens of Titan - TBR pile challenge

I get the impression that Kurt Vonnegut did not necessarily want to write novels, it's just that they are a convenient way of getting across his ideas.

In The Sirens of Titan the good old Tralfamadorians raise their unusual heads once again; it seems the whole of human history has been influenced by their need to get a spare part for a spaceship to a messenger stuck on Titan. The whole book is a game of cat and mouse controlled by the (seemingly) all-powerful Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is caught in some kind of curious cosmic loop into which he deliberately flew his space craft, and that causes him to materialise on earth for an hour once every fifty nine days. Thanks to his (we learn later) coming into contact with the Tralfamadorian messenger and a strange ability to see the future, he sets about starting an interplanetary war. After a great deal of time and effort the war is a catastrophe. But it's not really about the war, it's more about the role that a young man called Malachi Constant will play in the unfolding of events. He becomes the mouse who's life is just a plaything to Rumfoord; having been labelled the luckiest man on earth Rumfoord becomes a new and much less benign influence of his existence. In his advice to writers Vonnegut says that your characters all have to want something (even if it is only a glass of water). What Malachi Constant wants is to be reunited with his best friend, but good old Rumfoord has one final kick in the teeth for him.

What I like about Vonnegut is that he has all sorts of things going on in his books. Behind the always surreal story he is always looking at the way people relate to each other on a micro level, and then the way society functions on a macro one.

Malachi's first meeting with Rumfoord:
"Constant had not been bullied into feeling inferior by the tone of Mrs Rumfoord's invitation to the materialisation. Constant was a male and Mrs Rumfoord was a female, and Constant imagined that he had the means of demonstrating, if given the opportunity, his unquestionable superiority.
Winston Niles Rumfoord was something else again - morally, spatially, socially, sexually, and electrically. Winston Niles Rumfoord's smile and handshake dismantled Constant's high opinion of himself as efficiently as carnival roustabouts might dismantle a Ferris wheel." (p16-17)

Unk arriving back on earth after his stint on Mercury:
" 'Thanks God!' said Unk.
Redwine raised his eyebrows quizzically. 'Why?' he asked.
'Pardon me?' said Unk.
'Why thank God?'said Redwine. 'He doesn't care what happens to you. He didn't go to any trouble to get you here safe and sound, any more than He would go to the trouble to kill you.' He raised his arms, demonstrating the muscularity of his faith." (p.159-60)

The failure of the martian invasion sparks a new faith in "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent". Their guiding testament is the statement that Unk makes on his arrival on earth, "I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all", foreseen by the all knowing Rumfoord, summing up the fatalistic beliefs and their acceptance of the essentially meaningless nature of existence, that nevertheless needs a god to hold it all together. I am not sure if Vonnegut really felt that the human race was stupid and gullible or if he is merely parodying people who are. Or is he saying that people would be happier if they accepted the random nature of life and ceased their futile pursuit of meaning. And if there were a grand plan for the universe it makes about as much sense to have the Tralfamadorians in charge of it as anything else.

As an interesting sideline I found this tattoo blog of literary tattoos, and though it is only a random sample of people who get tattoos it is interesting to note that Kurt Vonnugut in general, and particularly his quote "so it goes", appears to dominate the genre. From Sirens of Titan I found this one, "I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm", spoken by Boaz when he decides to stay in the caves on Mercury and look after the harmoniums. I find I quite like the notion of 'do no harm' as a definition of meaning.

(First book in the TBR Pile Challenge. Hosted here by Roof Beam Reader and Mr Linky of all participants here)

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