Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vonnegut In Retrospect: Mother Night

Mother Night (1961)

Vonnegut tackles Nazism and World War II (in which he was a POW) obliquely here, as opposed to the more personal account to come in Slaughterhouse Five. This book is written as a first person memoir by the fictional Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who claims to have been an American spy posing as an infamous Nazi propagandist during the war. Campbell is a chilling character, unsure himself exactly which side he was serving, and not seeming to care a great deal either way. He lost his wife in the war and with her his entire reason to live. All sorts of uncomfortable existential issues are raised, with no satisfactory answers, and no happy ending. It is a wonderful but dark book, mercifully short.

In an introduction added to the book after its initial release, Vonnegut writes, "This is the only story of mine whose moral I know...We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be...There's another clear moral to this tale...When you're dead, you're dead. And yet another moral...Make love when you can. It's good for you."

And from Campbell's memoir:
I had hoped (as a propagandist) to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vonnegut In Retrospect: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Seven years after his good but not great debut novel, Vonnegut leaps into singular brilliance with The Sirens of Titan. It is couched in sci-fi, but clearly addresses the big questions of life in the here and now on Earth; fate, luck, religion, humanity's purpose. Our hero, Malachi Constant, goes from being a fabulously wealthy Hollywood playboy to a brainwashed member of a Martian army to trapped on Mercury, back to Earth, and finally to Saturn's moon Titan. At the end of it all, he says he has figured out that, "a purpose of a human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." Somewhere in the middle a new religion is formed on Earth: The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Vonnegut's famed humanism comes into play: "Take care of the people, and God Almighty will take care of Himself." The settings and characters sprawl, but somehow the book reads razor sharp.

I don't know why I'm writing these little reviews. I obviously have no book reviewing chops. But I'm glad I'm re-reading Vonnegut. He's flipping my wig all over again.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newish The The

Any new activity from Matt Johnson/The The is cause for celebration in these parts, and a rare morsel has dropped from the heavens in the form of a new version of "GIANT," the classic tune from The The's essential 1983 album Soul Mining. (I've been trying and failing to come up with any better album-ending song.) DJ Food released an instrumental cover of "GIANT" in 2009, and now Matt Johnson has added a new vocal take for a version appearing on DJ Food's just released album The Search Engine:

DJ Food - GIANT feat. Matt Johnson

These are the first new vocals from Johnson in a decade. I enjoy the new version muchly. Johnson's vocals at fifty-ish years are surer than they were back in 1983, and DJ Food's backing track adds a cool twist. The haunting chant that closes out the original version is less effectual on Food's version though.

Coinciding with this is a new episode of Radio Cineola, Johnson's online radio broadcasts. The 15 minute show features a different version of "GIANT" by DJ Food, the spaced-out "Lunar Mix." After an interview with DJ Food, and an advertisement to "occupy your mind," listeners are treated to the radically different "Lunar Version" of the 2000 The The song "Shrunken Man." Appropriately, this is also a spacey ambient version.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Vonnegut In Retrospect: Player Piano

I recently read And So It Goes, the new biography of Kurt Vonnegut. The book is impeccably researched and written, and the biggest flaw is no fault of the author's: Vonnegut does not come off as likable as you would hope. Vonnegut repeatedly urged the reader to extend common courtesy, build community, and, "God damn it, you've got to be kind!" It is mildly disappointing to read that he was often unsuccessful in practicing as much when it came to his associates, wives and children.

However, that does not have to take anything away from his life's work. And So It Goes's greatest strength might be adding context to Vonnegut's writingwhat he was experiencing and intending with his novels. It has been roughly a decade since I was first introduced to Vonnegut by my sister-in-law (thanks Renae!) and tore through his novels in short order. I do not remember them well individually, more as one crush of the best novels I've read. And So It Goes has inspired me to go back and re-read them in chronological order and see if they are as wonderful for me as a 32 year old as they were at 20. I'll write a few thoughts here on each as I read through them. Novel the first:

Player Piano (1952)

A cautionary tale of what the future could look like if humanity yields too much of the labor force and decision-making to automation. Vonnegut had recently left his job in public relations for General Electric before writing Player Piano, where he had seen the cutting edge of mechanized progress. For Player Piano he developed this fleshed out near-future world in which America has yielded much of its dignity to machinery. It is an enjoyable read, and still relevant, even if conventional compared to Vonnegut's subsequent work.

Representational quote:
"What have you got against machines?" said Buck.
"They're slaves."
"Well, what the heck," said Buck. "I mean, they aren't people. They don't suffer. They don't mind working."
"No. But they compete with people."
"That's a pretty good thing, isn't itconsidering what a sloppy job most people do of anything?"
"Anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave."

Non-representational quote that I just liked:
The band...smashed and heaved at the tune as though in a holy war against silence. It was impossible even to be cordial to oneself in the midst of the uproar.
Does it make any sense to give novels a rating? What the heck. I'll give Player Piano a 6.8/10. 

Gang Of Four—At Home He's A Tourist