A Conversation for Kurt Vonnegut - Author
Ubiquitous Vonnegutian Dystopia
JD Started conversation Mar 16, 2005
Excellent! I love seeing an entry on Kurt Vonnegut! Learned something, too.
In addition to the mattresses, I thought that Douglas Adams gave a nod to Vonnegut/Kilgore Trout with the one-line knock-off joke he used in one of his "Guide" anecdotes: that of an entire invading fleet of battle cruisers being, "due to a miscalculation in scale, accidentally eaten by a small dog." I think Adams gave another nod to Vonnegut with his (Adams') Guide narration style during the incident with the missiles and the Heart of Gold while hovering over Magrathea, where in order to alleviate unnecessary stress and suspense, it is revealed beforehand that no one will actually die (other than a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale) - all this was a nod to Vonnegut's concept of putting asterisks in front of character names who are about to die to avoid unnecessary suspense.
Not that there's anything wrong with these nods, quite the opposite! Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and, since many here are huge fans of Adams, I'm only bringing it up so that more people check out the works of Vonnegut. Nice article! Glad to see it!
Isn't "Vonnegutesque" a word? It needs to pass into our vernacular, I think. I like it almost as much as "Vonnegutian."
PS: Did you mean "Harlan Ellison" (as opposed to Hatrlan) in footnote 13?
- JD (who loved Slaughterhouse 5 - but can't find the first four anywhere)
Ubiquitous Vonnegutian Dystopia
Edward the Bonobo - Gone. Posted Mar 18, 2005
Hmm. My sub clearly didn't do her/his job - missing a typo, but removing one of my headers and promoting it's three subheaders to no great advantage.
If you liked Slaughterhouse 5, you should persist in your search and find God Bless You....
Failing that, I'd recommend Breakfast of Champions next.
Mother Night is woefully underrated too.
Ubiquitous Vonnegutian Dystopia
kilgore5 Posted Apr 13, 2005
Kurts first novel was "Player Piano" which, also, is sadly forgotten. It is a little dated but it's sarcasism still stands.
I encourage all to read any of his short stories. I would say that Vonnegut ranks with Flannery O'Connor and O'Henry as one of america's best short story writers.
I laugh out loud whenever I read from "Welcome to the Monkey House" the passage called "New Dictionary"...Kurt was asked to write a review of the new Random House dictionary and the review is wonderful! It follows:
I wonder now what Ernest Hemingway’s dictionary looked like, since he got along so well with dinky works that everybody can spell and truly understand. Mr. Hotchner, was it a frazzled wreck? My own is a tossed salad of instant coffee and tobacco crumbs and India paper, and anybody seeing it might fairly conclude that I ransack it hourly for a vocabulary like Arnold J. Toynbee’s. The truth is that I have broken its spine looking up the difference between principle and principal, and how to spell cashmere. It is a dear leviathan left to me by my father, “Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language,” based on the “International Dictionary” of 1890 and 1900. It doesn’t have radar in it, or Wernher von Braun or sulfathiazole, but I know what they are. One time I actually took sulfathiazole.
And now I have an enormous and beautiful new bomb from Random House. I don’t mean “bomb” in a pejorative sense, or in any dictionary sense, for that matter. I mean that the book is heavy and pregnant, and makes you think. One of the things it makes you think is that any gang of bright people with scads of money behind them can become appalling competitors in the American-unabridged-dictionary industry. They can make certain that they have all the words the other dictionaries have, then add words which have joined the language since the others were published, and then avoid mistakes that the others have caught particular hell for.
Random House has thrown in a color atlas of the world, as well as concise dictionaries of French, Spanish, German, and Italian. And would you look at the price? And, lawsy me, Christmas is coming.
When Mario Pei reviewed the savagely-bopped third revised edition of the “Merriam-Webster” for The Times in 1961, he complained of the “residual prudishness” which still excluded certain four-letter works, “despite their copious appearance in numerous works of contemporary ‘literature’ as well as on restroom walls.” Random House has satisfied this complaint somewhat. They haven’t included enough of the words to allow a Pakistani to decode “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” or “Ulysses,” either – but they have made brave beginnings, dealing, wisely I think, with the alimentary canal. I found only one abrupt verb for sexually congressing a woman, and we surely have Edward Albee to than for its currency, though he gets no credit for it. The verb is hump, as in “hump the hostess.”
If my emphasis on dirty words so early in this review seems childish, I can only reply that I, as a child, would never have started going through unabridged dictionaries if I hadn’t suspected that there were dirty words hidden in there, where only grownups were supposed to find them. I always ended the search feeling hot and stuffy inside, and looking at the queer illustrations – at the trammel wheel, the arbalest, and the dugong.
Of course, one dictionary is as good as another to most people, who use them for spellers and bet-settlers and accessories to crossword puzzles and Scrabble games. But some people use them for more than that, or mean to. This was brought home to me only the other evening, whilst I was supping with the novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates, and Prof. Robert Scholes, the famous praiser of John Barth’s “Giles Goat-Boy.” Yates asked Scholes, anxiously it seemed to me, which unabridged dictionary he should buy. He had just received a gorgeous grant for creative writing from the Federal Gumment, and the first thing he was going to buy was his entire language between hard covers. He was afraid that he might get a clunker – a word, by the way, not in this Random House job.
Scholes replied judiciously that Yates should get the second edition of the “Merriam-Webster,” which was prescriptive rather than descriptive. Prescriptive, as nearly as I could tell, was like an honest cop, and descriptive was like a boozed-up war buddy from Mobile, Ala. Yates said he would get the tough one; but, my goodness, he doesn’t need official instructions in English any more than he needs training wheels on his bicycle. As Scholes said later, Yates is the sort of man lexicographers read in order to discover what pretty new things the language is up to.
To find out in a rush whether a dictionary is prescriptive or descriptive, you look up ain’t and like. I learned this trick of horseback logomachy from reviews of the “Merriam-Webster” first edition. And here is the rundown on ani’t: the “Merriam-Webster” first edition says that it is colloquial or illiterate, the second says it is dialect or illiterate, and the third says that ain’t is, “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally…by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.” I submit that this nation is so uniformly populated by parvenus with the heebie-jeebies that the phrase ain’t I is heard as frequently as the mating cry of the heath hen.
Random House says this about ain’t: “Ain’t is so traditionally and widely regarded as a nonstandard form that it should be shunned by all who prefer to avoid being considered illiterate. Ain’t occurs occasionally in the informal speech of some educated users, especially in self-consciously [sic] or folksy or humorous contexts (Ain’t it the truth! She ain’t what she used to be!), but it is completely unacceptable in formal writing and speech. Although the expression ain’t I is perhaps defensible – and it is considered more logical than aren’t I? and more euphonious that amn’t I? – the well-advised person will avoid any use of ain’t.” How’s that for advice to parvenus?
My mother isn’t mentioned, but what she taught me to say in place ain’t I? or Aren’t I? or amn’t I? was am I not? Speed isn’t everything. So I lose a micro-second here and there. The main thing is to be a graceful parvenu.
As for the use if like as though it were interchangeable with as: “M-W-1” says, “The use of like as a conjunction meaning as (as, Do like I do), though occasionally found in good writers, is a provincialism and contrary to good usage.” “M-W-2” says that the same thing “is freely used only in illiterate speech and is now regarded as incorrect.” “M-W-3” issues no warnings whatsoever, and flaunts models of current, O.K. usage from the St. Petersberg (FL) Independent, “wore his clothes like he was….afraid of getting dirt on them.” and Art Linkletter, “impromptu programs where they ask questions much like I do on the air.” “M-W-3,” incidentally, came out during the dying days of the Eisenhower Administration, when simply everybody was talking like Art Linkletter.
Random House, in the catbird seat, since it gets to recite last, declares in 1966, “The use of like in place of as is universally condemned by teachers and editors, notwithstanding its wide currency, especially in advertising slogans. Do as I say, not as I do does not admit of like instead of as. In an occasional idiomatic phrase, it is somewhat less offensive when substituted for as if (He raced down the street like crazy), but this example is clearly colloquial and not likely to be found in any but the most informal written contexts.” I find this excellent. It even tells who will hurt you if you make a mistake, and it withholds aid and comfort from those friends of cancer and money, those greedy enemies of the language who teach our children to say after school, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”
Random House is damned if it will set that slogan in type.
As you rumple though this new dictionary, looking for dirty words and schoolmarmisms tempered by worldliness, you will discover that biographies and major place names and even the names of famous works of art are integrated with the vocabulary: A Streetcar Named Desire, Ralph Ellison, Mona Lisa, Kiselevsk. I worry about the biographies and the works of art, since they seem a mixed bag, possibly locked for all eternity in a matrix of type. Norman Mailer is there, for instance, but not William Styron or James Jones or Vance Bourjaily or Edward Lewis Wallant. And are we to be told throughout eternity this and no more about Alger Hiss: “Born 1904, U.S. public official”? And why is there no entry for Whittaker Chambers? And who promoted Peress?
It is the biographical inclusions and exclusions, in fact, which make this dictionary an ideal gift for the paranoiac on everybody’s Christmas list. He will find dark entertainments without end between i and 2,059. Why are we informed about Joe Kennedy, St., and Jack and Bobby, but not about Teddy or Jacqueline? What is somebody trying to tell us when T.S. Eliot is called a British poet and W.H. Auden is called and English poet? (Maybe the distinction aims at accounting for Auden’s American citizenship.) And when Robert Welch Jr., is tagged as a “retired U.S. candy manufacturer,” is this meant to make him look silly? And why is the memory of John Dillinger perperyated, while of Adolf Eichmann there is neither gibber nor squeak?
Whoever decides to crash the unabridged dictionary game next – and it will probably be General Motors or Ford – they will winnow this work heartlessly for bloopers. There can’t be many, since Random House has winnowed it noble predecessors. The big blooper, it seems to me, is not putting the biographies and works of art in an appendix, where they can be cheaply revised or junked or added to.
Have I made it clear that this book is a beauty? You can’t beat the contents, and you can’t beat the price. Somebody will beat both sooner or later, of course, because that is good old free Enterprise, where the consumer benefits from battles between jolly green giants.
And, as I’ve said, on dictionary is as good as another for most people. Homo Americanus is going to go on speaking and writing the way he always has, no matter what dictionary he owns. Consider the citizen who was asked recently what he thought of President Johnson’s use of the slang expression “cool it” in a major speech:
“It’s fine with me,” he replied. “Now’s not the time for the President of the United States to worry about the King’s English. After all, we’re living in an informal age. Politicians don’t go around in top hats any more. There’s no reason why the English Language shouldn’t wear sports clothes, too. I don’t say the President should speak like an illiterate. But ‘cool it’ is folksy, and the Chief Executive should be allowed to sound human. You can’t be too corny for the American people – all the decent sentiments in life are corny. But linguistically speaking, Disraeli is dullsville.”
These words, by the way, came from the larynx of Bennett Cerf, publisher of “The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.” Moral: Everybody associated with a new dictionary ain’t necessarily a new Samuel Johnson.
Kurt changed the way I look at short story and review writing...thus he has spoiled me for all other writers so far. Alas...
Ubiquitous Vonnegutian Dystopia
colin_fryer Posted May 17, 2005
I've only just started reading slaughterhpus 5, but i have read galapagos before this so im hoping that it will live up to my exectations from that. Perhaps as others, I kind of got into reading Vonnegut via a refereence to him by Adams (in a recent edition of the old radio series of H2G2, in which he gave an interview for the twentieth anniversary of its first release).
Also read catch 22, so I guess im just into books that are quirky.
If you haven't already I would recommend reading any of Louis de Berniere's books, there in the same tone as DNA or Kurt. In that they are funny and strange, I would especially recommend:
Captain Corelli's Mandolin, 1994 and/or
Red Dog, 2001.
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