...even if you’re reading this at any other time of the year when you just managed to scrape out a whole day (or two) to read, then it wouldn’t hurt to keep this list in mind…
I wish I could tell you the exact circumstances under which I first encountered Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time, but I can’t. Not exactly. I’m not sure whether it was assigned reading in one of my middle school English classes or if I just stumbled upon it. The latter makes more sense when taking into consideration two facts: a lot of schools had banned books like Slaughterhouse-Five, and I was a pretty awful student back when George W. was in the white house. What I do remember is that when I first began reading the soon to be fifty-year-old novel (March 31th) I was in a white, windowless room, being stared at by a teacher who had clearly drawn the short straw that afternoon. Detention. I would like to think that Mr. Vonnegut would find irony in that scenario; perhaps it would even make him smile.
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Imagine being an unsuspecting delinquent, opening Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death for the first time: I was blown away by how psychedelic it was. Vonnegut’s prose was irreverent, ridiculous, and, above all, courageous. Vonnegut plunged blindly into the abyss of existential uncertainty and danced in the darkness. One of the most imaginative novels ever written with a minimalist style—Slaughterhouse-Five felt like Vonnegut knew a hell of a lot more about the world and grammar than me and was choosing words that I could understand. Maybe there was nothing to understand? It was pretty damn cool. Vonnegut made literature cool—especially for a kid in detention.
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In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut explains how he had been trying to write about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II ever since his imprisonment there. This is the reason that Slaughterhouse’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was also in Dresden during the bombing. Billy’s story is an interesting one—the narrative of his life involves just as much love, humor, and tragedy as anything you could probably imagine. What makes it uber unique is that Billy acquires a certain amount of objectivity similar to the reader’s own. Billy is “unstuck” in time as he has no control over where and when in his life he might be at any given moment. One moment, Billy could be at his daughter’s wedding—the next, fornicating with a movie star. It’s all very non-linear. This ability is supposedly a side-effect of his Tralfamadorian kidnapping; extraterrestrial beings teach Billy to see time in a very Matthew McConaughey-like (Interstellar) way. All moments are permanent, always happening, forever. Billy is most definitely an unreliable narrator throughout, and Slaughterhouse-Five‘s chaos can undoubtedly be interpreted in a variety of ways. All I knew at that time was that I needed more Vonnegut.
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Vonnegut is famous for incorporating reoccurring elements into his novels, such as characters, names, and themes. (He also likes to write himself into his stories and could be considered a pioneer of “meta,” but that’s beside the point.) One of the things about Slaughterhouse-Five I found most compelling was the incorporation of the Tralamadorians or the planet Tralamadore. So I followed the Tralamdorians. Tralamdore is the name of various fictional planets in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels; the race and history of the planet vary from novel to novel (Slaughterhouse-Five; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Hocus Pocus; and Timequake). My alien chasing eventually led me to one of Vonnegut’s earlier novels, The Sirens of Titan.
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While not as popular as Slaughterhouse, The Sirens of Titan is considered by some to be Vonnegut’s best novel. (Maybe just me… no, I read someone else say that before. I’m sure of it.) Douglas Adams has even cited Sirens as being his inspiration for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Written ten years prior to Slaughterhouse-Five‘s publication, simply to satisfy Vonnegut’s publisher as they awaited Cat’s Cradle, Sirens is considered less “experimental.” Although the story is linear and Vonnegut himself does not make an appearance—its message is anything but typical.
Sirens follows Malachi Constant, a man with an extraordinary amount of luck—men and women of the cloth might even call his luck divine (although Vonnegut would make fun of them for doing so). At the beginning of the novel, the reader meets Malachi’s father, Noel, who builds the family fortune buying stocks based on words from the book of Genesis. Malachi inherits this fortune and builds upon it, becoming the wealthiest playboy in the world.
One day, Malachi is invited to witness the materialization of a man, Winston Niles Rummford, whose existence has been stretched across space and time (due to a mishap with his dog and something called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum), similar to Billy Pilgrim’s conundrum. Rummford’s ability to read minds and predict the future startles Malachi as Rummford tells him about his future. In addition, he shows Malachi a photograph of the most beautiful women Malachi has ever seen—women who supposedly inhabit the planet of Titan. As Malachi tries to outwit Rummford’s manipulation and pursue the kind of unattainable beauty of the women in the photo, the reader goes on a nihilistic yet humorous journey through space. It is with an engrossing amount of ridiculousness that the novel contemplates free-will, morality, and existence.
Some might find the novel’s humor cold. Others may find its message to be a commentary on the futility of fighting fate or attempting to understand it, given that even the novel’s omniscient character succumbs to the inevitable. I found the novel’s climatic revelation actually quite moving.
Mild Spoiler Alert!
After years of space travel, mind control, a Martian invasion, and a religion formed in his honor (sort of), Malachi finally finds himself on Titan. There, Vonnegut reveals that the beautiful sirens from Rummford’s photo are inanimate statues on an uninhabited planet. In fact, the only people who reside on Titan are Malachi and his family. As Malachi sits there, alongside a woman he never intended to be with and a son that thinks he’s a bird (didn’t I say ridiculousness?) he realizes that the “purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
Vonnegut wrote both Slaughterhouse and Sirens with a serious outpouring of emotions—but, most importantly, he wrote with immense joy. He loved writing: he did it to discover more about the world and himself. In 2006, a group of students from a high school in New York City was assigned the task of writing to their favorite author. Their letters warranted the following response, which I think epitomizes the heart and soul behind 50+ years of kick-ass storytelling:
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Most of us have grown so accustomed to classical works of novelists being regarded as the epitome of literary excellence that we become unaware of the problematic aspects of these stories. Even the most beautifully written and well-arranged prose can suffer under the bitter scrutiny of critical minds. For these enduring works of literature that have lasted decades or even centuries, their initial response were not always positive.
Here is a collection of some of the harshest and most scathing commentaries well-known authors have received. The titles mentioned are not listed in any particular order.
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“Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility… Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design… The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.” — Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review, 1961
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“But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of A Clockwork Orange – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare.” — Mary McCarthy, The New York Times, February 9, 1986
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“At a conservative estimate, one million dollars will be spent by American readers for this book. They will get for their money 34 pages of permanent value. These 34 pages tell of a massacre happening in a little Spanish town in the early days of the Civil War…Mr. Hemingway: please publish the massacre scene separately, and then forget For Whom the Bell Tolls; please leave stories of the Spanish Civil War to Malraux…” — Commonweal, 1940
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“This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” — James Stern, The New York Times, 1951
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“The short, flat sentences of which the novel is composed convey shock and despair better than an array of facts or effusive mourning. Still, deliberate simplicity is as hazardous as the grand style, and Vonnegut occasionally skids into fatuousness…” — Susan Lardner, The New Yorker, May 17, 1969 Issue
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“Lolita then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive…
Past the artistic danger line of madness is another even more fatal. It is where the particular mania is a perversion like Humbert’s. To describe such a perversion with the pervert’s enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do so he failed.” — Orville Prescott, The New York Times, August 18, 1958
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“Ulysses appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses… James Joyce is a writer of talent, but in Ulysses he has ruled out all the elementary decencies of life and dwells appreciatively on things that sniggering louts of schoolboys guffaw about. In addition to this stupid glorification of mere filth, the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith. There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humour.” — Aramis, The Scandal of Ulysses in The Sporting Times, April 1, 1922
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“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” — Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, July 1848
“We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.” — Paterson’s Magazine, February 1848
“What may be the moral which the author wishes the reader to deduce from his work, it is difficult to say; and we refrain from assigning any, because to speak honestly, we have discovered none but mere glimpses of hidden morals or secondary meanings. In Wuthering Heights the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance, and anon come passages of powerful testimony to the supreme power of love—even over demons in the human form. The women in the book are of a strange fiendish-angelic nature, tantalising, and terrible, and the men are indescribable out of the book itself.” — Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, January 15, 1848
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“Let us hope that One Hundred Years of Solitude will not generate one hundred years of overwritten, overlong, overrated novels.” — Jonathan Bate, The Telegraph, Sep 25, 1999
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“Altogether is seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical. There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island.” — Ralph Coghlan, St. Louis Dispatch, April 25, 1925
Despite the dissatisfaction as manifested in the bitter remarks of critics, these classical works survived through generations and earned a highly-esteemed ranking on modern readers’ minds. It is only normal that a piece of prose should elicit mixed responses and sometimes stir dissonance between reviewers and readers. Depending on social and cultural factors, even if certain artistic efforts are not entirely appreciated upon its initial release, they may still have a chance or success and see to the light of day in the future.
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Have you seen The Guardian’s list of the 100 Best Novels Written in English? Put together by writer Robert McCrum, the list is pretty comprehensive; but, if you ask The Guardian‘s readers–it has its flaws.
The Guardian’s avid readers were quick to critique every aspect of McCrum’s list, including his methodology (McCrum limited himself to one book per author) and the list’s diversity (readers noted a lack of women authors, authors of color, Irish authors, Nigerian authors, Indian authors, and even Canadian authors.) Individual authors omitted include David Foster Wallace and Kurt Vonnegut. The angry readers have a point; looking at the list, it’s hard not to notice the prevalence of white, British, male authors.
The Guardian has taken all of this criticism in stride, and they’ve come up with a pretty charming way to appease their readers: the publication is inviting all of its critics and fans to contribute their own nominations.
You can write up your own nomination on the Guardian’s website. The Guardian is asking for the book title, author, and an explanation as to why it deserves to be included. The publication is also asking for the name of the book you’d boot from the list to make room, so you’ll have to make some tough choices if you want to nominate a novel!
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