Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Nice, Nice, Very Nice
Listen: Kurt Vonnegut saved me.
When I started seventh grade I somehow found myself in an English class full of really smart kids. I couldn't figure out what I was doing there because, clearly, these kids were all brilliant and I was just, you know, average. It was my first real introduction to classic literature, to the lives of great literary writers, and we had to memorize and recite before the class a new poem every other week or so.
And so began my hatred of reading.
But one day I was nosing around in the garage and I found a box of things belonging to my dad. Inside were a few books, small paperbacks, and I wondered why they weren't in the house with the other meager selection we had on our family bookcase. Among the books was one with a tantalizing title – Welcome to the Monkey House – a collection of short stories. I secreted the book into the house and locked myself in the bathroom to check it out. Two stories in and I was hooked. That following Saturday I went to public library and sought out everything else I could find by the book's author, Kurt Vonnegut.
Through trial and error I discovered which books were better than others and, if I could go back in time and give myself some kindly advice, would have suggested I start with Cat's Cradle. With its blend of science fiction and social comedy, skewering politicians, religious cults, science gone out of hand, and plain human folly, Cat's Cradle presented to me for the first time a world that proved what my teen self had always suspected: adults could be, and often were, wrong.
In researching a book on what Americans did the day Hiroshima was bombed, John discovers that Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, had also created a substance called ice-nice. A solid at room temperature, ice-nine rearranged the molecules of water and would instantly set off a chain reaction when it came in contact with other water molecules. Essentially, it would turn all the planet's water to ice if it were ever released.
In chasing down Hoenikker's surviving children to learn more, John discovers that one has become a high-ranking member of a dictatorship on the island of San Lorenzo in exchange for a piece of ice-nine. San Lorenzo is also the home of a semi-religious cult created by the island's former ruler and an American naval officer as a way of controlling the population through a sort of utopia. And when the current dictator of San Lorenzo commits suicide by consuming ice-nine he sets of a chain reaction of events that could destroy the planet.
This book is everything a teen boy could hope for. Ridicule of all sorts authority figures, world-wide dystopian destruction, religion as gobbledegook philosophy, and all told at a nice breezy pace with that voice that is uniquely Vonnegut.
Since I was a lad, Vonnegut has slipped in the back door of the cannon and is now widely taught (and widely banned) in high school through his anti-war classic Slaughterhouse-Five. While that book brought him fame (and out of the genre ghetto of being strictly a "Sci-Fi writer") and is one of his better books, I think there are aspects (the aliens messing with one character's linear time) that seem too much like a device. With Cat's Cradle the science fiction is real and not the unseen hand of outsiders; the mess that gets made is purely human. And for a modern audience I think it might be healthy to read a dystopia that has some humor blended with it. The end of the world can be funny, too, you know!
I love that on the cover of an early paperback edition of the book the Saturday Review is quoted as saying "...Like getting socked in the nose." And that's a good thing!
Had I not discovered that book in the garage that one day there's a good chance I would have viewed reading as one of those things only associated with a school, a static and passive activity that held no interest for me. I would have continued to assume that books had nothing to offer me and would be just another statistic, a non-reading adult male who had the joy of reading beaten out of him. I was a teen boy anxious and hungry to learn about the real world, and to learn that adults were far from the perfection. I thank the Fates that Vonnegut was there for me.
by Kurt Vonnegut
Welcome to the Monkey House