Kurt Vonnegut: A Different Kind of Fiction

If you haven’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, what have you been reading? That might sound bold, but if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, you know where I’m coming from. For me, its a combination of his dry and satirical humor and his unique way of presenting a moral that set him apart. In this context I’ll be focusing on three books: Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night, which I all wholeheartedly recommend. This is also the order in which I first read them, and approaching them linearly will hopefully help you follow my train of thought.

I first read Slaughterhouse-five my senior year of high school, outside of my English class, and I ended up finishing it in two days. For a fictional book that combined seemingly mutually exclusive topics such as war, time-travel, and aliens, I wasn’t expecting to like it. To be honest, I only picked it up because I knew it was a classic and that it was frequently referenced in literary culture. However, I was surprised by the unique writing style of Kurt Vonnegut; there is something so genuine and authentic about how he tells a story. He doesn’t seem to care so much about plot holes and accuracy, but more about the overall message of the story, and that was so different than what I was used to (considering intricate books such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien). Slaughterhouse-five was especially good at displaying how Kurt Vonnegut uses dry humor to understand humanity in the face of tragedy. A common phrase in the book is “so it goes”, in reference to everything from the end of the universe to the absurd and irrational murder of the protagonist’s companion. At first this sentiment just appears cynical, but after you finish reading you understand what Kurt Vonnegut is really trying to say: in the face of senseless human tragedy, humor is a way to cope with the truth, and to ultimately shift focus to the beautiful parts of existence.

Next I read Cat’s Cradle, and if I thought the plot of Slaughterhouse-five was bizarre, this book took it to another level. The main plot point is the existence of a dangerous material called ice-nine that turns any liquid into ice. However, the story follows a simple protagonist named John and his strange journey that eventually converges with the story of ice-nine. It also features a strange island with an outlawed religion called Bokononism, which is central to the themes of the book. Essentially it is a nihilistic and cynical religion, and Kurt Vonnegut uses it as a punching back to criticize the concept of religion as a whole. In doing so, Vonnegut expands beyond the traditions and beliefs of religion and reveals a human element in understanding life. Through his character development and use of humor, he shows how absurd humanity is, while simultaneously showing how the journey is more important than the destination. Even if everything ends in tragedy, as things often do when people are involved, the story is what teaches us how special it is to be human. This alternative perspective on life is so genuine in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing that you almost forget you were reading fiction.

Last but not least (in fact to many it is Kurt Vonnegut’s best work) I read Mother Night, a story about a spy named Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who works for the U.S. during World War II as a German propaganda radio host. After the war he is put on trial for war crimes, and the book is written as he is living in an Israeli jail. This is the least bizarre of the three books, featuring a pretty straightforward plot and only a few outrageous people and events. This book is also unique in another way, as shown by the first lines of the book:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Having already read Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, this was a surprise to say the least. I loved Kurt Vonnegut because he didn’t hold your hand and spoon-feed you the moral of the story like other fiction writers, he made you work for it. I can only speculate why he did this, but after I finished reading the book I realized that this was only one of the morals. Perhaps he was just being ironic, because he knew that this wasn’t the full truth. Although this is definitely a lesson from the book, the true moral is revealed in the same way as the other two books: through his authentic characters and ability to draw profound truths from fiction. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but after I finished reading, I had no idea what I felt. The ending was tragic to say the least, but it went deeper than that; it wrestled with concepts of guilt and justice in the most profound way. Similar to Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, he managed to show the complexity of humanity and also challenge our pre-held conceptions of what it means to be alive. It’s a moral that you can’t put into words because it’s so universal that it doesn’t exactly mean one thing. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing almost transcends traditional literature because he offers an entirely new perspective on life. Overall, after reading all three books, I feel as if Kurt Vonnegut is an entirely new kind of fiction: one that leaves the conventions of the genre and instead recognizes what makes it so powerful to begin with. I definitely recommend all three books, and I hope you can see the importance of his writing as I do. As for myself, he’ll always be on my list of favorite authors, and I hope to read more works by him in the future.

What to do on a snowday?

Once the University of Michigan cancelling classes for two days in a row, I thought to myself “Hooray!  I’m going to catch up on sleep for the next two days!” Then I tried to remember what I did on snow days during elementary and high school.  I would play outside for the day, or have friends over to play inside. So I decided that maybe instead of sleeping for the next two days I could do something else.  So here is a list of things that I might do during our snow-days.

Movie Marathons!  I am a huge fan of movies, my favorite genres are romcoms, sci-fi, and thrillers.  When creating a movie marathon you have the choice of watching a bunch or random movies, movies with the same theme, or a movie series.  Watching random movies is good so that you do not get too bored when watching a couple movies in one sitting. This way you can laugh, cry, and get scared in one day; which can be more exciting.  Watching movies from the same genre, or with the same theme can give you an extra dose of whatever feeling you want. Watching a movie series gives you purpose when you are sitting watching a movie, because you now have to finish the series.  I personally like watching movie series. You can always re-watch Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

Read!  As a college student, I never do any reading for pleasure during the school year because I am constantly reading for my classes.  Taking two days to start and possibly finish a book that has been sitting unread in my bookshelf would be great. Cold weather is also the perfect reading conditions because then you are incentivized to sit in a chair curled up with a blanket and a book and are able to read for hours.  It’s also nice when you are sitting by a window that brings in natural light and so that you can look outside but you do not have to go outside.

Game night!  The last activity is better if there is someone else with you.  A game night or afternoon is always fun and relaxing, depending on the game.  I used to play a lot of board games growing up with my family, and I have not played them much since going to college.  I love when an opportunity comes up and I can play them again. The best games to play during snow days are games that take a long time because you have all of the time in the world.  I personally like to play Risk when I have a couple of hours to spend on a game.

The Value of Role Models In the Art World

I don’t like being an English major very much. I’m grateful for the opportunity to study at a university with such knowledgeable faculty and abundant resources, but if I had to do these last four years of my life over again I would definitely change my major to communications because I love pop culture so much. The one thing that makes me happy about studying literature is that I get to take creative writing classes and write a thesis in fiction by doing the creative writing sub-concentration in the English major.

The only thing I want to do with my English degree is write. I don’t want to write just any stories; I want to write stories about people with underrepresented identities like me, and I want to write a blend of literary fiction and horror. I got to see a professional  writer do just that this Monday, January 21st, when Literati bookstore had a fiction reading with Kristen Roupenian. She wrote the short story “Cat Person” that was published in The New Yorker and quickly went viral. She now has a short story collection out and is working on a novel and a film for the cinephile’s movie studio of choice, A24. Hearing her talk about how emotion drives the blend of drama and horror of her plots focused on female desire and male entitlement as her girlfriend interviewed her and moderated a Q-and-A session with the audience felt familiar and affirming, like seeing someone  charting a path through a difficult terrain you’re planning to hike but aren’t convinced you’ll get through.

I got my copy of her new short story collection signed and told her she inspired me to stick with the English degree to write a creative writing thesis that is drawn on influences similar to hers. I also told her that I found it interesting how she saw horror as existing in a continuum when my English professor of horror literature taught from a textbook that said “real horror” is the supernatural like monsters, while the horror of real life tragedies falls more into the realm of realistic fiction. She said that was absolutely ridiculous and it felt good to know your writing can be appreciated on your own terms regardless of what academics have to say about it.  Seeing her success makes me feel validated in what inspires my own writing and makes me feel that trying to become a writer is not such a stupid goal like I thought.

What stood out about Roupenian’s short story is that it put into words how women feel pressured into accommodating men who want to hurt them because society seems to invest more energy in teaching girls to be agreeable and passive than in preventing abuse. The fact this story with a realistic young woman as a protagonist had been published in The New Yorker, the most well-known literary magazine in the country, was seen as a huge achievement for better representation of white middle-class women. I want to be the change I see in the world, and it’s very encouraging to see others succeed with the same intent.

Literary Baby Names

Every year a list of the most popular baby names is published.  Some names are always on the list, or have been for the past twenty years like John and Andrew.  Throughout history names have been chosen from different sources. Some common inspiration for names are nature, religious, historical, and literary.  Art has influenced names throughout history.

Historical names are taken from all different types of historical sources.  The most popular example is a family name. Even though family names generally do not descend from a specific historical figure, a lot of names go back generations and they are historical when considering timelines.  Other historical names are from famous historical figures. Some possible potential historical names for females are: Jane Austen, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart. Some male historical names are: George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Marlon Brando.  Historical male names could also include all past presidents. While most historical names only use the person’s first name, if a parent wanted there to be a stronger connection then they could use the first and middle name to have a stronger significance.

Literary names have also been prevalent throughout history.  The most common literary names are Biblical names. These names have been prevalent since the Common Era has started.  Some other old literary names come from Greek Mythology. Some very common names are: Achilles, Caesar, Aphrodite, and Artemis.  Similar to historical names there are more male names to choose from than female names. Names from Greek Mythology are not as common now as they used to be.  Greek names are now seen as more formal names and are not common at all in America.

Other literary names are more modern.  One of the most modern examples of this is Harry Potter.  Harry Potter names are slowly becoming more common as people who read the books as a child are having children.  The names Harry, and Hermione are becoming more popular and will only continue to become more popular for the next 10 years or so because of the popularity of the books and the movies.  Other modern literary names come from childhood books that children attached to and remembered. Some examples would be Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, Ramona from Ramona and Beezus, and Matilda from Matilda.

Literary names have always been common, and they change throughout the generations as new books come out and capture a generation.  Some names have always been popular and will continue to be due to the significance the names have.

The Humanity of AI

Recently I read the book The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel Wilson, which follows a girl named June, a post-grad specialist of ancient machinery, and Peter, the automaton who sweeps her up in his quest to stop another automaton who is bent on consuming all the anima, the spirit that keeps the automatons alive.

Though the book was mediocre, it had some very interesting thematic content, pondering over how we discover our purposes in life and what our life is worth if we don’t know how to pursue that purpose. However, there was a much subtler theme which I found more interesting: are robots who think and act exactly like humans, just as good as humans–and if so, are they better?

If automatons, robots, artificial intelligence, whatever name we give them, gain the same footing as humans in terms of perception, cognition, and whatever else that would make them more “human,”  would that make our two species interchangeable? If they can’t feel physical pain, does that make them better than us? What about emotional responses–if they can feel love and loss, does that make them our equals? If they can’t, are they our inferiors or superiors? Even some humans are incapable of feeling physical pain or experiencing emotions, so are these categories absolutely necessary when comparing humans and artificial intelligence? How do we place a value on things that make us human?

How do we decide what makes us human? When we can artificially craft those characteristics, does that make crafted being a human? If we can make working robotic ears, limbs, brains, where is the distinction between those and fully organic bodies? Can a being be 50% human, 50% robot? 25-75%? 1-99%? Is the 1-99% being still deserving of the dignity and respect we should give to all humans? Or is it a robot about which we need not feel remorse when we throw it out because its iOS is outdated? 

With our rapidly improving technology, we are racing closer toward perfecting AI each day. As our robots become more like us and we them, I wish I could say I had these answers. I wish I could say The Clockwork Dynasty helped me come up with a better solution. All I can do now is ask you these questions, spark discussion, and hope that we become more conscious of our humanity and how we value it as it comes time to be challenged.

When the Movie Is Better Than the Book

Let’s be honest: the book is always better than the movie. Directors never get it quite how we pictured it in our heads, or they go completely off-book altogether and we walk out of the theatre thinking, “How was that based on the book I read?” In twenty years of reading books and seeing the movie adaptations of as many of them as come to theatres, I’ve recently found only the second movie I prefer to the book: the third part of The Maze Runner trilogy, The Death Cure.

Needless to say, spoilers below!

I expected the movie to at least keep some semblance of the book, which revolved around a counter-revolution, asking readers: in a dystopian world facing a ruthless force that hoards all the resources, how much resistance is too much resistance?

There was none of that in the movie.

The counter-resistance was brushed over. A contrived cliffhanger from the previous installment drove most of the plot. A lot of logic (and lack thereof) in the zombie-infested, plague-stricken, uncivilized world was taken for granted. It was a mash of all the things that make us think books are better than their movie adaptations. But amidst the action for the sake of action, there was a shining light: Teresa.

Where the movie almost completely pushed aside the “how much resistance is too much resistance” theme, it replaced it with making Teresa a real person. Movie Teresa is a much deeper, more interesting character than Book Teresa. Movie Teresa is intelligent, clever, and wants to do what’s right, and she recognizes that sometimes, she doesn’t know how. Movie Teresa knows her limits, what she will and won’t do, what she will and won’t tolerate. Movie Teresa is motivated by logic, and it was refreshing to watch after Book Teresa (and the previous two Movie Teresas) seemed to be motivated by taking it on herself to screw up the plot for any reason, even if there seemed to be no reason for her, as a “fully-developed character,” to do so.

It wasn’t until seeing Wonder Woman last July that I realized how flat and one-dimensional our movie heroines are, and now, it’s all I can notice. The Maze Runner as a franchize didn’t have a lot going for it in terms of being likely to give a decent amount of characterization to its female characters. It’s made up of action movies, a genre that by its nature relies on plot over character, and is typically regarded as a “manly” genre. A huge majority of its characters were men, so the odds that if only one–or even half–of the characters was/were fleshed out, it wouldn’t be the two women, three if you include the main antagonist. So for what it did, especially in an area of art where strong female characters of any kind are desperately needed, I give it major points.

Normally, I’m a purist about sticking to the book. But when the book drops the ball on writing badass female characters who make themselves the subject of the story instead of an object of the plot, the movie can throw the plot off an exploding skyscraper for all I care if it can pick up the slack. So sure, Teresa was only one character out of a dozen in a wholly plot-driven narrative, but to me, the sacrifice was worth it.