Kurt Vonnegut on story structure and punctuation

Kurt Vonnegut

Previously I wrote on Kurt Vonnegut’s considerable body of interviews, especially his comments on story shape and fiction as a series of experiments.

One fascinating (Vonnegut-esque?) tidbit in his interviews was an offhand comment made during a 1971 profile by Richard Todd (New York Times Magazine):

The class began in a surprising way. Vonnegut remarked that last time they had been talking about form, and he walked to the blackboard and drew there a question mark, an exclamation point and a period. He said these bits of punctuation were the outline of a three act play or story:

? ! .

A student asked if the end might be “Dot, dot, dot.” Vonnegut agreed.

? ! …

Ok, so maybe this is a gimmicky or silly way to describe story structure, but I’m game to play along.

I’ve written about organizing structure to motivate my fiction, so this little lesson in punctuation caught my attention. The way I organize my thinking, the three acts of story (really, four) look something like this:

  • Act 1: Setup
  • Act 2A: Complication
  • Act 2B: Confrontation
  • Act 3: Resolution

This list comes from my reading of Syd Field’s books on film structure, which I’ve modified (slightly) for the purposes of writing fiction.

Syd Field

I agree with Vonnegut that most stories, if not all, open with question marks. Even if I’ve read a book two dozen times—and there are books I can make that claim—the pleasure of the opening chapters is the illusion I do not know what is coming. (I would say this is related in spirit to Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief.) There are numerous, sometimes playful, ways to pose those questions when a story opens, but those questions are almost always there. Rare if ever does an interesting story open with all the questions known and the main characters completely in charge of all the facts. Jim Thompson said there was only one type of story: “Things are not what they seem.” That is another way to say stories open with question marks.

Vonnegut’s exclamation point jibes with what I’ve labeled 2A, Complication. Exclamation points do not have to be action or cliffhangers. Sometimes a quiet revelation or admission can turn a story on its head and rearrange how we see the main character and their situation. I hold a pet theory that the art of storytelling lays in reversals (perhaps I’ll post about that some day) and, to my mind, the exclamation point is one such reversal for the characters: learning a well-kept secret revealed, a fortune amassed, a fortune lost, and so on.

But Vonnegut’s three punctuation marks and most of his story shapes imply three acts. I wondered if my idea about a fourth act, Confrontation, could fit into his ideas?

Confrontation, I think, could be expressed as an em-dash. Tension draws taut in the confrontation phase of a story. More than any other part of a story, confrontation is where the reader should be asking herself “Wait—what happens next?” In contrast, while tense endings are common, final acts are generally not “What happens next?” but rather “How will it end?”

With an em-dash, then, Vonnegut’s story structure could be punctuated like this:

? ! — …

Which seems about right to me.

From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee: The Swiftian genius of Planet of the Apes

A guilty pleasure of mine is Planet of the Apes. I’m speaking of the original movie, not the 1970s sequels, not the remakes, not the one with the Golden Gate Bridge and not the one with Mark Wahlberg. I am a fan of the 1968 film that launched them all, the Charlton Heston vehicle spawning over fifty years of sequels, reboots, “re-imaginings,” TV shows, and comic books. The others have little draw for me. It’s the original I return to time and again.

The first Planet of the Apes is campy, riveting, preachy, and provocative— Franklin J. Schaffner’s sci-fi classic is the very definition of middle-brow entertainment in that it pleases the senses while challenging the mind. The film has only grown on me over the years. I’ve come to appreciate its complexities and contradictions, even as its flaws have become more apparent as well.

Although I find it difficult to believe any person in the industrialized world today is not a little familiar with Planet of the Apes and its shocking ending, let me open by saying: Spoilers follow.

Seriously: If you’ve not watched the original 1968 film, do not continue reading. The ending is simply that stunning. I hate to think I would spoil it for anyone.

Background of the Apes

It’s often said Planet of the Apes is the rare instance of the film being better than the book. I’m not so certain, although I’m convinced the film’s narrative impact is the stronger of the two. A better description, I think, is that the novel and film are different approaches to the same source material, much as the gospels of Mark and Luke are thought to draw upon common material from an earlier source known to scholars as Q.

Pierre Boulle’s epistolary La Planète des singes regards a space traveler named Ulysee who finds himself stranded on a planet circling the distant star Betelgeuse. There he discovers a modern ape civilization who enjoy all the trappings of 20th century man. The simians smoke tobacco, drive cars, shop for clothes, take walks in parks. The humans on this planet are mute, savage, and hunted for trophy. To the apes the narrator is a freak, this human who can talk and reason and claims to have fallen from the sky.

English translation of La Planète des singes (1963), Pierre Boulle.

The Q Document for Boulle’s lean novel would seem to be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in particular Gulliver’s final voyage to the land of Houyhnhnms. Swift’s race of intelligent speaking horses administer an orderly and rational society on their island. They are plagued by the Yahoos, mute and savage humans who rape and kill with abandon. The Houyhnhnms shocking final solution for this plague are what today we would call genocide: Their Assembly votes to exterminate the Yahoos. The apes on Boulle’s planet seem to be building toward a similar resolution.

In Bright Eyes, Ape City: Examining the Planet of the Apes Mythos, a recent critical examination of all things Ape, contributor Stephen R. Bissette reveals a number of antecedents to Boulle’s concept of apes running a world, including the popular 1904 French short story “Le Gorilloide et Autres Contes de L’Avenir.” This story and its author, Edmond Haraucourt, were so popular in the first half of the 20th century, Bissette notes “it is impossible to read ‘Le Gorilloide’ for the first time and not be rocked by the realization that Pierre Boulle had to have read this story, or at least heard of it. … This is the Holy Grail for Apes devotees.” Bissette goes on to catalog an entire corpus of ape-world stories antedating Boulle’s novel, from science-fiction shorts to comic books.

These earlier ape-world stories would seem to dilute the originality of Boulle’s novel. From Bissette’s capsule summary, none of these earlier authors seemed to have the same ambition as Boulle, making La Planète des singes a kind of sui generis in the intersection of science fiction and “social fantasy,” as Boulle himself called it.

While I can’t offer any direct literary evidence Boulle was working out of Swift’s mode of satire, it seems rather obvious he was. The other stories listed in Bright Eyes, Ape City make much of apes running a planet; Boulle made much about a man being treated as an animal because he is an animal, which corresponds neatly with Swift’s dark worldview.

Like Gulliver, Boulle’s protagonist Ulysee is a wide-eyed narrator brimming with wonder and curiosity. The common device of animals with human-like qualities allows both books to hold a polished mirror up to man’s violence, avarice, and ignorance, to pare it down and show our vice for what it is. Ulysee and Gulliver adapt to the animals’ ways, even going so far as to adopt their language, culture, and mannerisms. Both animal societies are generally better-run than man’s, although Boulle and Swift are smart enough to give their respective animal races blind spots. For Boulle’s apes, it’s unquestioned faith; for Swift’s horses, excessive pride.

“I shot an arrow into the air”

Rod Serling, 1959.

Shortly after publication of Boulle’s novel, Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was tapped to write a big-screen adaptation. Serling obviously kept the device of a planet run by apes—how could he not?—as well as Ulysee’s crueler treatment at the hands of the apes. He also carried forward the main ape characters, scientists Zira and Cornelius and Dr. Zaius, the authoritarian keeper of ape law. Beyond that, Serling jettisoned most of Boulle’s novel in favor of a darker, more cynical story.

Because the movie’s credits list Michael Wilson before Serling, there was a long-running question of how much of the movie emerged from the TV writer’s pen. Wilson’s silver screen credits includes such monuments as Lawrence of Arabia, Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Place in the Sun. Some wondered if Serling’s contributions had been overplayed compared to this seasoned Hollywood writer.

A 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriter settled the question by examining Serling’s early scripts. They show Serling definitely shaped the novel into what the movie finally resembled, including his concept of the stunning final moment, one of the most shocking endings in Hollywood history.

Serling also carried forward Boulle’s concept of apes living in a modern world much like our own. The final movies’ apes inhabit mud huts on the edge of a desert. They make do with horseback travel and wooden carts and dirt roads. This change was apparently due to studio budget restrictions, and Michael Wilson’s revisions accorded this limitation. Wilson or another writer (probably John T. Kelley) also “punched up” Serling’s dialogue, yielding several groan-inducing aphorisms (“I never met an ape I didn’t like”, “human see, human do”) and the teenage ape Lucius who preposterously carpet-bombs the last act of the film with anachronistic counterculture lingo. Leaving both “improvements” on the cutting room floor would have done much to polish the final film.

Still, the artistic compromise of a pre-industrial ape society fortuitously contributed to rather than detracted from Serling’s vision. In the film the apes maintain an austere, Quakerish social structure. They live close to the field, close to the well, and close to their scripture. Zira’s and Cornelius’ claim of discovering a man who can talk doesn’t merely fly in the face of scientific thinking (as in Boulle’s novel), but against religious orthodoxy, adding an Inherit the Wind subtext that supercharges the movie’s stakes.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries by Dana Gould & Chad Lewis. This graphic novel adapts Rod Serling’s original screenplay. The cover illustrates apes living in a modern rather than pre-industrial society.

As with the original novel, Gulliver’s Travels seems to be a source for the film version, and not merely the device of man trapped in an animal society. Swift’s misanthropy is far stronger in Serling’s vision than Boulle’s. Rod Serling’s nicotine-addled gaze and his penchant for purple dialogue mean the script affords more time for damning philosophizing than Boulle’s work. When the Houyhynms vote to destroy the Yahoos, it’s not a stretch to think Swift is advocating for the destruction of the human race. This level of misanthropy is nowhere to be found in Boulle’s work; Serling’s script is marinated in it.

The vehicle for Serling’s misanthropy is Taylor (Charlton Heston), a red-blooded cigar-chomping astronaut who replaces Boulle’s wide-eyed French explorer. Unlike Ulysee and Gulliver, Taylor never lowers himself to the ape’s level—or, perhaps, he never rises to their stature. Considering the European background of Swift and Boulle, perhaps Serling’s choice of an hardheaded “cowboy” astronaut is indicative of Serling’s American-ness. Or, maybe Serling was making a kind of statement about the hubris of his countrymen. America was deep in the Vietnam War by this point. American exceptionalism was being questioned from all sides.

“I leave the 20th century with no regrets”

Although critics knock the movie as pretentious action-adventure fare, the film’s sensitive opening doesn’t line up with such dismissive claims. Staring out a spaceship’s viewport at an expanse of stars, astronaut Taylor notes that due to Einstein’s relativity hundreds of years have passed on Earth although the crew has only been traveling for six months of ship time. Speaking into a black box recorder, the cynical Taylor announces “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.”

Then he admits

“Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.”

Before slipping into extended stasis for the final leg of their journey, Taylor offers the listener of his voice recorder—whomever it may be—his final thoughts:

“Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

Serling’s script opens not with high action or tense drama. It doesn’t even open with the inciting incident, a bang to set the story into motion. Taylor’s admission before falling into hypersleep sounds like a confession from a man not in the habit of making confessions.

Charlton Heston, from a promotional still for Planet of the Apes (1968)

After the opening credits, the crew awakens to discover they’ve crash-landed on a desolate planet. Taylor’s vigorous misanthropy immediately fills the screen. He taunts the others for holding any faith in the survival of America or even civilization. He declares mankind all-but-extinct, and with the only female crew member dead, its destruction now seems assured. He boasts how satisfied he is to leave Earth behind, and wonders if the remaining crew will last a week on this daunting new planet.

It’s Taylor’s private admission to the black box—”It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely”—that reveals his confident cynicism is to some degree a facade. Not coincidentally, packed inside those two sentences is a concise foreshadowing of the film’s conclusion.

“I’ve always feared man”

Taylor, one of the last examples of “that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox,” is hunted and captured by apes. He’s subjected daily to humiliations fit for a laboratory animal: Stored in a cage, rewarded with food, washed down from a hose (a movie visual sickeningly similar to a strategy police used in the 1960s on peaceful civil rights protestors), and given a mate to encourage breeding. The threat of castration and lobotomization looms in the background (the latter a trendy topic in a decade preoccupied with the treatment of mental illness). Charlton Heston turns in a rather physical performance as he’s stripped naked, manacled, chained, gagged, and paraded through streets on a leash. Due to a throat injury he literally has no voice against his captors. When he regains his voice—the campy “Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”—he discovers he still has no say in this society of apes who regard him as an ignorant freak of nature.

Taylor’s hatred of man isn’t challenged by the apes or ape society, it’s reinforced. As with the lands Gulliver travels to, evidence of man’s failings abound on this so-called backwards planet. The apes don’t kill each other. They seem to have no war or famine or deprivation to speak of. While not perfect, they seem to have built a more egalitarian society than the world Taylor left behind. And yet Taylor can’t help but see himself as their equal. Soon his human ego leads him to believe he’s their superior. This shift is so subtle and smooth the viewer doesn’t even sense it.

Serling is a cruel god to his creation. Its not ironic enough for misanthropic Taylor to entertain notions of equality with the apes. Serling forces Taylor to defend mankind as intelligent and rational while standing naked and unwashed before a tribunal of jeering dismissive apes. When Taylor visits an archeological dig proving man ruled the planet before the apes, his defense seems all the more credible. Headstrong Taylor makes much hay over his victory.

Consider the film’s opening once more. In his voice recorder Taylor’s questions—”Does man still make war on his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”—are obviously not questions at all. Taylor believes man is incapable of changing his basic nature. After crash-landing on the ape planet, Taylor mocks the notion mankind might have survived the five thousand-year span. His attitude is one of good riddance: “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.” Yet by the third act, this man is sneering down on the apes and declaring man was better, stronger, and most importantly, first.

With Taylor’s hubris reaching a crescendo, he twists out this admission from Dr. Zaius:

“I’ve always feared man. From the evidence, his wisdom must have walked hand-in-hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him. Even himself.”

At this point, Taylor has won. He’s gained his freedom as well as an admission of man’s superiority from the ape’s top authority. If movie ended with Taylor riding his horse into the horizon, satisfied and free, it would have been a tidy, if unsatisfying, ending.

Discovering the Statue of Liberty is the door slamming shut on Taylor. Cowering on the beach naked as Adam, he realizes

“I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was—”

Taylor’s character arc is one of the cruelest, most severe punishments I’ve ever experienced in film or literature. Gulliver leaves the island of the Houyhnhnms unable to stand the sight or smell of other humans, but his change is orders of magnitude less than Taylor’s crushing defeat at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Taylor’s misanthropy has been scooped out of his black heart and fed back to him in a dog’s bowl.

In the first act, one of the surviving astronauts attempts to plant a tiny American flag in the dirt of their newly-discovered planet. Taylor roars in laughter at the absurd futility. In the final scene, another American symbol towers over him in ruins, with Taylor on the beach like a meager, limp flag planted in the sand. He’s the object of amusement now, and his climb from misanthropist to philanthropist has collapsed and crushed him whole.

Nicolas Gattig reviews Murakami’s “Underground”

Haruki Murakami

Nicolas Gattig of The Japan Times reviews Murakami’s Underground, a collection of interviews with victims of the Tokyo subway sarin attacks as well as members of the cult who perpetrated it:

In an attack that killed 13 and sickened and traumatized thousands, the supposedly peace-seeking cult had turned violently against Japanese society.

Murakami was shocked by the news. About to return permanently to Japan after years of living abroad, he felt the attacks could not be explained as a product of simple “evil.” They were a failing, he thought, of society as a whole. The Japanese sense of self would have to integrate Aum.

Unwilling to move on, Murakami set out to portray the people involved, both victims and members of the cult, and thus “to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country.”

Professor Mayumi Fukunaga of the University of Tokyo on the attacks:

“Aum was a place for dissatisfied young elites, who saw the bubble economy as superficial consumption,” she explains. “Aum followers had seen the failure of leftist movements, but still wanted social reforms. At the same time, they knew they’d never enjoy the rewards of the bubble. … In Japan, the struggle of belonging continues.”

The entire article is well worth the read, especially how Gattig connects Underground‘s characters and themes to Murakami’s fictional work.

For an additional perspective, check out my 2014 review of Underground.

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Ray Bradbury on getting stories published

When I was a younger writer, one question that monopolized far too much of my time was how to get published. Early on I recognized publishing was a numbers game for the starting writer. Any naive notions I held about the quality of my short stories leading to quick publication were dashed. Publication would only come by getting my work out there, far and wide.

Although short story writers are admonished to “study the market” and zero in on magazines suitable for their work, I honestly can’t say studying the market helped me get published in an of itself. What was more educational was when magazines flat-out rejected my best work, which encouraged me to continue to hone my craft and expand my scope. In other words, rejection slips taught me my best work was not so special after all.

I’ve been dipping into Wayne L. Johnson’s 1980 book Ray Bradbury the past couple of months, part of the Recognitions series published by Frederick Ungar. The Recognitions series features critical work on genre writers who’ve transcended their genre. Johnson’s Ray Bradbury is a biography of the author tracked through his output rather than a stiff-backed recounting of dates and locations of events in his life. Bradbury’s short stories are grouped by subject matter and style as a strategy for analyzing the author’s approach to fiction. Johnson’s book paints a picture of a man who delved deep in the human imagination and returned with some fantastic stories for the ages.

Galaxy Magazine (February 1951). Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman” was the nucleus for Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific short story authors of the 20th century because he never abandoned the form, unlike other authors who move on from them to novel writing. Bradbury capitalized on his bounty by disguising his short story collections as novels (The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man). Even Fahrenheit 451 is itself a maturation of a shorter work first published in Galaxy Magazine.

What caught my eye (and sparked the idea for this blog post) was a brief aside in Johnson’s introduction about how Bradbury was able to sell his prodigious output of short stories across the spectrum of American publishing:

Convinced that most editors were bored with seeing the same sort of material arriving day after day, Bradbury resolved to submit stories which, at least on the face of it, seemed inappropriate to the publication involved. Rather than send “Dandelion Wine” (later a chapter in the novel) to Collier’s or Mademoiselle, therefore, Bradbury sent it to Gourmet, which didn’t publish fiction. It was immediately accepted. “The Kilimanjaro Device” was snapped up by Life, which also didn’t publish fiction, after the story had been rejected by most of the big fiction magazines. … Bradbury insists that he places complete faith in his loves and intuitions to see him through.

Bradbury was certainly a known quantity when these short stories were published but, as Johnson indicates, he still faced his share of rejection slips. I don’t think Bradbury’s wanton submissions were ignorant of market conditions; it sounds to me he was quite savvy with this strategy. (Sending “Dandelion Wine” to Gourmet magazine is kind of genius, actually.) But Bradbury’s strategy transcends the usual mantra to “study the market.”

I’ve been a front-line slush pile reader at a few literary magazines and I can tell you Bradbury’s intuition is spot-on. When you’re cycling through a stack of manuscripts, they soon begin to look and read the same. Too many short stories trod familiar paths. Too often they introduced characters awfully familiar to the last story from the pile.

A story with some fresh air in it certainly would wake me from my slush-pile stupor. The magazine market has changed dramatically in the past ten years—and absolutely has reinvented itself since Bradbury was publishing “Dandelion Wine”—but I imagine similar dynamics are still in place in the 21st century. Surprise an editor with your story and you just might have a shot at publication.

And if you’re banging out short stories and fruitlessly submitting them one after another to the usual suspects, try taking a risk and following Bradbury’s lead. Trust me, if you can put on your next cover letter that your short fiction was published by Car & Driver or National Geographic, that will surprise editors too.

Twenty Writers: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other books and authors


Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Scholars elevate Slaughterhouse-Five as Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest literary achievement. Readers gravitate toward the warm embrace of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. For me, Vonnegut’s masterpiece is Cat’s Cradle. It belongs on the shelf beside 1984 and Invisible Man as one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Yet it’s a crime to call Cat’s Cradle a novel when it’s so much more. It’s not so much a work of fiction as Vonnegut laying down brick-by-brick his idiosyncratic worldview. It’s a worldview he spent a lifetime attempting to communicate to his readership. I say “attempt” because I’m unsure Vonnegut will ever truly be widely understood. Scholars and readers will be decoding his work three hundred years from now…assuming there’s any life left on this planet.

Most summaries of Cat’s Cradle will home in on topics like nuclear annihilation, existentialism, the role of Big Science in postwar America, and postmodernism and metafiction. The book orbits around all those topics of course, but it’s primary concern is a fictional religion called Bokononism, possibly the only legitimate secular religion ever invented. Make no mistake: Vonnegut’s phony Bokononism is the heart of Cat’s Cradle. You can hear its theology beating on every page.

“Secular religion” comes off sounding pretentious and self-consciously contradictory. My “legitimate” qualifier does little to shore up my praise for Vonnegut’s work. I choose these words carefully.

For context, secular religions were a booming cottage industry in mid-twentieth century America. 1950s and 1960s America is often viewed (or derided) as orderly, pious, and gray. Look again; freshly-minted religions based on pseudo-psychiatry and pseudoscience flourished in the 1950s among the upper-middle- and upper-classes seeking release from restrictive Judeo-Christian morality. A decade later, their teenage children would likewise search for escape from their dreary petite bourgeois existence among the raft of America’s invented religions.

Consider Unitarian Universalism. Founded in 1961, it espouses “no shared creed” among its adherents and draws upon Western and Eastern religions of all stripes for guidance. Eckankar (1965) states its religion’s name means “co-worker with God” and teaches its adherents how to achieve out-of-body experiences.

More sinister additions to America’s theologically-loose religions are Scientology (1952), Synanon (1958), Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (1955), The Process Church of the Final Judgment (1966), even Charles Manson’s Family—the list of so-called New Religions in post-World War II America is staggering.

(Yes, many of these so-called secular religions dabble with a higher power, but on closer inspection the theology is window-dressing for more earthly philosophies. For example, The Church of Satan does not believe in a supernatural Satan.)

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972.

This is the zeitgeist Vonnegut was writing into when he produced Cat’s Cradle in 1963. While he’s properly regarded as a satirist, his faux religion in Cat’s Cradle is not a literary device for poking fun at God or devotion. It should not be considered a parody-religion like The Church of the SubGenius or that Spaghetti Monster joke. The humorous tenets and terminology of Bokononism are laid-out with absolute dead-pan conviction—an earnest joke, the first open-source religion with the source code being Cat’s Cradle itself and the sacred communion being laughter. Vonnegut expected no one to convert to his religion, but it’s apparent he hoped his readers would at least take its teachings to heart. If they didn’t—well, so it goes.

The contradiction of Bokononism is not that it’s a secular religion. The contradiction is that it was proposed by an atheist who distrusted scientists as much as he distrusted clergy, a man who found consolation in, of all things, religion. The final sentence of Cat’s Cradle is the final sentence of the Books of Bokonon: “If I was a younger man, I would write a book about human stupidity.” Vonnegut did just that.

Call me Jonah

Cat’s Cradle opens with the narrator (“Call me Jonah”) at work on a non-fiction book called The Day the World Ended. It’s to be a collection of interviews with various famous people discussing what they were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In the course of making inquiries he’s introduced to the family of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an absentminded scientist who worked on the A-bomb project. From there the narrator’s life begins to spin in crazy directions as he finds himself caught up in Caribbean politics, Big Science, a new form of water, and, of course, Bokononism, Vonnegut’s secular religion.

Big Science is represented in Cat’s Cradle by the research arm of the General Forge and Foundry Company, a stand-in for General Electric. There the narrator is introduced to one of Dr. Hoenikker’s lesser-known scientific discoveries: Ice-Nine, the most famous fictional device to emerge from Cat’s Cradle.

(Vonnegut briefly worked for GE in the 1950s. The character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker is based on a scientist employed there, Dr. Irving Langmuir, who died before the book was written.)

A single flake of Ice-Nine will “teach” all water it comes in contact with how to freeze and remain frozen at room temperature. Those water molecules will, in turn, teach all liquid water they come in contact with to freeze as well, and on and on. (Ice-Nine is real; the version Vonnegut describes is not.) Dr. Hoenikker thought he was solving a practical problem of allowing Marines to cross swamps and lakes without being mired down in the mud. However, if a molecule of Ice-Nine were to make contact with, say, the Pacific Ocean, it would teach all the water in the world to freeze and bring life on this planet to an end. Perverse outcomes due to the actions of well-meaning individuals is a common theme in Vonnegut’s work (Mother Night, Jailbird), and it’s certainly a healthy component of Cat’s Cradle.

Flag of San Lorenzo

While writing his book on the end of the world, the narrator travels to the fictional island of San Lorenzo to interview one of Dr. Hoenikker’s grown children who is now second-in-command of the entire island. There the narrator is introduced to Bokononism, a religion indigenous to San Lorenzo.

By Vonnegut’s own telling the religion started as a sham. It was concocted by two shipwrecked passengers during World War I in order to control the indigenous peoples of San Lorenzo. One of the passengers, a U.S. Marine deserter, made himself the dictatorial President of San Lorenzo while the other took the role of pauper-philosopher Bokonon, who began crafting his religion from whole cloth. The chain reaction of Ice-Nine “teaching” every molecule of water it touches to become more Ice-Nine mirrors the way Bokononism spreads.

As Vonnegut later remarked:

Q: Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?

Vonnegut: It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Q: Almost a religion?

Vonnegut: Exactly. And the only one for me. So far.

Although Bokononism arrives late in Cat’s Cradle, the narrator has been discussing it since page one. He’s often discussing Bokononism without the reader being aware of it. The narrator’s late conversion to Bokononism has fitted him with new glasses to see anew the events of his own life and the world at large. As I said, the religion’s theology beats on every page of the book.

“Shameless lies”

While religion may be the focal point of Cat’s Cradle, the reach of this slender novel is far broader: Ice-Nine, Big Science, a fictional religion, the history of the atom bomb, the history of a fictional Caribbean nation, Cold War politics, and more. Vonnegut ably covers all this territory over the course of 127 (!) chapters, some only a few paragraphs long. My copy of Cat’s Cradle clocks in at a mere 191 pages, and that’s a pocket-sized mass market edition. Each chapter comes close to standing alone, a necklace of koans strung together in such a way to reveal greater truths.

While Vonnegut is recognized as one of the great writers of the last century, he’s not particularly well-regarded for his use of language, which is often received as plain or unadorned. I think Vonnegut’s prose is wildly underrated. Vonnegut was in possession of a finely-tuned bullshit detector. He was so attuned to honesty in writing (in his own and others’) that I believe he couldn’t bear to lard down his work for style points. His direct manner and careful choice of words is Vonnegut’s style. Anyone who attempts to imitate him, beware: it’s not a pose, it’s a way of thinking.

In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut’s prose is at its best (yes, even better than Slaughterhouse-Five). He produces some of the most economical and expressive scenes in his entire body of work. Here the narrator examines one of the Hoenikker children’s model railroad dioramas:

And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.

We approached the light and found that it was sunshine to a fantastic little country built on plywood, an island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond its given boundaries, really would fall off the edge of the world.

The details were so exquisitely in scale, so cunningly textured and tinted, that it was unnecessary for me to squint in order to believe that the nation was real—the hills, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the towns, and all else that good natives everywhere hold so dear.

And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.

This is not Hemingwayesque tough-guy economy but the economy of describing a rather involved bit of scene and symbol with a modicum of words. (The child who built this model island would grow up and become second-in-charge of another island-in-miniature, San Lorenzo.) The language may not be impressive, but it wasn’t designed to be impressive. Vonnegut manages to describe all of Cat’s Cradle‘s intricate clockwork in a handful of pages because he’s boiled down his scenes with terse concision. The payoff is a readable, approachable book discussing a lot of big, abstract concepts.

Many paperback editions of Cat’s Cradle play up the apocalyptic science-fiction aspects of the novel without acknowledging the gallows humor and whimsical nature of Vonnegut’s world.

The succinct koan-like chapters reflect the contradictory nature of Bokononism. McCabe’s first edict upon taking power as President of San Lorenzo was a strict ban on Bokononism itself. This means, of course, everyone on the island practices Bokononism, including the President. The “dynamic tension” of absolute martial law versus an illicit but freeing religion keeps the people preoccupied. “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” reads the first line of the Books of Bokonon, perhaps an opening sentence Vonnegut considered for Cat’s Cradle itself. This is how the book folds in on itself: the religion it describes permeates the telling of the novel rather than being a crude device to express some ideas.

While Ice-Nine is the most powerful symbol to emerge from Vonnegut’s book, the child-like language of Bokonon’s concepts are also famous. A karass is a group of people cosmically linked for some greater purpose (although they might not realize it), while a granfalloon is a false karass (like Hoosiers or Democrats). A vin-dit is a “sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.” Perhaps the most important Bokononian concept is foma, “harmless untruths” which serve a more important goal.

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Let’s face it: Bokononism is a pretty thin theology compared to the rich wisdom of the Jewish midrash, the teachings of Jesus, or the scope of Buddhism. And for every surprising observation Vonnegut tosses effortlessly at the reader, he pairs it with a circus-style joke, such as the Bokononist foot fetish. Compared to the world’s major religions, an exegesis of Bokononism would not be a terribly long tract. It might not be much longer than Cat’s Cradle. And perhaps that’s the point.

Much of Bokononism centers around discovering one’s purpose in life and the people who share that purpose with you. The funny names for Bokonon’s concepts—wrang-wrang or wampeter—playfully mask deeper and more serious human dilemmas. Bokononism is concerned with ideals like happiness, acceptance, and forgiveness. It makes a point to single out those who stand in the way of those ideals, the greedy, intemperate, and spiteful. Bokonon’s theology may be as simple as this: Be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Or, going back to Vonnegut’s anthropology studies: We are sadly far more alike than we want to believe.

The only misstep I find with Vonnegut’s religion is the (perversely) celebrated saying Bokononists utter when they commit suicide: “Now I will destroy the whole world.” While it plays into the major concerns of Cat’s Cradle, I find the self-centeredness of the statement uncharacteristic of the rest of the religion, and indeed the entire book.

In his final interview before his death, Vonnegut noted

…I don’t mock religion at all. It’s very helpful to people. … I am enormously influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.

Cat’s Cradle returns to the concept of fomas repeatedly, the “harmless lies” we tell ourselves to make us happy. If harmless lies keep us from hurting one other, then perhaps we should be lying to ourselves even more. This is the price of peace.

Postscript: “Busy, busy, busy”

I find it appropriate that the Dell pocket edition I’ve owned since junior high school contains a major typo in the front matter, apparently the result of a confused typesetter:

For Kenneth Littauer,
a man of gallantry and taste.
The Books of Bokonon, 1.5
*Harmless untruths

Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave
and kind and healthy and happy.”

Read through it one more time. Obviously the attribution was married to the dedication and not the epigram. It’s an appropriate mistake for a remarkable little book concerned with mistakes, as well as truth, harmless lies, forgiveness, the end of the world, and most of all laughter.

Lessons learned from Ross Macdonald

Recently at San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore I discovered an edition of Inward Journey (1984), a collection of essays, poetry, and remembrances dedicated to mystery writer Ross Macdonald and published shortly after his death. The collection is edited by Santa Barbara rare book seller Ralph B. Sipper, who also collaborated with Macdonald on his autobiographical Self Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past.

Ross Macdonald obviously affected and influenced a great number of people in and around the Santa Barbara writing scene. The anecdotes and memories related by his friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a private and thoughtful novelist who quietly guided a number of writers toward improving their craft. It’s a touching book that mostly avoids miring itself in the maudlin. Some of the writers are quite close to the subject, such as his wife’s warm and elegant recounting of an early and late memory of him. Other essayists are more distant and matter-of-fact, such as popular writer John D. MacDonald’s humorous tale of his dance with Ross Macdonald over the appropriate use of their last names in publication credits.

That confusion is due to Ross Macdonald being the pen name of Kenneth Millar, who adopted his father’s name to avoid being confused with wife Margaret Millar, a well-known novelist in her own right by the time his star began to rise. On top of that, Macdonald nee Millar also helplessly watched his style of detective fiction (and his detective, Lew Archer) relentlessly compared to hardboiled writers Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s work from a quarter century earlier—often to his own detriment.

Between his wife’s pen name, authors John D. MacDonald and Philip MacDonald, and the unasked-for competition with Chandler and Hammett, it’s a wonder Ross Macdonald was able to carve out a name for himself. He did, and his workmanlike approach to novel-writing led to a corpus of nearly thirty solid books, the bulk set in Macdonald’s own Southern California, in particular his home of Santa Barbara (renamed to Santa Teresa). As such, Macdonald inherited not merely Chandler’s mantle of the premier tough-guy detective writer but also the mantle of the leading Southern California mystery writer. The difference is, where Chandler’s stomping grounds are Los Angeles proper, Macdonald’s Lew Archer prowls the Southern California suburbs. This shift corresponded neatly with the rapid postwar growth of the Southern California valleys and coastal communities.

Free and joyful creation

Inward Journey opens with two previously unpublished essays by Macdonald himself. “The Scene of the Crime” is a lecture he gave at the University of Michigan in 1954 regarding the origins and development of the mystery story. It’s one of the most erudite, learned, and humble essays I’ve read on the subject. Macdonald had a degree in literature (his thesis analyzed Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and he draws on sources as wide-ranging as William Carlos Williams and Faulkner in way of framing the detective story as a modern narrative strategy devised in reaction to modernity itself:

“A Rose for Emily,” [Faulkner’s] most frequently reprinted story is a beautifully worked out mystery solved in a final sentence which no one who has read it will ever forget. … I don’t mean to try to borrow Faulkner’s authority in support of any such theses as these: that the mystery form is the gateway to literary grace…Still the fact remains he did use it, that the narrative techniques of the popular mystery are closely woven into the texture of much of his work.

The other chapter, “Farewell, Chandler,” originated as a private letter to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Pocket Books was republishing his detective novels and sought permission to “fix” them by making them more violent and sensational (and therefore more palatable to paperback readers). Macdonald was compared to Chandler his entire career, and this letter both acknowledges the debt while gingerly disentangling himself from Chandler’s legacy:

My hero is sexually diffident, ill-paid, and not very sure of himself. Compared with Chandler’s brilliant phantasmagoria this world is pale, I agree. But what is the point of comparison? This is not Chandler’s book. … None of my scenes have ever been written before, and some of them have real depth and moral excitement. I venture to say that none of my characters are familiar; they are freshly conceived from a point of view that rejects black and white classification…

A writer has to defend his feeling of free and joyful creation, illusory as it may be, and his sense that what he is writing is his own work. [emphasis mine]

These two chapters are worth reading (and worth republishing, if they’re not already.) If you’re a writer of any stripe, I would then encourage you read beyond them. Although many of the remembrances in Inward Journey are strictly personal anecdotes, more than a few dig into Macdonald’s bibliography for clues to understanding the man himself. They also relate tidbits of Macdonald’s writing habits and personal theories on fiction and form.

In particular, George Sims offers a wonderful history, book-by-book, of Macdonald’s bibliography, with highlights of his best work. The final chapters by Gilbert Sorrentino and Eudora Welty describe the evolution of Macdonald the writer (and Lew Archer, the hero) from Macdonald’s earliest works to his last. In 1954’s “The Scene of the Crime” Macdonald asserts the mystery novel stands to be viewed in the same light as Zola’s and Norris’ Naturalism; Welty picks up that theme in 1984 and asserts Macdonald has earned the right to be included in said light:

Character, rather than deed itself, is what remains uppermost and decisive to Macdonald as a novelist. In the course of its being explained, guilt is seldom seen as flat-out; it is disclosed in the round, and the light and shadings of character define its true features. … His detective speaks to us not as a moralist but as a fellow sufferer.

If you have any interest in Ross Macdonald or mystery / detective fiction, and your local library stocks this book, it’s well worth a trip to your nearest branch to absorb these chapters.