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.

Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

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


So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.

Recommendations

If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

Twenty Writers: Another interpretation of The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See the Introduction for more information on Twenty Writers, Twenty Books. The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Earlier this year I wrote about “The Flitcraft Parable”, a story Sam Spade tells in The Maltese Falcon to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the novel’s femme fatale. The parable is interesting for a number of reasons, but the central question that’s been attacked by readers and critics for almost a century is the purpose of its telling. Why does Sam Spade tell this odd story to O’Shaughnessy?

The story of Charles Flitcraft abandoning a secure life of money and family, only to return to a similar life in a different city, appears unrelated to the novel’s primary concern, the search for a bejeweled antique statuette. Some speculate Spade tells the story to O’Shaughnessy as a warning, that he knows she’s incapable of change and will continue lying to him, just as she’s lied in every encounter he’s had with her so far.

I don’t think the Flitcraft Parable is so simple. Before, I wrote about an academic connection I thought author Dashiell Hammett was making—that Charles Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, is a reference to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and Pragmatism, the school of thought Peirce founded. I’m the first to admit, it’s an egghead approach to a novel of murder and corruption, and one that Hammett probably didn’t expect a reader to delve terribly deeply into. That’s why I’m writing this post, a second look at the Flitcraft Parable, one that’s not so dependent on the headiness of nineteenth-century philosophy.

To be clear, I remain convinced Hammett intended to make a connection between Flitcraft and Charles Peirce’s philosophy. What I’m offering here is an interrelated interpretation of the Flitcraft Parable, an analysis that hews closer to the book’s plot and intentions without tossing out my first attempt.

If you’ve not read my first post, I’d recommend at least reading the section titled “The parable” before continuing. I’m not going to re-summarize the Flitcraft Parable here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In my prior post I attempted to avoid discussing the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon. It’s impossible for this post to do the same.

“The only formal problem of the story”

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Dr. Samuel Johnson was not Shakespeare’s first critic, but he was arguably Shakespeare’s first preeminent critic. Hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler holds a similar relationship to Dashiell Hammett. In Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, fourteen years after the release of The Maltese Falcon), Chandler critiques and analyzes Hammett’s body of work, naming him as the one figure who represents the hard-boiled school of writing as its “ace performer.” He praises the forcefulness of Hammett’s prose and, most famously, how “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Everything Chandler observes about Hammett’s writing can be applied to the Flitcraft Parable. Spade’s sparse language when telling the parable is as direct as darts puncturing a dartboard. The parable is constructed of fleshy people, people who do things for palpable reasons, even if those reasons are mysterious to us and based on an internalized logic we may never adopt.

Then, like Dr. Johnson’s best slicing analysis of Shakespeare, Chandler makes an off-the-cuff observation of The Maltese Falcon, tossing his insight before the reader’s feet as though embarrassed something so effortless must be mentioned:

…in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. [Emphasis mine.]

What Chandler alludes to here is the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. In Chapter One, Miles Archer, Spade’s partner, rushes to take leggy Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s assignment for his own; the kids today would call it a “cock block.” That night—Chapter Two—Archer is found murdered. This is the “formal problem” Chandler draws attention to in-between those parentheses.

More dead bodies arrive in The Maltese Falcon, bullet-ridden corpses shot up like a stop sign outside an Alabama roadhouse, but none of the murders are truly mysterious. The moment cold-fish henchman Wilmer and his pocket .45 cannons are introduced, it’s patent the murders are his handiwork. None of the other characters are capable of it. Dandy Joel Cairo and aristocratic Gutman are too drenched in Old World genteel for the blithe butchery Wilmer is thirsty to administer. O’Shaughnessy may have claws, but her true power lies in charming men to do her killing for her. Chandler’s on the money; the only formal problem in The Maltese Falcon is the death of Archer, a murder not so easily pinned on Wilmer.

Step back and admire this for a moment. Archer is the first murder in a mystery novel—and the detective’s partner to boot—yet Archer’s corpse is all-but-forgotten five pages after Spade identifies the body. Archer’s death remains, at best, a tertiary concern for another 175 pages. With the fluidity of a street con, Hammett misdirects our attention with Istanbul intrigue, the promise of a jewel-encrusted statuette, and hoary tales of the Knights Templar. Papering over Archer’s murder is an audacious and under-appreciated maneuver on Hammett’s part, one that demonstrates the confident control he maintains throughout the book.

Spade’s credo

The mystery of Archer’s murder may all but disappear after Chapter Two, but it comes roaring back in the final chapter. Spade confronts Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom he’d told the Flitcraft Parable to earlier in the book, and states he knows she murdered Archer, pressing her and disarming her lies until she finally confesses.

In my prior post, I concluded that the Flitcraft Parable was a kind of manifesto for Spade, a declaration that he will eke out the truth of the matter, no matter the consequences. I also noted that

…Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it?

Flatly, I believe Spade knows O’Shaughnessy had murdered Miles Archer when he tells her the Flitcraft Parable in Chapter Seven. I believe Spade suspects her as early as Chapter Two, when he views Archer’s body and takes a walk afterwards “thinking things over,” for all the reasons he names to O’Shaughnessy in the final pages.

If you view the Flitcraft Parable as a kind of manifesto or speech Spade is making for O’Shaughnessy, there’s one more speech Spade makes to her in the final chapter:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. … I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

There’s a thin, near-invisible length of thread running between the Flitcraft Parable and the above, Spade’s credo.

The Flitcraft Parable, then, is Spade’s soft-sell to O’Shaughnessy. He’s telling her he’s a reasonable man. When Spade hears Flitcraft’s story of the falling beam, Spade agrees it seems reasonable, in it’s own way, for Flitcraft to abandon his wife and family–but he still returns to Mrs. Flitcraft to inform her what has happened to her husband.

Spade is accused of many things throughout The Maltese Falcon, some cold, some sordid, but with the Flitcraft Parable he’s quietly demonstrating to O’Shaughnessy that he will only bend so far. As he says in his credo, letting criminals go free “can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done.” He admits to her that Miles Archer “was a son of a bitch…you didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.” And then he hands her over to the police.

Would he have turned her in if she’d confessed earlier in the novel, after telling her the parable? It’s difficult to say, but the quiet way he tells it to her signals to me that he’s offering her a chance for redemption.

Chandler again, this time from his introduction to Trouble is My Business:

[The hard-boiled story] does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did … was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get.

The Maltese Falcon is not a whodunnit, or a book about a statuette, or even a book about a private detective. It’s about a man who bears the weight of administering justice on-the-fly in a corrupt and mechanical world. Sam Spade holds two lives in his hands, Charles Flitcraft’s and Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s. Hard, dangerous work, work he could always get.

Twenty Writers: Peter Bagge, HATE

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Hate 5

Hate 5

Peter Bagge is my venerated saint. It took me far too long to figure that out.

Back in the 1990s, I stumbled across Bagge’s brilliant HATE comics more than a few times—on a comic book store rack, in a cool barber shop’s magazine pile (not that I spent much time at barber shops back then), stuck in the middle of a friend’s stack of High Times back issues, that kind of thing.

Intrigued by Bagge’s manic, skittish covers, I thumbed through these random issues and chuckled over his taffy-stretched characters, all of whom seemed filled with the same gunk they inject into Stretch Armstrong dolls. They flapped their arms in perfect circles as they spewed venom at each other. Their teeth splayed out geometrically toward the reader when they vented or raged about whatever was sticking in their craw at that moment. Then, after achieving a measure of calm, some new perceived outrage would arise on the next page (“perceived” is the key word here) and their tomato would flame up all over again.

In those early encounters with Bagge’s work, I never read an issue of HATE all the way through. I didn’t have to. All the fun was in watching Buddy and his cohorts lose their minds over things most everyone else would find perfectly innocuous or trivial.

And yet…I understood why they would lose it. Yes, I screen my calls, and so do you, so don’t give me that. Yes, I don’t want you drinking from my private beer stash. Yes, don’t tell me you aren’t dating guys and then start dating my roommate. Buddy’s short fuse made perfect sense to me.

Bagge's rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

Bagge’s rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

At age 32, after a few encounters with Bagge’s work, both in the real world and online, I slowly gathered I’d missed out on something pretty damn important. I began seeking out every HATE issue and collection I could lay my hands on. (By that time, Bagge had quit producing monthly editions of HATE and only released annuals for fans starved to keep up with his incredible pantheon of characters.) Over a two-week reading spree—30 issues, published from 1990 to 2000—I dug into his epic storyline of Buddy Bradley’s clench-fisted life and the miscreants, losers, and delusionals surrounding him. With this closer sequential reading of his work, my heart sank. There was so much more to Bagge’s brilliant decade-long narrative than ranting and arm-flapping. I should have been following HATE as it was published, not lapping it up after the fact.

HATE centers on Buddy Bradley, a New Jersey hipster transplanted to Seattle smack in the middle of the grunge era. The early issues circle around the concerns of most any twenty year-old: parties, temp jobs, roommates, looking for sex, looking for authenticity, scrounging for free meals, consuming cheap beer. Buddy’s roommates include paranoiac George Hamilton III and carefree Stinky Brown, one of those guys who manages to get by entirely in the moment and never lacks a girl on his arm. The elliptical orbit of Buddy’s love life has two foci: unstable, abortion-prone Lisa and uptown girl Valerie.

Hate 13

Hate 13

Buddy manages to eke his way through Seattle’s grunge scene (and later, suburban New Jersey) through a combination of entrepreneurship, conning favors from friends and strangers, shoplifting, and mostly-idle threats. Although HATE‘s early issues delve deep into college life sans actual college enrollment, something less remarked upon is the tension in later issues when Buddy swears it’s time to shape-up and grow-up, moving back to New Jersey to settle down with Lisa in his parents’ basement.

Doonesbury‘s Yale hippies and commune malcontents progressed into adulthood in the 1980s, but their outlook (i.e. their politics) shifted not one iota—thankfully, otherwise they might have had to live up to the judgy pronouncements they’d decreed a decade earlier. In the final monthly issues of HATE, the New Jersey Buddy Bradley is but an echo of his Seattle predecessor. He’s like that college pal who swears off pot, buys a tie, and obtains a business loan to start selling water bongs mail-order. What a square.

Hate 15

Hate 15

I do not see myself as a live-in-the-flesh Buddy Bradley, but there is much of him I recognize in myself. His firebrand rant about hating rock ‘n’ roll is one I’d preached as well (almost down to the word) to a San Luis Obispo house full of Generation X hippies. (They never invited me back.) And while I never had a roommate like George Hamilton III, I kinda-sorta resembled him due to my Robert Anton Wilson-inspired pet theories about secret power structures and hidden knowledge. And Buddy drinks Johnnie Walker Red Label. Eerie! (I could go on.) When I reached age 32, I thought I’d been through something unique—as unique as a crushed Coke can, HATE informed me.

Bagge’s genius as a storyteller reflects one of my personal peeves about contemporary fiction—”the cult of poignancy” as editor David Holler dubbed it. That is, the urgent desire of literary fiction to land in a moment of soft, still self-reflection. This desire is simply a rejiggering of Hollywood’s desperate need to reach a concluding morality that assures us there is Good in this world, and genre fiction’s love of pat, satisfying endings.

HATE eschews closing any story with revelation or insight into Buddy’s life, or even a resolution you would call “a resolution.” There’s rarely any forward momentum at all. In almost every issue, Buddy winds up pretty much where he started, albeit bruised or unconscious or a bit richer or poorer for the journey. HATE isn’t anti-poignant, as that suggests Bagge was consciously working against easy pathos. HATE is merely absent of poignancy, or any moral compass for that matter. Buddy Bradley is a vector of force propelled by the rocket fuel of disgust, outrage, and self-interest—and yet Bagge maintains our sympathy for him. Our sympathy for Buddy Bradley parallels our sympathy for Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. We recognize too much of ourselves in them both to toss them overboard.

But that sympathy is never comfortable. There’s an unsettling randomness to the consequences of Buddy’s antisocial decisions. There is no divine thumb on the cosmic scales in HATE. There aren’t even scales. When Buddy screws over a roommate or a girlfriend and comes out ahead free-and-clear, his brash grin for the reader is disturbingly celebratory. Buddy is bragging to us, “I got away with it.” And Bagge, the author, never steps in with a value judgment.

Many writers claim they write amoral or morality-free stories, but few writers have truly shorn our Western value system. Even Seinfeld had a karmic ethos of deserved and undeserved comeuppance. Whether Buddy’s unscrupulous world-view and self-centered priorities are the symptom or the disease—or the cure—I leave that question to others. But I’ll take Buddy’s value system over Holden Caulfield’s cap-wringing and Tyler Durden’s under-microwaved existentialism every time.

Hate 28

Hate 28

For all the praise Bagge’s received for documenting the grunge era in Seattle, I say Bagge actually recorded something more important. HATE performs an X-ray on an oft-overlooked segment of the American population, the suburban-bred young adults who didn’t power through college and upward into the American workforce. Nor did they coast into the coastal creative classes thanks to a grandmother’s trust fund or their partner’s cushy income stream. They’re educated and savvy enough to hold down service work and low-paying professional jobs without falling backwards into poverty, the supposed only possible outcome in the traditional left-wing scripts handed down to us. They discovered early on that getting ahead in America is a far more vicious enterprise than it should be. They quit pretending upward mobility is even a worthy goal. Instead, they relented to a daily grind of work, alcohol, sex, and hate.

I’m not playing a violin for these folks. Neither is Peter Bagge. That’s kind of my whole point.

Now an admission: When I was 20 I resembled this guy more than any single figure in Bagge’s epic:

A good (and free) introduction to Bagge’s narrative and artistic style is “The Hasty Smear of My Smile”, an alternate history of postwar America and one of my favorite standalone strips he’s put together. Koo-koo-ka-choo.

More in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.