Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut (audiobook)

When listening to an audiobook of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, something I've now done about 5 times, I'm always acutely aware that I'm missing the doodles and whatnot that sometimes appear in Vonnegut's work.  The truth is, I do most of my "reading" these days via Audible, so I've always accepted that if I want to "read" any Vonnegut before I die, I'm okay with the compromise.

I actually finished this book a week ago and just realized today I'd never written anything about it.  And, here's a secret - my audience for this blog is myself.  I more or less write up posts so I have some time to think about whatever I just watched or read, so I have an opportunity to break it up a bit and not just let media wash over me, watch it or read it and forget it.

For good or ill, I also haven't read anything new yet, so it's still relatively fresh.

This book arrived late in Vonnegut's career, published in 1990, his second to last book.

I am reminded of a story a co-worker of mine once shared, a PhD in Computer Science.  He told of meeting/ seeing Douglas Engelbart at a conference.  Engelbart, passed in 2013, and was the pioneer of human/ computer interaction.  Much of what people say about what Steve Jobs brought to computing for the everyman?  Engelbart was ahead of him a decade or so before.  Unfortunately, SRI and Xerox were unable to productize his achievements.

My colleague described feeling the man was tired and deeply saddened, even among his supposed peers.   A man so smart, so ahead of his time, he'd been misunderstood during his heyday and even by the time my colleague saw him speak.  A man who saw the full picture, but no one around him could understand what it was he was trying to say.

Here's Engelbart using a mouse to pitch http in 1968.  For those of us who grew up prior to 1990, I am sure you share my reaction of "wtf...?"

Vonnegut, fortunately, was at least appreciated in his time.  He didn't necessarily share the love back, but he sold some books, got some good reviews, etc...  He became a household word.

But Hocus Pocus, released in 1990 when the author would have been 68, strikes me as the work of a person hopelessly at odds with a mad world.  He's set the novel in the near future to 1990, predicting a police state and rioting in familiar towns, all in casually dropped details.  The gleeful sale of the future out from under the feet of people utterly unaware the place was even on the market to others who can stand to make a profit, even if it means turning a university into a prison.

There's an endless amount to unpack from Hocus Pocus, and I won't do the book the disservice of trying to do so here.   I will say - I believe I missed something by missing the form of the book, the doodles, the break in pages tied to the supposed writing of the book on scraps of paper.

That said, it's a book written in a low, seething anger not present in the other Vonnegut books I've read.  Whether this is good or bad, I can't say.  It just is.  It's a man who is certain the madness he feels is all too predictable and entirely avoidable if we tried, will most certainly come to pass again.  We fail to see the bigger picture, we're too pre-occupied to see the machine in motion.  He's talking to an audience that wants to get lost in the weeds.  He's left a mad ahead of his time.

It's a curious read.  The poignancy of Slaughterhouse Five or God Bless You, Mister Rosewater is nowhere to be seen.  It's an accounting of a life lived as best one can, both in witnessing and participating in the machine of madness.

I don't know.  I'll think on it some more.


J.S. said...

I haven't read Hocus Pocus, but I've read a number of Vonnegut's earlier stuff (Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Welcome to the Monkey House). I'm kind of curious to read Hocus Pocus after your post. Sounds markedly different from the stuff that I've read. It doesn't surprise me that Vonnegut is a little more angry/frustrated in his later years. He always had a tremendous ability to articulate the absurdity of human nature and the human condition, but a lot of his earlier works contacting a large measure of hope as well. As he got older and became frustrated, watching people continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, maybe his work began to become a bit more frustrated and angry? I'm not sure. The important thing is that we'll always have his appearance in that most poetic of coming of age films, Back to School, to remember him by.

The League said...

I think the absurdity part is entirely intact. What's not there is the point of reference for hope, and the sheer magnitude of the satire, all of which feels a little close to home, like he doesn't have time for the usual tricks. There's an argument for what Vonnegut means, personally, about the Hocus Pocus, and we can discuss after you've read the book.

Maybe it all felt a little too close to home.