Welcome to Summer Reads!
In this segment Ball State English brings you a selection of recommended reads to get you through the long Summer Break.
Why should we read these, Robert?
A younger version of me fell in love with Vonnegut shortly after reading Slaughterhouse Five in high school. That younger version of me proceeded to completely devour as many of his books as possible. I read The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and even Slapstick (which is not a very good book, by the way). It was a furious summer of reading. Two of the books I devoured that summer that I’d like to highlight here were Hocus Pocus and Timequake. They’re the last two novels he ever wrote, and they might be two of my favorites, and yet I rarely hear people talk about them.
Both of these novels bear the trademark Vonnegut style of frenetic, non-chronological storytelling. I’ve always enjoyed how Vonnegut will spell out the endings of his books early on, and yet still find ways to keep you interested (“It ends like this: ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”). Hocus Pocus and Timequake are no different.
Vonnegut has his satire sights set firmly upon the Vietnam War in Hocus Pocus, but the book also has things to say about the majority of American life. Calling it a novel might be a bit of a stretch, as the book is built entirely out of short, mostly paragraph or shorter chunks of text. This is due to the fact that Vonnegut wrote the entire book on a series of scraps of paper (letters, paper bags, etc.), and the novel is presented in this way. This gives the novel a kind of quickness to it. It’s a fast read, and it seems all over the place, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The structure is about the madness of thought, and it’s something that Vonnegut manages to control.
Vonnegut’s always danced on that line between science fiction and traditional literary fiction. Hocus Pocus, however, has little to no sci-fi elements, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of satire here. In fact, this is the one I remember when I think of his most biting satire. He’s got things to say about everything from the military and war to class, being a teacher, and just America in general. Due to the structure of the book being quite disparate, it’s hard to latch onto a concrete plot, but the novel succeeds in filling in the gaps with Vonnegut’s humor and strong voice, which adds to the character.
There’s always an ever present element of autobiography in Vonnegut’s work. It doesn’t take much to notice, but none of his books have more of this aspect than his final novel Timequake. Marketed as a novel, this book really can’t be called that. Or can it? The book goes back and forth between nostalgically reminiscing about various events in Vonnegut’s life and ruminating on a novel he struggled to write called Timequake, wherein the whole world of 2001 is sent back in time to 1991 to relive the entire decade. People are forced to make the exact same choices that they did previously, relive the entire stretch of time, aware, and unable to change. People are forced to relive miserable car crashes and watch their loved ones die all over again. The book digs deep into themes of sadness, depression, and how people cope and move on. It’s not exactly a happy read by the way, but there’s a bittersweet quality to it.
As stated previously, Timequake waxes back and forth between this other novel and what essentially amounts to creative non-fiction—Vonnegut writing of his own life, inserting himself into the novel. The book is split into chapters, but the chapters themselves are very arbitrary, as a chapter break will rarely end a train of thought or mark the end of a scene. Vonnegut’s trademark cynicism is present, but Timequake always struck me as being deep down actually quite sincere. There’s a lot of emotion in the book, especially in the sections where he talks about his sister and brother, and this one more than any of his other books really stuck with me as being quite emotional.
If you’re someone who was a fan of Vonnegut in the past but never tried out his later novels, give them a read; both of these novels feel profoundly different from his earlier work. Alternatively, if you’re someone looking for a few additions to your summer reading list, give them a read! They won’t disappoint. Or maybe they will. Nobody’s perfect.