Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wampeters, Foma and GranfalloonsWampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is an implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry - or laugh."

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1964 - 1974) is - as Kurt Vonnegut describes it himself - "a collection of some of the reviews and essays I have written, a few speeches I have made." This very uneven collection, in which the "meh" pieces overshadow the interesting ones, is a rather disappointing mix of deep insights, well-aimed bitter sarcasm, trademark Vonnegut's pessimism, aimless ramblings, and even outright failed pieces of writing.

One of the best essays, Excelsior! We're Going to the Moon! Excelsior!, is about the space program, its tremendous costs and meager benefits. More importantly, though, it is about profanation of great human ideas and iconic symbols of progress by commercialism through "schlock merchandising schemes" of advertising. I also like the Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970. It is a well argued, grim manifesto of pessimism that contains statements like "Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get better again", where the objects of author's sarcasm are well deserving of scorn. The piece about the war in Biafra is, in turn, extremely serious, dramatic, and as moving as the unforgettable Slaughterhouse Five

The story Teaching the Unteachable satirizes summer writing schools; Mr. Vonnegut, who was an instructor at one of these schools, states the obvious "You can't teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do." On the other hand, I am completely unable to "get" the short play Fortitude that features, among others, a Dr. Frankenstein. As much as I have been trying to give the benefit of doubt to one of my favorite writers, I don't think the text makes much sense. One of the pieces in the collection is Mr. Vonnegut's interview for the Playboy magazine. Playboy used to have some top-notch conversations with famous people, alas the one here, rambling, unfocused, and superficial, is certainly not one of them. The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky is another aimless piece.

So while I agree with Mr. Vonnegut's deeply pessimistic opinion about many aspects of our society, primarily about the commercialism that soils every lofty idea it encounters, I am unable to recommend the collection. Let's at least end with another neat quote:
"Earth is such a pretty blue and pink and white pearl in the pictures NASA sent me. It looks so *clean*. You can't see all the hungry, angry Earthlings down there - and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry."
Two stars.

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