Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fates Worse Than DeathFates Worse Than Death by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average American child watches 18,000 TV murders before it graduates from high school."

I share a substantial portion of my worldview with Kurt Vonnegut so when I read his books I must feel like the huge majority of Internet users who read only the stuff that they agree with: we crave confirmation that we are so very right. Alas this also means that I probably tend to overrate Vonnegut's books even when they are not that outstanding. Fates Worse than Death (1991) is not a very good book at all - unfocused, repetitive, tedious in places - yet I still like it a lot. How can one not like reading things that one agrees with?

The subtitle, An Autobiographical Collage, aptly characterizes this collection of speeches, short pieces of writing, and ruminations on various topics, which makes Fates quite similar to Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons , although Fates is a significantly less cohesive work. Even if the 1945 bombing of Dresden is still a major topic I will omit it here because I have already written about it in reviews of other works by Vonnegut, including his absolute masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five .

One of the other main themes is the environment. Note the book was written over a quarter of a century ago, when worrying about climate change, etc. was not as popular as it is now. Mr. Vonnegut had been passionate about the human race destroying the planet for our children and grandchildren well before most of us began thinking about it. While speaking at MIT he begged the graduating class to take an oath that they will use their extraordinary technical skills only to the benefit of the planet.

Mr. Vonnegut spends a substantial portion of the book attacking the deadly one-two punch of what I call the "American culture of murder." A US citizen is born and raised in the parareligious cult of guns as devices signifying and guaranteeing freedom; this cult is continually reinforced by the never-ending stream of murders depicted by the TV and entertainment industry (as mentioned in the epigraph). The author says:
"Who needs a Joseph Goebbels to make us think killing is as quotidian an activity as tying one's shoes? All that is needed is a TV industry [...]"
Book censorship is a topic that should be dear to members of Goodreads and Vonnegut's books had been banned in certain places, ostensibly for vulgarity but in reality for not conforming to the views of the majority of people.
"There is the word 'motherfucker' one time in my Slaughterhouse-Five [...] Ever since that book was published, way back in 1969, children have been attempting to have intercourse with their mothers. When it will stop no one knows."
Clearly the m-word corrodes the moral fiber of the society. Another hilarious passage is devoted to "the wittiest limerick in the world", which is "so obscene that it could never be made public in any form." We can read the unspeakably obscene poem courtesy of Rita Rait, the Russian translator of Vonnegut's works.

On a serious note, the theme that speaks to me the strongest in the entire collection is the author's rant about the insanity of encouraging people "to do their best at loving [other people]." The natural inability to love other people leads to hate; people should be told to respect others instead. Vonnegut says "I like to think that Jesus said in Aramaic, 'Ye shall respect one another.'" Anyway, Fates, objectively, is not an above average work, yet I almost love it because I respect the author's intentions.

Two and a half stars.

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