Kurt Vonnegut | Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Kurt Vonnegut.
This section contains 987 words
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Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

SOURCE: "Familiar Characters and Tricks of Vonnegut," in The New York Times, September 8, 1990, p. 16.

In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt characterizes Hocus Pocus as a "contest between comedy and despair" in which the latter gains the upper hand.

It should come as no surprise to Kurt Vonnegut's readers that one of the characters in his 13th and latest novel, Hocus Pocus, is Hiroshi Matsumoto, a survivor of Hiroshima.

But what may be modestly alarming is the almost affectionate mordancy with which Matsumoto's experience is described: "When the bomb was dropped, he was playing soccer during school recess. He chased a ball into a ditch at one end of the playing field. He bent over to pick up the ball. There was a flash and wind. When he straightened up, his city was gone. He was alone on a desert, with little spirals of dust dancing here and there."

Of course, it isn't Mr. Vonnegut who describes this frightening scene. It is one Eugene Debs Hartke, who, according to an introductory editor's note by K.V., wrote the whole of Hocus Pocus on little scraps of paper while waiting to be tried for some crime that will eventually be divulged by his narrative.

Eugene Debs Hartke, too, is a familiar Vonnegut creation. Not only is he hated by his children, who have promised never to speak to him again for innocently marrying a woman with insanity in her genes, he is also loathed by himself for all the killing and lying he did in Vietnam. So if there's anything you don't like about Eugene, he has probably beaten you to it. Besides, he has tuberculosis.

In Hocus Pocus, as usual in Mr. Vonnegut's fiction, there is a contest between comedy and despair, between the vaudeville curtain and the apocalyptic cloud. In the author's more recent novels these elements have finished in a tie, with the darkness of the author's vision balanced by the lightness of his style. Something was bound to give.

The lightness is there in Hocus Pocus: the diagrams in Mr. Vonnegut's hand, the typographicaltics, the cute tag lines. Opposite the title is a page filled with silhouettes of little men to illustrate the narrator's remark, "If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me."

There are lines separating passages within the novel's chapters to indicate where one scrap of paper ends and the next begins. As K.V. writes in his editor's note, "The shorter the passage, the smaller the scrap." Typical scraps end with lines like: "What a planet," "There went the ball game," "What a story!" "Too late now" or "So now I have tuberculosis. Cough, cough, cough."

There are even funny passages in Hocus Pocus, like the scene in which Eugene's long lost illegitimate son shows up and asks a series of questions based on lies Eugene told the boy's mother during their one-night stand; or Eugene's account of the perpetual-motion machines built by the founder of the college for the learning-disabled wealthy, where Eugene used to teach: "The longest my students and I could get the best of them to run was 51 seconds. Some eternity!"

But darkness and despair seem to have inched ahead in Hocus Pocus. True, many of Eugene's blacker lines can be dismissed as excessive. Of the notorious Donner-party cannibalism incident he writes, "People who can eat people are the luckiest people in the world." And some of the shorter scraps of the novel have entries like: "And the worst flaw is that we're just plain dumb. Admit it! You think Auschwitz was intelligent?" or "How embarrassing to be human."

Still, Eugene's tortured conscience can sneak up and whack you one. One of his students recalls how as a boy he got stuck between floors in a Bloomingdale's department-store elevator. He "believed himself to be at the center of a major event in American history." He was sure that everyone from his parents up to the President of the United States was aware of his problem. But after the elevator jolted upward and the doors slithered open, there were only customers waiting impatiently for the riders to get out so they could get in. To which Eugene responds that what the student has described "to perfection" is what "it was like to come home from the Vietnam War."

Elsewhere, Eugene reads an article called "The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamadore" in a magazine, Black Garterbelt. In it, an anonymous sci-fi writer describes how the wise inhabitants of Mr. Vonnegut's imaginary planet once dreamed of spreading life forms throughout the universe. They concluded that the most practical space travelers would be germs, but none were yet tough enough to make the trip. The elders decided it was up to earth's people to develop strong enough germs. So they fed a counterfeit line into the earthling's Creation myth: "Fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the Earth."


And there's Eugene's description of those "little dust devils" that Hiroshi Matsumoto saw spinning in the "blank tableland" when he picked his soccer ball out of that ditch.

But if you find yourself succumbing to the author's nuclear apoplexy, you need only to think about this atomic scene as carefully as Mr. Vonnegut seems to want you to do. Of course it isn't real. No one would have survived a nuclear explosion by ducking into a ditch. It is a cartoon conception, with the dust devils out of some "Roadrunner" short.

Similarly, all of Mr. Vonnegut's prose techniques are so worn and slick from use that they bounce away harmlessly. His vision may have darkened but he has been at his games too long to make one take him seriously.

Hocus Pocus: It's trickster's phony incantation. Most depressing of all are the holes in this performer's gloves.

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This section contains 987 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ross Clark