Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cat's Cradle

Do not be dismayed by the title! I realize that cats are smelly, underhanded creatures that meet when humans are asleep to deviously plot our demise. Fortunately, the cat in Cat’s Cradle* is not a literal one; the phrase refers to a string game involving two or more players. The first player initiates the game by creating a figure with their fingers and string that simultaneously depicts either a cat or a cradle, depending on the view. Players then go back and forth, creating subsequent figures from a pre-determined list. The game ends when a player chooses a dead-end figure. This sounds like a mind-numbingly boring game. I would rather Yo-Yo for 24 hours straight, performing the only trick I mildly know how to do—“Walk the Dog”—over and over. Regardless, it serves Kurt Vonnegut’s purposes.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He attended Cornell University where he majored in Chemistry and edited an independent, student-run newspaper. He was also a member of Delta Upsilon, so all you frat boys out there—you have a pretty intelligent brother in your midst. Later in life, he endured some horrific WWII combat experiences, one of which inspired his renowned novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Post-war, he attended the University of Chicago, where Cat’s Cradle served as his thesis. The novel was not only embraced by his professors and the public, Vonnegut himself rated it an A+ in comparison to his other novels.  

I whole-heartedly agree that this story is incredibly inventive; while the novel has a vague historical context, it is entirely fictional. It is narrated by John-- an ordinary man who intends to write a book about the day Hiroshima was bombed. Through this pursuit, he meets the three children of a deceased Felix Hoenikker, the fictitious creator of the atomic bomb. These children possess a secret which leads the entire crew to an island called San Lorenzo. On the surface, San Lorenzo is a Christian country that condemns followers of Bokononism to death. In reality, everyone—even the dictator—is a Bokononist. Political defiance, I like it already!

Bokononism is a faith unabashedly based on lies. The Book of Bokonon is full of foma – “harmless untruths” and Bokonon himself explicitly warns readers to take his religion with a grain of salt. Basically:



He claims that it is utterly foolish to think that you will ever be able to understand the ways of the world or speak knowingly about cosmic significance. What the hell do you know, you’re a stupid human?! I can only imagine how enjoyable it was for Vonnegut to create and define a bunch of kooky words within a kooky, fabricated religion. Implicit in this novel is the idea that all religion is fabricated; no belief system points to an absolute truth and no divine creed accurately explains the existence of humanity. Below is a brief list of some tenets of Bokononism:
  • Karass—a group of people that unknowingly help each other perform God’s will. Membership can supersede imposed boundaries like race, class, nationality, etc. Sometimes a karass consists of only two people who are particularly in-tune with each other—this is a duprass.
  • Granfalloon—a phony karass. You might think that a shared connection such as similar political stance, fellow college alumni status, or parallel career path could be indicative of a karass type bond, but this is not necessarily the case. This is comforting to me-- after homecoming at UVA last weekend, I realized that while I really enjoy the company of most of you, there are some of you who I think are total asshats and I’d prefer never to see you again, much less share a karass with you.
  • Vin-dit—an abrupt, hard shove towards believing in Bokononism. A calling, if you will. 
  • Wampeter- the pivot around which the souls of karass members revolve. A wampeter could be anything: a painting, a speech, a plot, a sleeping bag, etc. Additionally, wampeters are impermanent; they come and go, and there is always “one waxing in importance and one waning” (Vonnegut, 52).
Now that that list is over, hopefully I’ll be less bombarded by those little, annoying red squiggly lines coming at me from spell-check. In sum, Bokononism seeks to embody the notion that a useful religion can be founded on lies. San Lorenzo is an underdeveloped, unproductive country overpopulated with poor people. For its inhabitants--who lead miserable, stinking existences-- truth is the enemy. They want to escape the cold, brutal reality of their living standards. In order to distract them from their plight, Bokonon—the island’s ruler at one point, outlawed himself. He wanted to jazz up the people’s lives, noting that, “a really good religion is a form of treason” (Vonnegut, 173).

Though Bokononism seeks to make life more tolerable and peaceful, it does not shy away from cynicism related to the fate of mankind. It balances a wry, irreverent acceptance of the way life ultimately is with the desire to make things as enjoyable and entertaining as possible (absurdism, anyone?). As such, the only thing sacred in the religion is mankind. One story within The Book of Bokonon describes a man questioning his purpose in life. God retorts by inquiring why everything must have a purpose. When the man persists with his original query, God simply says, “‘Then I leave it to you to think of [a purpose] for all this,’” before he drops the mic and walks away (Vonnegut, 265). I did not realize that God had so much swag.

I have some ideas about the deeper meanings of this book; I could be completely pulling them out of my ass or I could (hopefully) be onto something. Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed humanist, i.e. he favors science over religion as a tool to make sense of the world. Because of his philosophical stance, I can do a little deducting. It is not difficult to observe—and personally feel for that matter—that humans are plagued by a throbbing need to have something to live for. In response, we often turn to religion to give our lives meaning and render our existence less mundane and inconsequential. Vonnegut feels that religions and the rituals that accompany them attempt to meet this human need but are sometimes destructive in the process.

Man is sacred in Bokononism which indicates that this particular religion is potentially on to something. According to Vonnegut, religion in general is pretty ridiculous; instead, let’s focus on human agency so that we can actually get some shit done. Towards the end of the book, John acknowledges “the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought…the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it” (Vonnegut, 284). Newt, one of the Hoenikker children, is a midget. Ruthlessly ridiculed, he would probably love to lie to himself about his height to get through the day, but he obviously cannot. Walking beside another person or stopping to look in the mirror would shatter that lie. So, reality is not always that great and we might not effectively squash our desire for purposeful lives on a wider scale. BUT…let’s do the best we can with what we have and try and adopt a human-centered philosophy that encourages active participation in life and love for all our fellow creatures.

Now, what’s the deal with the title? “Cat’s Cradle” as a game begins with a figure that can be seen as a cat or a cradle, depending on one’s perspective. In my opinion, Vonnegut is making a parallel between the number of different shapes you can make with the string and the various religions we desperately cling to in our attempts at self-assurance. All religions: Bokononism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., are the same in that they’re made of lies. (Of note: this is my interpretation of Vonnegut and not necessarily reflective of my own beliefs). I am not entirely sure if that is what he meant by the title, but I love that the novel still has me ruminating on the subject and I’m open to suggestions. That being said, there are multiple additional controversial topics underlying the text (arms race, technology, science) that I did not have time to discuss here but might be of interest to another reader.

Overall, I found the novel brilliant and captivating; the story was queer and the philosophy behind it was stimulating. Furthermore, it was a very easy read, with short, digestible chapters. I am a total sucker for gallow’s humor and I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who shares that predilection. Even if you’re not into religion, philosophy, science, being entertained, expanding your knowledge base, etc., the Bokonon aphorisms are both comical and wise enough to draw you in. Lastly, there is a group of people who form the “Camp of Bokonon” and attend Burning Man every year. Considering Burning Man looks like one of the most incredible events that mankind could possibly participate in, I’d say that that confirms this novel is deserving of the 5 out of 5 camel hump realm.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: The Dial Press, 1963. Print.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone girl*—there’s a girl, and she’s gone! The title does most of my summarizing for me, so I’ll keep it brief and show you the decency of not giving away any more than the back of the book does. As most of you may know, this novel is the inspiration behind the newly released Oscar-buzzing film. Like any female who has eyes, I have a huge crush on Ben Affleck. When I heard that he was going full on nude for this film, I decided I had to read this book as quickly as humanly possible before I could hit the theatres. I’ll put on my movie critic cap for a hot second and say that he honestly was spot on in his portrayal of the character. That naked chick from the Blurred Lines music video also makes an appearance, so guys and girls alike can enjoy because ~objectification is in~.

The novel itself is divided into thirds and each chapter goes back and forth between the husband (Nick Dunne) and the wife (Amy Dunne). Nick’s sister, Margo, is also heavily involved which is tight because she reminds me of Kim Kelly from Freaks and Geeks. The see-saw structure allows the reader to see two perspectives of the same problem—a catastrophically failing marriage. Additionally, in my opinion, it serves as a metaphor for the tug-of-war nature of their relationship. Having been betrothed for five years, they begin to succumb to the claustrophobic strains of both financial and relational hardships; their increasingly blatant lack of connection causes them to become people that they didn’t want to be (nagging, untrusting, overbearing, etc.) which in turn creates an even deeper rift between them due to resentment. Their obligations slowly morph into “Love-Honor-and Obey” because they can no longer differentiate between the concepts of love and control (Flynn, 352). The matrimonial trifecta—wow, marriage sounds like so much fun!

Their marriage was not always necessarily destined for doom; it actually had the makings of a very healthy, enduring relationship in its incipient stage. Sure, their backgrounds seemed incontrovertibly incompatible—she was a trust fund girl from an uptight family and he didn’t even know how to pronounce quinoa. In his defense, I only discovered quinoa even existed as a substance a little over a month ago (on Labor Day to be exact—shout out to my girl Callie Jones). Truthfully, I still don’t know how to pronounce it. Despite his lack of suitable grain knowledge, they hit it off with some ground rules in mind. Most importantly, they refused to settle. They mocked “if only” relationships in which married men and women claimed that their marriage would be better off “if only…” (Flynn, 29). They acknowledged that one of the benefits of being with someone is to be known and understood intuitively. This notion reminds readers that maybe there is a certain shallowness to a relationship if it does not challenge you. They helped make each other who they are…which leads them to wonder who they are without each other.

Of course, this can all get very tricky. What if who you are to them isn’t really who you are? There are disastrous consequences of pretending to be something you’re not just to get someone to like you. Reason number 928348 why you should order a burger on the first date rather than a salad, otherwise it’s just bad precedent. In all seriousness, it’s obviously unsustainable to keep up appearances when you’re in an intimate relationship—there’s nothing intimate about pretenses. Their passion for each other is thus tempered by their inability to fully define themselves. For instance, Amy mentions that she doesn’t want to be someone people just like; she’d hate to be written off simply as a “nice girl”. If you had to describe me with one word and you chose “nice”, I’d probably slap you in the face just to prove you wrong. People are complex and Amy doesn’t want to be one-dimensional; even if it means that things get a little messy, she’d rather spice it up. Preach.  Unfortunately, in the days before Amy goes missing, Nick felt like instead of knowing her, he was mostly trying to solve her. But was he the mastermind behind her disappearance?! You’ll have to read and see.

In terms of psychological insight, the novel does impressively well. It has some thought-provoking deeper-level moments of substance, like when Nick questions the sentience of humans. He is being so closely criticized in his response to his wife’s disappearance that oftentimes he is forced to artificially craft his emotions in order to garner support. He’s seen the movies, read the books, and perused the articles—he knows how a caring, loving husband is supposed to react when his wife goes missing. And isn’t that to some degree what we all do? We draw on all of the emotional data we’ve subconsciously collected over the years and subsequently understand how to appropriately respond to a given situation. To be simplistic, our reactions might stem from the brain rather than the heart because “we are all working from the same dog-eared script”—a script which reflects what others have already done/said/looked like in a similar scenario (Flynn, 73). I can’t help but think of my post on Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception* in which he claims that each of us is an “island universe” only capable of empathizing with one another by synthesizing what we’ve witnessed or experienced in the past (Huxley, 13). Food for thought.

Overall, I felt that the novel was largely a commentary on how women sometimes feel (whether it’s true or not) that most men want to fashion them for their own purposes rather than let them just be themselves. This is an interesting and semi-valid complaint considering the utter lack of female agency until recent decades. At the same time, it's not that straightforward. Flynn does not want to put anything or anyone into a defined box--including feminism. In light of this, I wondered what the author’s husband thought about her writing. Like, “Hey honey, when you put that bit in about the husband and wife hating each other deep down…uh… that doesn’t reflect how you feel about me, riiiight?” Gillian Flynn has published three novels: Sharp Objects (2006), Dark Places (2009), and Gone Girl (2012). I have not read the other two but I can imagine these names are not exactly comforting to a husband. He is a lawyer—hopefully a divorce attorney so he can divorce her ass if she ends up adopting the ways of her fictional characters.

At the risk of sounding like a complete and total douche, this book is excellent for some lowbrow reading. Everyone needs their light literature dessert, so to speak, and this will reasonably quench your thirst for a suspenseful crime drama. Kind of like eating a bowl of Blue Bell ice cream (the only ice cream anyone should be eating, the South does it right) without whipped cream. I mean it’s really good and everything…but you could do better. The novel is extremely creative but it’s also sort of a cheap—albeit masterful—exploitation of the reader’s emotions to make it more entertaining. Consequently, Gone Girl gets 3 out of 5 camel humps. The most significant factor in my rating was the handful of plot holes in the ending—admittedly though, it was a tough story-line to finish writing. Still, fairly disappointing when a novel is air tight for the first two thirds before it goes caput.

*Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.


*Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004. Print.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Catch-22

Catch 22: A paradoxical dilemma in which a condition inevitably intrinsic to a specific problem is simultaneously responsible for preventing the solution.

Now, what does that actually mean in real-life? Say, for instance, that your parents make you get a job but also mandate that you drive yourself there. You don’t have the funds to buy a car because you don’t have a job yet; you can’t get the job because you don’t have any way of getting there. It’s a lose-lose situation. My personal advice to this individual with asshole parents: move out of whatever shitty city you’re in that completely lacks public transportation.

The term “Catch-22” is now a broadly used colloquialism, so it might be easy to forget that Joseph Heller was its seminal author with the introduction of this novel. The logical conundrum appears for the first time when the main character’s desire to be relieved from combat duty is complicatedly thwarted (Heller, 40). Yossarian (our leading man) is told that you can be discharged if you are diagnosed as crazy; however, you can only be discharged if you apply. If you apply to be removed from a warzone where you can very easily be off-ed at any moment, you are utilizing rational faculties which prove that you are certainly not crazy. Basically, you’re screwed.

Like Yossarian, Heller himself served in the Air Force during World War II. Upon return, he pursued higher education to refine his writing skills. He began writing Catch-22* in 1953 and it was published in full eight years later. Presumably drawing from his own wartime experiences, Heller imbues the book with a cold-hearted satirical cynicism. Each character is presented more as a caricature in order to mockingly amplify the ridiculousness of war. As a result, there is not a whole lot of plot necessary to drive the novel; instead, he just throws a bunch of guys with nonsensical personalities into a military base and hilarity ensues. In order to coax out the core themes of the novel, here is a short list of takeaways embodied in a few of my favorite characters:

·         The arbitrariness of allegiance: Nately, an affluent, well-intentioned but naïve lieutenant firmly asserts that risking your life for your country is an honor-- especially a country as infallible as the United States (Heller, 245). To his surprise, an old man in the whorehouse where he so triumphantly declares this “fact” finds the comment contentious. The elderly gentleman thinks it is absurd that everyone should be so gung-ho to die for their particular country when a country is merely a lump of land with unnatural, arbitrary boundaries. Yossarian echoes this sentiment when he notes, “‘It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead’” (Heller, 120).

·         The “dilemma of duty and damnation” (Heller, 134): The word “duty” is tossed about quite frequently, primarily by the authorities in charge who are never actually forced into combat. Men like Colonel Cathcart “believed that all men were created equal, and he therefore spurned all men outside Group Headquarters with equal fervor” (Heller, 53). Frankly, my dear lowly lieutenants, us higher-ups just don’t give a damn! Cathcart continues to raise the number of missions required to complete a tour of duty just as Yossarian is about to break free. In fact, Cathcart actually prefers more casualties and more difficult missions for his men so that he can appear favorable in the media. Yossarian is, naturally, taken aback by this warped line of thinking. When he is sent to therapy, the military psychologist ironically exclaims, “you have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You’re dangerous and depraved!” (Heller, 300). Talk about bureaucratic nonsense.

Another authoritative figure known as ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen superciliously explains that everyone has their duty in the war effort. If his is to sit behind a desk and shuffle papers while Yossarian faces death on the front lines, so be it. He is even affronted by Yossarian’s non-masculine reluctance, stating, “if you’re destined to be killed over Bologna, then you’re going to be killed, so you might just as well go out and die like a man” (Heller, 119). How silly of Yossarian to not embrace fatalism.

And indeed, Yossarian does no such embracing. He defiantly maintains that “history did not demand [his] premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it…that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and [he] was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance” (Heller, 63). But you’ll get medals if you do some brave things, Yossarian! What a joke…to Yossarian, “all [trophies] signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else” (Heller, 67). Get em.

·         The murkiness of morality: Because Yossarian is surrounded by so much death and destruction, he isn’t exactly super fond of the big man upstairs. In an enraged tirade he rants, “What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly, little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious He never met a payroll” (Heller, 177). Lolol I love when Yossarian gets pissy. And understandably… morality in war is murky to say the least. I took a course in “Just War” at UVA and we had difficulty even defining the course name. During one of Yossarian’s several complaints to officials about the ever-rising number of missions, only one guy gives an unintentionally sagacious retort. Colonel Korn wonders aloud whether it would be any different if the men currently on duty were actually replaced with new ones like they legally should have been—either way, somebody is going to die (Heller, 389). Even the Chaplain acknowledges the fickle nature of morality when he discovers that you can pretty much rationalize any sin you commit (Heller, 364). You know you’ve hit a wall when the religious guy can’t give you an opinion on what’s moral and what’s not.

Towards the end of the novel, Yossarian frankly refuses to do any more missions. “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (Heller, 406). His insolence had to be dealt with swiftly so that the other men would not follow suit; therefore, the colonels offered him a deal that opened up a can of morality worms. He would be allowed to go home if he merely pretended that he and the colonels were “pals” and returned singing praises about his authorities for public relation purposes. He could either take the deal or be court-martialed; however, accepting the offer would mean abandoning his comrades and leaving them in the hands of suppressive powers. I won’t tell you what he decides :)

·         Sex and coercion: Women play a very interesting part in the novel. As a woman, I am pretty into that. The objectification of women is rampant and virtually every female character is either a prostitute by profession or employs sex for manipulative purposes. They are depicted as sexually voracious creatures that discriminate very little. In my opinion, these women, who are slaves to a vicious sexual cycle that is their only claim to fame, serve as a mirror for the men in combat who are slaves to an institution that allegedly gives them glory but in reality deadens their emotions and their hearts until they are in fact dead.

·         The fragility of man: Not only are these men entirely powerless in the face of women because of their lust, they also inevitably succumb to mortality. Yossarian realizes the hard away that men are fragile beings. When one of his friends dies, he macabrely relays, “it was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter…drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage” (Heller, 442).

Overall, Heller is able to masterfully discuss these themes through characters who never leave you bored. He also happens to be absolutely hilarious. The novel is divided into chapters, each one concerned with a different character; therefore, it is not chronologically linear. Because of this, the jokes inter-loop and many of them are made funny through repetition. The style reminds me of one of my favorite shows—“Arrested Development”. It wasn’t necessarily funny the first time around when they did the chicken dance…when Michael couldn’t pronounce Anne’s name… when J. Walter Weathermen taught the kids a lesson (like why it’s always important to leave a note)…when George Michael showed off his Star Wars dance moves… or when anyone, anywhere says Annyong. But it sure as hell was funny the second time. Similarly, Catch-22 has its own set of ongoing jokes. Here’s a brief list for the amusement of those who have read the novel: Colonel Korn’s letters home to family/friends of the deceased, Milo Minderbinder’s chocolate covered cotton, Chief White Halfoat dying of pneumonia, Washington Irving/Irving Washington, and Nately’s crazy whore. 

Catch-22’s comicality is also fueled by Heller’s imaginative writing style which ensures that irrationally is pervasive in the novel. His dry humor coupled with exaggerated irony renders many of the statements and character descriptions ludicrous. Again, here is a list of a few examples:

-“‘I’m not saying that to be cruel and insulting’, he continued with cruel and insulting delight” (Heller, 303).
-“People who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was” (Heller, 78).
-“He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody” (Heller, 27).
-“‘Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Yossarian knew what he meant.  ‘That’s not what I meant,’ Doc Daneeka said as Yossarian began scratching his back” (Heller, 28).

And my personal favorite…
-“You have a morbid aversion to dying” (Heller, 304).

Because of Heller’s impressive ability to make me laugh AND think critically, I give this novel 5 out of 5 camel humps. I know that I’ll have to read the whole thing again at some point to truly appreciate all of the intricacies--and the fact that I enjoyed it so much the first time around is telling. Considering this book has emerged as a cult classic, I am certainly not the only one to feel this strongly. In fact, when Heller interviewed for the novel on the Today show, the host at the time revealed some underground stickers he had made saying: YOSSARIAN LIVES. I think these should be the next KONY 2012 stickers…except this time the originator hopefully won’t have a public breakdown in which he runs around naked, screaming and cursing.


*Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1955. Print.