I am attempting to be a humor writer. There’s a statement that calls for more than a little rationalization. Why would anyone want to be funny? Especially why would a manic-depressive sick-old former school teacher want to be funny and write books for young people that tackle subjects like suicide, lying, nudity, sex, trans-genderism, death, suffering, religion, alien invasions, and getting old? (Well, okay, getting old is inherently funny… especially the noises you unintentionally make from orifices and joints whenever you try to sit, move, lift, eat, or breathe.) I ask myself this question only because I need to get to 500 words and stretch out the hoopti-doo to cover up the fact that I already know the answer and it is short and simple. Joking about the things that tear your life apart is the only way to handle things and not become a serial killer. (Make that cereal killer, especially Kellogg’s cereal of any and every description. I am a very loving and accepting fool at heart and could never kill even one person… probably even in self-defense.) I recently took a Who-do-you-write-like test that I found on another blog at All Things Chronic. Here is the link; https://painkills2.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/who-do-you-write-like/
That silly little analyzer took a bit of my purple paisley prose and churned out a horror-writer answer, H.P. Lovecraft. The Lord of the Old Mad Gods and Moonbeasts is a particular favorite of mine, one of several writers whose novels I have read everything I can get my hands on. I still sleep with the lights on at night because of The Dunwich Horror, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I am mad with admiration for his allusions to gibbering sounds and unholy terrors that taint and transfix our lives with fear to the very marrow of the bones. I have to admit, I like the idea of being compared to him, in spite of the fact that he tries to inspire fear and madness, while I aim for goofiness and gaiety. It is a delicious irony to try always to be Mark-Twain funny while writing with a horror writer’s convoluted and dictionary-intensive style.
And don’t get the idea from my mention of him in this self-reflecting ramble through jumbled ideas that I really believe I am as funny as Mark Twain. I am not deluded or mentally ill… well, not deluded, anyway. I am still learning to make people laugh with words. And I don’t mean to be mean about it. I don’t do George Carlin F**k-the-world-style humor. I don’t even do Don Rickles-style insults. I am more in favor of gentle humor. I am not looking to call anybody names or trying to make certain folks look like Biblical-word-for-donkeys. (Not even Republicans named Rick in yesterday’s post). I want to show fictional people undergoing some of the dark things that filled my life with hurt, and doing it with the grace and good humor that only comes from a heart full of self-sacrificing love. (Gee, no wonder I find comedy hard… I have chosen the most difficult and elusive kind of humor for my art. I’d do a lot better with poo-poo jokes.) (Oh, wait, I do poo-poo jokes, don’t I. This one counts too.)
I wonder if I made a mistake yesterday in portraying Senator Ted Cruz as a lizard man from outer space. Was that a mean, name-calling sort of joke? Or was I painting him in broad, humorous strokes with my colored pencils? Once again, you can be the judge. Here’s the picture again. And you get to decide if anything I have ever said is funnier than it is just plain sad.
My experience of the works of Kurt Vonnegut is limited to the reading of three books; Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. But it was enough to make me love him and use him as a shaper of my soul.
I deeply apologize for the fact that even though he only wrote 14 books and a bunch of short stories, I have not read everything I could get my hands on by Kurt. Three novels and one short story (Harrison Bergeron) is not really enough to compare to the many, many things that I have read by Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Louis L’Amour, and Michael Crichton. I can’t begin to count how many books of each of those four I have read and reread. But it is enough that I read those three novels and have a lifelong regret of never buying and reading Slapstick when I had the chance. Vonnegut writes black humor. The ideas are painful, and burn away flesh from your personal body of being. And at the same time, you cannot help but laugh at the pure, clean, horrifying truths his ridiculous stories reveal.
If, in the course of telling a story, you can put the sublime, the ridiculous, and the horrendous side by side, and make the reader see how they actually fit together, then you can write like Vonnegut.
Let me give you three quick and dirty book reports of the Vonnegut I have read in the order I have read them;
I read Cat’s Cradle in college. I was young and idealistic at the time, foolishly convinced I could be a great writer and cartoonist who could use my work to change mankind for the better.
In the book, Dr. Felix Hoenikker (a fictionalized co-creator of the atomic bomb) is obsessively re-stacking cannonballs in the town square in pursuit of a new way to align water molecules that will yield ice that does not melt at room temperature. Much as he did with the A-bomb, Hoenikker invents a world-ending science-thing without any thought for the possible consequences. The narrator of the novel is trying to write a humanizing biography of the scientist, and comes to observe the inevitable destruction of the whole world when the oceans freeze into Ice-9, the un-meltable ice crystal. Before the world ends, the narrator spends time on the fictional Carribean island of San Lorenzo where he learns the fictional religion known as Bokononism, and learns to make love to a beautiful woman by pressing bare feet together sole to sole. It is a nihilistic picture of what humans are really like more savagely bleak than any portrayal Monte Python’s Flying Circus ever did on TV.
Needless to say, my ideals were eventually shattered and my faith in the world shaken.
I read Breakfast of Champions after I had been teaching long enough to buy my own house, be newly married, and a father to one son. It was probably the worst time of life to be reading a book so cynical, yet true.
In this story, the author Kilgore Trout, much published but mostly unknown, is headed to Midland City to deliver a keynote address at an arts festival. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy business man who owns a lot of Midland City real-estate. Trout gives Hoover a book (supposedly a message from the creator of the universe) to read that suggests that all people (except for the reader of the book… meaning Hoover) are machines with no free will. Hoover takes the message to heart and tries to set the machines free by breaking them, beating up his son, his lover, and nine other people before being taken into custody.
The book contains devastating themes of suicide, free will, and social and economic cruelty. It makes you sincerely reflect on your own cog-in-the-machine reality.
Slaughterhouse Five is a book I bought and read when I missed my chance to buy Slapstick and needed something to take home from HalfPrice Books to make me feel better about what I missed. (Of the five books I had intended to buy that day, none were still on the shelves in spite of the fact that they had been there the week before.) It was fortuitous. This proved to be the best novel I had ever read by Vonnegut.
Like most of his work, the story of Billy Pilgrim is a fractured mosaic of small story pieces not presented in chronological order. It details Billy’s safe, ordinary marriage to a wife who gives him two children, but it is ironically cluttered with death, accidents, being stalked by an assassin, and being kidnapped by aliens. It also details his experiences in World War II where he is captured by the Germans, held prisoner in Dresden, kept in an underground slaughterhouse, and ironically survives the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Further, it details his time as a zoo exhibit on the alien planet of Tralfamadore.
It explores the themes of depression, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and anti-war sentiment. Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing, so real-life experiences fill the book with gravitas that it might not otherwise possess. Whether the author was ever kidnapped by aliens or not, I cannot say.
But Kurt Vonnegut’s desire to be a writer and portray himself as a writer in the character of Kilgore Trout, and even as himself in his work, has an awful lot to do with my desire to be a writer myself. Dark, pithy wisdom is his thing. But that wisdom, having been wrung from the darkness is all the more brightly lit because of that wringing. It is hard to read, but not hard to love.
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