Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’
February 4, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Turning novels’ plots into data points.
Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?
The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.
Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »
January 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Japanese scrolls from the Edo period depict—yes—erumpent, competitive flatulence.
- Back to more dignified fare. Guess the classic novel from its first sentence.
- Fact: Kurt Vonnegut wrote a made-for-TV movie in 1972. It’s called Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy. Vonnegut later withdrew from the production: “I am not going to have anything more to do with film—for this reason: I don’t like film.” Well. As far as excuses go, that one’s airtight.
- “I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.” A new interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan.
- As any reader of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity knows, vagueness can be artful, but it’s especially so in Mandarin writing, where ambiguous sentences resemble optical illusions.
November 11, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
A rather large weapon.
The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
The ultimate terror weapon.
Of the Franco-Prussian War.
—Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction No. 64
August 2, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
- Thwarted in her quest to bring Jane Austen’s One Ring to the U.S., singer Kelly Clarkson has been forced to commission a replica.
- The Amazon powers that be have ensured that Vonnegut fan fic is now legal, and one can buy it via Amazon. “Bill Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is going to quickly become a Kindle Worlds favorite,” says a member of the Vonnegut trust, ominously.
- “I stay away from applied fields—it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretenses: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.” Confessions of an essay-mill writer.
- Presented without comment: “A Massachusetts resident pleaded guilty to stealing over $600,000 worth of books, audiobooks, and Legos.”
April 11, 2013 | by Je Banach
“Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
—Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)
When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.
On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.
How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?
Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More »