Monday, January 28, 2013

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Sometimes, I feel like the only person in the world who has a hard time loving Vonnegut. It’s not that I don’t enjoy any of his work—Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night both got positive reviews here—but there’s a part of me that feels like his grandfatherly tone and clever prose disguise a worldview that is empty, or at least shallow. Sirens of Titan did nothing to abuse me of that notion; although I enjoyed it, it’s by far the worst Vonnegut I’ve read.

The plot jumps everywhere, but in a nutshell, it follows a man named Malachi Constant, who has been marked by the universe to serve an important purpose. He’s informed of his destiny, although not of the purpose itself, by Winston Rumfoord, a man who’s gotten unstuck in time and space, not unlike Billy Pilgrim, and knows how everything shakes out. Malachi, in the course of the book, goes from the richest man in the world, to a nameless grunt on Mars, to an accidental pioneer on Mercury, and finally back to earth. It’s difficult to talk about the issues I had with the book without spoilers, so


Upon returning to earth, Malachi finds that he has become the figurehead of a new religion, one which sees the universe as a series of accidents. In a series of incidents orchestrated by Rumfoord, Malachi parallels Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and subsequent betrayal, although he is merely sent to another planet to live, rather than crucified, along with his unwilling wife and weird kid. Once on the planet, Malachi meets a Tralfamadorian named Salo who’s been stranded for years, waiting on a replacement part for his spaceship, a part that just happens to be Malachi’s son’s good luck charm.

In the end, we learn that Malachi’s entire existence—in fact, earth’s whole existence—has been orchestrated by the Tralfamadorians to get Salo his missing piece. This might work as a sort of punchline, although no one would want to spend a whole novel getting there, but Vonnegut doesn’t take that tack. Instead, Malachi’s existence, which has been more or less pointless, is glossed with probably the book’s most famous quote:

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn't want to be used by anybody.”

Keep in mind, Malachi has just learned that his entire life was predetermined for him by an alien race so that he could play the part of a cosmic UPS man, and he accepts it peacefully. I realize that Vonnegut is the patron saint of humanism, and there’s a very strong subtext to the novel that what made Malachi’s life worthwhile was not simply being a pawn of the universe but in the things that he did throughout his life. This, however, is undercut by Malachi’s complete lack of choice in the matter—he was a puppet, he didn’t lead a particularly happy life, and he had no choice in the matter. To his credit, Vonnegut acknowledges this at the very end of the novel, when Malachi dies and is given, by Salo, a hallucination of Heaven—but it's a cold comfort, an ending as empty as Malachi’s life.


Christopher said...

This is my roommate's favorite. Is it bad beyond being kind of condescending?

Brent Waggoner said...

It's just sort of empty to me. It's well-constructed and funny, but it just felt like empty literary calories.

Brent Waggoner said...

If someone sympathized with the worldview, I suppose they'd probably like it a lot more. Every Vonnegut I've read was a lot better though.