There has never been a better time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut. To begin with, today is his 94th birthday. Second, we appear to be living inside one of his novels, with an egocentric billionaire slouching toward the White House, the National Anthem at the center of controversy, and our entire existence increasingly descending into a parody of itself (for more on all of this, see my article What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?)
But where to begin? The first Vonnegut novel was published over six decades ago. In the next fifty years of his life, he wrote another thirteen novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, one play, and created a series of paintings and drawings.
I’m here to tell you where to start, and how. You should read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, if you haven’t already. Should you read all of them? That depends. But you should at least read one of them. (Note: this blog post originally began as something I wrote for the /r/truebooks subreddit, for people looking to read more Vonnegut and not sure where to start.)
In order to give you some guidance in determining a reading order for his lists, I’ve divided his novels into three tiers:
Tier One: The novels to start with. His masterpieces. Or, if you’re only going to read one or two of his novels, choose one from this list.
Tier Two: The ones to read after you’ve burned through the first tier. Not that these are worse, but they are perhaps less accessible, or won’t make as much sense unless you’ve read the others first.
Tier Three: The novels that are either very bizarre, very meta-fictional, less novels than thought experiments, or the ones that expect you to have a greater understanding of who Vonnegut is before tackling.
Make sense? Let’s begin:
Which Vonnegut Novel to Read First?
So you want to read a Vonnegut novel, but not sure which one? I recommend beginning with one of these four:
Or, When Did We Start Living in a Fictional Satire?
I’ve compared recent events—and, in particular, this presidential election—to many things: Armageddon, Alien, every Batman story, and almost every ’90s action movie.
But there is one painful metaphor that I have not explored: the 2016 election appears to have been written by writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut.
I first started pondering the question of did Vonnegut write our current political climate this spring, when my aunt (a librarian) pointed out to me how much Donald Trump resembles a Vonnegut character.
I soon googled trump vonnegut and was surprised not to see more about it. I found a handful of articles, but none that fully explored the extent to which the candidate Donald Trump seems to have sprung straight from a Vonnegut novel. Nor did anyone mention the extent to which this entire election resembles a Vonnegut-penned narrative and universe.
Donald Trump made waves this week by releasing his list of SCOTUS picks. He must’ve had some help from a buddy of his, as the list was conspicuously absent of either John Grisham or Mark Geragos.
But let’s be real. We all know that Candidate Trump might be making half-hearted attempts at adult opinions (when he isn’t saying Ted Cruz’s father is an assassin ), but President Trump, if he comes into existence, will be 100% insanity. Grisham or Geragos would be too legit for President Trump. If elected, Trump’s pick for SCOTUS will be, at worst, Bret Michaels and, at best, Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill.
Jeb(!) Bush recently made headlines by declaring he would not vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, proclaiming “I cannot support his candidacy.” With this announcement, he has fallen into rank with Lindsay Graham, Mitt Romney, and the other two Presidential Bushes, in saying that he will not support either the Democrat or the Republican candidate for president in the 2016 election.
It is with these words that the power shifts from one man to another in the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, as the terrorist and demagogue Bane rests a hand on the shoulder of corrupt, scheming businessman John Daggett. This is Daggett’s last moment alive, realizing that he staked everything on empowering a brutal man he never controlled. It’s a relevant moment, echoed in the recent power struggle happening within the Republican party.
“Tomorrow you claim what is rightfully yours.” – Bane, to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises
The majority of Batman characters were created in either 1939 or the 1940s, heroes and villains alike. We have compared Donald Trump to four Batman villains so far, each of which first appeared in the early ’40.s Bane is unlike the rest of these, making his first appearance in 1993.
Bane has two pinnacle stories: the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises and the comic book storyline Knightfall, both of which feature a Gotham plunged into chaos and a broken Batman.
It is these two stories which will serve as the majority of our comparison between the candidate Donald Trump and the character Bane.
Trump and Bane are both demagogues who inspire a hateful hope in their followers.
The similarities between Trump and the Joker have been discussed here before, in response to an editorial by The Economist. But that was before the current series of “Which Batman Character Does Trump Resemble Most,” and was limited to the Joker as depicted by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
Let’s take a step further and evaluate how much the Donald and the Joker (in all his various depictions) really resemble one another.
To begin with, both men have remarkably poor taste.
In what they say, in what they wear, in how they look and present themselves: these are crude, tasteless men.
The Joker drives a car with his own face on it, while Trump will brand anything with his own name. Both prove that taste does not accompany wealth.
He uses chaos and anarchy as a weapon, manipulating the weak and confused.
Shouting, punching, screaming, hysteria, name-calling: these are regular trappings at any assembly of Trump fans. Above this chaos stands Trump, fanning the flames and upping the ante.
It is a key element of Trump’s campaign and rhetoric. He brands himself as “anti-establishment.” Consider what the Joker says about establishment and order in The Dark Knight:
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!
Iowa is behind us. That’s the good news. We don’t have to hear about Iowa anymore.
The bad news is that this whole charade has nearly another year left, and there is still a lot to keep track of.
Lucky for you, I’ve put together another guide to the presidential candidates, similar to the previous two installments about science fiction movies and horror movies. Once again, we are looking at the picked-off-one-at-a-time candidates through the lens of a medium where characters are removed one-by-one: 1990s action movies.
The ’90s were a time of bloated casts that were gradually pared down until a handsome hero was the last man standing. This election, like those beloved VHS classics, has a robust cast and an inevitable ending: there will be only one winner.
So grab a cup of coffee, hunker down, and check out this longform listicle about the brilliant spectacle that is the 2016 Presidential Election.
The Already Eliminated
The primaries have just begun – placing us somewhere in the first act of the film – but we’ve already had a major chunk of characters eliminated. Let’s take a look at who is already out of the running.
Scott Walker is Richard Lineback in Twister (1996)
I’ve said previously that Walker was Kane in Alien, and I stand by that argument. It proved to be painfully, chestburstingly accurate.
But now that his fate seems inevitable, his departure in the rearview mirror, we can recognize Walker for what he was: the equivalent of the guy who gets sucked up into the sky by a tornado in the opening scene of Twister. He has become nothing more than the guy who was eliminated during the prologue.
Did he make it? Lineback isn’t even in the same timeline as the rest of the movie. Walked dropped out on September 21st of 2015, over five months before the first primary.
Martin O’Malley is Emilio Estevez in Mission Impossible (1996)
Like the first mission in the first film in the Mission Impossible franchise, the Iowa caucuses gave us an action-packed evening that resulted in a purging of several characters.
O’Malley is one of several candidates to immediately fold his cards after the Iowa caucuses. This probably says more about this particular election than it does about O’Malley, just as Estevez’s quick death during the opening mission in Mission Impossible said more about the movie he was in than it did about him.
Sure, he’s a relatively well-known name with a good enough resume. But he is ultimately just another bland white guy in a narrative that doesn’t have room for another bland white guy.
In a post published on this blog earlier today, I discussed why I “stopped feeling the Bern,” i.e. why Bernie Sanders is a troubling, disappointed candidate, in my opinion. This is a follow-up, companion to that article.
As I pondered Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders, he began to remind me of another disappointing character: Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark of Game of Thrones. Let’s look at how these two resemble one another.
It’s what draws you to Sanders. This idea that he is speaking for noble truths that others will not. The idea that he’s above the politicking, the games, the money. That he cannot be bought. That he has honor.
Ned Stark has that same sense of honor. But what one has to ask is, is this honor or is this delusion? Is he a good example, or is he an example of misplaced self-importance, of smug piety?
When one looks closely at Bernie Sanders, some of his arguments that seem so persuasive out of his mouth begin to weaken. He’s an isolationist, and has some bizarre history with guns, including odd, questionable statements very recently. Bernie believes that violent television is to blame for mass shootings; Ned believes that children should watch beheadings, and that all beheadings should be performed by the lord who passed the sentence.
He won’t win.
Cersei Lannister is one of the many people who try to get real with Ned Stark, telling him “when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die.” In Ned’s case, he dies.
This isn’t to say that Bernie’s run will have a fatal end. But he certainly won’t win. It’s a winless war, being waged by a naive man living to his own sense of honor, fighting for ideals from ages past.
He’s a hero…
It’s worth noting that Ned Stark is a man worth admiring. Bernie Sanders is too. But neither belongs on the throne.
The question is whether Bernie can inspire a generation of politicians and citizens and leaders with more honor, through his gestures and efforts. In his failure, Ned inspired people to do better. Perhaps Bernie will do the same.
It’s been no secret that Bernie Sanders has an unusual history (for an independent / socialist / Democrat/ whatever he is) when it comes to gun control. And people are starting to talk about it, including articles such as “The Last Thing Bernie Sanders Needs it a Conversation About Guns” on NPR, which does a good job summarizing the situation so far.
To briefly give an overview of Sanders’s strange history with guns and politics: at one point, he voted against the option for victims of shootings to sue the manufacturers of assault rifles. He has tried to frame the gun control argument as if it’s about hunting, even when discussing assault rifles and mass shootings. Despite being someone who thinks we need more federal laws and regulations when it comes to anything related to economics, he thinks that states should make their own decisions about whether purchasing a handgun should require a waiting period.
But what is really troubling me is this: Bernie Sanders took to one of his two official Facebook pages on Friday (less than 24 hours after the most recent mass shooting) and posted a preachy, idealist monologue. In it, he said we need to be “comprehensive” and “sensible.” His next sentence is some mild vagaries about mental health, the kind of thing that people on both sides are saying as a way to avoid having to do anything more concrete. (You can read the statement, along with some other coverage on his stances on gun control, here.)
And then we have the kicker: “We also have to tone down the incredibly high level of gratuitous violence which permeates our media.”
This is such a shocking, disappointing, empty politician’s promise. And as someone who like violent movies and television and books, I’ve decided to respond about why he’s wrong.
Let’s break down all the problems with it with a few questions for Senator Sanders:
a) Is there any suggestion, any evidence, that consuming violent fiction (regardless of its medium) results in violent acts? Specifically, is there any kind of link between violent media and mass shootings?
b) Are you advocating for mass censorship? If our television, music, movies, video games and books are to have less violence, how is this to be accomplished? More petitions from family groups? A stronger, tougher FCC? The elimination of premium cable as an option? Doesn’t all of this reek of the banning of books and constraint of freedom of speech? Do you want to bring back the V-chip?
c) The most popular drama in the United States is NCIS. It’s a cop show, in which protagonists are cops and the cops carry guns and sometimes have to shoot people. Should the cops in this show stop carrying guns? Should they stop shooting people? Is this show an example of the violence you’re discussing?
d) The most discussed show in the United States media is Game of Thrones, in which the characters carry swords and sometimes chop off the heads of other characters. Does this promote mass shootings?
e) Isn’t this argument very ’90s? Do you also want to ban Power Rangers?
f) In your opinion, what makes violence “gratuitous”?
g) Finally, I think it’s worth noting exactly what you said, Senator Sanders. The six questions so far have been responding to the idea that there is too much violence in our fiction. But that’s not actually what you said. You said media. Which includes news. And yes, you’re correct, there is too much violence in the news media. You know why? Because the United States is too violent. Because there are too many shootings. Too many mass shootings. So here’s the question: what will you do to have less mass shootings in our media, by having less mass shootings in our news, by having less mass shootings in our reality? You say we have to “stop shouting at each other.” I agree. If you think you can be President of the United States, what are you going to do?
These are the questions I want answers to. This is what worries me about Bernie Sanders. This is why I’m not “feeling the Bern” as so many other people my age are. The answer to mass shootings is not censorship. It’s not banned media. But yes, I do want less violence in the media, by having less violence in the news. Let’s hope Senator Sanders can help provide some genuine comprehensive sensible reform to the issues of guns, like he has promised.
The Economist (and this blog) might liken him to The Joker, but Trump disagrees. I am Batman, he told a young boy and the world.
The obvious response is to say that Trump isn’t Batman. Or, there are those who have said that yes, he kinda is Batman.
I won’t point out the obvious, like that they’re both billionaires who polarize the public, own skyscrapers, and have a tragic lack of self-awareness.
When I consider if Trump resembles Batman, I’m reminded of the characters who show up at the beginning of The Dark Knight, wielding guns but dressed as poor man’s Batmans. Or the “Sons of Batman” who show up in a variety of Batman comic books and graphic novels, including Frank Miller’s acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns.