The Avocado

A Series of Accidents #10: Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut was becoming a full-fledged literary celebrity, and his publisher was aiming to capitalize. Hence came Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, an assemblage of Vonnegut’s non-fiction writing, public speeches, and one short play. The title is a set of terms used in Bokononism, the invented religion from Cat’s Cradle, referring to various false concepts and comforting lies, but the book isn’t based on those ideas, other than in the abstract way that all of Vonnegut’s work is.

Collection of minora that it may be, the book is also an interesting look into Vonnegut’s public image and beliefs. It’s in these nonfiction pieces that Vonnegut expresses his ideas without the need to maintain characters and a plot. At the same time, it’s often hard to pin Vonnegut to a position: he proposes ideas and discards them just as quickly, turning what one thought was a serious proposal into a joke or vice versa. The author’s senses of humour, irony and pessimism are too great to make him a mere polemicist.

An example of this can be found in the final piece of the book, Vonnegut’s interview with Playboy. (He was no doubt pleased that, like Kilgore Trout and many prominent authors of his generation, his soul-searching would appear in the same magazine as pictures of naked women.) Drawing on his anthropological work, Vonnegut believes that the problem with the world is that people no longer live in villages and other close-knit communities, and are socially marginalized. He proposes, with his tongue perhaps wandering to his cheek, that the government establish large “families” with artificially-imposed middle names, who one could turn to if they find themselves in need or in an unfamiliar city. His interviewer points out that what he has proposed is a granfalloon, the kind of phony community he critiqued in Cat’s Cradle. Very well, Vonnegut says: he contradicts himself, and no one should take him seriously anyway.

Vonnegut’s brand of playful contradiction was in high demand around this time. Many of the pieces in this book are addresses made to organizations or on certain events: to PEN, to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, to a graduating class at Bennington College and to the American Physical Society. In these speeches, Vonnegut always seems bemused by the occasion of anyone wanting to talk to him, but eventually gives the audience what he was paid for: a bitter, moralistic take on the failings of the world.

Perhaps the most striking is Vonnegut’s comments at the re-dedication of Wheaton College Library. The speech initially starts by undercutting the event by describing it in a plain, literal mode: “I congratulate this beloved college for having a library. If a teacher forgets something, he or she doesn’t have to pretend he or she still knows it.” From this, Vonnegut goes on to describe the burning of the library of Alexandria, the nature of good and evil, My Lai, American gun ownership, the limitations of storytelling, communism, the 1972 presidential election, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Vonnegut was certainly willing to play the role of the literary gadfly, but he would always remind people of the absurdities of the rituals he attended. He refused to be a predictable, entertaining spectacle, but he would always leave audiences thinking.

Among the speeches and essays, there are a few works of journalism – or New Journalism, to be more precise. New Journalism was a movement of literary nonfiction in the 1960s and 70s that sought to deal with journalistic subject matter through personal, tightly-written narratives, best exemplified through the work of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

Vonnegut was never a major participant in New Journalism, but he dabbled in it, and those pieces are also in this collection. The most adventurous is “Biafra: A Nation Betrayed”, which involved the author travelling to the fledgling African country in its last months of life as war with Nigeria starved its people. It’s unarguably a piece of advocacy, writing in graphic detail about the physical effects of famine and warfare and taking a soft touch in depicting the Biafran military government.

At the same time, there’s the self-reflective tone that’s typical of New Journalism. Vonnegut is frequently bitter and uncertain about the role he plays as a Western observer and publicist of an African tragedy. Ultimately, the “betrayal” in the article’s subtitle is by Vonnegut, as he goes back on his promise to not portray Biafra as an object of pity, ultimately writing the same article as everyone else. It’s an unusual piece in Vonnegut’s oeuvre – one doesn’t typically think of him as jetting off to global hotspots for on-the-ground reporting, and perhaps the tragic conclusion of Biafra is why he didn’t do more of it.

Closer to home is “There’s A Maniac Loose Out There”, an account of the serial killer Antone Costa. Costa’s killings took place near Vonnegut’s home in Cape Cod, and his daughter Edith was an acquaintance of Costa’s through the local counterculture. Through this connection Vonnegut comments on the short-lived cultural fascination with the case (later eclipsed by the Manson murders), and the misogyny that motivates serial killers. There are perhaps hints here of Breakfast of Champions, in Vonnegut’s attempt to understand the factors behind a violent psychotic break.

“The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky” is not quite New Journalism, but feels like something along the same lines. Vonnegut examines the historic case of the nineteenth-century Russian emigre turned American psychic, and her founding of the still-extant Theosophical Society. In Blavatsky’s story, Vonnegut finds a statement on the American dream, the country’s curious susceptibility to superstition and quackery, and mental illness.

Today, one can find pieces much like these on any number of journalistic websites – pieces that mix historical or political events with personal musings and broader social context. (One can even find some of them here on The Avocado.)Not many can afford the drug-tripping, adventurous side of New Journalism on the budget of a modern freelancer, but the idea of the impersonal reporter or historian it attacked is well in the ground. Vonnegut was a small part of this phenomenon, but Wampters, Foma and Granfalloons still allows us a glimpse into the nonfiction genre at the moment it was shifting into what it is today.

The only fictional text in the collection is “Fortitude”, a one-act play that seems to mostly be here because there wasn’t any better place to put it. The play is mostly of a piece with the more science-fictional short fiction collected in Welcome to the Monkey-House, and was in fact later adapted into an episode of the Showtime series Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey-House, which you can find on YouTube.

“Fortitude” tells the story of a 108-year-old woman who has been kept alive by such intrusive technology that she is essentially reduced to a head on a pedestal, hooked up to a number of huge machines in the laboratory of a mercenary doctor. She wants to die, but the doctor refuses her request, citing the Hippocratic oath. In the end, in a Twilight Zone-style reversal, a nurse helps the woman commit suicide and the doctor ends up hooked up to his own machine.

The play most directly is a reference to the right-to-die movement. This rose to public consciousness in the 1960s through the actions of Jack Kevorkian, the “Dr. Death” who travelled around the country offering euthanasia. To his supporters, Kevorkian was offering release from pointless suffering for people with terminal illness. Others have criticized the movement, fearing that it will lead to encouraging suicide for disabled people or others whose lives were less convenient for society. (The fact that the patient here is an old, soap opera-watching woman probably doesn’t allay those fears.) Vonnegut was fascinated by Kevorkian, and this is not the last time he’ll deal with this theme.

“Fortitude” carries on the general anti-utopian thrust of Vonnegut’s short stories. Its closest relative is “Forever and Forever and Forever”, which also focused on the downsides of eternal life. It also contains an early example of the fears of the technological singularity, that we will all eventually become disembodied files uploaded into the net, that would preoccupy science fiction in the decades to come.

As I’ve stated before, I’m skeptical of this anti-utopianism. Personally, I’d rather like to live to 108 (if only so I can make a dent in my to-read list), and after the past year I’m less receptive to the argument that being stuck in a room all day is worse than the oblivion of death, or that the lives of old people are not worth preserving. Certainly we don’t look back on life-extending inventions like, say, open heart surgery, as leading to people living too long. But perhaps I will change this perspective as I get older and my body starts to break down.

As a narrative, “Fortitude” takes a strong position against the indefinite extension of life, but still gives the doctor a comprehensible and even sometimes sympathetic perspective. It’s one of Vonnegut’s most straightforward stories, without much of the author’s signature humour. I don’t entirely like it, but it’s an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the collection, another way in which Vonnegut was trying to figure out the meaning of life and death.

Collections are, by their nature, uneasy chimeras, a collection of work with diverse contexts plucked out of those contexts and placed in the new one of an authorial persona. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons is especially so, bringing together journalism, speeches, essays and a wandering play into one volume. Vonnegut is a fascinating and witty writer, but his perspective at times begins to become grating, like a chatty seatmate on a long flight.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this collection. It’s a fascinating record of some of the less-heralded texts and cultural artifacts of Vonnegut’s transition into fame. Following the symbolic unburdening of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut was experimenting with what kind of author he could be – a journalist, a piercing essayist, a friendly curmudgeon. We’ll see what he settles on, perhaps, when we get back to the novels next time out with Slapstick.