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A Series of Accidents #17: Hocus Pocus

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.

Vonnegut biographer Charles J. Shields describes Hocus Pocus as the author’s most depressive novel, and that is saying quite a lot. Like Mother Night, the novel framed as a jailhouse confession, in this case from one Eugene Debs Hartke, named after the famous American socialist. Despite having little of his namesake’s political fervour, this Debs (I like to call him Gene), still ends up in prison for aiding and abetting a prisoner insurrection, following a checkered life that includes a tour in Vietnam and time spent teaching at a school for the deaf. All of this is essentially laid out in the first chapter: in the manner of Vonnegut’s later novels, we know everything that is going to happen before it does, and the manuscript itself is a leisurely stroll through the plot.

Gene is another cursed soul from Midland City, marked by mistakes made by his father, much like the protagonist of Deadeye Dick. In this case, after being kicked out of a science fair for cheating on his dad’s behest, Gene falls under the gaze of a military recruiter, and ends up being sent to Vietnam. This is not a Vietnam novel, however. There’s very little description of Gene’s wartime experience. Indeed, Vietnam seems almost unreal, with the soldiers described as like TV characters. Gene contrasts his experience as an unwanted soldier from an unpopular war in contrast to the heroic narrative of World War II – although Vonnegut himself had done more than any author to attempt to puncture that heroic narrative, without much success. Rather, Vietnam seems to stand as a symbol of American failure, a turning point where the American century began to decay.

From there, Hocus Pocus shifts into the closest thing Vonnegut ever wrote to a campus novel. Gene leads a moderately absurd existence, ringing the bells at a school for the deaf – although, in the modern day, the bells are hooked up to a keyboard that he plays. It all comes to an end when Gene incurs the wrath of a conservative columnist, who secretly records him and takes statements out of context to run him out of town. As far as a censored-by-political correctness campus novel, this has aged better than books like Roth’s The Human Stain, largely because Vonnegut keeps a light touch and recognizes that the most potent force of political correctness and censorship is still conservative patriotism. Still, this material goes on quite a while and feels more than a little like Vonnegut hitting back at his critics.

The final segment of Hocus Pocus is the most scathing and most modern-seeming, dealing harshly with the American prison system and the nation’s history of racial violence. The bulk of the novel is set in the near future, an America just slightly more dystopian than that of 1989. Prisons are now formally segregated by race (instead of just informally), the result of a callous Supreme Court ruling, and have largely been privatized and sold off to Japanese consortiums. One such prison, with exclusively Black inmates, sits across the lake from the genteel Tarkington College, and so Gene goes to teach there. Vonnegut is even ahead of his time in capitalizing the word Black, although Gene fully admits that he isn’t consistent with the convention and doesn’t understand the reasoning behind it.

Vonnegut depicts the usual cruelty and bizarreness of the prison system, but adds his own absurd touches. For instance, in a desire to keep the inmates sedate, the guards only play material that is decades old on the television, in an infinite loop – so, in the then-future 1999, the Black prisoners watch footage of the Kennedy assassination over and over again. This is part of a general sense of America being caught in a death spiral, an endless cycle of nostalgia and outrage as it is unable to come to grips with its defeat in Vietnam. I’ll let you judge how accurate Vonnegut’s idea of the future ended up being.

The Japanese appear here, as in Galapagos and countless contemporaneous works, as symbols of the modern condition. The roaring Japanese economy led to many American fears that they would be surpassed as the masters of capitalism, which manifested itself in everything from ugly xenophobia to awkward but mostly harmless this-crazy-world jokes. Vonnegut is far from the worst culprit when it comes to this, but there is the pervasive sense that Japanese control of the world represents a sense of further degradation, and sees Japanese characters’ nationality as the only relevant thing about them.

With Vonnegut, however, there’s also that old World War II guilt complicating everything. While Gene the character may not have fought in the war, there are echoes of it everywhere: the architecture of the college is compared with Asuchwitz, there are references to the Rape of Nanking, and the inmates read anti-Semitic tracts. The war is referenced in the story as the “Finale Rack”, a great spectacle that became America’s foundational myth. Most pertinent of all, Athena’s Warden Hiroshi Matsumoto was a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, positioning his control over Americans as a kind of karmic revenge. (“Hiroshima” begins his name, just in case you forget.) At the end of the novel, he commits hara-kiri at the site of the atomic blast. Like I said, the Japanese are super Japanese-y, but in Vonnegut it appears less as xenophobia and more an attempt to make sense of the traumas the two nations inflicted on each other.

Hocus Pocus was relatively well-received, including a positive notice from a fairly young Michiko Kakutani. There was no longer the bafflement that greeted novels like Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick. This was what Vonnegut did now: write deeply depressive novels structured as autobiographies, with plenty of digressions and a plot that had every move narrated well in advance. Having been a down-on-his luck hack and a counterculture savant, he was now settling into the role of an old man of letters, whose work was well-crafted but never reached the escape velocity of his masterworks, instead tied down by the gravity of familiar obsessions.

Vonnegut’s work was always deeply cynical about America and its institutions, from the automated dystopia of Player Piano to the apocalyptic military-industrial complex of Cat’s Cradle. But those early novels were also, in part about exploring different ways in which one could attempt to solve the crushing indignity of living in the late twentieth century. This included ambitious social reform of the kind undertaken by Elliott Rosewater and Wilbur Swain, as well as the imaginative worlds used for escapism by Billy Pilgrim and Howard W. Campbell. These efforts always fail, or at best partially succeed, but there’s at least an attempt to address human dysfunction.

Slapstick would initially appear to have just such an attempt, in the Athena prisoners’ rebellion, but even compared to Player Piano’s Ghost Shirt Society there’s little glamour to the doomed uprising. Vonnegut does not pretend that the inmates are all saintly victims of the system, but rather states that they are simply more honest and less successful in their cruelty than the outside world. For a few days, they form an impromptu society in the ravaged university town, but there’s little hope that anything productive will emerge from it. Rather, the rebellion is just another sad spectacle in a world full of them.

Hocus Pocus was published in 1990. The Cold War absurdities that Vonnegut was so good at skewering would soon be replaced by a new set of obscurities in a seemingly unipolar world where capitalism ran rampant. There are already traces of this in Hocus Pocus, with the global capital represented by the Japanese being a more pressing threat than Russian nuclear annihilation. (This would not prove to be a lasting state of affairs.) Vonnegut would only publish one more novel, but a few more collections of nonfiction and other shorter works, so it will be interesting to see how he addressed the changing world.

Next time out, we’ll look at Vonnegut’s second “autobiographical collage”, Fates Worth than Death.