Saturday, June 09, 2007

"God never wrote a good play in his life"

Just finished Cat's cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I can't understand how I missed this when I was eighteen - it would have been perfect for me. I'm quite convinced if I had I would be quoting this, along with Catch 22 and The Tin Drum, as the greatest books ever written.

As it is, I still think it's good, but twenty-odd years of cynicism are hard to shake off. But how could I not love a book in which the central concept is that all religion is lies, or that man never learns ("History, read it and weep!"), that there will be no grand redemption?

It rolls to a wonderful end, the sort of almost metafictional conclusion which I remember from 100 years of solitude:


If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.


What really struck me about the novel though, ideas aside, was the writing. It is so simple, the sentence structures straightforward, the description sparse and to the point. It is a style that has been much copied and much abused, and at its worst ends up in a hideous Janet and John "I did this. She said that. We both went there," sort of language.

But Vonnegut transcends that. It IS simple, yes, and the language is never, ever florid, but for all that it is incredibly rich. Taken purely at random by opening the book, have, for example:

Dr von Koenigswald slipped the tholepin of an oarlock from its socket in the gunwale of the gilded dinghy. He tapped 'Papa on his belly with the steel oarlock, and 'Papa' really did make a sound like a marimba.


Very simple, but the language is interesting. I think most of us, when we are aiming for Carveresque simplicity or Barthelmic ironic detachment, could learn a lesson from Vonnegut. Simple doesn't mean boring or bland.

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