Reading the Canon — Hocus Pocus, chapters 4-9

Backstory!

During this stretch we go back to Eugene’s teenage years, to see how he became the person he is at the start of the book. We also learn a whole lot more about the prison break – the event that seems to be the book’s main plot point. Things get even bleaker. But first, let’s go back to Eugene’s early life.

He got decent grades, but didn’t excel academically. He was not a part of any sports teams. He didn’t join any clubs. His main thing was playing with his band, drinking and smoking weed and attempting to get laid. A normal teenager, basically. It’s that normalness, that lack of any extraordinary qualities that will soon help drastically change the course of his life. But first, we have to take a look at his parents.

Eugene’s father was a chemist whose work revolved around attempting to find synthetic materials that could be used to make lighter weapons. After his company is bought by Du Pont, he is unsure of whether he will be laid off or not. Then he gets beat up by the husband of the woman he was having an affair with and has to go around town with a black eye. His mother, of whom we don’t learn much aside from the fact that she is obese, gets a broken nose a couple of days later. To the town, this looks like an unseemly marital squabble.

Once again, it seems like the narrator is giving us interesting but irrelevant information. Not so. This little details will play a monumental role in the bigger events to come. I imagine I’ll keep seeing this narrative technique.

Anyway, because of the embarrassment the family goes through, Eugene’s father decides to enter him in a science fair, hoping to get back some respect from the local community. Of course, he ends up doing all the work for him. The project, something involving crystallography (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), wins the local science fair despite clearly having been made by the father, an experienced chemist, and not the unassuming Eugene. The latter says that they were given first place because the townspeople thought his “little family had suffered enough.”

So they go to Cleveland for the state science fair, where they are quickly exposed as frauds, though the judge decides to ignore them instead of humiliating them any further. It is at this place that Eugene meets one of the men who will change his life: Same Wakefield, Lieutenant Colonel. He’s there trying to get math-inclined youngsters to go to West Point. Eugene is not interested – he has already been accepted to Michigan, but his father changes his plans. Having a son who attends West Point is just the kind of ego and status boost he has been looking for. “I’ve got a son I can be proud of now.”

So Eugene goes off to West Point, along with Jack Patton, brother of Margaret Patton, the woman he will eventually marry. We then get a chapter largely devoted to this time there, and in Vietnam. The book draws a parrallel between Eugene’s disappointment in his country after Nam and his disappointment in his father all those years back at the science fair.

We then return to Tarkington. Eugene gives us another history lesson, to the days when the carillon was mechanized. This ties into a short section on the unfortunate side-effects of mechanization. “Too bad you were born. Nobody has any use for you.”

Then we finally shift to the prison across the lake. I’ve been waiting for this. It was there where he met Alton Darwin, a mass murderer. It is Alton who takes charge once the prison break begins, despite having had nothing to do with it. Eugene says some people came down to free one prisoner, and things soon greatly escalated. Some of the prisoners return to the prison, but Alton and his new followers reach Tarkington and the Valley, where they proceed to cause all sorts of mayhem.

Alton makes his stand at Tarkington, taking the Trustees as hostages. The convicts eat the college’s horses and dogs. Alston is killed while ice-skating by the college president, who had climbed up to the belfry with a rifle.

I may be reading too much into this, but I sense that Vonnegut is attempting to show Alton as a tragic figure. He is clearly a dangerous and damaged individual (Eugene calls him a sociopath), but he was also a victim of things beyond his control – mainly, the drug war and racism. Not to mention the commentary on the disposability of those at the bottom rung of society. At least I think that’s the point he’s trying to make. I could be way off. Let’s read on!

Note: I forgot to mention in the first installment that Eugene has tuberculosis. Damn, his life keeps getting bleaker and bleaker.

Notable quotes:

In Mohiga Valley, their skin alone sufficed as a prison uniform.

During my last year in Vietnam, I, too, reacted at press conferences as though our defeats were victories. But I was under orders to do that. That wasn’t my natural disposition.

How should I go about self-publishing my books?

I’ve spent a lot of thought about how I’m going to publish my books, which might seem odd since I haven’t actually started writing one yet. But I like to think ahead (often at the expense of the present), so onwards.

I know I’m going to self-publish. This is for ideological reasons, mostly. Self-publishing satisfies my lefty side. I am glad that at last, writers are no longer at the mercy of gatekeepers. They can tell their stories however and whenever they want. Sure, much of that creative output is nonsense; Sturgeon’s law, and all that. But to be in control of your writing career is a great thing.

This is especially true for writers whose work falls outside the mainstream, or who themselves fall out of the mainstream. Persons of color, gender non-conforming people, political radicals, etc. Before, such people had to depend on a largely white establishment to give them their big break. Now, they can take matters into their own hands. Who knows how many amazing writers  we missed out on because publishers were not interested in telling their stories. This is why I have no patience for the “gatekeepers” argument some use to defend traditional publishing. I would much rather go through self-published story after self-published story looking for a diamond in the rough than go back to the old days, when the amount of outsider voices we were exposed to was miniscule.

Anyway, my plan is to have my books available for free and give people the option to pay what they’d like to. Perhaps I’ll set up a Patreon account to connect with any future fans (damn, this sounds presumptuous) and release chapters on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. I’m not interested in Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like. I just want to have my work available on the web. It’s the simplest method I can think of, and a good choice for someone whose anxiety would make heavy-duty self-promotion unlikely.

I haven’t completely ruled out Amazon and other large venues, though. This is especially the case if I end up going the POD route. Physical books are not a priority for me, but if I end up with some folks who want them, I might change my mind.

Above everything else, I want to tell and publish my stories my way, whatever that ends up being.

Michael Moorcock and three-day novels

Michael Moorcock, famed fantasy author best knows for his Elric novels (which have been on my to-read list for a while now. It’s annoying how little of the fantasy “canon” I’ve actually read so far), had an interesting writing method that he used early in his career to churn out books rapidly – in some cases in as little as three days. It’s a straightforward formula and it worked well for him.

I’ve wanted to attempt this ever since I first heard about it. Writing a novel in three days is not for everybody, nor is it my ultimate goal. But I do think that it could be a way for me to learn and master the tenets of structure and plot. It would a writing exercise, basically.

I wanted to get started this past month during NaNoWriMo, but life got in the way (doesn’t it always?). I got a three-day weekend coming up, though, so I’m going to try and start something. In the meantime, I’m going to be thinking of potential plots, characters, scenery, etc.

The goal in doing this is not to write the next Great American Novel, but to begin and finish a novel. Writing is a craft, and I’m still learning how to properly use all the tools of the trade. I’ll make sure to report on my progress, if there is any. You can read all about Moorcock’s method in the link below.

How to Write a Novel in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock