Reading the Canon

 

As I was reading Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus last year, one thing that soon became clear was that I did not enjoy writing the recaps. I would be reading the book and instead of really enjoying it I would be thinking stuff like, how am I going to describe this particular scene on the blog? What do I say about this character? It quickly became more of a tedious chore than anything else, so much so that I finished the book but never bothered finishing recapping it (by the way, I do recommend Hocus Pocus).

So from now on, the plan is to enjoy the books first, then write a simple, concise summary.

 

 

Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 17-23

Lots of notable quotes this time around. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations!

This section was quite personal. We got to know more of Eugene’s story, including the time after he returned from Vietnam. It’s depressing: he fails an MIT entrance exam and his family doesn’t seem to value him; they went ahead and made big plans to move to Baltimore without his input. Eugene again notes the difference in public perception between WWII – the good war, and all that – and Vietnam, the disgraceful defeat. As a solder in Vietnam, then, his presence serves as a reminder of that national shame (remember last installment in which he mentioned that his service in Vietnam was the real reason he was fired?).

After causing a ruckus at a restaurant (PTSD, perhaps? I’m not aware of how well-known this condition was at the time this book was published), he happens to meet Sam Wakefield, and so begins the process that would land him the teaching job at Tarkington. Wakefield is a tragic figure, as he commits suicide for unknown reasons, but so far he has been perhaps the biggest influence on Eugene.

We (anybody bothered by my using “we”? I do it because I want this to become a group activity of sorts, even if right now it’s just me ranting into the wind) also learn how Tarkington College became Tarkington Reformatory. I’ve been curious about that one. Turns out the college put all its money into Microsecond Arbitrage, a tech company that went under. Business excesses is a recurring theme in this book.

The reason Eugene is now under so much hot water is because when the convicts took the board hostage, Eugene was able to go see them. Upon seeing how he was “treated with deference by the Black man who was actually guarding [him],” the authorities assumed he was the ringleader. Racism is another recurring theme.

Eugene gets a court-appointed lawyer right out of school. Amusingly, he is attempting to get Eugene to agree to plead insanity, based on some of his eccentricities: love of housekeeping, rejection of profanity, and the fact that he has never masturbated.

And…that’s about it. Not much happened aside from some backstory and more details on some minor characters, which is interesting but not interesting enough to mention, and I don’t want to pad this out just for the sake of it. So see ya next time!

Notable quotes:

“If there really had been a Mercutio, and if there really were a Paradise, Mercutio might be hanging out with teenage Vietnam draftee casualties now, talking about what it felt like to die for other people’s vanity and foolishness.”

“It was a racist conclusion, based on the belief that Black people couldn’t mastermind anything. I will say so in court.”

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”– Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations

Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 10-16

This book goes back and forth between the past and present, often in the same chapter. It was a bit disorienting at first as sometimes I start reading about his time as a teacher at Tarkington and then pivot to another time, then return. I’m used to it now, mostly, but I think it’ll help make things clearer to make a timeline of sorts, based on the information we’ve been given so far.

– Eugene was born in 1940
– His time in Vietnam ended in 1975
– He got the job at Tarkington College in 1975
– He was fired from Tarkington in 1991
– Sometime after this, he went to work at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute at Athena
– Tarkington College became Tarkington State Reformatory in 1999
– Eugene begins working for the Reformatory as a warden
– The prison break occurs sometime in 1999
– Eugene is writing this book in 2001

Okay, so that’s most of the big stuff.

Continue reading “Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 10-16″

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.

Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, Chapters 1-3

We are introduced to our narrator and protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, named by his grandfather after socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs (one of my historical heroes). We are told that this work was written by Eugene on wrapping paper, business cards, and others scraps. So from the beginning we are to understand that Eugene is an unusual fellow.

Eugene has led an interesting and depressing life. He was ready to go to college to study journalism, though his real dream is to play the blues, “the never-the-same-way-twice music the American black people gave the world.” However, both of these plans are dashed by his father, who sends him to West Point because it would impress the neighbors. Eugene is quite resentful of both his parents.

He was shipped off to Vietnam, where he eventually became a Lieutenant Colonel. After the war he married a woman who failed to tell him about the propensity towards mental illness she had inherited from her mother. In time, both women go insane. Their children, who now have to deal with this unfortunate genetic inheritance, hate them for binging them into the world.

Pretty gloomy stuff, so far. But there is some light. Eugene was hired to teach Physics at Tarkington College, a school for the learning disabled. Most importantly to Eugene, he became the school’s carillonneur. He recalls the times he played the carillon as the happiest of his life, no doubt in part because it helped him scratch his musical itch. It is made clear that Tarkington is a special place to Eugene, the one stabilizing force in his otherwise chaotic life. For now, anyway.

Then, rather suddenly, we learn that after he was a professor he was briefly a warden, after the school became Tarkington State Reformatory. What’s more, he is no longer a warden, as he is awaiting trial for “supposedly having masterminded the mass prison break at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution at Athena, across the lake from here.”

We then pivot in chapter two to a history of the surrounding area. A major part of this history is Aaron Tarkington, an inventor who ran a successful wagon company in the 19th century. He had dyslexia and could neither read or write. His daughters all married well, to prominent families in other part of the country, taking the gene for dyslexia with them and spreading it among the ruling class. Clearly, dyslexia will play a large role in this story soon enough.

As for Aaron’s only son, Elias, he became a mechanic who attempted to create a perpetual motion machine. Didn’t work out, as you might imagine. He was more successful in business, and in his will he left his estate and fortune to be used for the creation of “The Mohiga Valley Free Institute.” The institute, a highly-progressive place that was created to offer education to all, regardless of gender or color, was eventually renamed Tarkington College. This was to please a wealthy relative of the Tarkington’s, who was embarrassed that his dyslexic grandson had to go to such a modest school.

All this seems interesting but irrelevant, until you understand what Vonnegut is getting at. Because of the Tarkington’s rich patrons, Tarkington College did not die like the rest of the area. Construction on railroads and highways began far from the school, leaving the college and Lake Mohiga intact. It was thanks to this that the prisoners of the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute were able to cross the frozen lake and head towards the college many, many years later. Everything is connected.

Eugene is already proving to be a guy you want to cheer for, despite his cynical nature. Part of that nature can be explained easily. Life has given him his share of problems and disappointments. He was unable to follow his dreams, he was sent off to Vietnam, his wife went insane, his children hate him for the possibility that they too might go insane, and now he is awaiting trial for masterminding a prison break. And that’s only the first three chapters!

I hope you liked the first installment of Reading the Canon! I hope to be able to have a new RTC post up every couple of days. Hocus Pocus’ chapters are pretty short, so I’ll probably continue to cover it a couple at a time. Thanks for reading this far, and please check back soon!

Notable quote from chapter 1

During that war, which was about nothing but the ammunition business, there was a microscopic possibility, I suppose, that I called in a white-phosphorus barrage or a napalm air strike on a returning Jesus Christ.

Coming soon: Reading the Canon!

Within the next week (maybe two weeks), I will be starting what I hope becomes a regular feature: Reading the Canon. I will choose an iconic – or at least notable – book and cover it chapter by chapter. It should be fun!

I will cover both the traditional literary canon, as well as renowned science-fiction/fantasy works. Not just any famous book will do, though. I have no interest in reading a book just because it was deemed a Work of Great Importance by tastemakers decades ago. No, I’ll be reading works that I believe are likely to interest me and have been on my to-read list for a long time.

First up: Kurt Vonnegut (I haven’t decided which of his books to read just yet. But I’ll make a decision soon and let you know).