Monday, 5 September 2016

Hocus Pocus

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Hocus Pocus (1990)
Back in May I read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by the same author and was inspired to opine:

I've just noticed how my favourite Vonnegut is the first one I read and I've enjoyed each successive title a little less than its predecessor, which seems unfortunate and is probably more to do with my noticing a pattern than whatever qualities the books may have.

The pattern in question is a rambling quality, a tendency to digress at the expense of a coherent, or at least linear, narrative, even when the digressions inevitably feed back into said narrative. Hocus Pocus does the same thing, and although the promise of a return to Slaughterhouse Five greatness made on the cover might be stretching a point, it certainly makes a better go of it than the last few I've read. It's not quite like Vonnegut ever reads as though he's sat at the typewriter tittering to himself, but it helps when the book feels as though it's going somewhere, as this does for most of its page count.

Hocus Pocus purports to be an autobiography written in a prison library on disparate scraps of paper - bus timetables, cigarette cartons, ticket stubs and whatever else was at hand. It's the autobiography of a Vietnam veteran who teaches at a university, or a prison, or at a university occupied following a prison break out - I couldn't quite work out which, so maybe the point is that it's all the same thing. The title refers to the verbal agreements to which we all adhere in order that human society may continue as it does, but which are more or less so much horseshit when you look closely.

He hadn't killed nearly as many people as I had. But then again, he hadn't had my advantage, which was the full cooperation of our government.

It doesn't say anything Vonnegut hasn't already said by this point, but the digressions work better and with more purpose than in the previous few I've read, so it's both funny and satisfying; and it says something which really needs to be said, and says it clearly and without ambiguity.

It says that we, as a race, need to stop being dicks to each other, and we need to stop fucking up the planet. Of course, many others have expressed the same sentiment, and continue to do so. Often their arguments are countered by the forces of dickery by means of linguistic hocus pocus. You've probably seen the sort of thing on social media - the notion that we might want to stop bombing kids or pouring nuclear waste into the lakes of a national park countered by the suggestion that there are two sides to every story and we have to consider the grass roots employees of the munitions or nuclear industry and what they will do if we take away their jobs - in other words, evil fuckers talking shit so as to get their own way without having to grow up and face consequences. Hocus Pocus is about that. It presents its argument in terms which simply can't be disputed by the Adolf Hitler loved his kids crowd.

The orgy of butchery followed a virtually unopposed attack by the Japanese Army on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, long before this country became part of the Final Rack. Hiroshi Matsumoto had just been born. Prisoners were tied to stakes and used for bayonet practice. Several people in a pit were buried alive. You could see their expressions as the dirt hit their faces.

Their faces disappeared, but the dirt on top kept moving as though there were some sort of burrowing animal, a woodchuck maybe, making a home below.

See, this is the sort of horrifying shit which has actually happened in the world beyond the book, and which is still happening, and which needs to stop right now; and we need to stop kidding ourselves that it makes the slightest bit of difference which flag or ideology is flapping in the breeze behind the man holding the spade.

I don't even know why it should still need stating in the year 2016, but for what it may be worth, Hocus Pocus nevertheless states it very well.


  1. Well put, Lawrence. And following reading this review of Hocus Posus it made me search to see what you wrote about Slaugterhouse Five:
    "Slaughterhouse Five isn't really like anything I've read before or since and is almost certainly one of the greatest novels ever written."
    I think you might be right. It's a book I've been recommending to people of late - along with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson though for different reasons.

    1. Fear and Loathing is another I need to track down, now that you mention it. I tried Campaign Trail some years ago, but I think it was a bit too much too soon at the time.