I don’t consider myself well read by any means. When I look into a library, I am embarrassed by the fact that even if I were to spend the rest of my life drowning in the sea of books, I wouldn’t even make it out of the kiddie pool before my hair grayed and my arms sagged and I breathed my last weak, little breath over a page of Tolstoy or Chemometrics for Pattern Recognition. I would die without making a dent in the avalanche of books.
But despite the overwhelming inability to observe all that has been written, I try to read daily. I stretch my fingers, dog-ear my pages, and I sit with invisible authors prodding me to smile when they did and be sad when they were.
Sometimes, I find rubbish among the words, though I can hardly be such a judge having glossed over so little in my lifetime. Other times I stumble upon a great book that will make you close your eyes and imagine that you were having breakfast with the author of the piece and they just told you a funny joke and oh how you both shared in the laughter. In these books and in the little time that I spend drawn into the microcosm of their work, I am often convinced the two of us are long lost pals, and the words are just deeply personal letters jumbled and scrambled.
One such author who I feel such an unspoken camaraderie with is Kurt Vonnegut. Unlike any other novelist before, I feel as though he writes to me personally. His verbal freshness hurtles through the worst of humanity’s troubles and contextualizes my own problems with a dose of hilarity. With each sentence, he scolds his readers yet praises them, entertains yet moralizes them, and most of all, makes them laugh above all else.
Vonnegut is great because he writes not as a man who wishes to be remembered but as a man who wishes to remember man. And like humankind who is a cluster of paradoxes, hypocrisies, and illogical policies, Vonnegut writes with a curious blend of wisdom and bitterness, wit and resignation, and an endless nose thumbing at the Universe. All in all, Vonnegut is a funny man who blurs the subtlety of sadness and happiness in life because as he said in A Man Without a Country, “Life is no way to treat an animal.”
Below is a Kurt Vonnegut bookbag of sorts because if you read nothing else or if you decide that the flurry of books is too daunting, then Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start and end your literary escapade. It’s enough, but just barely and so it goes, Vonnegut would tell you.
Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Arguably Vonnegut’s most recognized and quoted book, Slaughterhouse Five is not so much an antiwar book (there’s better luck in “writing an anti-glacier book”) as it is a discussion of the inevitability of hardship, dying, and those brief illusions of a controlled, stable reality. Employing the harrowing yet uplifting phrase that appears detached from the prose it self – so it goes – the narrative suggests an acquiescence to a life, and ultimately death, that we can barely call our own due to circumstances that we are as much in control of as a bird in a birdcage. The story ends that way too – birds chirp and chirp and chirp again.
Favourite Quote: “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
The Sirens of Titan
As Vonnegut’s second foray into fiction, the 1959 tale follows Malachi Constant as he travels from Earth to Mars to Mercury to Titan and then back to Earth again. Like Slaughterhouse, Sirens of Titan mirrors Vonnegut’s principle of resignation to fate and the realization that all things, us included, are a series of accident no more permanent than a whoopee cushion in a rock concert. Everything is predicted in the first chapter: Malachi Constant’s father racks up a fortune by sheer luck and a handy Bible, Martians invade Earth and are massacred senselessly, and Tralfamadorian’s – an alien species that know all truth in the Universe – sift through space and time with ease of a light switch. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s Vonnegut becoming Vonnegut for the first time in his fiction and staying that way throughout all his other novels.
Favourite Quote: “If there are such things as angels, I hope they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Kurt’s letters capture the dark, wry humour that he shared with his friends and seeped into his writing. The laughter bled into the pages is cold and hard and sometimes it feels like a cough, but you see bits and pieces of the Kurt with each word. As his life flashes by in sentences, you want to tell him that everything will be all right in time; all he has to do is keep writing, just keep writing, and luckily for us, he does. Here are some snippets.
In a class assignment: “Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.”
To the editors of The New York Times: ”Dear Editors: It may gives us some comfort in these worrisome times to know that in all of history only one country has actually been crazy enough to detonate atomic weapons in midst of civilian populations, turning unarmed men, women and children into radioactive soot and bonemeal. And that was a long, long time ago now.”
To Norman Mailer: “I am cuter than you are.”
This book is about a fairy godmother. It isn’t exactly fairytale – it deals with Herman Campbell, a fictitious Nazi propagandist. He is awaiting trial for his war crimes perpetuated during World War Two. Eventually he, like all of us, dies, and like Kurt Vonnegut reminds us: “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Poof. Gone. Kaput. Show’s over, folks.
Favourite Quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
On the last day of Earth, Earl Milosc overslept his alarm. He was a veteran and a bachelor – a forgotten patriot with bones too rickety, eyes too weak, and hands too unsteady to do any useful work. He was 46, and as he slept, he flashed a yellow-toothed smile that had seen everything, from war, peace, heartache, love, vice, virtue, meaning, and absurdity. He was currently stuck in the last phase, though he didn’t quite know it yet. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter much. For Earl, it was problem enough to remember where he put his socks in the morning. A better man could be sculpted from a lollipop, he often said about himself.
As the world was ending around him, he tossed from side to side with the likeness of a family pet. Awake, he was a man who laughed too much and argued too little. The world made little sense to him and he made little sense to it. His physical appearance was his proof. On a good day, he was packaged in black and white polka dot underwear stained with ketchup and mustard. On a bad day, he looked like the aftermath of a circus: his hair was tousled age-old, graying cotton candy and his voice was baritone, scratchy, and ruined by volatile coughs fueled by the cancer of handheld chimneys. Often, the smoke from his cigarettes floated around his sentences like punctuation marks.
It’d be funny. The world was burning to the ground bit by bit by bit, and Earl Milosc, an average man with knees deteriorated by mediocre work for mediocre pay and whose apartment was a vestige of a bygone era littered in old newspapers and Eruption cassettes, would be its first savior.
Or at very least, he would be until the commercials ended.
He awoke to a bang.
With no windows to peer out of in the closet he called a home, he couldn’t see that the sudden noise was in fact gunshots being ricocheted from house to house, civilian to civilian. Earlier that day, NASA announced that a meteorite would collide with the Earth and obliterate all its inhabitants. They said the news in a despondent voice reserved for the helplessness felt during the heat of a calamity. “After the cosmic rocket has banged through with us,” they said, “the planet will look like the remains of an apple core.” They added that if anything were to survive, it’d be the insects. They loved pulverized apples.
Basic anarchy soon tore throughout the world, though its beginnings were anything but extraordinary. Many initially took their frustration out on the prehistoric creatures crawling underneath their mattresses and couches. But after hours of trying to squish the armoured tanks of the bug world, they decided that the attempt was misguided at the very least, futile at best. Evolution had chosen its next dominate species and it had six legs instead of two.
When people came to their senses, they did exactly what they always do when in situations they cannot change: they kill. Many chose to off themselves while some chose to murder others. As Earl knew and would find out again, this is how the span of history has always read. It was their legacy, one born from apes who were savage killers, not painters, who roared ferociously, not sang beautifully. During the Apocalypse, this did not change. Those still alive bathed in the crumbling, red-stained world they created and just as quickly destroyed.
Earl was different, however. He had fought his wars and lost his battles already. He was tired of people thinking they were big enough to change an even bigger world. More often than not, it was enough for him to find happiness in the small miracle of being able to get one leg in his pants before the other.
He wasn’t lazy, just indifferent. Even now as the banging resonated throughout his cramped apartment, this was true. Earl grumbled, hoping that his moan would bring an end to the noise. It didn’t, and Earl would have to check what the hoopla was all about. The day was starting off bad already, Earl thought.
Little did he know how right he was.
As Earl stretched out of his gray bed into pink, worn fuzzy slippers, the high-ho of the outside world reached his door. It quieted suddenly, as if sensing Earl’s slow yet stirring presence inside. Knock. Knock. Earl groaned again. “Coming, coming.” He managed to muster the words through an eruption of coughing and morning grogginess.
Much of Earl’s apartment remained dark as he tried to orient himself to the door. Covered in a thin veil of dust, every step left a wispy imprint on the floorboard. It didn’t help that fresh air hadn’t drafted into the single-room for months. For Earl, the uncleanliness was a prized novelty: with each movement, he felt like he was landing on the moon, and in the illusion of darkness, Earl looked like a mismatched astronaut donning discoloured pajamas and ragged slippers instead of a spacesuit. He moonwalked to the door.
“Hello? Who is it?” Earl harrumphed.
“It’s Dr. Shimasu, the Chief Commissioner of NASA – or whatever’s left of it. Hurry up and open the door. There’s no time. The world is falling to pieces.”
Funny. Earl didn’t think his day could get infinitely worse.
Once inside, Dr. Shimasu introduced himself formally. “My sincerest apologies for the somewhat forcible entry into your lovely abode, Mr…”
“Earl. Call me Earl.”
“Mr. Earl.” Earl left Dr. Shimasu uncorrected. “…But you must understand that this is a matter of national security. Scratch that, it concerns the whole of humankind.”
“Okay, Mr. Shi…”
“Mr. Shimasu, but I really have to get to work.” Earl pointed to watch on his hand, though in reality, he didn’t mind that he was late. Quite the opposite: he enjoyed it. He was never on time. And besides, no one came to the restaurant where he worked as a cook. Maybe it had something to do with his insipid meals… Earl’s mind trailed.
“Sorry. Was just thinking.”
“You saw the news didn’t you?”
“Must’ve missed it.”
“You’re telling me you didn’t hear about the meteorite that will hit the Earth?”
“And what about the bombs going off here in New York?”
“I might’ve – would certainly explain the loud banging that woke me up – but it definitely doesn’t concern me. I got enough to worry about.” Earl spread his arms around the room as if to show Dr. Shimasu the infinite amount of worries that could occupy a man in a dusty apartment. The scientist simply nodded as if he understood how someone could weigh the sum of Earthly existence against two-week old pizza slices and Maxim magazines scattered on the floor.
“Well, Mr. Earl, to put it simply: the shit has hit the fan, if you allow me the colloquialism. All this doesn’t matter anymore. It is the Apocalypse with a capital A.”
“But that means…” Earl’s voice veered off. Almost immediately he realized that he wouldn’t have to go to work anymore. His second thought was that he’d be able to sleep longer. For Earl, it was a win on both accounts. He joked to himself that the world should’ve ended sooner, maybe last week.
The scientist continued, “Right now, people are rioting in the streets. Any semblance of government has long since been disbanded. Looting, killing, and raping are all rampant now.”
“I see.” Earl digested everything he heard. He lit a cigarette. “How long do I have?” The smoke curled around the final “e.”
“Assuming others don’t get to us first, I’m afraid we all have around ten hours before the meteorite gives us the biggest knuckle sandwich we have ever seen.” The scientist, strong up until then, began to cry.
Earl barely noticed. He was elated, “Great. That means I still have time to watch some of my shows. Now, most likely I won’t finish Fres…”
The scientist couldn’t believe Earl. During the end of times, the gluttonous, unsightly blob wanted to continue his life just as he was living it before, if it could even be called that. In a brief yet vehement display of passion, the scientist yelled. “Mr. Earl, or whatever the fuck your name is, everything is going to go back to how it was in the beginning without humans. We’re kaput. Dead. Gone. Can you understand that through that pony-penis, fat fucking head of yours?”
“Yes.” The swearing didn’t offend Earl, though he wasn’t sure what a pony-penis looked like exactly.
“And despite it all, despite the end of the world, you want to watch TV?” Dr. Shimasu spoke in bitter resignation.
“You can join me, if you want.” Earl said it honestly with just a hint of cordiality.
“No.” The scientist was shouting fully now, “Of course I don’t fucking want to watch television. I spent my entire life doing that. I want to start over. I want to tell Jubilee I love her. I want to study art back in college. I want to fly to Paris. I want to live, god dammit. Is that too much to ask?” The scientist’s crying had now turned into a barely coherent gurgle of sobs outlining what he would do if only he could go back and change things.
In an apartment swamped by an avalanche of regrets and indolence, wearing unwashed clothing and donning a three week old beard, Earl thought about the weight of the scientist’s words. The world was ending, and with it went the rules, the institutions, and the systems that Earl felt had limited him. As the scientist said everything was as it would be in the beginning, and in the beginning, there was nothing.
That’s when it hit Earl: in the absence of anything is the opportunity for everything. Earl could be whatever he wanted, whatever he chose. Social, political, and economic statuses didn’t matter anymore. They didn’t exist. Earl was only restricted by his imagination and physical capabilities, and in terms of the latter, the first thing he would want to renew would be his workout routine. It took the beginning of the end to make him realize he was fat.
Next, he’d shave. He’d shower. He’d iron his clothes. He’d read. He’d write that book he’d always wanted to start. He’d clean up his apartment. He’d find a girl. He’d tell her he loved her. He’d give her flowers. He’d make her feel important and she’d do the same to him. He’d call his mother. He’d try his hand at painting. And, he’d try to be happy because if his life wasn’t worth that, then what was?
Caught in the torrent of his revelation where he was doing anything and everything at the same time but for different reasons, Earl didn’t notice that the scientist had stopped crying. Instead, a twisted smile had replaced his previous dejection. Earl was still reveling in his brief moment of pure bliss, “You’re right, Dr. Shimasu. I want to be resurrected, and don’t want to have to die to do it.”
Dr. Shimasu consternation suddenly turned serious. “Mr. Earl, I told you I came with an issue that concerned the whole of humanity. Right?”
“Yes – something along those lines.”
The wry smile returned. “Well, there is one thing I can do now that I’ve always wanted, always felt I needed to do. You can me help with it.” Dr. Shimasu’s face became entirely contorted, “Do you know what it is, Mr. Earl?”
“No I don’t.”
“To be a killer.” And with that, he lunged at Earl with a knife as long as an elephant’s tusk.
Fat as Earl may have been and lazy as he often was, he was surprisingly nimble. Shifting through the makeshift moon dust like a ballerina, he dodged most of the scientist’s fatal jab. Some of the serrated edge caught Earl’s forearm, tearing a hole that immediately oozed blood. But the scientist was largely uncoordinated, sharing his balance with a hamster rather than a lion. He staggered past Earl and continued to slide through the gray grime of the apartment. His knees wobbled as he skated.
Earl quickly dove towards the nearest defense object, an IKEA lamp, and wagged it as though it were as deadly as a nuclear bomb. Dr. Shimasu regained his composure. “That’s it, Mr. Earl. That’s the spirit.” The scientist turned murderer planned his second attack. Then with the wildness unique to humankind, he pounced once again.
Earl was ready this time. Sauntering to the side, he swung the lamp with full force against the scientist’s head. Dr. Shimasu crumpled like a leaf in fall, and as Earl panted overtop the limp body, blood circled the scientist’s head like a halo.
Earl shook. Despite killing before, he had never found enjoyment in it. But here he was in a new world, an ending world, smiling over a dead body. He had survived. Dr. Shimasu was dead. For the first time in a long time, Earl had won.
But it didn’t feel that way. In an apartment haunted by mediocrity, the black and white and red mixed into the gray. Colour seeped into the floorboards and with the door propped ajar, no longer was the room as dark as it seemed to be. Light allowed Earl to view himself fully. He was a man lost trying to find himself in the cosmos of his apartment and in a Universe that was just as much as an accident as he was. Around him, it wasn’t change; it was consistency, and that brought him comfort.
Beeping interrupted his thinking. Beep. Beep. Searching everywhere, Earl realized it was coming from the corpse below him. Sifting through the various pockets in the scientist’s pants, Earl found a cell phone. On the monitor in big red writing, it read, “You’re going to kill me, Dr. S, but the meteorite just passed the Earth. False alarm.”
Earl starred at the phone for an eternity and back. He felt like laughing but couldn’t. Somewhere, as the blood mazed its way into the dank hallway, he heard a television humming a familiar, welcoming tune.
By: Kacper Niburski
I’m not a surgeon, so I won’t be able to help you. I can barely string together a sentence without a red pen itching for the stitching. But I can say that while my words fail me above and below, I never wanted to write this and I never thought I would have to.
For if the shortest sentence in the language is “I do”, then the following one must be the longest because it took me two weeks to write: “I quit.”
Sure, you don’t know me and those words probably mean very little to you. I am just a column of letters that can sometimes form coherent sentences. I am entirely replaceable. Whoever takes this job after me will do it better, not to mention be a more eloquent writer (or at least, refer to themselves less). This goes without saying and I do not have an inkling of doubt in that fact.
But though I may be second rate, I’d like to believe that I am more than just a few words printed onto a page. I am a twin with glasses that sit diagonally on my face because I can never be bothered to fix them. I usually go places unshaven, just because I have a terrible knack to be lazy. I like to think I am generous, but at the same time I am conflicted with my modesty. I joke needlessly and battle the world with a smile. And I am not a quitter, or I wasn’t until I began this.
I could say that university does this to people: separating their passions and desires with a fine line called a grade point average. But I will not provide excuses for my leave of absence. If you love something, you make time for it, though I’ll admit that I’m finding it hard enough to both have love and give it.
I think back to where things could’ve gone wrong. Jump back to my childhood, and you’ll find a time when I was laughing a whole lot more, a time where limitations were the confines of my imagination and where I gave life to new worlds with a sway of a pen or a whisper of a word.
You might even find me praying because I was religious back then. Every night, my knees found themselves on the hardwood floor as I murmured a dream of world peace, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and that my family would stop fighting. Other days I implored that I didn’t have to pray as much, especially to the person who created me, the person who knows me best.
But what I prayed for the most was no different than what anyone else did: happiness, even if it meant a sacrifice of my own. I told God I’d wait forever because happiness is that important.
Fifteen years later found me in university and I found myself still waiting. I’ll grant that forever is a really long time, though. So long, in fact, that I wasn’t religious anymore; yet I continued to pray to the ceiling for happiness. I was a walking paradox.
That is, until I found this place. The Silhouette. Now I’m a writing paradox because I consider these words my rosaries, these sentences my beatitudes. Call it old fashion, but if there is happiness anywhere, it is in the news we read and the news we write.
I joined the Silhouette for that reason. Sure, it was arduous. Yeah, it was exhausting. And yes, I’ll admit it was often utterly thankless.
But while I may have been encouraging an onset of early alcoholism and perhaps even more truthfully I have a masochistic penchant for taking on more work, I do believe that the Silhouette, and the work necessary to be a competent editor, has a silver lining.
This is because it is the coal that turns into the diamond; the cocoon into the butterfly. At the end of the Wednesday night and the inevitable crawl into a Thursday morning, when the final page is printed, the cover is folded, and the shelves are stacked, I have faded into a silhouette of words.
With them, I am not simply a shadow or an outline, but rather part of a collective whole that creates the darkened image of McMaster’s journalism: the Silhouette. My name or position doesn’t matter. What I chose to say does.
Now, as I sit here in the darkness of the office, I am leaving this shadow and entering the light. It isn’t because I want to but because I have to. I have to leave this place that provided my happiness - true, written happiness - for over a year.
I am not sure what will happen when I leave it. All I know is that these are among my last words as an Opinions editor, and like the names that faded before me, like the period after this very sentence, I wish I could say more.