Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

isfdb.org
Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

goodreads
Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

The Poor Teaching Practices of Professor Dumbledore

dumbledore
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.

Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.

Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.

It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.

Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.

Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.

So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.

The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.

  1. He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
  2. Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.

Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.

But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.

Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.

Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.

But I don’t think so.

And finally: Snape and Slughorn.

Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.

And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.

I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.

I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.

If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.

Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.

 

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Review of Wychman Road by Ben Berman Ghan

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It’s an age-old question, one that has embedded itself in the consciousness of humanity for as long as we can perceive, and that dares us to consider the impossible: What would we do with god-like powers? What if we could enter the minds of our peers; if we could be faster than they are, stronger; if we could make them do whatever we wanted?

Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychman Road is the newest installment in the literary exploration of this particular tantalizing possibility. His novel follows the journey of two characters, one who is thrust into a world of unimaginable power, and one who has gone way too far down a dark path and yearns to regain his lost humanity.

First and foremost, what is rewarding about Ghan’s novel is the bond forged between his protagonists. Joshua Jones is a traumatized, century-old veteran trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old, while Peter Alexson’s inexperience in his harsh new world runs far deeper than his adolescence. The novel dedicates much of its time to carefully developing the brotherhood between these unlikely companions, and it is the strength of their friendship that drives the plot forward, leading to moments of self-realization and sacrifice.

The characters themselves are believable and unique in their own right. Joshua’s strong, stoic exterior reveals a softer, more childlike nature; and Peter’s complex feelings as a kid who receives ultimate power at the cost of great tragedy realistically flips between him feeling like Superman and wanting his uncomplicated life back. With this novel, Ghan demonstrates awareness for both its genre and the nature of youth.

The horror elements of the story stand out as the most refined and skillfully crafted. Ghan’s real talent shines in creating moments of suspense and foreboding, and his villains are a particular treat, combining a sadistic charm with some truly horrifying action. Ghan’s vision of the corruption of ultimate power is embodied in the characters of Christopher Patera, whose detachment from humanity after millennia has twisted him into a kind of monstrous god-figure, and McGrath, whose gleeful fascination with children, and with breaking them down into sad empty shells, evokes the bad-touch-spine-shivers every time he appears.

As we delve deeper into Joshua’s twisted past, we get some truly excellent flashback sequences, darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. These are some of the best in the novel, as Ghan’s wit aAnd wickedly black comedy shines through in these horrifically entertaining scenes.

Wychman Road is a worthwhile read for any fan of the speculative. This novel does well in carving out a hidden fantastic world within the familiar landscape of our own Toronto streets. It is an absorbing beginning to what I imagine will be an action-filled and engaging series.

-Contributed by Amy Wang