Considering that most of Vonnegut's novels reveal most of the plot near the beginning anyway, I think that it is hard to "spoil" one of his novels by revealing plot points. This novel is written in that same way. But, there are some other minor things in this writeup that you may not want to read if you are a purist of some sort. But I don't think so.
Hocus Pocus, the novel, was published in 1990. Here, Vonnegut creates a false America for the reader. This America shares a past with our America, but its future is radically different. As with all of his novels, satire is used extensively. In fact, Vonnegut satirizes nearly everything you can think of in our society. Race relations, criminal justice, war, peace, marriage, the economy, capitalism, and more. This isn't terribly surprising. He writes in short segments and tends to digress. This is also not very surprising. The ambiguity that Vonnegut creates in this novel as to the veracity and possibility of the events he describes is a jump from many of his other novels.
Some background on the America of this novel. The country has been largely re-segregated and stratified along economic and social boundaries. Foreign corporations have all but taken over the country, and gas must be bought from a Mafiosi named Guido behind a Japanese-owned cinema complex for an outrageous price. Actually, the Mafia is one of few businesses in America still run by Americans.
The narrator of the story is Eugene Debs Hartke, a womanizing Vietnam veteran who wants his epitaph to be the number of women he has slept with. Coincidentally, this number is the same as the number of people he has killed. He is, as you may have guessed, named after socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The first part of the novel consists of him telling of all of the things that have happened to him, and the history of the area in which he currently lives.
Through Hartke, Vonnegut discusses each of the very real problems of society (listed above) in a very unrealistic manner. Still, the situations are not so unrealistic as to be disbelieved. Rather, they lie on the fringe of reality.
Hocus Pocus examines race relations through a fictional Supreme Court decision that determined that it was in fact a violation of a prisoner’s civil rights to force him to stay in a prison in which his was the minority race. Thus, the prisons become totally segregated by race, but unfortunately, "many jurisdictions did not have enough Oriental or American Indian criminals to make separate institutions economically feasible. . . .Under such circumstances, said the Court, Indians and/or Orientals should be made honorary Whites, and treated accordingly." To make room for the rapidly expanding prison system, battleships and nuclear submarines are converted into floating prisons.
Hocus Pocus contains the ultimate in fabricated reality in the form of the GRIOT™ machine. This is a machine, which, when given the details of a person’s life up to a certain point, predicts what will happen to them. It is surprisingly accurate. This man-made reality is an excellent tool for satire, but more fundamentally, provides a forum for the reader to question how real his own world is. The satire is, as usual, unmistakable. A group of black maximum-security prisoners escape and take over the college at which Eugene is employed. Eugene shows them how to use the machine, and they are upset with the results:
The escaped convicts smashed up the one in the Pavilion soon after I showed them how to work it. . . .One by one they punched in their race and age and what their parents did, if they knew, and how long they’d gone to school and what drugs they’d taken and so on, and GRIOT™ sent them straight to jail to serve long sentences.
uses GRIOT™ to further satirize race: the world is blatantly racist
even in a fictitious reality. "If you leave out race, for instance, it flashes the words 'ethnic origin' on its screen, and stops cold. If it doesn’t know that, it can't go on." The idea of manufacturing a false reality
which still contains the harsh realities of actual reality is typical of Vonnegut, and an interesting one indeed. It is the greatest confusion of reality in Hocus Pocus.
The college that Hartke teaches (and is later imprisoned) at is Tarkington College, which was founded by a rich dyslexic man. The college develops into an institution where the rich can send their learning disabled (or just plain stupid) children to ensure that they will be successful. Despite the fact that many of the students can't read, the college library is huge, with 800,000 volumes, "and almost every book written for or about the ruling class." Ultimately, Hartke is fired after he is overheard "polluting" the students' minds by talking about philosophy and social studies, subjects that he isn’t qualified to teach. The nail in the coffin is a recording made of Hartke after he had too much to drink, when he found a group of students and began telling them some of what his socialist grandfather told him. He is forced out by a conservative demagogue (and father of a student) who believes that Eugene is Anti-American and threatens to denounce the college on television.
Once again, the reader has to decide for himself about whether what has occurred is possible, or not. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the "ruling class" would create a college exclusively for their moronic sons and daughters. And it isn’t hard to believe that the "ruling class" would force out a teacher who was "perverting" the minds of children by expanding their horizons. At the same time, the reader believes that he lives in a world where such a thing wouldn’t happen. Vonnegut tells the reader what he thinks of the ruling class, but does not say whether he deems them to be actually capable of the things that they do in Hocus Pocus.
The reality of the ruling class is particularly ambiguous. They are so interested in furthering their own interests that they slowly sell off most of their assets to foreign companies. These companies eventually leave, realizing that America is a lost cause. The wealthy Americans transfer their wealth entirely to paper, leaving them with no material wealth. Most take their liquid assets and place them in the stock of a company called Microsecond Arbitrage. Microsecond Arbitrage purports to buy the goods earmarked for the downtrodden, and then auction these goods in the third world at enormous profit. Most rich people in America have money in the company, including many members of the board of trustees of Tarkington College. "As it happened, he was on the verge of losing his fortune, which was nothing but paper, in Microsecond Arbitrage, Incorporated. . . .He was high as a kite on printouts describing brilliant trades he had made . . . Microsecond Arbitrage was his angel dust, his LSD, his heroin, his jug of Thunderbird wine, his cocaine." The problem for these social elites turns out to be that Microsecond Arbitrage is a scam. It consists of nothing more than a few computers hooked together, falsifying documents about trades. This is revealed, and the company folds, leaving them with nothing. In much the same manner as he does with GRIOT™, Vonnegut includes an element of the lack of reality in our own world. The elite only thought that they knew what was real. Furthermore, he criticizes the social elite for trusting in a reality as false as securities and liquid assets.
And, as CrashMercury says, this novel was written in a strange way. But, he has one detail wrong. The Editor's Note was in actuality written by Vonnegut, as indicated by the K.V. at the end of it. This continues the ruse of distorting reality. Here, the story is told in the form of a rambling retrospective by the main character and first-person narrator. Frequent lines separate the short thoughts, which Vonnegut explains in the "Editor’s Note" as the result of the "author" (here, Vonnegut implies that the true author was Hartke) scribbling the story down on any scrap of paper he could find in the prison library. The sections range from one word (usually, "Cough."), to several paragraphs, but generally don’t last longer than one page.
The original review in the New York Times describes the narration as:
...a retrospective first-person narrative in which several time and story lines gradually converge. It is told by one Eugene Debs Hartke and purportedly written in prison on scraps of paper, each scrap a thought, story or digression unto itself - a form ideally suited to Mr. Vonnegut’s thumbnail essayistic bent and his high-speed forward- and reverse-narrative time travel.
Upon first reading this Editor’s Note, it is easy to interpret it as actually being from the editor, as CrashMercury
did. As I said, the only indications otherwise are the initials, and the use of "Eugene Debs Hartke" to refer to the author.
The short sections aren't the only strange thing about the writing of the novel. The Editor's Note reveals that the random capitalization of letters was intentional. Another interesting thing about the novel is its strange way of printing numbers.
This is 1 example of how numbers are printed.
One other thing: if a number starts a sentence, it is spelled out.
Oh, and Hartke
, the narrator
, never swears
This is a great book, and next to Slaughterhouse-Five, it is my favorite by Vonnegut. I highly reccomend it.
Some of my favorite quotes:
"The lesson I myself learned over and over again when teaching at the college and then the prison was the uselessness of information to most people, except as entertainment. If facts weren't funny or scary, or couldn't make you rich, the heck with them."
"I think William Shakespeare was the wisest human being I ever heard of. To be perfectly frank, though, that's not saying much."
"Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying saucer people to find, was this:
WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT,
Only he didn't say 'doggone.'"
BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP.