Among the most interesting personalities in contemporary writing is that of Kurt Vonnegut. His off-kilter, absurdist, sci-fi-esque genre puts him in an arena all his own, but it is his style of writing that truly sets him apart from his colleagues. Vonnegut's second novel, The Sirens of Titan, exemplifies this style, using a number of the qualities found in other works, including black humor, cosmic irony, use of colloquialisms, parody and purposeful narrators. However, it possess some techniques and characteristics that do not apply in his less hokey novels and short stories, mainly the mockery of a genre.
One Vonnegut's most prominent elements of style is his black humor. His is just the right kind that will cause simultaneous laughter and misery. Although The Sirens of Titan was published in 1959, the brand of humor found in Vonnegut's work has its origin in the state of mind inspired by the televised destruction and restructuring of culture in the 1960s. (Mainiero 18) However, the concept of black humor goes far back beyond those tumultuous times, as editor Bruce Jay Friedman expressed in his anthology Black Humor. (Vonnegut, "A Talk…" 113) Vonnegut was not included among the authors mentioned in this work, though, and this leads one to believe that Friedman's definitions were far from inclusive, as Vonnegut is currently associated very closely with this elusive brand of humor. Robert Scholes "argues for the validity of the concept of black humor, . . . and suggests that black humor must incorporate the theatre of the absurd, existentialism, Irish whimsy, and that memorable phenomenon of the 1950s, the sick joke." (qtd. in Mainiero 19) Inextricably tied to the black humor in Vonnegut's writing is his ability to deal with what Raymond M. Olderman calls the "extraordinary nature of contemporary fact." (qtd. in Mainiero 11) He continues, "Vonnegut is a master of getting inside a cliché and tilting it enough off center to reveal both the horror and the misery that lies beneath the surface of the most placidly dull and ordinary human response." (Qtd. In Mainiero 11) These off-kilter clichés are what help to expose the sins and folly that are shown in almost all of his stories, be they naïve fables or intense satires. (Mainiero 11) The practice of treating a tragically awful subject matter with a comic tone or point of view as Vonnegut does in the apocalyptic Cat's Cradle, is echoed throughout all of his works.
In The Sirens of Titan, this humor takes on the form of cosmic irony, of which Kurt Vonnegut is arguably the master. Malachi Constant, who is used as a pawn by the ambitious Winston Niles Rumfoord, is faced with disappointing realizations throughout the novel, from his return as the Space Wanderer to the great cosmic joke at the end when we discover that the Tralfamadorians have been controlling humanity to send messages to Salo. This cruel cosmic joke is as obvious as a big orange foam "We're #1" pointy-hand when it implies that all of human history is total bunk. Henry Ford was right. This depressing realization, however, is approached with such comedy and exaggerated plot devices that it becomes black humor. (Mainiero 28) However, there is a twist. Having introduced the idea of human absurdity, Vonnegut does not leave us hanging and "paradoxically transcends meaninglessness by showing us that everything is meaningless, thus simultaneously canceling out both pride and pity." (Mainiero 29) Beatrice Rumfoord, in her declining years on the Utopian Titan, writes a book entitled The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System, which states that, although the Tralfamadorians have controlled the Earthlings to general ends, they have not controlled the means, and through deciding how to fulfill their inevitable destiny, humans have practiced choice and have experienced free will. It is also mentioned that, now that humanity is through busy delivering messages, it is now on its own and can decide even its ends, which is a refreshingly hopeful revelation. (Bloom 13) She later mentions that "the worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody" (qtd. In Bloom 13) So, this sense of purpose becomes a comfort to us, but this statement is doubtedly the "thesis" of the novel. Rather "it is Beatrice's act of assertion that gives her the dignity and meaning that she wants; and to a large extent in Vonnegut's world, we are what we do or say or even pretend to be." (Bloom 13) It is integral to Vonnegut's style in The Sirens of Titan that these issues be brought up in a way that is simultaneously exaggerated-silly-comedic and serious-reflective-thought-provoking.
In Vonnegut's first published short story "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," Vonnegut introduces the term dynamopsychism. This is his term for the justification and purpose of a narrator. The Sirens of Titan features a narrator from the very distant future telling the story through the use of a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the same plot device that allows Rumfoord the work his plan. In Cat's Cradle, it is karass, foma, and the encompassing religion of Bokononism that justifies the narrator's presence. Dynamopsychism, more commonly known as the Barnhouse Effect, is a general belief that consensually approved randomness (i.e. luck) is both measurable and controllable force. (Klinkowitz, Vonnegut in Fact 29) Vonnegut's narrators often act as spokespeople, speaking almost as if the novel were public address. Klinkowitz states that, in Slaughterhouse-Five, "having to begin with an apology and follow up with disclaimer of technical ignorance are key features of his narrator's technique." (Vonnegut in Fact 30) This form of public address determines the effect of the novel. Similarly, in The Sirens of Titan, the narrator from the future claims in the beginning that the humans in the story which s/he is telling have yet to find "even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul." (Vonnegut, The Sirens... 3). Galapagos is the same way. The narrator of the future human race speaks with a very detached and somewhat condescending tone about his predecessors. (Vonnegut, Galapagos 1-5) The tendency to justify the narrator is common in all works, and Vonnegut's narrators are crucial to the story's meaning in their presence and in their form of address. (Klinkowitz, Vonnegut in Fact 29)
An often noted characteristic of The Sirens of Titan and most of his other novels preceding Slaughterhouse-Five is the fact that they were often dependent on their sub-genre. For example, Player Piano was a dystopian piece, Cat's Cradle an apocalyptic novel, and Mother Night an espionage confession. (Klinkowitz, Vonnegut in Fact 112) The critics in general seem to enjoy referring The Sirens of Titan as a space opera, some choosing the word "hokey" to precede said classification. As a general work, one would assume that it fits quite easily inside the boundaries of science fiction as a whole, but it has been said to bleed into other categories like satire and fabulation. Some complain that Vonnegut does not approach the genre with the utmost of sincerity, and support from various statements made by Vonnegut prove that these individuals are correct. (Klein 1) Why they are complaining, however, is beyond me. Lecker even goes so far as to say that Vonnegut "can be found taking pleasure in joking with the paraphernalia that dyed-in-the-wool science-fiction fans take so seriously." (Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World 56) Because he does not take the genre seriously, his over-exaggerated clichés "are deflated by the revelation that all human endeavors have so far had as their sole end the delivery of a piece of metal to a broken down spaceship." (Klein 5) His satire of the genre questions the intense sincerity taken on by the complicated and technical works of authors like Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein and Hal Clement, a writer/physics professor who got into an argument with a colleague over whether or not Martians, with little to no air on Mars, would have large or small noses. (Lecker, Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming... 56) An interesting bit of real-life irony is the original publication of The Sirens of Titan, which was "as a paperback original for the Dell science-fiction series, a rather sleazy operation which dressed the book in an outrageous cover complete with machine monsters and semi-nude young women tumbling together in an asteroid belt." (Klinkowitz, Kurt Vonnegut 40) With this serious mockery of genre, we might venture that Vonnegut is not saying that human life is absurd, but simply that searching for meaning in an external source is not the way to go, given the first few lines of the book. Bloom believes that it is parallel to what John Milton referred to as the "paradise within." (5) Genre satire and meaningless laughter at the external are thus thematically and stylistically tied to The Sirens of Titan.
Vonnegut's style is all at once hilarious and dark, full of mock-technobabble, satire and irony. His novels often beg so many questions as to the morality of certain characters or the meaning (or lack thereof) inherent to life in this universe, but in The Sirens of Titan, we learn that it is not our purpose as humans to push outward into a limitless expanse of meaning and meaninglessness, but face the truth within. I've got twenty bucks that says we can identify one of the fifty-three portals to the soul in, like, two hours, three tops.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut. Modern Critical Views. not numbered. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.
Klein, Herbert G. Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and the Question of Genre. May 1998. Electronic. 13 May 2004.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982.
- - -. Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction. Columbia, SC: U. of South Carolina, 1998.
Lecker, Robert, ed. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Twayne's Masterwork Studies. not numbered. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Mainero, Lina. Kurt Vonnegut. Modern Literature Monographs. not numbered. New York: Frederick Unger, 1977.
New Scientist. "Classic Kurt." New Scientist 2035 (1996): 42
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York: Random, 1960.
- - -. Galapagos. New York: Random, 1985.
- - -. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Random, 1969.
- - -. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Random, 1959.
- - -. "A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Robert Scholes. Allen, William Rodney, ed. 1973.