Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
This is the ninth Vonnegut book I have read, and I am not quite sure what to say about it. The story is about a man, veteran of the Vietnam War, who seems haunted by the number of people he killed (“legally”) in the war. He spends his life counteracting the kills by committing acts of adultery and, as we find out in the end, the number of people he has killed is exactly the same as the number of women he has committed adultery with, and the number is disturbingly large, for both categories. The author and main character, Eugene Debs Hartke, becomes a college teacher after the war, a prison teacher after he is dismissed from the college and a prisoner of the same prison after he is arrested for insurrection, when there is a prison break and Eugene becomes “mayor.” The story is absurd, in typical Vonnegut fashion, and at times it is literally laughable – but that’s the point. Vonnegut is a harsh critic of government and politics, of boards of education and the prison system, and of human nature in general. As is the case with many of his books, the final verdict seems to be: we are all doomed. Still, Vonnegut makes this pronouncement in a hilarious way – he seems to think life and all we live for is rather a big, cosmic joke, but that’s okay – laugh on.
3 – Characters well developed.
There is only one main character in Hocus Pocus, and that is Eugene Hartke. Every other character that is described or that comes into contact with Eugene is largely subordinate, there simply to advance Eugene’s story. This is the case in a lot of books, but it stands out much more so here because there is very literal dialogue or character interaction – indeed, much of the character descriptions come from Hartke’s remembrance of them, so what the reader gets are one-sided, past history versions of people that Hartke once interacted with. The positive aspect of this is that we get to spend the entire trip with Hartke and see things the way he sees them. The reader gets a real sense of Hartke’s depression and total lack of faith in absolutely anything, including himself. The down-side is that there is nothing very engaging about the story – nothing to really develop the plot or intrigue the reader, other than the humor and sarcasm. Still, the way Hartke describes people – his crazy wife and mother-in-law, the solitary prison warden, his old war pals and the women he “conquers,” are funny and singular – each character does have his or her own personality, no matter how far out on the periphery they may be.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
The book’s style is explained in the introduction, which I skimmed thorugh, but which I wish I would have paid more attention to – because I was annoyed. The story is told in little bits of varying length, broken by line-segments. There are standard chapters, but the sub-sections seem to come in bursts of thought, so that the story picks up where it left off with each line break. Sometimes these segments are as short as one or two sentences, and sometimes they go on for pages. When you realize why the narrator was writing in this fashion, it makes much more sense, but because I skipped over the introduction and did not put much thought into the question (“why is he writing like this?”) I just took it for granted that Vonnegut was a weirdo and was therefore annoyed by it for almost the entire book. Bad on me. I still would have preferred standard chapter format, in general, but upon completion of the book and re-reading the introduction, I am much more amenable to the style. The prose, too, is fantastic, as it always is with Vonnegut. His honesty and genuineness always come through in his writing style – he is an open, charming, sexual, carefree but tragically careworn man, and his writing style comes across in the same way.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
Vonnegut always has so much to say about life and living. He reminds me a lot of myself – we think in very similar ways, and we think about things in very similar ways, which means I almost always connect with what he is trying to do, whether or not I particularly like the story. As I said, this was my ninth encounter with Vonnegut, and probably one of my least favorite of his books so far. Still, the themes I love – distrust of political structures and institutions, exasperation with the human collective (thinking “en masse”), profound sadness over human history and the loss of great potential due to greed, lust, and competition, these elements are always present in his works, and they move me to no end. His books are often about wars or destruction, because these events demonstrate fully the worrying potential for humanity to needlessly and thoughtlessly extinguish itself over menial disagreements and so, while this book takes place years after the Vietnam War, its permanent implications and resonance is made clear by the narration of Eugene Debs and by his interactions with others. Also, as you will find out at the end (and as I mentioned above) – there is a silly little game the narrator plays with his readers throughout the book, dropping clues as to how to figure out just how many lives he took in the war and how many women he has committed adultery with (since the number is the same). The reader will not realize until the end that this is happening, or what the clues were, but they are there, and (unless one cheats and uses the internet), the reader must go back through the story to add up the clues and determine the final number – typical Vonnegut.
Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: American History, Social Commentary, Satire, Education, Family
“Just because some of us can read and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.”
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”