I recently finished The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. The other Vonnegut book I’ve read, Mother Night, was excellent, but this one left me wanting. My big problem: he didn’t trust the reader to get what he was saying, so he pounded us over the head with details we’d already picked up on.
Let me give an example. In the first part of the book, we meet the main players: Beatrice Rumfoord, Winston Niles Rumfoord, and Malachi Constant. Winston Niles Rumfoord is a sort of space traveler, and he returns with his dog, Kazak, for a few minutes every now and then on Earth to tell people what will happen in the future. He arrives back to report to Malachi Constant that in the future, Malachi and Beatrice will be married on Mars and they will end up on Titan. Then we jump to that time on Mars, where we meet Unk (who is very clearly Malachi Constant sans his memory). Unk finds a letter written to him about things that are happening on Mars, and it mentions a man “who always had a big dog with him” who seems to be very important. Immediately, I knew that this was Winston Niles Rumfoord. Yet Vonnegut went on in the next paragraph to say: “The letter said nothing about it, because the writer knew nothing about it, but this man and his dog were Winston Niles Rumfoord and Kazak, the hound of space.”
The reader didn’t need to be told this, and in fact, I had more fun making the conclusion for myself than having it laid out for me by Vonnegut. But he didn’t trust us, and so he overexplains.
Then at the end of the letter, Unk looks at the signature to find out who wrote it. Vonnegut writes:
“This was the signature:
The signature was Unk’s.
Unk was the hero who had written the letter.”
This kind of repetition would never fly under my editorial pen. When a writer repeats information unnecessarily, it makes me feel patronized. I wonder who Vonnegut thought I was that I didn’t recognize Winston Niles Rumfood when I saw him, or just how stupid did he think a reader could be that they wouldn’t be able to conclude for themselves that the signature was Unk’s?
So why did Vonnegut, one of the great American writers of the latter half of the twentieth century, have so little faith in his readers? At first, I thought it must be a thematic, stylistic thing. Perhaps it was somehow a commentary on the stupidity of humans, on how we need to be told things so many times before they sink in. But I don’t think that really plays out in the book. At no time did I pick up that Vonnegut was aware he was breaking a rule, nor did it neatly tie into other themes. Sure, the novel deals with hubris as well as otherworldly messages, but I didn’t see a clear parallel drawn between a God-like figure and the author; I don’t have enough evidence to say Vonnegut was so redundant because he was trying to replicate the way a God might communicate unsuccessfully with the human race. (That’s where I thought it was going, but as far as I can see, there are no other themes that would work, either.)
My second hypothesis is that the redundant writing is a product of the time. Sirens of Titan was published in 1959, just 10 years after 1984 and still in the beginning of dystopian fiction. Today, there is a whole lot of dystopian to read in both adult and children’s literature, but (according to Wikipedia, at least) it wasn’t really started until the thirties, and then it took a while to catch on. Similarly, perhaps the idea of characters whose memories have been erased–now bordering on trite–was fresh and Vonnegut really couldn’t trust that the reader would understand what was going on. As a millennial, I have been primed to read dystopian, time travel, and science fiction, and I don’t need as many clues. But perhaps in 1959, the ideas Vonnegut presented were so new, they needed to be spelled out.
However, the realist in me thinks maybe it has less to do with themes or genre and more to do with the fact that it was Vonnegut’s second novel. Every writer grows the more they write, and in fact, Vonnegut’s more acclaimed work is more experimental. Perhaps what the redundancy truly shows is that he was still a beginner and still finding himself as a writer.
This, for me, is a beacon of hope. Even though there are signs of sub-par writing in his second book, Vonnegut went on to be a celebrated author. This is a reason to fight the inner perfectionist, to allow yourself to call it quits instead of revising and revising and revising. It’s okay to stop, it’s okay for there to be a few flaws, because you have to make those mistakes to learn from them.