The Rabo Karabekian Memorial Deathmarch: Week 13


Welcome to the penultimate week of the The Rabo Karabekian Memorial Deathmarch. Since I’m already late posting this let’s keep it slightly on the shorter side this week. I’ll meet you at the end of Chapter 20, where “He would meet his Creator, who would explain everything.”

10 Responses to “The Rabo Karabekian Memorial Deathmarch: Week 13”

  1. Jim Walters Says:

    Forgive me here for continuing my comment from last week. If anyone was intrigued by my observations about the desperate hope West Virginians are placing in Trump’s promise to rejuvenate the coal industry there, check out this piece from yesterday’s Washington Post. What do you suppose the chances are that they won’t be disappointed?

  2. The Old Man in KS Says:

    “Breaking the fourth wall” has been a much discussed concept in theater, film, & TV: Where a character talks directly to the audience, who are normally passive observers of the action. Kurt knocks down the 4th wall in reverse (p. 652-53) when he has his nom de plume author Philboyd Studge walk into the cocktail lounge scene, sit down at a table & start interacting with characters in the story he’s been telling. I suppose this fits with the Kurt/Philboyd literary philosophy (stated appropriately it seems on p. 666): “Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order….”

    But I did learn some important things in this week’s section of Breakfast: (1) “One vertical, unwavering band of light” which appears under The Philter masthead was ripped off from this work of Kurt’s. (2) The title of this Deathmarch as “The Rabo Karabekian Memorial” was selected from a character in Breakfast & who is probably going to come to a bad end because he “lazily ridiculed” local hero Mary Alice Miller. (3) The Breakfast of Champions is a martini, despite multiple disclaimers that this in no way disparages the Gen. Mills slogan for Wheaties (probably at the insistence of Kurt’s original publishers, so they wouldn’t be sued for slogan infringement or some such thing).

    Of little consequence I also note: Cynthia Anne, the child Ned Lingamon killed (p. 660), happens to be the first & middle name of my wife. Power “generated by coal from strip mines in West Virginia” (p. 671) will probably stoke [pun intended] more commentary from fellow marchers Jim &/or Annie C. Finally, Philboyd mentions again, as he did in the Preface, the fact of his 50th birthday, which just happens to be the impending next birthday of our intrepid march leader Bill!

  3. Jim Walters Says:

    I can never decide whether Vonnegut was prescient or whether civilization’s problems are just hopelessly intractable.

    Reading about Trout getting his feet wrapped in a plastic film crossing Sugar Creek to reach the new Holiday Inn, I thought that Vonnegut was taking off on some environmental controversy related to the manufacture of that old kitchen standby plastic cling wrap, aka Saran Wrap. But then I recalled recent news reports about a newly discovered threat from the waste water disposal of plastic micro-fibers currently used in the manufacture of toothpaste, cosmetics, and sports wear.

    Here is a link to what I read:

    “Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme.”

  4. Jim Walters Says:

    Let me try that again, with a link that seems to connect better.

  5. bill Says:

    A quick tip for anyone who’s still working on this week’s reading: whenever Rabo Karabekian says anything, imagine it in the voice of Sideshow Bob. This is not only vastly entertaining but entirely appropriate; both are supercilious but lovable assholes.

  6. Jeff Green Says:

    I too had no idea that a “vertical, unwavering band of light” came from Vonnegut, or this book. Bill has been playing the long game with us.

    This week’s section was eerily reminiscent of HBO’s Westworld to me. I don’t want to commit the sin of spoiling anything from that show for those who haven’t watched it, but all of Vonnegut’s writings about both his relationship with his creations, as well as just how “important” any of us are, as a species, was totally reminiscent of the show. Makes me wonder if Jonathan Nolan is a Vonnegut fan.

    I loved the breaking of the fourth wall in this section. As in Slaughterhouse Five, I find it very moving at times, especially when he explicitly mentions real family members (or himself) as suffering from the same fate as one of his characters.

    I don’t think there’s many authors who can pull off almost anything of what Vonnegut does, style-wise. Even HE can’t pull it off all the time. But when he does, it just works beautifully. I went from not being sure about this book at the start to thinking it now may be one of my faves of his. Underneath the absurdity (though I guess not really “underneath,” given the drawings of a–holes and whatnot) i a pretty sad story, I think, about the author himself, and his growing frustration with the limits of fiction to say what he wants to say.

  7. Jim Walters Says:

    I have been struggling gamely along on this march, but finally, I have to accept an unfortunate fact; I really don’t enjoy reading Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction. But so many people have loved it, I’ve puzzled over my own feelings. So, my fellow marchers, let tell you why:
    a. I find his stories to be pessimistic, disturbing, cynical and depressing.
    b. It’s ugly: his characters are a basket of deplorables, misfits, defectives and lunatics, placed in bleak, dystopian settings.
    c. There is a lot of humor, but it’s entirely a diet of dark, deadpan or tongue in cheek. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do have only a limited appetite for irony and sarcasm.
    d. Vonnegut presents only objections, rarely ideals. His values are almost never directly expressed; they have to be inferred, either from what he mocks, or from the bizarrely noble stands against absurdity taken by his characters, e.g. Karabekian’s response about his painting capturing the essence of life in every living animal as “one vertical, unwavering band of light.”
    e. There are no heroes or good guys in these stories, no one I can care much about.

    But I also have to admit that I am fascinated by his writing, even though I don’t enjoy reading it. For me it’s a lot like watching MMA cage wrestling….offensive and troubling, but I can’t look away. And then there is the fact that I share his opinion about most of the subjects he chooses to disparage.

    Hoping to gain better insight into what inspired Vonnegut’s cynical writings and dark perspectives, I perused some of the supplemental sections provided in the Library of America edition. A “Chronology” (p. 811) sketches out Vonnegut’s life and work, summarized almost annually from birth to death. It provides some useful facts that helped me start to understand what might have shaped Vonnegut’s world view. It’s plain enough from the stories we have trudged through for this appropriately named “Deathmarch” that: a) his mother’s suicide, and b) being present at the firebombing of Dresden, were major events.

    The Chronology reveals (p. 814) that in 1944, while Vonnegut was home from the Army on a Mother’s Day pass, his mother, age 55, committed suicide with the same barbiturates and alcohol that she had been abusing for a decade to cope with his family’s financial and social decline during the 1930’s. Vonnegut later wrote about her, “My mother was addicted to being rich. She was tormented by withdrawal symptoms all during the Great Depression.” (p.812) Although he was evidently haunted by him Mother’s suicide, his commentary on her unhappy story sounds characteristically cynical.

    But I suspect that his downbeat take on her life and death was not derived so much from his moral critique of her materialism as from the depressive mentality that he had inherited from her. He evidently passed this genetic trait on to his son Mark, whom in 1971 at age 24, Vonnegut committed to a mental hospital following a manic mental breakdown. (p. 822)

    KV started writing “Breakfast” in 1969. It was published in final form in 1973, two years after Mark’s breakdown. Inserting himself into the new Holiday Inn’s cocktail lounge amongst his characters, Vonnegut suggests that he is also struggling to control his own mind: he writes, “I took a white pill which a doctor said I could take in moderation, two a day, in order not to feel blue.” GOODBYE BLUE MONDAY.

    At 1984, at age 61, KV tried his own hand at suicide (p. 827). On Feb 13th, in his Manhattan home, employing his Mother’s preferred weapons, he overdosed on barbiturates and alcohol. He was hospitalized for 18 days. Could it have been a coincidence that Feb 13th was also the 39th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden? Vonnegut wrote to a friend that he was diagnosed “with acute (all but terminal) depression….I am no renaissance man, but a manic depressive with a few lopsided gifts.”

    In this failed suicide attempt, three of the major influences that shaped Vonnegut’s fiction converged at the nadir of his life ….an inherited predisposition to depression, the trauma of his mother’s suicide, and his star-cursed presence at the firebombing of Dresden. Reading his work, I am led to believe that he struggled with these and other forces from the dark side, with varying degrees of success, throughout his career. And for some reason, it is the crazed, depressed tones of his work that resonate most strongly with me.

    But realizing that we’re nearing the end of this march has lifted my spirits. “I am better now. Word of honor. I am better now.” (Chapter 18, p. 653.)

  8. bill Says:

    One of the things that’s really surprised me about this March has been the range of people’s reactions. I never considered reading Vonnegut — at least his major books — anything less than pure, unmitigated pleasure. So I didn’t expect such a mixed response (and I’m not just talking about Jim, but also about some of those long gone). But looking at it clearly, I can certainly see why that’s been the case. There is a deep, dark, corrosive cynicism at work here. And yet for whatever reason I still find this book delightful.

    Like Jeff, I also found the Karabekian section pretty moving. (Which is why that quote has been up on the masthead here all along — it was stuck in my head from recently absorbing the John Malkovich audiobook of BoC.) Something about KV’s “life being renewed” by the words of a character he himself had created.

    This never occurred to me before now, but in retrospect it seems obvious: KV talks a lot about Trout’s book “Now It Can Be Told,” in which this new kind of creature — The Man — is able to exercise free will and act in a way not controlled by his creator. Meanwhile, Rabo Karabekian seems to have taken on a life of his own and said things that his creator (Kurt Vonnegut) did not tell him to say. KV clearly expresses contempt for Karabekian, yet he ends up giving the speech that serves as “the spiritual climax of the book.”

    It’s only happened to me a couple times, but in any creative endeavor, if you keep at it long enough and get lucky enough, there are moments when the thing you are creating takes over and starts creating itself. And you end up surprised by what you have wrought. This is always a moment of true grace and even the remote possibility of getting there again is enough to sustain one for a long period of time.

    And among the darkness here there are flickers of hope that seem all the more honest and believable, given that Kurt has told us plainly how fucked he thinks pretty much everything is. “It is hard to adopt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.”

  9. Jim Walters Says:

    For me, one of the most redeeming features of Vonnegut’s work is that he delights in satirizing the foibles of democratic governments, especially where they serve elites at the expense of ordinary citizens.

    This critique of current governance has also been the rallying cry of President Elect D. Trump. In contrast to Trump, however, Vonnegut seems to have been a genuine populist, calling out the failings of western civilization’s established powers, institutions and accepted norms pretty much across the board, and seeming to hope that these failings could be offset primarily by embracing human kindness and a broad sense of community. Could Vonnegut perhaps be seen simply as a misanthropic, sharp-tongued hippie?

    I find myself wishing Vonnegut was here today to take on the Donald; who I fear is aching to pursue libertarian objectives using authoritarian methods. The Donald’s populist rhetoric and ultra-conservative appointments frame a contemporary definition of antidisestablishmentarianism. The ONLY redeeming aspect of this dire political situation is that I have wanted all my life to be able to legitimately use that word in a sentence. Thank you, Donald.

  10. Annie C Jaisser Says:

    Plowing through BoC paid off for me this week, what with the “breaking of the fourth wall” and Rabo Karabekian’s speech and “vertical, unwavering band of light.” There’s beauty and redemption in chaos, and it’s comforting to read that V came to that juncture, despite or perhaps because of, his real life traumas:

    “It is hard to adopt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.”

    I appreciated the variety and richness of my fellow death marchers’ comments this week and I’m making a note to myself to read BoC straight through, rather than in installments, down the road.

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