“The Sirens of Titan” (Post 1/3)

part 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2/3

Post 3/3


 

Kurt Vonnegut’s second novel, published in 1959. My copy has been through some tough times.

5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Malachi Constant, an arrogant man whose wealth has come completely by luck, is unwillingly sent on a series of adventures on Mars, Mercury, and Titan.

Don’t think too hard about the science; this is sci-fi as satire and social commentary, sharing a bed with Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. If you like that, there’s a good chance you’ll like this.


 

[1] Best disclaimer in fiction:

All persons, places, and events in this book are real. Certain speeches and thoughts are necessarily constructions by the author. No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.

(p.6)

[2] Vocabulary:

Gimcrack religions were big business.

(p.7)

adjective – flimsy or poorly made but deceptively attractive.

noun – a cheap and showy ornament; a knickknack.

[3] The first line of the following is technically unnecessary. Some of Vonnegut’s style seems to be excessive/simplistic wordiness or repetitions (“so it goes” in Slaughter-House Five immediately comes to mind). What confidence and command you must have over your style to pull this off…

There was a crowd.

The crowd had gathered because there was going to be a materialization.

(p.8)

[4] Q: For curiosity’s sake, does the name Rumfoord have any meaning/significance?

A: Googling the name only brings up references to the character in this book (Winston Niles Rumfoord) and a character in Slaughterhouse-Five (Bertram Copeland Rumfoord).

Almost all of Vonnegut’s fiction lives in a common universe. The same names and people pop up many times (Kilgore Trout is everywhere). Sometimes the references aren’t consistent: The planet Tralfadamore shows up in Sirens of Titan as the home of a robotic race. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfadamorians  are organic creatures with a very different look.

[5] Vocabulary:

He was Malachi Constant of Hollywood, California, the richest American – and a notorious rakehell.

(p.11)

noun – analogous to “hellraiser.” Shortened as “rake”. A man who is habituated to immoral conduct, particularly womanizing.

[6] Unknown reference:

The flat rays of the sunset filled the treetops with a Maxfield Parrish light

(p.15)

Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966): American painter and illustrator

[7] Vocabulary:

Constant laughed to himself, thinking how delighted Mrs. Rumfoord would be were the vulgar, parvenu Mr. Constant of Hollywood to spend his entire visit treed on the fountain by a thoroughbred dog.

(p.18)

noun (derogatory) – a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity.

[8] Vocabulary:

The density and permanence of the mansion were, of course, at ironic variance with the fact that the quondam master of the house (…) was no more substantial than a moonbeam.

(p.18)

adjective (formal) – that once was; former.

[9] Unknown reference:

It was surely one of the greatest essays on density since the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

(p.18)

Another name for the Great Pyramid of Giza. Giza is the location; Khufu was the Pharaoh who had the structures built.

[10] Kazak, the hound of space, is the best.

Constant awoke from his contemplation of the fountain. The baying could only be that of Kazak, the hound of space. Kazak had materialized. Kazak smelled the blood of a parvenu.

(p.19)

[11]

He touched Constant lightly on the arm. It was a politician’s gesture – a vulgar public gesture by a man who in private, among his own kind, would take wincing pains never to touch anyone.

(p.22)

[12] I admire Vonnegut for this above all else: He was not afraid of the word “said”. He saided all over the place. You always know which character is speaking and the dialogue feels bullet-fast because he wastes little time with adverbs or trying to mix things up. He rarely even used “asked”.

He paused in one [grand chamber], insisted that Constant admire a huge oil painting of a little girl holding the reins of a pure white pony. The little girl wore a white bonnet, a white, starched dress, white gloves, white socks, and white shoes.

She was the cleanest, most frozen little girl that Malachi Constant had ever seen. There was a strange expression on her face, and Constant decided that she was worried about getting the least bit dirty.

“Nice picture,” said Constant.

“Wouldn’t it be too bad if she fell into a mud puddle?” said Rumfoord.

Constant smiled uncertainly.

“My wife as a child,” said Rumfoord abruptly, and he led the way out of the room.

(p.23)

[13] Vocabulary:

Healthy, charming, wise children were the desiderata.

(p.27)

desideratum (plural: desiderata)

noun – something that is needed or wanted

[14] Vocabulary:

It was Kittredge who proved that the class was in fact a family, with its loose ends neatly turned back into a hard core of consanguinity through the agency of cousin marriages.

(p.27)

noun – blood relation; the property of being from the same kinship as another person.

[15]

To contrast Malachi Constant of Hollywood with Winston Niles Rumfoord of Newport and Eternity:

Everything Rumfoord did he did with style, making all mankind look good.

Everything Constant did he did in style – aggressively, loudly, childishly, wastefully – making himself and mankind look bad.

Constant bristled with courage – but it was anything but un-neurotic. Every courageous thing he had ever done had been motivated by spitefulness and by goads from childhood that made fear seem puny indeed.

(p.28)

[16] The front door to Rumfoord’s mansion is described several times as an “Alice-in-Wonderland” door. When Rumfoord dematerializes inside the house, it is described with a reference to the Cheshire Cat. Just a nice touch.

Beginning with the ends of his fingers, and ending with his grin. The grin remained some time after the rest of him had gone.

(p.39)

[17] Vocabulary:

What Beatrice had done with her face, actually, was what any plain girl could do. She had overlaid it with dignity, suffering, intelligence, and a piquant dash of bitchiness.

(p.40)

adjective – having a pleasantly sharp taste or appetizing flavor; Pleasantly stimulating or exciting to the mind.

[18] Fantastic visual of Beatrice looking down at Malachi from the top of a staircase:

He was in plain view, leaning against a column in the arch that opened onto the foyer. But he was so low in the composition, so lost in architectural details as to be almost invisible.

(p.40)

[19] Vocabulary:

“I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic.”

(p.45)

adjective (of a person) having an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition.

[20] Vocabulary:

Their space-annihilating concupiscence seemed centered on mentholated smoke alone.

(p.56)

noun (formal) strong sexual desire; lust.

[21] Omniscient narrator as sentient character (a device Vonnegut uses very well in many books, often for humorous effect).

It is worth stopping the narrative at this point to say that this cock-and-bull story told to Beatrice is one of the few known instances of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s having told a lie.

(p.58)

[22] Vocabulary:

Kazak now flung himself into the house, flews flapping.

(p.64)

noun – the thick hanging lips of a bloodhound or similar dog.

[23] Each chapter begins with a quote from one of the characters in the book. About half the time, these quotes are said within the chapter; the other half they thematically fit into the events of the chapter but are not explicitly said again. I wonder if the latter quotes were included in the chapters in earlier drafts and eventually edited out. My reason for thinking this is Noel Constant’s quote that opens Chapter Three.

The chapter makes is clear that the quote could never have been said. Noel communicates with his only son, Malachi, twice: once in person, once in a letter. Neither time does he say the following. He says something along similar lines in the letter, which is what makes me think this may have been from a previous draft:

“Son – they say there isn’t any royalty in this country, but do you want me to tell you how to be king of the United States of America? Just fall through the hole in a privy and come out smelling like a rose.”

(p.65)


Post 2/3

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