The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (Book Review)


I apologize for my lack of posts lately- I started taking classes part time at the university I am no working at, and find myself quite busy with the reading load (a James Joyce seminar in which I’m reading the entirety of Ulysses definitely keeps me busy). I’ve also been dealing with severe and chronic sinusitis, which has been the most soul-crushing experience I’ve ever had. The headaches I’ve experienced leave me sweating and naked, puking for hours although I hadn’t eaten anything for days. I got sinus surgery yesterday, the invasive and painful kind. Recovery is lousy, but better than anticipated. My current nausea is not fun, but I’m doing okay, and hoping for the best. Dealing with a chronic illness, even if it’s ‘just sinuses’ has led me to a new empathy. There were so many dark days (that I hope have now passed) full of questioning. I don’t ever want to be there again.

The Sirens of Titan is my second Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse Five. I see his colorful books on every book store shelf, notice his capitalized and bolded name and asterisk as I’m perusing. He’s still a bit unknown to me, an enigma of humor and other-worldiness and existential fear. I’m curious about him and want more- after this book ended I wanted to read on, and I remember feeling that way with Slaughterhouse Five as well. Vonnegut creates these worlds and these plots, invites you in and tells a story whether you’re ready for it or not. Within the first few pages of the novel, Vonnegut introduces the reader to a world in which human beings “now know how to find the meaning of life within themselves.” And for the first quarter of the novel I’m enthralled, mystified, curious about this world, the one in which Mars and even a moon of Saturn is possible. Vonnegut blinds the reader with existence, doesn’t let him/her get their bearings. But midway through it felt familiar, as if I too had lived in this world all along (and maybe I do?). That’s the magic of Vonnegut, I guess- that’s what attracts us all to his lengthy section of the bookstore, what encourages us all to pick up the neon-colored books and say ‘I think it’s time for another Vonnegut.’

“The town was Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way.” In Newport, crowds gather to see a materialization of Mr. Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak. In the past, Rumfoord was a rich space explorer who entered the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a place where many truths can exist together at once (thus enabling these so-called materializations): “you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree. There are places in the universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.” Because of entering this dimension, Rumfoord becomes aware of all past, present, and future; thus, he materializes on Earth to address Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man in America. Rumfoord wishes to address his wife Beatrice as well as Malachi Constant, and in this address he tells both of them their fate: one day, the two of them will end up on Titan, a moon of Saturn, together and happy. Beatrice and Malachi do not believe Rumfoord, especially because neither of them have been to space, and laugh off his suggestions. Beatrice even feels angry towards her husband due to his predicting her ending up with another man. Rumfoord and Malachi reflect on Malachi’s good fortune on earth- Malachi notes “I guess somebody up there likes me” to which Rumfoord responds “What a charming concept- someone’s liking you up there. You’re not a bad sort, you know- particularly when you forget who you are.” Rumfoord explains to Malachi that fate will take him to Mars, then Mercury, then Earth again, then Titan, and reflects on the negative nature of knowing the future. He claims it is a thankless job, especially when Beatrice becomes exceedingly angry with him and asks why he cannot help her avoid her fate with Malachi: “All kinds of things are going to happen to you! Sure, I can see the whole roller coaster you’re on. And sure- I could give you a piece of paper that would tell you about every dip and turn, warn you about every bogeyman that was going to pop out at you in the tunnels. But that wouldn’t help you any.” “I don’t see why not.” “Because you’d still have to take the roller-coaster ride.” At this point in the novel, Rumfoord seems sweet, even somewhat of a tragic character- he’s wishing his wife well with another man, something he seemingly cannot help. “Look forward to really being in love for the first time, Bea.”

Malachi Constant is brainwashed into fleeing Earth for Mars after he faces financial ruin. So is Beatrice Rumfoord. Unbeknownst to either of them, the two of them are on the same ship destined to Mars, showing part of the prophecy Rumfoord indicated coming true. Malachi fulfills the next part of the prophecy as well when he violently rapes a woman in the dark (only afterwards finding out the person is Beatrice). The novel then takes us to a military base and introduces us to Unk, a soldier who has his brain controlled by higher ranking military men. We watch Unk struggle with his memories, simultaneously remembering things and knowing he cannot remember them: “Life was like that, Unk told himself tentatively- blanks and glimpses, and now and then maybe that awful flash of pain for doing something wrong.” We horrifically watch as Unk strangles Stony Stevenson to death at the command of Boaz, another army official who controls Unk’s memory and clearing-of-memory. Unk seems to be one of the most difficult men to clear his memory, and it takes Boaz many attempts when he tries. Unk keeps remembering a letter and forces himself to remember it and to find it- eventually, he does: “I am a thing called alive. I am in a place called Mars. I am in a part of a thing called an army. The army plans to kill other things called alive on a place called earth.” The letter goes on to tell Unk that he has a wife named Bee, a son named Chrono, and a best friend named Stony: “and when you get settled down, all of you spend a lot of time trying to figure out why whoever made everything went and made it.” The letter is signed by UNK, proving that his memory prevails even in the face of painful memory retraction. And here is when I realized that Unk may not be Unk but may rather be Malachi, re-programmed as a Mars militant. Bee- Beatrice. Chrono- their son, prophetized into existence by Rumfoord.

As Unk tries to escape Mars with Bee and Chrono, Rumfoord materializes again. He sends Bee and Chrono on a separate ship with other women- it ends up in the Amazon rainforest. No one else survives the crash but them, something Chrono attributes to his good luck piece, a slab of metal he wears around his neck. Unk, on a ship with Boaz for Earth, was kept away from Earth by Rumfoord; instead, he was sent to Mercury- “Rumfoord was preserving Unk for a major part in a pageant Rumfoord wanted to stage for his new religion.” Perhaps Rumfoord isn’t as innocent in dealings with fate as we’d originally anticipated. After Earth crushes Mars in battle, Rumfoord introduces a new religion to the world: “the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.”

Unk and Boaz are trapped in the caves of Mercury with nothing but harmoniums, creatures that glow and sing: “they have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first. The first is. ‘here I am, here I am, here I am.’ The second is ‘so glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.'” Unk tries hard to find a way off of the isolated planet, distancing himself from Boaz who has taken a liking to living with the harmoniums: “Not to be lonely, not to be scared- he’d decided that those were the important things in life.” “I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm.” Poor Boaz- a preference of living with harmoniums rather than other human beings out of fear that he may hurt them again. Boaz creates a phrase “Don’t truth me,” which means that if Unk doesn’t tell Boaz the truth about their current living condition, Boaz won’t tell Unk the truth about Unk killing his own best friend (Stony) back on Mars). “Don’t truth me, Unk, and I won’t truth you.” A beautiful sentiment of survival. As Unk leaves, Boaz decides to stay: “And when I die down here some day, I’m going to be able to say to myself, ‘Boaz, you made millions of lives worth living. Ain’t nobody ever spread more joy. You ain’t got an enemy in the Universe.'”

“What happened to you?”
“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

On Earth, Unk’s arrival is expected- when Rumfoord created his new religion, he prophetized the return of Unk to Earth (convenient, since Rumfoord was the one who let Unk away from Earth in the first place). Unk is renamed the ‘Space Wanderer,’ and is made an example to the followers of Rumfoord’s new religion- Unk/Malachi/Space Wanderer is what happens when you believe in luck and fortune rather than the indifferent God- you end up with a wife and a son you don’t know. Rumfoord humiliates the three of them and forces them onto a space ship together bound for Titan, the last spot Rumfoord predicted Malachi and Beatrice would go. Bee questions Rumfoord’s manipulation, asking: “Could we have done any better if he’d left us in charge of our own lives? Would we have become any more- or any less?”

Rumfoord and Kazak’s real materializations have also ended up on a palace in Titan. Another creature also lives on Titan, a creature named Salo from a different galaxy known as the Small Megnallic Cloud. Salo, a machine, was sent by his fellow Tralfamadorians to deliver a message to Earth. Although Salo is a machine, he has come to love Rumfoord and sees him as a friend. We also find out that with Salo’s help, Rumfoord took over control of the Martians, and created his religion. As Rumfoord weakens, Salo becomes increasingly depressed, calling Rumfoord his friend and companion (which Rumfoord heartbreakingly shrugs off). Rumfoord tells Salo that he and the other Tralfamadorians have used Rumfoord for one thing only: to get a missing metal piece back to Tralfamadoria, the same metal piece arriving on Titan via Chrono’s good luck piece. Salo dismantles himself in grief. Rumfoord begins to materialize elsewhere, saying: “I am not dying. I am merely taking my leave of the Solar System. And I am not even doing that. In the grand, in the timeless, in the chrono-synclastic infundibulated way of looking at things, I shall always be here. I shall always be wherever I’ve been.”

As the only three human beings on Titan, Beatrice moves into Rumfoord’s palace and writes. Chrono lives with Titan’s birds. Malachi lives peacefully on Titan, occasionally visiting Beatrice who reads her manuscripts aloud to him. The two have found, despite it all, some kind of love: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” This is Beatrice’s dying thought. She dies, and Malachi speaks to a reassembled Salo about her: “‘You finally fell in love, I see.’ ‘Only an Earthling year ago. It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.'”

The novel ends with Salo offering to take Malachi back to earth. Malachi accepts, and is dropped off in snowy Indianapolis. Malachi dies at a bus station, but dies with the illusion that his best friend, Stony, picks him up (lovely Salo made this illusion possible). Stony tells Malachi: “‘Get in.’ ‘And go where?’ ‘Paradise.’ ‘What’s Paradise like?’ ‘Everybody’s happy there forever, or as long as the bloody Universe holds together. Get in, Unk. Beatrice is already there, waiting for you.’ ‘I-I’m gong to get into Paradise?’ ‘Don’t ask me why, old sport, but somebody up there likes you.'” The novel ends on that sentiment, an echo of the past conversation Malachi had with Rumfoord in which Rumfoord laughed at the idea of luck or a sentient God who cared. In the end it was Malachi who was right, who in death was greeted by his best friend and brought into Paradise. Even after a life of manipulation, a lack of free will, he dies in the snow with the promise of Paradise.

“It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too.”


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