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Arts and Culture

Three Novels That Knocked Me Out

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Posted on Nov 12, 2010

By Cherilyn Parsons

(Page 3)

“Room” by Emma Donoghue

“Why don’t you like it in Room with me?”
Ma holds me tight. “I always like being with you.”
“But you said it was tiny and stinky.”
“Oh, Jack.” She says nothing for a minute. “Yeah, I’d rather be outside. But with you.”

In this astonishing novel, again we have a prison, an adult, and a child who is growing up within it. And again we have a tale of human connection—but this time completely from the boy’s point of view. That changes everything.

The boy, 5-year-old Jack, lives in a fortified “Room” with his 26-year-old mother, known only as “Ma” (since we only have Jack’s perspective). She has been held there for seven years by her captor, who fathered Jack. The boy was born in Room and has never been outside.

Jack has been pretty happy there. He has Ma, and she has built a rich, personable world for him out of Room. There are Rug, Rocker, Bed, Table, Meltedly Spoon (the white plastic handle melted from a hot stove), and three “masterpieces” (prints of Picasso, Monet, Da Vinci) tacked on Wall. They came in cereal boxes. For “Phys Ed” they move furniture to play Track, “around Bed from Wardrobe to Lamp.” Most of the objects are named like this and constitute the kind of world that any child first creates.

 

book cover

 

The Road

 

By Cormac McCarthy

 

Vintage, 304 pages

 

Buy the book

book cover

 

The Lizard Cage

 

By Karen Connelly

 

Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages

 

Buy the book

book cover

 

Room: A Novel

 

By Emma Donoghue

 

Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages

 

Buy the book

Room feels larger than 11 feet square—I was surprised when I learned it was that small—because Jack experiences it as the totality of life. Donoghue maintains Jack’s point of view flawlessly. Sometimes it’s mysterious at first; for instance, he refers often to “having some,” which is unidentified but emerges as breastfeeding. “Left” is creamier than “Right.”

Most nights, Jack sleeps in a small Wardrobe while their captor enters to rape his mother—or so we ascertain from Jack’s attempts to distract himself if he’s still awake in Wardrobe and able to hear. Jack has dubbed the man “Old Nick” after the story of Santa Claus: “Mostly she calls him just him, I didn’t even know the name for him till I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. … When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.”

Ma knows, of course, that as Jack grows up, Room will be too small. Already trouble is brewing. Jack is fiercely protective of Ma, and one night he tries to tackle Old Nick. In punishment, Old Nick cuts their power and stops delivering food. Days pass, colder and hungrier. There’s no end in sight. Ma says he had told her what he’d do if she ever tried to harm him: “he’d go away and I’d get hungrier and hungrier till I died.”

During this time Ma dares to try to tell Jack about “Outside.” Jack thinks he knows about it: Outside is the images he sees dancing in the box that’s TV. When Ma insists, “What we see on TV is … it’s pictures of real things,” Jack doesn’t believe her at first. He struggles with the concept: “How can TV be pictures of real things? … Ma says they’re actual, but how can they be when they’re so flat?” Soon, though, the spell begins to break. Jack realizes that he’s inside, that Door keeps them in, and that Ma wants to get out.

The central plot question is, of course, whether Ma and Jack will make it to Outside. The emotional question is what will happen to Jack if they do. What they have in Room is continual closeness. How about in Outside?

Let me say only that at a point halfway through the novel I was skating over the pages so fast, dying to know what would happen, that I think I skipped every three words. And the second half of the book offers some trenchant comments about the news media and our consumer culture.

This novel demonstrates what a novel (short stories too) can do that no other fictional art can, including plays and films. Staged drama inevitably includes the presence of an audience, the watcher. There’s a distance between us and the action, even as we get caught up in it. Most films take the camera’s point of view as the baseline perspective, then shift in and out of characters’ POVs, which are necessarily only seen or heard. Written language is so non-sensuous—it’s no more than marks on a surface—that it almost seems to bypass the aggregate of senses that we call our self. It mainlines deeper than that, into the mind behind the senses, into the perceiver, the meaning-maker, the creator of realities. Thus when we enter the point of view of a character in a piece of artful fiction (written so well as to not break the reader’s trance, to not show the seams), we become that character. We think, sense, speak and feel as that person. An amazing intimacy takes place in private, between each of us and the page. Farewell, boundaries. No wonder we love to read.

After dissolving these boundaries, some writers then give the whole thing another twist. They use dramatic irony: while the reader inhabits the character, the reader also knows more than the character does. In “Room” we are Jack, but we also know the tragedy of Jack’s situation and the dire possibilities. It’s this tension that drives the story and makes Jack’s voice so poignant.

Like a musician playing an instrument, fiction plays consciousness. Through this fictional art, these three novels evoked hope and beauty without denying the reality of human destructiveness. That’s dramatic irony of high order, and an extraordinary feat of literature. That’s ultimately why I think “The Road,” “The Lizard Cage” and “Room” knocked me out.

What do you think? What novels knocked you out, and why? Add your own comments and recommendations.


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By elisalouisa, November 17, 2010 at 12:31 am Link to this comment

We are practically Paisans Alan D. I enjoy surfing the
websites of the villages in Abbruzzi.

Cherilyn Parsons is a gifted writer. Hopefully we shall see
more of her columns on Truthdig.

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By Cherilyn Parsons, November 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks so much, everyone, for all these comments and suggestions! I’m going to check out many of these recommended books. Keep ‘em coming if you think of more.

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By Alan D., November 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@elisalouisa: I’m also Abbruzzese, nice to see others from our region here smile  My dad’s from the area around Fucino (about 15 kilometers from where Silone was born), and my mom’s from Teramo. 

As for books that touch me, someone mentioned Roberto Bolano’s “2666.”  It is mesmerizing.  So is “The Savage Detectives.”

I’ve also been reading books by David Mitchell, especially “Cloud Atlas.”  It is a book with 6 different storylines all nestled within each other like Russian dolls, each with its own tone and content.  It is truly and experience, and you can’t help but wish it was a little bit longer when it’s over.  I’ve just begun to read “number9dream” by the same author.

I read “the Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn over the summer.  It’s simply harrowing and a must read for anyone interested in Russian and Soviet history and the resilience of a human being able to whitstand years of utterly dehumanizing circumstances.

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By kyrie-eleison, November 15, 2010 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree about The Road. Amazing, powerful book. I can see why one might think it
overwrought, but the words have to carry the weight of the feelings it is trying to
convey. Nothing like it. In my view, the book is about love, but without the words,
the movie is just about survival.

Two very different, very powerful books by Camilo Jose Cela:

The Family of Pascual Duarte

Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to her Son

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, November 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m reading mostly non-fiction now.  Five that I would recommend are:

      FREEFALL, by Joseph Stiglitz
      The Big Short, by Michael Lewis
      The Conservative Assault on the Constitution
        by Erwin Chemerinsky
      The Bridge, The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
        by David Remnick
      Republican Gomorrah, by Max Blumenthal

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By Globetrekker99, November 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment

Cheryl, wonderful description of each pick.  I will check out each novel when I get
a chance.  A novel that Knocked me out years ago and still does is “The shootout
in Taos” by Tim Miller.  It’s a book about pool in the southwest, but the way it’s
told is wonderful.

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By JimBob, November 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I love it when reviewers/writers say things like: “I won’t deprive you of the pleasure of the unfolding plot…” and then proceed to do just that.

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By F.H., November 14, 2010 at 1:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Novels that knocked me out? Well, there are a few: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Molloy by Samuel Beckett, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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By juliastein, November 14, 2010 at 12:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I didn’t like McCarthy’s ‘The Road” which I plugged through reading it with no enjoyment because it wash a tedious duty for my book club.

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By Bat Guano, November 13, 2010 at 11:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Read anything by Cormac McCarthy.

It will be well worth your time. Few authors alive today can insert the reader into a time and place as well as Mr. McCarthy.

His characters and story lines grab and hold you to the end which often times leaves you with the knowledge that people are indeed strange and few things turn out the way you think they will. Just like real life.

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By Art in Oregon, November 13, 2010 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Cherilyn Parsons,

Since you are recommending some reading, I am recommending a fun read too, a cultish yet classically arranged novel with plenty of analogy and methaphor, “BREATHERS” ‘A zombie’s lament’ by SG Browne.

Main character Andy fights for zombie civil rights, falls for cute zombie Rita, eats parents. Dad was mean, mom was weird, both were delicious. No gratuitous violence because the victims mostly deserved what they got. Ask yourself, “Why do zombies eat people?” If you don’t know the answer, you should read Breathers. It’s a great read and in the end, you will cry for the zombies. Really.

Art in Oregon

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By Connor, November 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Oh and how can I forget Dino Buzzati’s prescient masterpiece - The Tartar Steppe
out Kafka’s Kafka.

And Cesare Pavese’s ’ The Moon & The Bonfires’

If you need comedy value - then just read anything written by Faux News pundits,
its an over the top hilarious work of fiction much like Ayn Rand’s entire career.

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By Big B, November 13, 2010 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment

I have always judged novels by one perameter, did I remember it a month after I read it. For good or ill, if it creates a lasting memory, then it is a great work, whether it’s depressing or not.

One comment mentioned “Blood Meridian”. This book was so brutal that I was numb after reading it. I can still recite parts of it today, although I read it ten years ago (I think). I find that I can still recite complete passages from “David Copperfield” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

If something makes an indellibe impression, positive or not, it was worth reading.

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By frecklefever, November 13, 2010 at 11:26 am Link to this comment

ALSO.. IF YOU KNOW AN INTELLECTUAL THAT IS BUSTING WITH
PRIDE..HAVE THEM READ ANN RADCLIFFS ……THE ITALIAN..(1792)..AND
ALFRED TENNYSONS DEVASTATING BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN POETRY..

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By frecklefever, November 13, 2010 at 10:38 am Link to this comment

WELL WRITTEN REVIEW…..” THE BLUE CHEYENNES ARTISTIC FIST WAS
FASHIONED BY HOGAN LIGHT…AND LATIGO CANYONS…COYOTE MIST….

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By Inherit The Wind, November 13, 2010 at 9:17 am Link to this comment

If you don’t read for entertainment why read novels?  Read the news. Read computer language texts. Read engineering or electronics instruction.  Read knitting or sewing methodologies.  Read to learn stuff.

I read everyday, and I read novels. I’ve read trash, I’ve read classics, I’ve even read obscure works.  I’ve read and enjoyed Thomas Wolfe and Mickey Spillane with equal pleasure. I’ve lost myself in lyrical language (Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is like that) and I’ve enjoyed well-written fluff like Meg Cabot’s “Size 12 is Not Fat”.

But I don’t read novels to be depressed. I won’t read novels to be depressed.

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By ardee, November 13, 2010 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

I am a voracious reader, but confess to having read only one of the three offerings noted. I found The Road to be exceedingly well written if very,very dark. OK very,very,very…..

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By reverento., November 13, 2010 at 2:34 am Link to this comment

my novels: Thom Jones 3 short story compilations are at the top, Slaughter house 5 is a reference cliche in the intellectual circles but you would be surprised how many people haven’t read it or only spark noted it, READ IT, and finally Jiddu Krisnamurti’s on Love and loneliness.

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By reverento., November 13, 2010 at 1:57 am Link to this comment

seriously great article, going to contribute to truthdig (which i’ve never done) because this article, this love of reading and searching of self is really important to me. Whats 5 dollars (hedges readers esp.) I’m going to give, ty bob and all the contributors to TD.

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By PatrickHenry, November 12, 2010 at 11:28 pm Link to this comment

Listening to the news is depressing given all the mindless propaganda 24/7.

I wonder when they can come out on CD as audiobooks.

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By Anarcissie, November 12, 2010 at 10:44 pm Link to this comment

Is being knocked out necessarily a desirable outcome?  I can think of more efficient ways to achieve this state than reading, or if we are constrained to consider only reading, I’d recommend poetry, some of which, as Saint Emily noted, will make you feel as if the top of your head had been taken off.

I wonder about some of the similar adjectives I see in advertising for books.  ‘Searing’ used to be a favorite.  Who actually wants to be seared?  To be knocked out?

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By elisalouisa, November 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment

What knocked me out? Howe about Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine   introduced to me by my son while he was a student at UCSB.

  The setting of the book is in the poverty stricken Abruzzi region in Italy where the author Ignazio Silone grew up. The time is the mid 1930s when fascism had overcome the bourgeois in Italy and Mussolini was in power. The main character Pietro Spina, in his quest for justice, has visited other countries in Europe, only to return to his beloved Abruzzi, a sick and hunted revolutionary.  His friends from childhood protect him as best they can, jeopardizing their own lives in doing so.  When necessary for his safety, Pietro Spina becomes Paolo Spada, a priest, cassock and all, taking on the characteristics of one so ordained. His true identity as the hunted revolutionary Pietro Spina returns when safety allows, as he tries to make rebels of his people. The duality of the Pietro Spina/Paolo Spada character is the thrust of Bread and Wine  and tugs at the reader as the concept of need for nourishment within and at the same time a desire for things more worldly evolve in the story. The growth of Pietro Spina’s consciousness also permeates
the baseline of the story. This is not just a novel about an antifascist searching for a better way but could be described as a compassionate meditation on life.

Added Note: My people are from the Abruzzi region in Italy,  more specifically the fertile valley close to Teramo which was devastated by the 2009 earthquake.  My cousin in Italy, who I visited a few years back,  shall again be visiting me this summer when we once more will share the folklore that was passed down to us by our people.

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By Big B, November 12, 2010 at 9:32 pm Link to this comment

“The Road” is one of those rare books that indeed rip your guts out, but shows a positive light rarely seen before or since. Once you start it, you feel compelled to finish. The only other book that ever left me with a tear in my eye at the last page was “Flowers for Algernon”.

As far as persception altering books, look no further than “Slaughterhouse 5” or “Rabbit Run”. And of course, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”.

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By Shimi Rahim, November 12, 2010 at 7:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Brilliantly written review that captures the essence of what makes fiction so timeless and powerful. Your review makes me want to run out and buy ROOM right now.

A novel that knocked me out is My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. Not for its language or its style, but for its sharply constructed plot, its wonderfully wry but sensitive protagonist, and for its message, which the author conveys without ever being heavy-handed, without “showing the seams.”

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By Connor, November 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Both Lizard Cage & Room will be placed on order.  As for The Road, I’ve read that over a half a dozen times and its lean stylistic prose is pure poetry to my ears.

I don’t read for enjoyment, thats what computer games are for, I read to discombobulate and knock me out of my slumber. (Thank you Gudjieff, Ouspensky & Shah)

To paraphrase Oliver Twist, ‘please Ma’am, can I have some more?’

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By Paul G. Gill, Jr., November 12, 2010 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nabokov’s Lolita, for exquisite language that permeates your being through every sensory modality and ignites a wide range of blended emotions in the reader.  The Jeremy Irons reading (Audible.com) is masterful.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

Life’s tough enough.  I don’t need or want to read fiction in order to be depressed.  I want to be carried away by it, awed, inspired, or just plain made to laugh.  But having my guts wrenched out?
No Thanks!  If I want that I can just read the news.

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By Alan Meyers, November 12, 2010 at 2:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

_Sacred Hunger_ by Barry Unsworth knocked me out.  It’s a historical novel set in the British slave trade of the mid-eighteenth century, and includes all-sided perspectives: the slave merchants, the ship’s crew, and most certainly the slaves.  This is a work of art that goes very deep and remains highly relevant today.

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By siddhartha banerjee, November 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fine review. Penetrating insights. Powerful,
beautifully turned phrases. If this is anything like
your other works, a Facebook page as anthology would be
a gift for readers.

Siddhartha Banerjee
Oxford, Pennsylvania

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By Tim, November 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I primarily have my nose stuck in non-fiction, but when I’m able to find a novel
that can enable me to snap out of analytic funk and just enjoy a good tale, it’s
priceless.  My latest addition is The List of Seven by Mark Frost.  This book is
classic adventure within which the characters are making mad dashes across late-
nineteen century England to chase and/or avoid a dangerous brotherhood. 

I know the plot sounds worn out, but trust me, its never been done like this. It’s
out of print, but the good thing is you can find it for $1.99 plus shipping from a
lot of book sellers.

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By davidwdeitch, November 12, 2010 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I tried to read McCarthy’s book, “The Road,” but couldn’t make it past a hundred
pages. I found it so heavy with stylistic affectation, constantly calling attention to
itself, that it became impossible to read further.

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By tdbach, November 12, 2010 at 11:50 am Link to this comment

Great review of The Road. Like Ms. Parsons, I picked up this book at one of the darker periods of my life. And like her, I found great solice and hope in it. “Honest and raw” indeed.

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By Ominus, November 12, 2010 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

The Road is stellar, but it is easily eclipsed by Blood Meridian and his masterpiece, Suttree. The former is the most horrific thing I’ve ever read, and the character of The Judge is one of, if not the best, characters ever committed to fiction.

And so is Cornelius Suttree.

I heard of McCarthy several years ago while reading a transcript of a conversation between David Foster Wallace and Gus van Zant. (http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/dazed.html) DFW was just gushing over BM (unfortunate initials there) and Suttree, and they ensconced themselves in the recesses of my subconscious, and finally emerged a few years later while visiting a used book store in DC when I stumbled upon BM (sorry again). I bought it immediately, discouraged somewhat that Suttree was not there, but immediately encouraged when a back cover blurb called BM (...) a cross between Peckinpah and Bosch.

I read it in one sitting and can’t really describe the feeling of reading these exquisite, biblical passages depicting pedophilia, genocide, and just about every atrocity you could imagine under a 19th century Mexican sky.

And Suttree is just sublime. Consider the opening lines:
“Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.”

It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

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By rail arson, November 12, 2010 at 3:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — The Sirens of Titan

I have to admit that the main reason I was aware of Vonnegut’s second novel, written in 1959 right after the launch of the space age, was the trivia night nugget that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead owned the movie rights for years and had actually worked up a script with SNL alum Tom Davis. After discovering what an amazing feat of imagination this book is, I can see why self-styled hippie intellectuals like Garcia and Davis were drawn to it. It was quite unlike any other novel, even other Vonnegut books, I have read. At no time while devouring The Sirens of Titan could I ever say to myself, “Oh, I know where this is going.”

Vonnegut sends up the whims of capitalism with the main character Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is a playboy/bon vivant who, for reasons to be revealed, was born with the luck to maintain his lifestyle with very little effort on his part. At the beginning of the novel, he is summoned to the mansion of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the first man to fly a private rocket to Mars. Rumfoord is also, or so it’s understood, one of the last—having unwittingly flown into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which effectively spread his (and his dog’s) existence throughout sort of a wormhole between the Sun and Betelgeuse. (Now you can start to imagine the types of conversations Garcia and Davis must have had.)

When Earth happens to transect the glitch, once every 59 days, Rumfoord and his dog materialize at the mansion for a short period of time where he alienates his wife, predicts the future (since he happens to actually be everywhere and when), and generally makes everyone uncomfortable. Vonnegut’s description of the first meeting of the two men is a good example of his wonderful use of language in this novel: “Winston Niles Rumfoord’s smile and handshake dismantled Constant’s high opinion of himself as efficiently as carnival roustabouts might dismantle a Ferris wheel.”

Granted, this all takes place within the first 20 pages or so. Rumfoord (and I couldn’t stop substituting Rumsfeld, especially when we begin to find out how his motives, while being altruistic from his viewpoint, are seriously screwed up) goes on to tell Constant that he will end up traveling to Mars, Mercury, Titan, and end up having a son with Mrs. Rumfoord. Awkward.

Vonnegut’s savaging of organized religion at the back end of this novel counterbalances his having peeled back the curtain hiding the machinations of the free market in the front. Along the way, Mars attacks, a shipwrecked alien manipulates all of human history in an attempt to get a part, and … just read it. I know I’ll be revisiting this one again and again.

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