Vonnegut Gets All Up in Dostoyevsky's Karass
A Mashup Upon the Occasion of their Shared Birthday
When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago...
When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.
The book was to be factual.
“It’s a stupid story and can be told in two words,” began the general complacently.
“Two years ago—yes, nearly two, just after the opening of the new railway—I was already in civilian dress then and busy about an affair of great importance in connection with my giving up the service. I took a first-class ticket, went in, sat down, and began to smoke. Or rather I went on smoking, for I had lighted my cigar before. I was alone in the compartment. Smoking is not prohibited, nor was it allowed; it was sort of half allowed, as it usually is. Of course it depends on the person. The window was down.
Bokonon tells us, "Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass." By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free-form as an amoeba.
In his "Fifty-third Calypso," Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:
Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen--
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice very nice--
So many different people
In the same device.
Just before the whistle sounded, two ladies with a lapdog seated themselves just opposite me. They were late. One of them was dressed in gorgeous style in light blue; the other more soberly in black silk with a cape. They were nice-looking, had a disdainful air, and talked in English. I took no notice, of course, and went on smoking. I did hesitate, but I went on smoking close to the window, for the window was open.
Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to.
The lapdog was lying on the pale blue lady’s knee. It was a tiny creature no bigger than my fist, black with white paws, quite a curiosity. It had a silver collar with a motto on it. I did nothing. But I noticed the ladies seemed annoyed, at my cigar, no doubt. One of them stared at me through her tortoise-shell lorgnette. I did nothing again, for they said nothing. If they’d said anything, warned me, asked me—there is such a thing as language after all! But they were silent.
I do not intend that this book be a tract on behalf of Bokononism. I should like to offer a Bokononist warning about it, however. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this:
"All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies."
Suddenly, without the slightest preface—I assure you without the slightest, as though she had suddenly taken leave of her sense—the pale blue one snatched the cigar out of my hand and flung it out of the window. The train was racing along. I gazed at her aghast.
So I wrote this letter to Newt:
"Dear Mr. Hoenikker:
"Or should I say, Dear Brother Hoenikker?
"You don't have to worry about style and form. Leave all that to me. Just give me the bare bones of your story.
"I will, of course, submit the final version to you for your approval prior to publication.
A savage woman, yes, positively a woman of quite a savage type; yet a plump, comfortable-looking, tall, fair woman, with rosy cheeks (too rosy, in fact).
"I am sorry to say that I don't know as much about your illustrious family as I should, and so don't know whether you have brothers and sisters. If you do have brothers and sisters, I should like very much to have their addresses so that I can send similar requests to them.
Her eyes glared at me. Without uttering a word and with extraordinary courtesy, the most perfect, the most refined courtesy, I delicately picked up the lapdog by the collar in two fingers and flung it out of the window after the cigar! It uttered one squeal. The train was still racing on.
Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children.
“You are a monster!” exclaimed Nastasya Filippovna, laughing and clapping her hands like a child.
To which Newt replied:
"I am sorry to be so long about answering your letter. That sounds like a very interesting book you are doing. Nobody knows where my brother Frank is. He disappeared right after Father's funeral two years ago, and nobody has heard from him since. For all we know, he may be dead now."
“Bravo, bravo!” cried Ferdyshtchenko.
Pititsyn too smiled, though he had also been extremely put out by the general’s entrance. Even Kolya laughed and cried “Bravo!” too.
"I remember I was playing on the living-room carpet outside my father's study door in Ilium, New York. The door was open, and I could see my father. He was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. He was smoking a cigar. He was playing with a loop of string. Father was staying home from the laboratory in his pajamas all day that day. He stayed home whenever he wanted to."
“And I was right, perfectly right,” the triumphant general continued warmly.” For if cigars are forbidden in a railway carriage, dogs are even more so.”