Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

06 Jun 2001, 2:08 a.m.

Girlfriend in a SoMa

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Kurt Vonnegut, Bertrand Russell, Star Trek, Martin Gardner, The Smiths, Big Tobacco, Angel, Robert Browning.

So today I finished Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Sure, I also packed a great deal for the St. Petersburg trip, and I did housework for my mother, and I ate and talked on the phone and the suchlike, but the primary intellectual activity of my day has been reading -- that and some of Bertrand Russell's Marriage and Morals. (My dad recommended it as an insomnia remedy.)

First, Slaughterhouse-Five. I'd read some Vonnegut before, namely, "Harrison Bergeron" and Player Piano and Timequake. Vonnegut's brand of in-your-face, extremely purposeful absurdism strikes a chord with me -- and, apparently, with millions of other readers. His mainstream popularity makes me suspicious. (This contrarian (read: perverse) attitude is nothing new to those who know me.) But those stories are, indeed, enjoyable, and perhaps even good.

As you probably know (if you know anything at all about Vonnegut), Slaughterhouse-Five is one of his most famous works, if not the most famous. There exists a film version. ("Own" "it" "on" "DVD.") There may be merchandise -- little Tralfamadorians, little teapots, little Montana Wildhack dolls.

I found it extremely similar to Timequake. Lots of rumination on the foolish mortal preoccupation with free will, much Kilgore Trout and reflexive referencing. And I found it quite enjoyable. Yes, Vonnegut sticks much of his craft right in your face, telling you this is what I am doing here on a writerly level, isn't it silly? The insistent denial of subtlety, at times, is the point, no? (At least he doesn't clash symbols in your face as Nathaniel Hawthorne does.) But some of the craft -- such as his fractal detail ad absurdum in the stead of melodrama -- is more structural, more rewarding to ponder.

"There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces."

I'm going to read more Vonnegut when I get back from Russia, if I have time. I'm thinking to start on Welcome to the Monkey House or to restart Cat's Cradle, which I began once upon a time. Any suggestions?

Ah, yes, the Bertrand Russell. Certainly any attempt to rationally review mores and laws regarding sex and love deserves its meed. My quick skim over Russell's waters suggests that he deserves the "reasonable" moniker. I am not sure that I agree with one of his premises: the purpose of marriage is to bear and raise children. If I were to accept that, then I would feel much differently than I would if I were to think, for example, that the purpose of marriage is not only to raise children, but to provide a stable and secure relationship within which two people can support each other as they develop and grow old. Wasn't it Blake? no, Browning:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Royale" ran on the nightly TNG reruns today. In it, Captain Picard implies rather strongly that Fermat's Last Theorem, "800 years" after Fermat, has not been solved. The show was written and performed around 1988. Andrew Wiles solved the problem in the mid-1990s. Somehow this uplifts me, that the human race moved a bit faster than Gene Roddenberry and Mike Berman et al. planned.

Beginning Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies: In the Name of Science: The Curious Theories of Modern Pseudoscientists and the Strange, Amusing and Alarming Cults That Surround Them. A Study in Human Gullibility. I've read most of the intro, "In the Name of Science," but then I started skipping around a bit. I read a bit on Lawsonomy, and the whole chapter on Lysenko, because Leonard (note the temporary address) hath mentioned those fad-llacies to me. This is my first crack at Gardner's nonfiction; I've earlier read a short story by him about a maths professor who discovers a way to transport himself rather unusually by tying himself in a complicated knot. I think it was called "The N-Dimensional Professor" or something. I found it sort of dry, but then again, Mr. Medeiros in tenth-grade trigonomentry/analytical geometry killed a great deal of my love for math.

Anyway, I like Gardner so far. The dry wit reminds me of a line -- about the efficacy and predictive/explanatory power of witchcraft as compared to modern economics -- from John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society that made me laugh out loud for minutes on the ACE commuter train a few years back.

I'll take more of a crack at Gardner tomorrow.

Listened a few times through, though not thoroughly attentively, to Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths. Enjoyable, in a Belle-and-Sebastian-meets-The-Police sort of way. I'm not quite certain whether they are Good. Hey -- did Douglas Coupland pay homage to their song "Girlfriend in a Coma" with his book of the same title, or is it a coincidence? I'm pretty sure the book came after the song.

Some have remarked upon the crocodile? alligator? swamp-dwelling carnivore depicting Big Tobacco in recent television and billboard adverts by the state of California. Certain ads have compelled me to contribute to the discourse on this topic. The ads take thirty seconds and attempt to dissect the triple-feint PR strategy of the tobacco companies' ads.

"We never say the "c" word -- cigarettes. Oh, lots of beer, and cheese, and community spirit."
"And getting that big smokey brand name out there."
The California State Department of Public Health would have us believe that this is a colossal mind game; The Crocogator and the offscreen voice seem to be playing chess, with the public's hearts and minds at stake. I'm just thinking that most people are not that into the strategy here, and that these ads are effective only on a tiny niche of the audience, much like ads for Archer Daniels Midland (Leonard, as Jim Lehrer: "Mmm, that's some tasty grain!") or 3M (Steve: "OK, I'll buy a *lot* of tape").

Angel visited. Thank God! My third visit in four days. A pre-departure avalanche of affection. And we talked of important things, and I was glad. Coincidences: The first half hour of her visit coincided with the appearance of some Indian guy our family vaguely knows on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He lost ridiculously early. A discredit to the race.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at