Laugh Like Hell

Is it because we all see what we’re expecting to see? Or is it numbness of the soul? That’s the puzzle.

In my collection I have a dozen novels by Kurt Vonnegut. Probably all of them except Player Piano, which was his first. Most of them I bought when they first came out.

This week I thought I’d re-read a couple of them. He was one of a kind. Nobody else ever wrote like that, or is likely to. I re-read Bluebeard, and then turned to Hocus Pocus.

Here’s what’s odd:

On the back cover of the paperback are laudatory quotes from various book reviews. The fact that they’re laudatory is not odd. What’s odd is that the reviewers pretty consistently seem to have thought it was a funny book.

Terms used on the back cover (excerpting the already brief excerpts here) include “hilarious,” “comic,” “really funny,” “absurd humor,” and “comedy.” Inside the front cover, we learn that the Playboy reviewer said, “Vonnegut evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laughter that soothes our troubled reflections.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Hocus Pocus is “very funny indeed.”

Nothing in the book is even remotely funny. It’s a grim and biting satire about the Vietnam War, the dismal state of higher education, the U.S. prison system, the heedless, vicious vacuousness of the rich, and the random damage that life does to us all. Human existence stands revealed as meaningless — filled with suffering and the flimsy scraps of self-delusion. There’s not a ray of sunshine anywhere.

Oh, about my title for this little essay? One of the narrator’s friends in the novel reacts to almost everything by saying, “I had to laugh like hell.” He never even cracks a smile while saying it.

Calling the novel satire doesn’t quite do it justice. Some bits of it are exaggerated wildly, but those bits lie cheek by jowl with incidents that aren’t exaggerated at all. It’s a fine novel — Vonnegut at his best. But what book were all those reviewers reading? Was it so painful that they had to convince themselves it had nothing to do with real life?

Probably that’s it.

Terry Pratchett’s novels are funny. Hocus Pocus is not funny, it’s sad. I don’t know if Vonnegut ever wrote a funny book, actually. He was a survivor of a prison camp in World War II, and he carried the sadness of that war with him for the rest of his life. Today we’d call it PTSD.

Some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol. Some commit suicide. A few bang their memories into ploughshares and write novels.

So it goes.

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