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Kurt Vonnegut: I want to share with you something I’ve learned. (laphamsquarterly.org)
200 points by mapleoin on Mar 23, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

Dostoevsky once said that there are two stories: (1) man goes on a journey and (2) stranger comes to town.

Are you sure? That doesn't sound like Dostoevsky to me. Do you know where he said it?

Crime and Punishment doesn't fit that rule (except perhaps as a moral journey). Notes From Underground doesn't fit it, and so on. The Double, on the other hand, which was the second thing he wrote and one of the best comic novels ever, is a classic #2. I highly recommend The Double!

Edit: I suppose you could say the Odyssey is a prototype of #1 and the Iliad of #2. It's an amusing principle. But I'd bet money (well, five bucks) that it isn't Dostoevsky's. Dostoevsky is more the kind of writer who, if you gave him a list of all possible types of stories, would immediately set out to write one that didn't fit the list. Just to spite list-makers.

After doing some light google research, I was not able to find the origin of the phrase "there's only two stories in the world: man goes on a journey, and stranger comes to town." It is generally attributed to peoples' literature or film professors. The quote is prefaced with "They say that...." very often, suggesting that the origin of the quote is largely unknown even by those who study stories professionally.

I heard it from a person.

This is far from proof, but the first result in the only search I did (total time-9 seconds) yielded this ...http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Fyodor_Dostoevsky

That's from the Unsourced section, as clearly described.

It's roughly the opposite of proof.

good one

The man going on a journey IS the stranger coming to town...

Well, that's a pretty random but effectively real dichotomy.

Either the character goes somewhere, physically or emotionally / whateverly, and changes, or they're already a "complete" character and you just discover them through the story.

I could easily make another split: main character lives at the end, or doesn't. And no fake line-crossers like "dies, but story ends in heaven/hell/limbo tournament", they either exist or they don't at the end.

Hmmm. I thought that all you needed to get a story going is a girl and a gun.

Nit: I've never come across the idea that Claudius didn't react to the play in Hamlet. He jumps up and freaks out a bit (something staged with varying degrees of subtlety, but not really ambiguously), then later sends Hamlet overseas to get beheaded.

I always viewed Hamlet as a staircase-like figure going quite definitely down. The king's not merely dead, he's a tormented ghost. Hamlet must kill his uncle, but he's stymied the first time he tries. Hamlet outmaneuvers Claudius, but in the process kills Polonious, drives Ophelia mad and to suicide, which turns her brother into a deadly enemy...and then damn near everyone dies at the end.

I'm trying to wrap my mind around the idea that any of this is ambivalent. :)

i get the general story, but why does he say that hamlet is like cinderella ("I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.") and then later say hamlet is a flat line?

He's referring to Hamlet's starting situation, which is same as Cinderella's (despondent girl, mother dead) except that the sexes are reversed (despondent boy, father dead). From there on, the story is different.

Actually, what he is saying is that the the stories are exactly the same, but Hamlet has a realistic outcome (truth) whereas Cinderella is all about the story graph. Hamlet makes the mistake of killing Polonius, and getting killed himself, because there really is no shoe fitting happily ever after in life, and that's why the story works.

Wait, I don't get it. How are they "exactly the same" if Hamlet's is realistic and there's no magic "shoe fitting happily ever after" and the "graph" is completely different? I mean, I've read both Cinderella and Hamlet and the only thing they really have in common is the starting situation.

What's the difference between a crocodile and a camel? One ends with "rocodile" and other with "amel"...

thanks; that makes more sense. i need to go back + read it again, i think. [edit: hmm; that's not completely right either. need to get back to work.]

Curiously, I wonder if Hamlet is reliant on this effect to actually be a good story, and if so, are we hardwired to have it, or is it learnt.

Hamlet makes the mistake of killing the king. Of course, so does his uncle.

Why chart the emotions of the protagonist to evaluate the story? The value of a story is not in how happy or sad the protagonist was - but how it makes you feel.

If I had to evaluate stories, my vertical axis would have 4 parts. From top to bottom:

* Unpredictable and irrational

* Surprisingly Unpredictable

* Tolerantly Predictable

* Predictable and stale

The closer the story is to "Surprisingly unpredictable" the better it is.

Cinderella, Kafka, Hamlet - all reach that point.

(But to be fair - Cinderella reaches that point only because its amongst the first few stories you ever hear.)

Titanic reached that stage for many teenage girls by killing the hero.

The best book I've read - Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov reaches that "surprisingly unpredictable" point too.

I don't think the graphs were a serious attempt at literary analysis. They were just a way for Vonnegut to do what he does: thinking-out-loud about the human condition.

Why chart the emotions of the protagonist to evaluate the story? The value of a story is not in how happy or sad the protagonist was - but how it makes you feel.

It's a rather good starting point for analyzing stories. Most of the stories he mentioned (with Kafka being a notable exception) aimed to make the reader identify with the protagonist. Therefore, it's the protagonist's situation that matters the most. Also, bear in mind that he wasn't charting the emotions of the protagonist, but the protagonist's fortune.

Why do you mention Kafka as an exception? I've always felt his characters were very easy to identify with. They're the confused part of you, constantly buffeted by processes you don't understand. Surely everyone feels a little like that at times?

Honestly, I find it impossible for myself to identify with the young man who found himself transformed into a bug ;)

I know it's supposed to be a metaphor, but it kind of kills my personal identification with the poor sod.

You've never once in your life felt like a complete alien, unable to communicate with those who should be closest to you? Now that's good fortune.

That's not really what I said, is it? I said that the metaphor stands in the way of my identification, not that I can't understand the metaphor or that I've never been in situations that the metaphor tries to describe.

Thanks CodeMage.

>Also, bear in mind that he wasn't charting the emotions of the protagonist, but the protagonist's fortune.

Taken from the article:

"Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl."

"and she becomes off-scale happy" [draws line upward and then infinity symbol]

So I don't think Vonnegut differentiated much between fortunes and emotions of the protagonist. He exchanged the terms for one another freely.

As he said, "what's the good news and what's the bad news?"

The reason that fortune and emotion are being conflated in the discussion is because whether an event is considered good or ill fortune depends on the perspective of the protagonist.

If the protagonist is happy with the outcome, the line charts North, and vice versa.

"If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness."

He is not trying to graph the "value" of the stories.

This was also in "A Man Without a Country", his last book. So it goes.

Indeed, a great finale for a great man. My favorite line from that is still: "I never thought I'd be alive when the three most powerful men in the world were named Bush, Dick, and Colon."

Vonnegut always had an immaculate sense of humor!

I read this thread again, saw the * next to my comment, and got instantly reminded of an KV art..

Great essays with a great tone.

i didn't know that vonnegut went to grad school with saul bellow. i'm always pleased to hear about when favourite authors of mine knew each other before they were famous.

edit: who downmodded the comments of everyone who enjoyed the article? sheesh, if vonnegut's not your bag, then just abstain

I didn't mod the comments myself, but it is common here to mod down a comment that doesn't add anything to the discussion -- that is, both "Great article!" and "Terrible article!" comments that lack further content or commentary would be modded down.

I downmod commentary explaining when it's right to downmod.

"Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip."

Thats strange, I am almost certain that he had an extended trip to Africa ;)

This reminds me of a story I once read. Good news, bad news? Who knows?


Isn't this the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroes_journey described with a graph?

I guess he's famous (I looked him up) but I found the writing style hard to read.

That's interesting -- not that you don't know who Vonnegut is (though that IS interesting) but that you thought it was hard to read. I mean, to each his own of course, but at least to me, Vonnegut has always been one of the authors whose works were easiest for me to consume.

Would you like a line by line analysis?

"Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand"

What very simple shape? He hasn't said a shape, he laid out the graph, but that doesn't change per story.

I had no idea what he was talking about here.

"so start your story up here"

I'm writing a story? Oh, didn't realize that, maybe you should have said something. I backtracked two paragraphs and re-read it, now that I know this.

"Now, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but after being a chemist as an undergraduate at Cornell, after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field."

I guess this is informal, but the grammar connecting the two "afters" is strange.

Was this transcribed from someone speaking? It make a bit more sense if it was, because as writing it's kinda bad.

BTW, just because this was hard to read doesn't mean his books are. I probably never read his stuff because I'm not a big fan of satire.

It's an informal style of another era. That's one of the harder things to read if you're unfamiliar with the style.

No, this have nothing to do with The Heros Journey.

Related, Vonnegut on drama: http://sivers.org/drama (more graph sketches!)

It's the same graphs, just with the "real life" one being new.

But it does include an important piece of wisdom: people want their lives to have greater ups and downs, just like in the stories, and that's why some make drama for nothing.

Hmm, I think my life would be a sine wave or a saw-tooth wave pattern.

I wonder what Kilgore Trout has to say about all this?

enjoyed it

So it goes.

Brilliant. Thank you.

what the fuck was he going on about there

I think you're supposed to pretend there's some subtle & insightful comment that he couldn't just say, eg "people like happy endings".

"and she becomes off-scale happy"

It's the old Socratean thing: "I know that I don't know".

Follow the ghost of @kurt_vonnegut on twitter...

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