We’re living in a Kurt Vonnegut novel


I’ve been struggling to understand the verious stupidities and absurdities of the world for a while now, but two two stories about immigration—one American, one Danish—have finally opened my eyes: we’re living in a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

For the kids in the back row: I’m not saying Kurt Vonnegut is god, or even a god, or that he’s plotting world events in some afterlife drawing room. I’m saying the absurdity of the world right now—the tragicomic absurdity of it all—makes a lot more sense if we imagine ourselves about midway through an epic Vonnegut novel.

(That Vonnegut didn’t write any epic novels only makes our situation all the more Vonnegutesque.)

We’re at the point in the novel where the reader pauses, closes the book, leans back, and thinks: this is total insanity, it makes no sense, and there’s no possible way Vonnegut is going to be able to pull all these plot threads together into something that makes any logical sense.

But his plots aren’t really complicated. No good writer’s are. We just distracted by all the stuff going on: by all the characters, settings, activities, and conversations.

Vonnegut truly understood the simplicity of good story-telling, and if you have four minutes and thirty-seven seconds to spare then follow this link and watch him explain, with his usual humor, the universal shapes of all good stories.

For those of you who didn’t click through and absorb that master class in plotting, here are three story shapes he describes:

Falling in a hole: Someone’s having an okay day, they fall in a hole, they get out of the hole.

Boy meets girl: Someone’s having a normal day and something wonderful happens: the greatest thing ever to have happened to them. But, goddammit, they lose it. Eventually they win it back.

Rags to riches: Someone’s stuck in utter misery. A series of events gradually lifts them to great joy and gladness. That’s suddenly taken away from them, however, and they’re returned to misery. They gradually find their way back to that source of joy and gladness, however, achieving infinite happiness to the end of their days.

(He doesn’t preclude the existence of other “shapes,” he’s just laying out three of the most popular.)

There’s another theory I’ve heard, which is attributed to all kinds of people (most commonly Tolstoy, but without an actual citation). It’s that there are really only two kinds of stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Neither has to involve an actual man, obviously: the idea is just that a story is set in motion either because someone in stasis has chosen to initiate events, or because external events have intruded upon the stasis.

Back in the 1980s I studied with David Ball, whose Backward and Forwards has been described as “the standard for anyone trying to understand the nature of dramatic action.” It was his hypothesis that every story was really just a series of what he calls triggers and heaps: there’s a stasis, along comes some “trigger” event to intrude upon it, and that intrusion plays out and results in a “heap.” The heap becomes the new stasis, at which point the cycle repeats.

Triggers and heaps apply not merely to dramatic plotlines, but also character arcs. The overall arc of Hamlet is: an unhappy young prince sets out to avenge his father’s murder (the trigger), resulting eventually in a very literal heap (of bodies). But in the course of the play there are hundreds of little triggers producing hundreds of little metaphorical heaps, each of which is necessary to keep the larger arc moving forward.

Ball’s idea was that with a well-written play, you could begin at the final scene and go backwards from heaps to triggers just as easily and logically as you could go forward by following triggers and heaps.

Ball never mentions Hegel in his book, and I don’t recall him ever mentioning him in any classes, but the stasis-trigger-heap model is really just the playwright’s version of the Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

That’s enough about plotting and story structure. Let’s get to the two stories I mentioned up front.

First, in keeping with the theme of this blog, the Danish one.

Joint declaration between Denmark and Rwanda to send asylum processing to Africa
Maja Lærke Maach & Jakob Busk Olsen, DR.dk, Sept 9

Immigration and Integration Minister Kaare Dybvad Bek (S) and Minister for Development Cooperation Flemming Møller Mortensen (S) will not return home empty-handed from their work trip to Rwanda.

The ministers met today with Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Biruta, and the country’s Minister for Refugees, Marie Solange Kayisire, where the parties signed a joint statement to proceed with the work of moving the processing of asylum cases to the African country.

According to the statement , Rwanda would like to accept asylum seekers from Denmark, and the parties are also working on plans to make it possible for the asylum seekers to subsequently settle in Rwanda.

I know what you’re thinking: wait, what?

The Social Democrats launched the idea of ​​setting up reception centers for spontaneous asylum seekers in third countries in a plan for an asylum and immigration reform in 2018, while the party was in opposition.

At the time, party chairman Mette Frederiksen emphasized that it was “absolutely necessary to create a refugee system that is more humane than the one we have today.” Another important purpose, however, was to control and limit access to Denmark for non-Western foreigners.

After the Social Democrats came to power in 2019, they started looking for countries that could host reception centers. And in April 2021 something suddenly happened.

Immigration and Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye (S) and Development Minister Flemming Møller Mortensen (S) appeared unannounced in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Here they signed two agreements on asylum and migration cooperation, to which the public was not initially given access.

That’s right: the idea is that Rwanda will host an official “reception center” for people seeking asylum in Denmark.

It’s a little over 4100 miles (or 6600 km) from Kigali to Copenhagen.

Cleveland is closer to Copenhagen than Kigali is. So is Kathmandu.

Hold that thought while we move on to the second story, this one from America:

Chicago Suburb Says It Didn’t Know Dozens of Migrants Were Being Sent
from Chicago as More Buses Arrived in City
NBC Chicago, Sept 8 & 9

“On Wednesday, September 7, the Village of Burr Ridge learned that 64 refugees, among many bussed to Chicago from Texas, were transported from the Salvation Army Shield of Hope in Chicago and assigned to temporary hotel housing in Burr Ridge,” a village spokesperson told NBC 5. “Neither Village elected officials nor staff were consulted or contacted about this decision and we are now gathering information to keep our community updated.”

In other words: Texas bussed a bunch of immigrants (classified as legal refugees) to Chicago—a so-called “sanctuary city”—where 64 of them, including children, were denied sanctuary and shipped off to a wealthy suburb instead.

From Fox 32 Chicago:

“I’m glad that the American dream is still alive for a lot of people as it was for my grandparents when they came here and for most people that are in this country. So very happy for them,” (Burr Ridge Mayor Gary) Grasso said. “But unhappy that nobody from the city, from the state called and told me or my village administrator or any of our elected officials that this was happening.”

Let’s recap:

Denmark is establishing asylum application “reception” centers for “non-westerners” 4000 miles away in the middle of Africa.

Immigrants to America are being bussed from the Texan border to Chicago and then bussed out to the suburbs in a wild game of human hot potato.

From the Wikipedia summary of Vonnegut’s Slapstick:

Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that the Chinese become so small they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

The Chinese miniaturization is just one of many wildly absurd plot points in Slapstick (there are also invading miniaturized martians and Chinese experiments with gravity that end up causing gravity to fluctuate like the weather), but it’s essential to the story. A virus is needed, so Vonnegut dreamed up the most comical one he could think of (or at least, the most comical one he thought he could get by his publishers).

Western civilization, already languishing for want of energy, is ultimately sent into its doom spiral by a manufactured virus from China.


No, no, let’s leave that alone, it’s not relevant to the point I’m so slowly and laboriously trying to make.

My point is, in the middle of Slapstick the reader has no idea where the significance of the Chinese miniaturization program is headed. Yes, the reader knows the Chinese people are shrinking, and the reader knows this is being done to solve China’s over-population problems, but I doubt many readers ever paused to reflect that, hm, if they keep shrinking at this rate, eventually they’ll be aerosolized, and what then? No, the reader is content to laugh at the absurdity of scenes like that in which the president of the United States meets with the Chinese premiere—and has to mount him on a dais in order to speak with him.

Or maybe the reader is getting frissons of uneasiness: maybe the reader can sense where things are headed generally, even if they can’t put their finger on it.

That’s where we are right now.

Western civilization is running out of energy, literally and metaphorically, and we’re surrounded by absurdities—most of our own making.

The story is still playing out.

All these wild threads will eventually be drawn together into a recognizable whole: something historians will be able to look back upon and say, “oh-ho! so that’s why. . .”

It’s all bewildering right now: random, chaotic, comical, tragic, unsettling. We don’t know which events are central to the plot, and which are mere tangents. We only know that the stasis has been knocked into oblivion and we’re in the middle of something that’s going to lead to something else.

But what?

A smarter, saner world in which western civilization swiftly regains its mojo and resumes its previous trajectory toward an ever better, ever healthier, ever smarter, ever wealthier world for everyone? (A man falls in a hole and then climbs out of it.)

A world in which the remarkable achievements of western civilization are forsaken for a desperate dystopian hellscape in which western civilization collapses as the collectivist dictatorships of the world feast on the spoils—until people once more rise up and reclaim the individual liberty that was always the engine of western innovation? (Something wonderful happens, it’s lost, and it takes a great struggle to reclaim it.)

We’re playing shell games with immigrants. We’re turning off cheap reliable energy sources in favor of inadequate and unreliable ones. We’re boycotting a country for waging war while buying their rerouted goods from a country employing state-sanctioned slavery and committing genocide. An American president is declaring his opponent’s supporters to be enemies of the state on the grounds of their divisiveness. People are being harassed, ostracized, even arrested across the west for saying things that have been considered truisms for all of recorded history. A European Commission president proposes that the best way to keep a commodity cheap is to declare that it should be cheap. Affluent American media professionals and tenured professors complain of their intolerable oppression. A “climate czar” takes a private jet to collect an award for all his excellent work on behalf of the climate.

I could go on, obviously, but why bother? It’s a dizzying mess of absurdities that add up to nothing.

And yet it’s not, not at all. Everything is the logical and even inevitable consequence of a decision made or an action undertaken, and the decisions and actions we undertake as a result will produce consequences of their own.

We’re stuck in the middle chapters of this absurdist tragicomic novel, but unlike Vonnegut’s hapless heroes, we’re also its authors.

We wrote ourselves into a hole: we can write ourselves out of it.

But we can’t do that until we remember, and believe, and insist, where necessary, that we are in fact the authors of our own tales.

Featured image: Fred R. Roberts / New York Times