I have to admit that the main reason I was aware of Vonnegut’s second novel, written in 1959 right after the launch of the space age, was the trivia night nugget that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead owned the movie rights for years and had actually worked up a script with SNL alum Tom Davis. After discovering what an amazing feat of imagination this book is, I can see why self-styled hippie intellectuals like Garcia and Davis were drawn to it. It was quite unlike any other novel, even other Vonnegut books, I have read. At no time while devouring The Sirens of Titan could I ever say to myself, “Oh, I know where this is going.”
Vonnegut sends up the whims of capitalism with the main character Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is a playboy/bon vivant who, for reasons to be revealed, was born with the luck to maintain his lifestyle with very little effort on his part. At the beginning of the novel, he is summoned to the mansion of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the first man to fly a private rocket to Mars. Rumfoord is also, or so it’s understood, one of the last—having unwittingly flown into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which effectively spread his (and his dog’s) existence throughout sort of a wormhole between the Sun and Betelgeuse. (Now you can start to imagine the types of conversations Garcia and Davis must have had.)
When Earth happens to transect the glitch, once every 59 days, Rumfoord and his dog materialize at the mansion for a short period of time where he alienates his wife, predicts the future (since he happens to actually be everywhere and when), and generally makes everyone uncomfortable. Vonnegut’s description of the first meeting of the two men is a good example of his wonderful use of language in this novel: “Winston Niles Rumfoord’s smile and handshake dismantled Constant’s high opinion of himself as efficiently as carnival roustabouts might dismantle a Ferris wheel.”
Granted, this all takes place within the first 20 pages or so. Rumfoord (and I couldn’t stop substituting Rumsfeld, especially when we begin to find out how his motives, while being altruistic from his viewpoint, are seriously screwed up) goes on to tell Constant that he will end up traveling to Mars, Mercury, Titan, and end up having a son with Mrs. Rumfoord. Awkward.
Vonnegut’s savaging of organized religion at the back end of this novel counterbalances his having peeled back the curtain hiding the machinations of the free market in the front. Along the way, Mars attacks, a shipwrecked alien manipulates all of human history in an attempt to get a part, and … just read it. I know I’ll be revisiting this one again and again.