I’m now a fan of KV.
I’d read KV previously, that oft recommended ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ which I rather enjoyed but I read that during (and for) study purposes. As such, I viewed it with a critical eye – ever aware that I might have to take my hand from the page to pick up the nearest pencil and highlight a passage that I might need to refer to later. ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ must have also felt threatened by the other books on my module – Pynchon’s ‘Lot 49’, Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’ and others. I came away from that module a fan of Auster and Pynchon, but not KV. If I had read ‘SF’ in my leisure then perhaps the situation would have been different.
In any case I’m now sold on KV’s style thanks to ‘Sirens of Titan’. What starts as a bit of a slow burner blossoms into a truly inventive piece of science fiction. The opening sections are taught with KV’s idiosyncratic playful style; quickly defined characters occupying a hyper-real environment, chatting in sharp concise conversations that quickly advance the plot and reveal the characters passions/emotions/drives (KV seems to take the ‘no bullshit’ approach to writing, very similar to the kind of prose you’d find in shorter fiction). The narrator is ever-present and we are always aware that we’re reading the story through an omni-everything perspective. When the plot tires or a significant body of time needs to pass we’re treated to quirky lines and descriptions; ‘the most important thing that the two crazy bums decided was that the man who was in actual command of everything was a big, genial, smiling, yodeling man who always had a big dog with him.’
What I find particularly impressive is KV’s ability to introduce dark heavy concepts, rumble them around with other dark concepts in a quasi-philosophical manner and yet keep the tone of the story both light-hearted and approachable. The themes in ‘Sirens’ are similar to those in ‘SF’; war, peace, human idiocy, control, religion… but in ‘Sirens’ the themes seem to operate more coherently – they mix and form structures in unison with the actions of the characters in the story. Of course, ‘SF’ had a very different plot line and I’d quickly like to emphasise that the confusing play between the concepts/themes in that book represent the mentality of those caught up in the horrific realities of war, however, ‘Sirens’ approaches the topic from an alternative angle. It’s not a personal story as such, to me it felt more like a kind of examination of humanity, we move frequently from one particular character to another all-knowing God-like character. This approach (on reflection) is very essay-esque, but the presence of the characters and KV’s style shrouds this otherwise very academic analysis of human culture and makes it far more appealing. I couldn’t possibly comment on what exactly I think the book means – I’d need to read it a few times to be able to put my thoughts into words – but the journeys (for there are many) and the questions posed during these journeys kept me thinking about ‘Sirens’ long after I’d put the book down and gone to bed.
It is a slow starter though. When it comes to science fiction I like to be plunged in headfirst – give me a world with crazy names and obscure creatures where I don’t know what’s up or down and I’ll be happy. KV, however, has always been a bit more of a ‘hold your hand’ kind of writer. His visions are fantastical, magical, and his characters are always entertaining – these are the things that keep me reading, but at the beginning (as with any novel) KV is taxed with describing the world to his reader so as to get it out of the way. An understandable approach when the narrative isn’t really all that concerned with ‘where’ and wants to focus on the ‘how’ and ‘what’, but it still irks me somewhat!
But this criticism is completely and utterly destroyed by the writing in the later chapters and the developments that occur. When I said this book ‘blossoms’ it really does; quickly bursting into a fiery red then, just as you think it’s calming down, the pace picks up again and you find yourself sucked into a philosophical/emotional whirlwind. There are some great points where you have no idea how the plot can continue, like the characters within the text you feel like you’re nearing a brick wall when Whoooosh. In flies KV picking up the characters with one hand and slapping you hard on the face with the other before you can say ‘deus ex machina’ – but it’s not deus ex machina at all, a few steps down the line you realise this and you turn back to the questionable passage and realise that the crazy situations that occur are just as likely to happen as the odd little things that happen in your own life.
I think that’s all I want to say about ‘Sirens’, though I’m aware there’s plenty more I could say. I could say how I think it’s almost an anti-novel; how it doesn’t try to drown you in its world but let’s you glide along the surface, or how it’s a great pick-up-for-five-minutes book but also works for readers that want to thumb through something for a few hours. It really is a great read, and a book I will no doubt read again. Perhaps with further readings I’ll find merit to the somewhat slow opening, eh?