December 5, 2023

Few American novelists of the twentieth century looked as professorial as Kurt Vonnegut, at least in a wrinkled way as part of the English department. But even though he had some teaching experience, not least at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he could hardly be a conventional lecturer. This is evidenced in the above clip from 2004, in which he explains his ideas about the “shapes” of all stories—an idea he first formally presented as his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Although the thesis itself was rejected (a quarter of a century later, the university accepted Cat’s cradle instead) his ideas proved powerful enough to entertain Vonnegut’s audiences for the rest of his life.

Vonnegut draws a vertical and a horizontal axis on the board: the first maps the protagonist’s luck, good or bad, and the second represents time (from B to E: “beginning, entropy”). He then plots a particularly simple and reliable man-in-the-hole story form, which involves someone getting into trouble—a downward spiral—and then getting out again.

But the protagonist should end up a little higher on the fortune ladder than he started because “the reader thinks, ‘Well, for God’s sake, I’m human too. I need to have that much in reserve in case I get into trouble.” Then come stories of other shapes, including such popular favorites as “Cinderella” and Kafka Metamorphosis.

“This rise and fall,” Vonnegut warns us, “is actually artificial. It pretends that we know more about life than we really do.” As he tries to describe the shape Settlement, finally hits on one reason why the play is considered a work of genius: “so seldom are we told the truth,” but Shakespeare tells us the truth is that “we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is. is and what bad news it is.” Rather, “everything we do is an echo of the feelings of those around us.” As Vonnegut’s readers know, a darker view of human nature than his would be hard to come by. But if he didn’t believe in the power of stories to teach us right from wrong, he believed in their ability to teach us that we wouldn’t figure it out on our own.

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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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