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Satire and her sidekick parody have been with us throughout the ages. Since at least 60 BC, when Juvenal penned Satires in which he observed, "It is difficult not to write satire," they have provided a convenient - not to mention entertaining- go-to for playwrights, poets and novelists alike. While parody and satire go hand-in-hand, it's no equal partnership: satire can hold her own without parody, but without satire, parody hasn't a leg to stand on. In an age when political rallies have more in common with the comedy roadshow than with campaigning, and cable news personalities morph daily into parodies of themselves in real time, we've no shortage of material. We're ridiculous - yesterday, today, and tomorrow - and nothing feeds satire like the ridiculous in us all.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication
by John Steinbeck
Random House, 1957
$18.00, 188 pp

In The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication, John Steinbeck deconstructs the French Revolution. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he aims a spotlight at twentieth century French politics, revealing - while celebrating - the absurdities of America's oldest ally.

The premise of Pippin is simple: What if, 150 years after the French Revolution, France wanted to undo what was done and reinstate the monarchy? Could a republic even do that? What follows is a comedy steeped in buffoonery, from the coalition of political parties behind the proposal (The Conservative Radicals arm-in-arm with The Radical Conservatives, The Royalists, The Right Centrists, Left Centrists, Christian Atheists, Christian Christians, Christian Communists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, and the list goes on and on) to the reluctant Crown - an amateur astronomer - whose closest advisors are his uncle who hustles tourists with unsigned paintings that may or may not be early Renoirs, and a nun who spent her youth dancing in strip clubs.

Upon accepting the throne and the titles that go with it, Pippin tries to make the best of his situation. He is determined to be a good king for France - the kind of king the French people are deserving of - and comes up with an agenda that flies in the face of the powers behind the throne. The result is a madcap rejection of the monarchy by the very people who resurrected it; a rejection which, we're certain, will culminate in Pippin's head rolling.

We don't know what prompted Steinbeck to write Pippin. Writers are a fickle lot. First published in 1957, he's clearly skewering the French political establishment. Perhaps Pippin is a response to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation (1952), the pageantry of which is parodied in Pippin's own. Or, maybe Pippin is meant to point out the absurdity of all politics - whether that of a republic or monarchy - which Steinbeck accomplishes in spades. Whatever his motives and inspiration, Pippin is one of the great overlooked achievements in satire of a master storyteller.

Hocus Pocus
by Kurt Vonnegut
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1990
ISBN: 0-399-13524-3
$17.00, 302 pp

Kurt Vonnegut is a kingpin in the writing game. There is no subject he hasn't the courage to touch. Whether satirizing utopian society (Player Piano Laurel, $4.95), Nazis (Mother Night, Random House, $17.00), or the self-importance of man (The Sirens of Titan, Random House, $17.00), Vonnegut slices with the precision of an itamae. He tackles the themes presented in Hocus Pocus no less skillfully.

Written from the viewpoint of Eugene Debs Hartke - named after notorious Socialist Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) of Indiana, a darling of the American Labor movement for his activism and having declared, "While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free" - Vonnegut tools him into storyteller and protagonist alike. A former teacher at Tarkington College, a small private school for the sons and daughters of the super-rich who can't cut it elsewhere, he is presently cloistered in the abandoned school's library, suffering from tuberculosis, while awaiting trial for allegedly masterminding a prison break. Over his current situation, Hartke reflects:

    I am so powerless and despised now that the man I am named after, Eugene Debs, if he were still alive, might at last be somewhat proud of me.

The year is 2001.

      The result is a madcap rejection of the monarchy by the very people who resurrected it . . .

Beyond the library, the novel's backdrop includes an all but shuttered economy and a village inhabited by penniless townies, their means of support having evaporated with the school-turned-prison. And that's just the local scenery. America is in shambles. Having sold to the highest bidder, manufacturing is virtually non-existent. Those who sold have become ex-pats, contributing nothing back from whence they took. Foreign interests own and operate a prison system deliberately overcrowded in an effort to maximize profits. There's racial segregation; ballooning debt; Wall Street scams; deforestation; an oncoming ice age.

It takes a small fortune to buy a tank of gas!

The premise of the story is that Hartke, while sequestered, has handwritten the book, Hocus Pocus, on numerous scraps of paper. The individual scraps are reflected in the book's layout by horizontal lines that separate them. Sometimes they seem divided along the lines of change in thought; other times, we suppose, he just ran out of room and had to move on to another scrap. Still others feel like punch lines. The visual is awkward at first, but once used to it, it serves to add definition to our protagonist's mental landscape. By story's end, I kind of wished all novels were formatted this way.

By placing Hartke in the driver's seat of not just the story, but the physical layout of the book as well, Vonnegut has vacated his position as author. It no longer is a Vonnegut novel. It's another animal. A hybrid, transformed into Hartke's autobiography. Though Vonnegut's fingerprints are still all over it, he plays the role of editor rather than writer, going so far as penning the Editor's Note in the foreword of the novel. Hocus pocus!

Characterization is Vonnegut's strong suit. He writes with the kind of depth achieved only from a lifetime of writing. Even minor characters we might at first appearance take to be mere page filler, in Vonnegut's hands become valued components of the plot. He enriches them with character, and they in turn enrich Hartke's character, and in so doing are a reflection of life. For what are we but the sum of our encounters?

There are no small parts. Just small actors.

Vonnegut's is a subtle form of satire. Less lampoon than parody, he takes a sardonic tone in Hocus Pocus. By cushioning explosive subjects in satire, he's able to reveal hidden truths without being didactic, gently exposing the man-behind-the-curtain if you will. He challenges our commitment to fallacy, without stating we're dead wrong. He peels away at a subject, like an onion with so many layers, to get at the heart of it, presenting it in a different light before his audience realizes what he's done.

The subjects satirized in Hocus Pocus - from the Creation myth to the Vietnam War to the penal code; a sunk economy and the widening wealth gap - are hot-button topics, all entailing a little hocus pocus. Though the world depicted is one of apocalypse, a certain calm pervades the novel. Hartke is safe in his tower (the library), though facing uncertainty, writing his heart out. His prison has become his safe place; his safe place his prison. More hocus pocus.

In the end, hocus pocus can't be pinned down to just one thing, one event, or series of events. Hocus pocus covers a wide field. It represents all the inane things we as humans do; what we place importance on, and how we justify it. Hocus pocus is the state of the human condition.

The writing game too.

posted 07/05/23