Thursday, October 5, 2006

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution
George Washington et al.

The U. S. Constitution hardly qualifies as a novel - or even a short story - but I am reviewing it here because I read it in full, and because I have a couple of things to say about it. Nothing here is profound - or even particularly important - but I get credit for the effort none-the-less.

First, though, I should address why I decided to read it. There are two reasons:
  1. I heard or read somewhere in the last several months that there is a way for a sitting President to avoid elections in a time of war, thus remaining in power. This was clearly promulgated by some conspiracy theorist as part of some paranoid tract about Bush and the ongoing "war against terror". I wanted to try to find out if (or how) a President could stay in office (bypassing elections) during wartime.
  2. Since becoming a fire fighter I have twice had to sign documents stating that I would uphold and defend the constitution of the United States. That was a surprise (I figured that sort of oath would fall on the military and police, but not on fire fighter) so I thought I should refresh myself on exactly what that document says as a result.
So now I've reread it. It's not that long - about 9 pages of tiny print in my almanac, including annotations. What it lacks in length, though, it makes up for in content.

I found it fascinating that the document is so short. That the major principles governing this country can be set down so simply is quite impressive, but it also leaves the infamous gaps & gray areas that have been the realm of law and court decision for well over 200 years now. Never-the-less, the document is very tightly written, and so long as a few terms are understood - some of which I did have to look up because they are no longer in common use - it does a great job of defining the high points of how the national government should function.

As to the answer to whether or not the President can avoid elections in a time of war, I didn't see that in the document. There are multiple places that deal with the election of the President and how power is handed down in the event he cannot discharge his duties, but I see nothing about avoiding an election in time of war. I did a few Google searches to try and track that down as well, but my queries ran up against the huge volume of political content on the 'net and I couldn't find anything relevant in a few minutes of trying.

In any event, I have now read the U. S. Constitution - something I haven't done since social studies class in high school, a long time ago. It was interesting and enlightening in some ways. I wish I could have definitively answered my question, but perhaps someone with more political knowledge than I have can point me in the proper direction.

As to why I rated this document only "Good" (as opposed to "Great"), it has only to do with the language. As the years go by the language gets more and more removed from current usage, making it harder to understand the original text in context. In another few hundred years it will be much harder for school kids to "get it". The concepts are amazing - particularly as the amendments come in to correct the obvious nasty issues in the original document dealing with slavery and limiting certain major rights, like voting - but the language can obscure that wonder a bit.

Breakfast Of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions is the third book I've read by Vonnegut, and it is much more like Timequake than it's like Cat's Cradle. In that regard it is disappointing, but the disappointment goes beyond just that similarity. Breakfast Of Champions just doesn't hold together all that well, and though it appears to be a commentary on American society at the time it was published (1973) it looks pretty lame (in my opinion) viewed from 2006.

Without including spoilers, I can say that the author is a character in this tome. That's an odd writing device but it leads to certain situations and events that are at least somewhat funny. But it is also a way of presenting a story that completely violates the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. It's hard enough to follow any fanciful story - and become engrossed in it - in general, but it's really hard when the author himself makes several appearances as a character. Even the author "speaking out of the frame" (to borrow and probably butcher some movie terminology) is distracting, and that happens all over in this book.

Those looking for more about Kilgore Trout - Vonnegut's alter ego of a sort - will find plenty about him here. Trout is an amusing character, but still a cardboard cutout, like just about everyone else.

Of the actual plot, it's basically nothing. In fact, I delayed writing this review for about ten days while I did several other things and tried to figure out what I wanted to say. During that time, the few actual events of the plot all blurred together to the point where I cannot really tell you what the story is about anymore. Oh, I could name the major characters and hit a couple of highlights, but that wouldn't be important.

As a way of trying to explain that, let's envision a story about a couple of guys that go out for dinner, get into an argument about nothing in particular, then go home. That's it. No significant content (plot-wise) is present. It's mundane stuff that could (and probably should) be ignored. That's the kind of thing (but not specifically the actual plot of) Breakfast Of Champions is about. It just doesn't matter.

I guess what was supposed to matter was the social commentary, and this novel is loaded with social commentary. Just about every other paragraph is a comment about something. The problem is that all of those paragraphs are comments about different things. There is nothing that binds the paragraphs (or chapters) together, except the regular use of the n-word (for reasons that I still don't understand) and the occasional return to the nearly non-existent plot.

If Vonnegut had put together a social commentary on one or two (or even a handful of) themes, discussing them in depth and playing out what the implications of things are, it would be interesting. Here, however, he basically says: "X is bad. Blather. Y doesn't work. Yadda yadda yadda. Z is amusing but pointless. Ho hum." And so on. We learn nothing in depth about what he thinks or what points he is trying to make.

I found all of this very surprising. Breakfast Of Champions has been on my list of books to read for years. It's relatively well known and was a best seller at some point in its past. Now that I have read it, though, all I can do is wonder why it got the level of attention it did.

Given the choices I've had from Vonnegut I'd suggest skipping Breakfast Of Champions and reading Cat's Cradle instead.