Last summer, I traveled to Northern Virginia to attend the fortieth reunion of my high-school class. As I entered the hotel ballroom and surveyed the scene, a couple of questions inevitably came to mind: “Who are all these old people?” “Where are my people?”
If the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut were answering the first question, he might say, “All those old people are your granfalloon.” To the second he would say, “Ah, you seek your karass.”
We owe those two odd-sounding words to Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, a sendup of the Cold War every bit as goofily apocalyptic as Terry Southern’s script for Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, released just a year later. Set on a Caribbean island whose republican founder is a font of koan-like proverbs, the novel depicts a Ragnarokian world’s end brought about by, of course, American technocracy.
In the madcap-but-wise universe of that founder, Bokonon, a granfalloon is an association of people who think that association means something. It is actually meaningless. A native of Indiana, Vonnegut offers “Hoosier” as an example: No Indianan has any control over the circumstances of his or her birth, yet Hoosiers they are, just as my meaningless membership is in a class of people who just happened to be born about the same time and found themselves confined within the same walls for four years of secondary education.
“If you wish to examine a granfalloon, / just remove the skin of a toy balloon,” says Bokonon of that nothingness. Ah, but the kids who read Jack Kerouac and listened to David Bowie and smoked cigarettes behind the bleachers, where they hung out on the way to protesting the Vietnam War: There, under the balloon skin, is my karass, superannuated as it may now be, made up of people who, though members of the granfalloon, actually do have significance.
“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,” sayeth Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.” We find such people by accident, but we stick with them by choice—Hoosiers, maybe, but Hoosiers who share our interest in medieval history, lacrosse, or the early career of Dolly Parton and make the world a better place for it. Accident aside, that matter of choice, of free will, marks the division between a karass and a granfalloon. Class of ’75: granfalloon. Freak or jock, nerd or motorhead: karass.
Alas, those words are likely to have meaning these days only to people who remember the ’60s and ’70s, shelved in the mental lexicon alongside “blesh” and “grok.” But I suspect a distinguished genealogy behind Kurt Vonnegut’s offbeat vocabulary, for Vonnegut, trained in chemistry and a Germanophile, may have been borrowing from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the title of whose 1809 novel Elective Affinities evokes a scientific principle with a human dimension: We are forced into society as an element is forced into the granfalloon of a chemical compound. With any luck we find a crew that we’re happy to bond with, a karass that does God’s work, as Bokonon/Vonnegut would have it, without ever quite knowing why.