Wednesday, April 11, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

My first favorite novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, died today at the age of 84.

It would be impossible for me to sum up the guy's genius in a little blog post, nor his impact on my life. Vonnegut books, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos (which he sometimes referred to as his favorite), essentially introduced me to literature. I had read books previously, for school or pleasure, but never attentively. They had remained little more than narrative delivery systems - authors wrote stories and I read them, finding the results either entertaining or disappointing. But Vonnegut books were funny and outrageous and packed full of ideas, some of them unconventional and new (to me, at least). Unlike most of the drab authors high school students read, Vonnegut was a fun guy to be around. His books were compelling, not like homework.

In particular, my younger self loved Vonnegut's dry, sarcastic prologues. Most of his novels open with self-deprecating prologues describing what the author was doing in the months (or, in some cases, years) before the novel's publication. His description of romantic love from the opening of Slapstick has always stuck with me. I'm not sure if it's because it reminds me of myself or the person I'm most afraid of becoming:

"Love was never at issue...It does not seem important to me. What does seem important? Bargaining in good faith with destiny.

"I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as 'common decency.' I treated somebody well for a little while, or maybe even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in turn. Love need not have had anything to do with it. Also: I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs."

In addition to brilliantly satirical science-fiction novels like the three mentioned above, Vonnegut wrote short stories, plays and really insightful, darkly funny and, of course, horribly pessimistic essays. I'd recommend Fates Worse Than Death, an extremely frank series of autobiographical pieces in which Vonnegut discusses his work, his family and his failed attempt at suicide a few years prior.

One of his best and most overlooked works, the novel Deadeye Dick, ends with this statement:

"You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages - they haven't ended yet."

This sentiment sums up so much of his writing. Things are horribly difficult and the only way we can muddle through is to hope that someday things might improve (though probably not) and to laugh at the ridiculousness of our circumstance. As a frequently lonely, somewhat alienated young person who worshipped comedy and comedians, I found this outlook entirely relatable. It summed up what my life at that time was pretty much all about - laughing in the face of pain, rejection and frustration.

The bleak pessimism, by Vonnegut's own admission, became kind of overbearing later in his life. He had sworn off writing altogether for a while, feeling incapable of rending his sour observations about the world into humor that could potentially be enjoyed. Here's a piece from Fates Worse Than Death in which he explains the nature of his humor:

"Jokes work this way: The Jokester frightens the listener just a little bit, by mentioning something challenging, such as sex or physical danger, or suggesting that the listener is having his intelligence tested. Step two: The jokester makes clear that no intelligent response is required of the listener. This leaves the listener stuck with useless fight-or-flee chemicals in his or her bloodstream, which must be gotten rid of somehow, unless the listener wants to slug the jokester or do jumping jacks.

"What the listener most likely will do is expel those chemicals through the lungs with quick expansions and contractions of the chest cavity, accompanied by grotesque facial expressions and barking sounds.


"But jokesters are all through when they find themselves talking about challenges so real and immediate and appalling to their listeners that no amount of laughter can make the listeners feel safe and perfectly well again. I found myself doing that on a speaking tour of campuses in the spring of 1989, and canceled all future engagements. This wasn't at all what I enjoyed doing to audiences, and yet there I was doing it. I wondered out loud onstage, for instance, what I and my brother and sister and our parents might have done if we had been German citizens when Hitler came to power. And reply would be moot, but almost certainly depressing. And then I said that the whole world faced a problem far worse than the rise of another Hitler, which was our destruction of the planet as a life-supporting apparatus of delicate and beautiful complexity.

"I said that one day fairly soon we would all go belly-up like guppies in a neglected fishbowl. I suggested an epitaph for the whole planet, which was: 'We could have saved it, but we were too darn cheap and lazy.'

"It really was time to quit."

He felt badly not because humanity was on the verge of wiping itself out (things have not improved since '89, I'm afraid), but because, in some way, he felt like the Earth deserved better than us, like there had been some promise or hope for the world out there on the horizon but never delivered upon, possibly because people had come and mucked it all up with our selfish, lazy thoughtlessness. And this guy was a humorist. As he says in his last published work (I think), the autobiographical A Man Without a Country:

"Do you realize that all great literature - "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "Crime and Punishment" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" - are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)

"Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet - the only one in the whole Milky Way - with a century of transportation whoopee."

So what to make of all this now that he has passed on? I'm not sure.

I suppose it would be wrong to be terribly overwrought and sad on this occasion, and Vonnegut was never one to romanticize death. (Perhaps the most famous, iconic phrase from his writing is the resigned "So it goes," repeated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five whenever something tragic happens). This "calypso" from the fictional Bokononist religion of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, sent to me this evening by a particularly alert and web-savvy friend, feels somehow appropriate:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud
that didn't even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
Good night.

(True, Vonnegut wasn't much of a God guy, nor a "Last Rites" guy, but it's the sentiment that counts.)

1 comment:

kathylenhardt said...

Last week I bought another copy of Welcome to the Monkey House because I'm going to start subbing again and thought it would be a good book to carry around to read aloud if there's time. I was driving this morning when I heard. He made a wonderful contribution to literature, even though he said that most of his books were never reviewed because they were considered to be "young adult."