12 April 2007

kurt vonnegut : 1922-2007

Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday night, 11 April, of brain injuries he sustained after a recent fall in his Manhattan apartment. He was 84.

I'm not sure if he's thought of as experimental these days, but I am sure his crazy-funny speculative imagination, brutal political satire, acidic existential irony, poignantly unfussy prose, and liberating structural waywardness lured a host of my generation during our teens onto the wilder side of fiction, into narrative irreverence and opportunity.

I'm also sure I consider Slaughter-House Five (1969) one of the best novels about World War Two, not to mention one of the best of the second half of the twentieth century. By way of a eulogy, let me simply quote a passage from it. Billy Pilgrim has just been snatched by extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians who intend to put in a kind of cage in a kind of zoo on their planet.

There were two peepholes inside the airlock [of their spaceship]—with yellow eyes pressed to them. There was a speaker on the wall. The Tralfamadorians had no voice boxes. They communicated telepathically. They were able to talk to Billy by means of a computer and a sort of electric organ which made every Earthling speech sound.

"Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim," said the loudspeaker. "Any questions?"

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: "Why me?"

"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because the moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?"

"Yes." Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why."

Goodbye, Kurt. There are a lot of earthlings still unstuck in time who will miss you.


Davis Schneiderman said...

Vonnegut was important to me from about 14-16, and I think I tore through all of his novels.

I recall being pleased to find that the publishing company for the Grateful Dead was called "Ice Nine"--and as I listened to "Dark Star" for the seemingly thousandth time, I felt like I somehow got it. Whoa, Jerry moved!

Yet, and I almost hesitate to say this, Vonnegut seems almost like a young-adult author. I'd be hard pressed to find someone who discovered Kurt in their teens and stayed with him much beyond that (ok--I'm ready for correction...). The cynicism of his works primed the pump (for me) for a world of other novels, yet I can't quite move him past that period in my life, the way I can with another early-adult find, Kafka, to whom I frequently return.

Anybody else on the relative reading age for Vonnegut?


Anonymous said...

i know what you mean, davis, but i think it's a readerly acquiensence act that keeps his words alive and kicking even for us old folks.

i know when he was on the john stewart show i got REALLy excited by his perpetual spry and ferocious ... being.


Anonymous said...

To me there are four books by Vonnegut that will never wear out no matter my age: _Slaughterhouse-five_, _Cat's Cradle_, _Mother Night_, and _The Sirens of Titan_. Also, his speeches are hilarious, comparable only to Groucho Marx and Mark Twain. His other works perhaps do not hold up as well, but then if I can be remembered for four books someday, I will be quite happy.

And, I won't deny it, when I found out Vonnegut had died, I cried as if someone in my family had died.

Andy Farkas

mark wallace said...

I also hear what you're saying, Davis, but I think Vonnegut's case is complicated. I say this as someone who's never been a huge fan, but who read a book of his from time and time and has even taught him in college a time or two.

For people like you and me, and others on this list I would imagine, Vonnegut definitely served as a kind of gateway drug, someone who opened up a whole series of non-normative possibilities for literature even while, in comparison to some of the even more extreme experimental writing that we've gone on to pick up, maybe a little facile at moments. What at one point felt challenging begins to feel a little less so.

But what's also interesting about Vonnegut is that he continues to reach a whole host of less developed readers while at the same time being genuinely innovative. Might it be fair to say that for many years he was the most widely read American author who nonetheless had real experimental leanings? I'm not sure, but if it's true, that's a complicated feat--although one that raises some interesting questions and problems.

There was indeed something powerful about his public persona, even as it seemed at times media shtick, and he said a lot of things to wide audiences that those audiences needed to hear. Of course, he belongs to another age where there was a little more of a place for genuinely public intellectuals than there is now. It's hard to know whether we're going to see a writer and person of his kind again any time soon. All in all, despite some shortcomings, a pretty good model to emulate.

Anonymous said...

i think there is a big difference between young-adult literature and literature that reaches out to working class adults. Vonnegut doesn't right coming of age novels or anything like Catcher in the Rye.

his writing might not challenge you as a reader, but he is not trying to push the limits of language in any significant way. he wants his message to be read and understood by people who may not have gone to college, because that is who he is concerned about, the people that haven't been born into privelege.


Davis Schneiderman said...

Can we really call _Catcher in the Rye_ working-class literature? I think we may define working class quite differently.

but I'd be interested in the reception of V.'s novels...who bought them--and would it really break down along class lines...?

I'm not sure I buy the Vonnegut-as-populist argument. He enjoyed a wide readership, but I bet more people have read _Catcher_ than _Slaughterhouse_--fueled, no doubt, by the former's ubiquity in the high school classroom.


Anonymous said...

The argument that I was trying to make is that Catcher in the Rye is what I'd consider young-adult, whereas I'd consider Vonnegut as more of a working class author as opposed to a young adult author as you suggested.

And as far as being more accesible to the masses, I am not comparing him to Salinger, but to Kafka and other more challenging writers.


Davis Schneiderman said...

I meant "young adult" as a descriptive phrase, perhaps ironically, rather than a shelving label.

I don't think either Vonnegut or Salinger are written at the level of Harry Potter--or some other "young adult" genre text.