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Kurt Vonnegut

Why did we love him so?

Because Kurt Vonnegut told us the truth about living in a world gone mad. And he somehow made us laugh along the way. That's winning the perfecta.

Vonnegut surely reminds many of us of our youth. We treasured Vonnegut's books because they were cosmic and dark and strange and perverse and vulgar and infinitely irreverent. He was never the most facile writer -- many critics thought he couldn't write a lick -- but he wrestled with big ideas and primal urges. (I want to somehow use the words scatalogical and eschatalogical in the same sentence without being too cute about it.) His books were teenager books, really: To fully appreciate them, it probably helped to perceive yourself as an alien being, forced by Fate to survive on a completely demented planet. To be 16 years old, in other words.

Vonnegut knew that human beings had invented extraordinary techniques for visiting ruin and death upon their world. He didn't have to read about it in a book: He had survived, as a prisoner of war, the firebombing of Dresden. He and his fellow prisoners had huddled in an underground meat locker. He's quoted in the AP obit that appeared in The Post saying that event didn't explain his life or his writing -- but of course it did, in part. His characters were so often caught up in bizarre fates, so often wandering in places as alien and tragic as the landscape he saw when he emerged from what the German guards called Schlachthof-funf -- Slaughterhouse Five.

From his novel, published a quarter century later:

"Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.

"American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes.
"The idea was to hasten the end of the war."

I've mentioned this before: Some years back, needing a quote for a story, I knocked on Vonnegut's door. He lived on Long Island in a ranch-style house on a sleepy country road. To my surprise, Vonnegut answered the door, and rather than shooing me away, invited me in, lit up a cigarette, and spent the next hour telling jokes and stories and doing his damndest to provide me with material for a story that happened to involve cannibalism.

He wore beat-up sneakers, untied, laces dragging along the floor. He was already in his late 70s, but you could see the reckless teenager, the rebel, the kid for whom defying authority would be as automatic as breathing. His laugh was gleeful and explosive -- a smoker's laugh, bordering on a hacking cough. I can still picture him, in a chair on his back porch, breaking up in laughter as he told the joke about what a judge said to the Donner Party: "You ate the only three Democrats in the county!"

In person he had the same effect as in print: He could somehow chill you with stories of a cruel universe, yet leave you inspired. He made you think. He made you want to be a better person.

And if the universe is cruel at times it also gives us gifts, like letting that young private live in Dresden and go on to give us such interesting stories.


From my earlier post on Vonnegut:

Vonnegut is a humorist on the darkest end of the humor spectrum.... No wonder that in "The Sirens of Titan" his hero, Malachi Constant, kills his only friend, or that, in "Cat's Cradle," a substance called Ice-nine threatens to destroy the planet, and ultimately does just that. (He's not a happy-ending kind of writer.) When you've seen Dresden and read the reports from Hiroshima, your imagination has nowhere to turn but to science fiction. On Earth we've already maxed out the possibilities for horror. Vonnegut's genius is to perceive that calamity need not be masterminded, but could be set in motion by trivia, chance, someone's stupid urge or bureaucratic requirement. An alien's spacecraft breaks down on the great moon of Saturn; he needs to send a message to his home planet, and manages to inspire a primitive species of primate on Earth, homo sapiens, to construct a great wall that can be seen from deep space. Human civilization is a side-effect of someone's hardware procurement.

[Whoa, now. I've been pulling stuff from dim memory. In the boodle, Blake Stacey writes that I mangled the plot: "It's the robots back on Tralfamadore which inspire the Earthlings to build a civilization. Salo, sitting on Titan, can only wait and watch, because he doesn't have enough Universal Will To Become (UWTB) fuel to power the process." As it happens I have TSOT in my hands and turn now to the relevant passages...

"There is something you should know about life in the Solar System," he said. "Being chrono-synclastic infundibulated, I've known about it all along. It is, none the less, such a sickening thing that I've thought about it as little as possible.
"The sickening thing is this:
"Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tralfamadore.
"How the Tralfamadorians controlled us, I don't know. But I know to what end they controlled us. They controlled us in such a way as to make us deliver a replacement part to a Tralfamadorian messenger who was grounded right here on Titan." (Ital in original.)

Of course the best part is Salo's message. But let's not spoil the ending....]


More from Slaughterhouse-Five -- an autobiographical section:

' I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.
'Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, "You know -- you never wrote a story with a villain in it."'
'I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war. '

Here's a tribute on yellojkt's blog.

The NYTimes obit:

To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," summed up his philosophy:

'"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "

[More to come...]

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 12, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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