Kurt Vonnegut (on the usefulness of the arts)

It’s Vonnegut Week, I guess. I’m re-reading Fates Worse Than Death, which has suddenly jumped the queue ahead of Bill McKibben’s Enough (readable, surprisingly funny for a grim assessment of our more is better! culture) and Seth Davis’s Wooden: A Coach’s Life (which I want to plough through uninterrupted). Given that Wooden and Vonnegut may be my top two American heroes — and hey, come to think, McKibben’s not a lot lower on that list — it’s not shocking that fiction is (again) on a lower shelf, not to mention the stack of magazines that arrived in our Ottawa mailbox during our last year in China. Woe is my reading list. (Reading lust.)

The following bit of KV is not from FWTD, or from Palm Sunday, its predecessor as a Vonnegut “autobiographical collage”. It’s from a more recent book called A Man Without a Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America — again, non-fiction, but even stronger in its searingly angry, despairing and somehow still spookily funny condemnation of the ruling elites in the U.S.A. (Canada currently has little, other than good luck, to boast about in this regard. Don’t get smug, Canucks.) This was among the happier quotes, one that gets cited again and again, and mostly out of context. I still like it out of context, and I print it below in this way because it contains one of KV’s goofy autograph/self-portraits.

A little context: the passage actually begins, ““If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is…” Adding that opening — which most quotation-hounds subtract, and now I’m among them — gives back the true bite of this shard of Vonnegutian advice.

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Kurt Vonnegut (an oath on freedom, good news for Dad)

This story, the story of this letter, has moved me over and over as if I was reading it for the first time. I might as well have been. Lately it has been on my mind constantly. This is likely because I have recently entertained the possibility that I will never haunt a classroom again, at least not for money. After years in between blackboards and bored kids, mainly in southern Ontario high schools but for five recent campaigns in two northeastern Chinese universities, I may be done with all that. Hence, the Kurt Vonnegut ear-worm, my writing hero‘s blazing honesty on repeat. (How did you do it, Kurt? How did you do it? I’m reading his non-fiction again, trying to find clues, but I mainly get beaten about the ears by the impossibility of doing what he did.)

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Yes. So here’s the set-up. KV’s story is in the second of his “autobiographical collages”, Fates Worse Than Death. (The first was Palm Sunday, if you’re keeping score.) (Desert island books, both. I can read these things again and again.) He’s writing about his saintly “unicorn” of a father, and the stoic resilience he showed as an artist enduring commercial vulgarity and disdain, and as a man surviving the madness of his wife. Kurt Junior ends this whimsically sad tribute to a man living in the wrong era by telling of his own early days as a writer, maybe one born at the right time — if being a World War II infantryman is good timing.

At age 27, Vonnegut was paying bills by writing advertising copy for General Electric by day, but his eccentric short stories were — amazing as this seems in hindsight — being accepted by the mass-market general-interest magazines of the day. The last word on his beauty-loving Daddy was this:

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I’ll Miss You, KV. Hail and Farewell.

My bride has been well-prepared. She woke me up Thursday with a sympathetic face.

“Sorry to say, but I think it’s a national day of mourning.”

“Oh, my. John Wooden?” I’d heard that my 96-year-old coaching hero, the great UCLA basketball guru, had been in hospital, but had left it reasonably well. She shook her head. So it must be, and was, another American icon, the shine from another facet of my mind. “Kurt Vonnegut, then?” She nodded.

[The New York Times obituary is a good one. You may also be interested in a piece I wrote on him just over a year ago. You’ll find it here.)

If I had a stronger journalistic streak in me, I’d have had this written long ago, though I did make a start in February of ’06. I hadn’t heard of the fall he’d had a few weeks ago and of his quick decline, but I’ve been waiting for this news for at least a decade. Finally. Vonnegut was 84. He’d been referring to himself as “an old fart with his Pall Malls” and hacking with every laugh for at least 20 years. He introduced his last novel, 1997’s Timequake, with a muttering prologue about being too old for this sort of thing:

“I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to fifty-two, my father to seventy-two….Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was fifty-five. Enough! My architect father was sick and tired of architecture when he was fifty-five. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!”

He was tired. He was A Man Without a Country, his recent and now final non-fiction foray. He still supported social dissent, though he felt it did about as much good “as a banana cream pie”.

So how’s this for spooky? In his prologue to Timequake, Vonnegut writes of his recurrent fictional character, the utterly unknown but wildly prolific science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. (Is such productivity hopeful or insane? Determined or desperate?) Vonnegut confesses what everybody knew anyway: that Trout is his alter ego. Trout is central to the novel, and KV makes a cameo appearance himself. Timequake sees the death of Trout, just as he gives a lonely but finally hopeful description of “the special place of Earthlings in the cosmic scheme of things”. Vonnegut mentions in the prologue that Trout dies at 84, just as he did himself last Wednesday. Hi ho. And this, too: my son Will knows what Vonnegut has meant to me. He phoned me Thursday night to tell me that Kurt had died, but I already knew. I had gorged myself on obituaries, like too many dips into the chocolate box: they were sweet, and I felt a little queasy. Will also told me that he had borrowed Timequake from the library, for no particular reason that he knew. But he was dialled-in, I’ll say that for him. He finished it Wednesday night. And so it goes.

You couldn’t read a better obituary for Vonnegut than Timequake, though it is a fair bit longer even than this post. Perhaps it will make you want to read more. Slaughterhouse Five is his signature novel. 1969. Some say KV is best read young, but I’ve read it then and nearer to now, and I’ll read it again if I’m allowed to get old. It will last. My favourite might be Slapstick, in which a dishevelled but dignified old man runs for President of a post-apocalyptic America. His winning campaign slogan? LONELY NO MORE! He has invented a new method of giving Americans the sense of family and connectedness that they had long lost. Though civilization has been destroyed, they have something to live for, because the President has given them extended families to count on as they scrounge a living from the ruins of empire. A little gentleness, a little compassion, a little hope amid the decay of a dying century. That was the best of Vonnegut, over and over. And I laughed out loud a couple of times when I first read it.

But I don’t know where Kurt found the courage. (“Ah, Koort, it’s so hard,” he once quoted a German writer and friend, telling him what he already knew too well.) I don’t know, still, precisely why the tears come so fiercely when I randomly read lines this morning from Timequake, or when I dive into his essays and memoirs (Palm Sunday, say, or Fates Worse Than Death.) I think it’s the courage. Vonnegut tried to kill himself in the 80s. (“I wanted out of here!”) In the 90s, I saw him give a public lecture on literature, which at one point veered into a brief digression on smoking. “Why do people tell us that smoking will kill us? Don’t they see that this is exactly the point?” The audience, eager to laugh with the comic writer, the Shakespearean clown, the “moralist with a whoopy-cushion” — Jay McInerney, New York Times, the best review of KV I’ve read — roared with too-ready laughter. Then, eerily, instantly, suddenly self-consciously, they realized what he’d said and veered into a collective groan. Sometimes it worked the other way ‘round, too, but for me, well, maybe I’m too serious. Most often, what he said and wrote hit me as too painfully TRUE, or just too full of pain, to laugh with. He was the comic genius that made me cry, still and again.

Some commentators list Hocus Pocus as among his greatest, joining Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, or even his first, Player Piano. So I’m reading it again. I bought it in 1991 in a bus station or corner store. I was mid-divorce and devastated. Cover blurbs from the Houston Post (“hilarious”), the San Diego Tribune (“it’s a scream!”) and Playboy (“a king-sized relief valve of comedy”) prepared me not at all for what I found to be a grindingly sad bleat of human despair, all the more so for its bleak jokes and whistling-past-the-graveyard satire. Wow. What was the matter with me?

I’ve picked it up again, now that he’s gone. Fellow novelists Joseph Heller (Catch 22) and John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany is my favourite) have the front-cover blurbs, and they loved it. It doesn’t grab me yet, not in the way other Vonnegut can send me reeling with sorrow and wonder and gratitude. But it’s him, all right: characters without much depth whose comments and circumstances knock the wind out of me; quirky plots that seem to wander through banality to absurdity then suddenly coalesce in a storm of meaningful incident; a grim look at humans as a collective that is (occasionally) redeemed by the heartbreaking goodness of individuals, in spite of all. (Cruel and creepy things done “for love” made Vonnegut wary; he once – or twice – wrote that “what the world really needs is a little less love, and a lot more human decency”.)

Wedded as I am to a hopeful and consoling vision of the world, the one proclaimed and elaborated in the Bahá’í community, I wonder at his dignity and dogged belief. He saw the 20th century not as a transition and a birth pang, as I do, but as the death of civilization. He’d been right at the fiery centre of World War II, what he called “humanity’s second failed attempt to commit suicide”. He felt that the planet’s immune system was set to purge itself of our species, yet he kept on urging us to sanity and compassion, no matter what. No matter what. Such courage, such grace, even though he was convinced that the game is over. I’m humbled by his example. I hope to continue all the more to be moved by it.

I’ll finish Hocus Pocus before long. I predict that I will shake my head and mutter, “How did he do that?” Where did he find the guts to make art, and even a little merriness, out of the shrapnel of dismay? God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.