Kurt Vonnegut Reconsidered

Kurt Vonnegut died a year ago today. Vonnegut’s death has left neither a cultural vacuum nor a pining after another great work now never to be. And why should it? He was pretty old–84–and he’d written a relatively substantial collection of novels, plays, essays, and short stories. And admittedly, he hadn’t written a truly great book in decades. Like Bob Dylan, Vonnegut produced his greatest work in the 1960s: Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and, of course, Slaughterhouse-Five (even 1968’s short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House–a book I proudly admit I stole from my 10th grade English teacher–is superior to Vonnegut’s later work). Yet there’s still something about his death that makes me feel a little melancholy, even now–not sad, per se, but rather–and it sounds corny–like something is missing.

See, I learned to read by reading Vonnegut. Sure, I knew how to read before I read Cat’s Cradle, but, beyond Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and a number of classic adventure books by authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain, Vonnegut was the first “literary” author I was exposed to. I learned irony. I learned detached pessimism. I was exposed to a writer who knew how to explode genre convention. And, in a short period–roughly from the ages of 12 to 16–I read everything that Vonnegut had written. Then I dismissed him as a “lesser” writer, and moved on, until I was required to re-read Slaughterhouse-Five in college. I’d forgotten how good it was. I re-read Cat’s Cradle, my first and favorite (to this day) Vonnegut novel. Again, great. I then picked up Vonnegut’s final novel, 1997’s Timequake, a shambolic wreck of semi-autobiography that is at turns drastically pessimistic, utterly depressive, and hilariously cynical. It’s really a terrible book, to be honest, but taken as a final statement, I think it works. In any case, after college I managed to get over the silly embarrassment I felt for my love of Vonnegut, an author often relegated to the second or even third tier of American letters, or, even worse, a personality reviled in the press (watch Fox News’s scandalous obituary. Or, if you prefer watching something positive, watch Vonnegut on The Daily Show.)

I suppose, when I say that Vonnegut’s death presents an absence, a feeling of something missing, I really mean to say that it marks me, it ages me: it makes me feel old. After all, we measure our own lives in part against the deaths of others, particularly against the deaths of the famous and celebrated. Vonnegut preceded me; his novels were there, waiting for me, and I was grateful. I read all of them–all of them–I don’t know if I can say that of another author (except maybe Salinger, and I don’t think that counts). But I still haven’t read A Man Without a Country, his 2005 collection of essays, and I haven’t read the posthumously published short story collection, Armageddon in Retrospect, which came out just the other week. It makes me happy to know that there’s something out there of his that I haven’t yet touched, that I can read for the first time as an adult, and not a teenager. I don’t know why I should feel this way, but I do. So it goes.

Vonnegut plays himself in an classic film:

4 comments

  1. micbk · April 11, 2008

    i agree with pretty much all you’ve said. Vonnegut was one of the few “famous” people who’s death actually made me feel sorrowful. I started reading him at 16 (Cat’s Cradle – which has stuck with me as my favorite ever since), and like you, read everything except the latest two. no matter how bad they might seem in comparison to the rest of his work (i.e. Timequake) i found every single piece of work that he ever wrote at the very least entertaining, and much more often than not, insightful and imparting of a new piece of wisdom. i have to think reading Vonnegut help shaped who i am and a part of how i think today. his way of peaceful skepticism, of finding the humor and irony in situations, and a even finer way of slyly making obvious the universality of our actions also made him, oddly, one of my favorite philosophers. i also can appreciate the fact that you can enjoy Vonnegut if you’re 16 or if you’re 80. one of the truly great American authors, and i for one will sorely miss what he had to say.

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  2. Damon · April 11, 2008

    Indeed. His death and the relatively blasé general response to his memory reminds me of how Curtis Mayfield (Superfly soundtrack) passed on with very little fanfare…

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  3. micbk · April 11, 2008

    Curtis! I play Pusherman or Move On Up everytime I get a chance to play records at a house party. one of the best soul voices to ever live.

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  4. Longlunch · April 11, 2008

    i ask you as well to disturb not these bongs.

    Like

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