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: