"Beware of life. I have caught life."

Kurt Vonnegut is dead at 83 years of age. I don't know what to say but I feel obligated to say something about a man who shaped a lot of who I am today. So, here it is: my eulogy for Kurt Vonnegut.

It was all my high school English teacher's fault. I'm tempted to blame it on Ms. Noble, mainly because she was a shrew and I didn't like her at all and would love to blame anything I can on her, but I really don't remember. All I remember was reading "Harrison Bergeron," and having my teenage mind blown. After that, there was no turning back. The mix of science-fiction and social commentary pulled me in, and before I knew it, I was the only 15 year old I knew who'd read Breakfast Of Champions, as well as anything else I could score at the used bookstore that sat around the corner and across Flamingo from Chaparral High. (There was a comic book store in that same strip mall, too. Coincidence?)

Vonnegut's work has a lot to love: it's mash-up of classical literature and science fiction, it's interconnectedness and continuity, it's humor, and most of all, it's humanity. Vonnegut, despite being a jaded atheist, is rooted in hoping the best for humanity. His characters, though they may be crazy, misguided or hopeless are still human beings and Vonnegut treats them as such, something a lot of postmodern writers seem to forget to do. In the end, that's what keeps me coming back to the well he drilled: he's a cynical old cuss, but he still loves people, even though sometimes, honestly, they're not worth it.

Part of me feels spoiled to have discovered and devoured his work so soon, so that now, when I want something crazy, hilarious, touching and poignant, I am left will few options. I've tried to find a replacement: I've tried Pynchon (too obtuse) and Adams (too cheeky) and Stephenson (too loooong) and Palahniuk (too depraved). The only author I've found that comes close is Philip K. Dick, another writer whose work straddles that line between science fiction and literature, and though Dick's stories tend to go off the rails more often than not (This is a whole other post... I'll stop now), they still deal with what it means to be a human being in ways that are hard to find outside a Vonnegut book. I still haven't found a worthy substitute, and I guess that's why I feel such a loss at his passing.

I can't say that it's unexpected. Vonnegut's lived quite the life, from being one of the few survivors of the obliteration of Dresden (which is a big part of Slaughterhouse Five) to being one of the most popular novelists of his time. I remember seeing him on PBS's Now accusing Bush of treason and war crimes, and despite his zeal and fervor, he wasn't making a whole lot of sense and looked... old. It was too much, to see him like that, like a grandparent who was in the process of "losing it." I changed the channel soon after, unable to watch my hero crumble into the inevitable.

In his final real novel Timequake, (he would publish some short story collections of previously printed stories as well as a couple of essay books and the entertaining, if non-essential God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian wherein he takes trips to beyond the grave to interview passed-on historical figures) Vonnegut gathered all of his creations together for a Fellini-/Altman-esque send-off (both of those filmmakers are good analogues to Vonnegut), setting them all free at a barbecue. I remember that novel moving me to tears, that the fact that he could say goodbye to all these people who have lived inside his head for so long, these people that he knows intimately (And I mean that literally. In Breakfast Of Champions, we are told the length of each male character's member as part of our introduction to him... it's gross, but, well, funny... maybe it's just me), and feeling that despite their flaws, Vonnegut loves these people. That, in the end, is what I will take from Vonnegut, the hope that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity is worth it.

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. Long live Kurt Vonnegut.

1 comment:

Brooke said...

I should have known you would be familiar with this guy. I was reading about his death so I looked him up...I have no time to read books for fun...but I'm gonna do it! I'm determined. Which book of his do you suggest I start first?