Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut died

Kurt Vonnegut died. I have heard many things said about him on the radio. I have read many quotes about him in the papers and online. Some of the things strike me as dead on, others a bit off the mark.

Most people who read Vonnegut enjoy him. He’s usually funny. People like funny.

I heard one odd synopsis of Slaughterhouse 5 on the radio. It said it was about Billy Pilgrim, a man who had become unstuck in time and traveled to the planet Trafalmadore. The Trafalmadorians can see all of time at once and realize everything is predestined. They pity humans for not being able to see this. When anyting dies they say, “So it goes.” About half the obituaries and tributes to Vonnegut say, “So it goes.”

The synopsis of his famous book is partially right. It’s about a man named Billy Pilgrim, but Billy hasn’t traveled to Trafalmadore. Billy has gone insane and is experiencing the memories of his life in no particular order. One of the memories is of the fire bombing of Dresden, an event Vonnegut witnessed. Slaughterhouse 5 is Vonnegut’s attempt to come to terms with Dresden.

Much has been written about the book. It’s frequently on the most banned or censored books list. The conventional explanation for this is that it has the word fuck in it. I prefer to think it’s because it calls a bunch of preconceptions about humans and our place in the universe into question. It also attempts to depict war as something senseless and stupid. Saying the activities of people are senseless and stupid tends to cause conflict with people with a rigid view of life and our purpose here on earth.

When I first read the book I didn’t completely catch on that Billy had gone mad. I thoght Vonnegut was being absurd, which made Billy’s visit to Trafalmadore all the funnier. Only in reading about the novel a little more and going back and looking at parts again did I realize that Billy had confused his life with the writings of a science fiction author named Kilgore Trout.

At least the point that war was stupid was not lost on me.

I went out and bought the novel because I had seen Vonnegut on a late night TV news show. There was this odd little man in a brown suit with a bushy mustache, looking very much like Mark Twain. He repeated his comment about Dresden that the only person that benefited from it was himself, that he got paid five dollars for each person killed there. When he said this, the interviewer let out a noise, something between a gasp and a guffaw. It sounded like someone had gut punched him. I went and bought the book the next day.

Kurt was a humanist and an atheist. He served as head of the American Humanist Association. I heard him give a speech at the University of Texas at Austin once. He said that as head of that organization, he received letters from men leaving prison for the first time in their adult lives. The men were terrified. They had no idea how to behave in society. Being an atheist of the American Humanist Association, his advice to them was to join a church. His antidote was community.

He also said in his speech that he had given the eulogy at Isaac Asimaav’s memorial service. He said he had said the funniest thing he could think of about the death of an atheist. He hung his head solemnly and said, “Isaac is in heaven now.” He said it got a big laugh, and a woman at the service who found it particularly funny promised to say it about him when he died.

I have read many people characterize him as a science fiction author. This is half right. Cat’s Cradle, a book about the end of the world, probably deserves categorization as science fiction. Galapagos is also about the end of the world. Player piano is sci-fi in the tradition of books like Brave New World, and 1984; books about dystopian futures. Slaughterhouse 5 is about a man who has confused science fiction with reality. That’s not science fiction. Many of his other books are about ordinary people living their flawed lives. Regular old fiction.

I have tried to write this tribute in the short, clear, conversational writing style that symbolized Vonnegut’s work. Rereading it, I see I have failed. So it goes.

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