“If what Billy Pilgrim learned [...] is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still — if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.”
There’s nothing left to write about the life and death of Kurt Vonnegut. He already said it all so much better himself.
So the less I write here, the better.
Vonnegut died last week — April 11, 2007. He was 84. He wrote 14 novels and a smattering of other books, essays, plays, and so on. He taught tens of thousands of writers — a few in person, many more through his example. His works have been read by millions of young people, mostly in high school or college.
I was one of them. Chances are, you are too.
“All this happened, more or less.” —Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
I’m convinced that most people who consider themselves “writers” and who were born after about 1973 have written at least one Vonnegut homage. I wrote mine in early 2001, just before flying to France to live for five months in a city you’ve never heard of. I wrote an essay aping Slaughterhouse-Five and got it into a few student publications. I’m still kinda proud of it. It started like this:
Michael Duck has come unstuck in place.
Tonight, he will go to sleep in his bed at 3809 Graceland Court, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA. Tomorrow night, he will wake up encased in a steel bullet, high above an endless stretch of water. Today, he will walk through a door into his bedroom; tomorrow, he will walk out of another one into another longitude, another latitude, another time zone.
It is all very confusing.
We all imitate Vonnegut because the techniques he innovated seem so obvious in retrospect. The author as self-deprecating first-person narrator. The skewing of time and sequence. The bleak humor and semi-fiction, used to explore experiences that are too damn wrenching to face head-on.
For example: To write an anti-war novel, focus on a guy who survives the firebombing of Dresden in a meat locker, who then gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore that look like toilet plungers and can see in four dimensions. And then have the guy get unstuck in time and boink a hot movie actress/porno star.
“Of course!” exclaimed millions of us young writers, slapping our foreheads as we read Slaughterhouse-Five. “Unstuck in time! Toilet plungers! Boinking a porno star! Why didn’t I think of that!”
And we copy his tricks, and they work a lot of the time, but we think we outgrow him and stuff the book in a box somewhere in the basement. And we forget that, behind the boinking and the unsticking in time, there was — and still is — a gently thundering voice exhorting us never to forget atrocities, and never to neglect beauty.
There’s more to it, too. But I’ve written too much already.
“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. [...]
“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’ ”
—Vonnegut, writing as the character Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five.