Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP Vonnegut

(Photo courtesy of The Indianapolis Star. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922)

Up until yesterday, if you were walking down the streets of New York and bumped into a frumpy, wiry, dishevled, old man mutterring to himself, you may not have thought much of it. This archetype is almost ubiquitous in the city. But you could have just bumped into one of the most innovative, sardonic, and influential American writers of the last 50 years. Kurt Vonnegut was cut from the same cloth as other post-WWII great American novelists...middle class childhood, Ivy League education, and of course the war. The thing was that as a Hoosier boy, didnt quite fit in with the rest of the literary community. He was too young to be in the beat generation, and too tempered by the horrors of war to see their frivolties as important. Maybe he wasnt cool enough to hang with the hard drinking, high miling Norman Mailer, who in an January article for Esquire, Tom Junod wrote "this is a guy who used to beat the shit out of people, or at least try. This is a guy who got into a big fight with Gore Vidal-Gore Vidal!-and who, when he threw a party back in 1960 to announce that he was running for mayor of New York, got drunk and stabbed his wife." That wasnt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut seemed like one of the characters in his book - living in a small apartment, surrounded by obscure science fiction books, at the same time a prisoner and warden of his own radical notions.

But Vonnegut wasnt just a character, he was a thinker and a writer. He will be best remembered for Slaughterhouse-V and Breakfast of Champions (by the way...Slaughterhouse-V is where the character in the novel weathered the fire bombing of Dresden as a German POW, Vonnegut himself had witnessed the attack, and the breakfast of champions is a martini). But Cat's Cradle, the opening of which is re-printed here without permission:

The Day the World Ended

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah--John--if I had been a Sam, I would have been Jonah still--not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail. Conveyances and motives, both conventional and bizarre, have been provided. And, according to plan, at each appointed second, at each appointed place this Jonah was there.


When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago . . .

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

The book was to be factual.

The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.

I am a Bokononist now.

I would have been a Bokononist then, if there had been anyone to teach me the bittersweet lies of Bokonon. But Bokononism was unknown beyond the gravel beaches and coral knives that ring this little island in the Caribbean Sea, the Republic of San Lorenzo.

We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that bought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

Cat's Cradle is Vonnegut's attempt at the Big Question: how to reconcile humanist beliefs with the forces we cant explain? He is a self-described humanist who writes about God, aliens, and a omnipotent writers manipulating both the environments and actions of characters. His characters struggle against things they cannot control - the end of the world in Cat's Cradle, prison and perpetual motion in Hocus Pocus, yet resolution is always short and relief only comes at the end.

"So it goes."

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