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« Avigdor Lieberman | Main | Kurt Vonnegut: And so on. »

Thursday, April 12, 2007


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Hey, thanks for posting this, Spibby. I just saw the obit this morning and immediately Photoshopped a farewell without looking to see if someone else had posted about him.

There are several things I want to say about KVJr. First, without claiming any sort of great literary insight, the writer in me simply loved that moment in Breakfast of Champions when KV simply told the reader, with no artifice, that the problem with novels is that the writer gets to pick out what's important and leave out everything else. And then proceeded to describe the length and girth of each male character's penis. The ultimate non-sequitar.

Now this is probably just a bit of too-cute cleverness to most people, but to me it felt like more than that. Because when I re-read this book in 2005 I was in the middle of re-examining every thought I'd ever had about my day job. So it was really Breakfast of Champions, not some think-tank essay or academic study, that made me start thinking critically about narrative journalism. Because what we leave in and what we leave out is one issue, but constructing a narrative out of loosely connected facts might not always be the best way to communicate them. And so on.

I grew up in a house with two science fiction readers in it and so paperback editions of KV novels have been with me as long as I can remember. I didn't start reading him in college, but it was in college that I finally began to appreciate him. In fact, the remarkable friendships that I made at Appalachian State were all touched by Vonnegut, because at one point we lit upon the idea of the karass, from Cat's Cradle, and somehow or another embarked on the group literary exercise of writing our own Books of Bokonon.

And, I suppose it would be safe to say that, without that experience, Xark wouldn't be what it is. For all I know, Xark probably wouldn't even exist if it weren't for my memory of how much more fun it is to write with other people.

So Thank You, Mr. Vonnegut.


Oh, and I should mention this. For the past six weeks I've been producing a newspaper features section that is an experiment in non-narrative communication. On the inside of it I make a page of games and diversions. And just about every week, on either the front page or the games page, I use the Vonnegut sentence "And so on."

Most people won't recognize that. But every time I do it, I'm tipping my hat to him.


Very nice tribute post, Spibby. My first thought when I saw the news last night was, in fact, about the group Dan mentioned in his response, and our Revised Books of Bokonon. I somehow became the keeper of the original books, so I got them out of the footlocker last night and read these stories--some quite witty, some pretty awful--but all creating a mythology that was, indeed, somehow inspired in many angles by Vonnegut. I've always said that all of the "members" of that little group became their best selves as a result of the synergy we produced. Fittingly, I've received a copy of notes from a variety of the authors of "the books" just this morning, as a result of Vonnegut's passing. So, again, thank you, Mr. Vonnegus. You are indeed a gift that keeps giving.


My introduction to Vonnegut rode in alongside one of those strange epiphanies that happen when you're young and sleep-deprived.

I realized that no one - parents, teachers, even doctors and heads of state - could really ever do more than give their best educated guess as to what was going on or what one should do in any given situation.

I shared this with a friend, this childhood late-night, should-be-sleeping realization that there was no wise man on the mountain after all, that we all were just wandering around trying to figure things out as best we could.

He laughed and loaned me a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Kurt Vonnegut may very well be the only great author that I actually enjoyed reading. I've read Hemmingway and Shakespeare, but only because they were required reading in school. I read Huxley and Orwell, but only because they were the most tolerable things in a list of readings for school that we had to pick from. despite being a huge sci-fi and fantasy fan, I've never read Tolkien, Asimov or Heinlein. (I tried Stranger in a Strange Land but it bored me silly and never finished it.) I did read Fahrenheit 451, although it took two tries. I suspect I was a little too young on the first attempt.

But Vonnegut I loved. We were required to read the short story "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" in school, and I immediately scoured the school library for Vonnegut books. Strangely, I've never read Slaughterhouse Five. Perhaps the library didn't have it, or maybe I have a perverse, contrary gene subconsciously keeping me from appreciating the stuff that's really famous.

Every time I've seen him in the last several years, I've always thought "It's going to really suck when he dies." Today sucks.


Yes, today does suck. Isn't it odd?


I'm with you guys - today did suck, and it was odd. I talked a bit about Vonnegut with my graduate students, but he just didn't have quite the same impact on their lives as he did on mine. I remember reading him - and thinking 'he gets it' - he knows what he's writing about, and he just seems to have connected with a whole bunch of folks. What you wrote in this post really says it - he clarified the social condition of so many.


Of all the papers I wrote in college I had the most fun with the ones on Vonnegut. He will be missed.


Did anyone really "get" Vonnegut?
I know that Xark has read them all, as well as many other of Kurt's followers, and Pam at least knows that "he got it" but do they actually "get" him? Does anyone? Like all great American writers, Vonnegut fought the demons, some exorcised, others not. He never went back to the aristocracy of Indiana his grandfather worked so hard to gain entry to before the Great Depression ended those "times of Gatsby". He never truly dealt with his mother's suicide and he was the only reader who really got Vonnegut.

How do I know that Vonnegut was the only reader to "get" Vonnegut? The answer comes from a cameo appearance Vonnegut made in the movie, "Back to School". (I tried to find a clip of this on the You-oogle, but alas, my attempts were in vain.) In the movie, Thornton Mellon (played by Rodney Dangerfield) has to write a paper on Kurt Vonnegut Jr. His teacher (Diane) gives him the paper with an F on it and says, "Whoever did this doesn't know the first thing about Vonnegut!" Vonnegut has already collected a check from Thornton at his "dorm". But after the poor grade, Thornton calls him on the phone, "And another thing Vonnegut, I am going to put a stop payment on the check...F*** me? Hey Kurt can you read lips? F*** you! Next time I'll call Robert Lindlum." ......And so it goes....


Actually, I haven't read his entire catalog yet. I think there are still four of his book-length pieces out there waiting for me, and I'll get to them all eventually. Most likely.

Did he "get it?" I think he "got" the irony of life and gave a detached observer perspective to 20th century readers who desperately needed it. He seemed to understand that to be human was to be screwed, and he invited us to laugh at that condition.

I saw the destruction of Dresden. I saw the city before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterward, and certainly one response was laughter. God knows, that's the soul seeking some relief.

I think there's also a rather profound, maybe even exhausted sense of humility in his work, as if he had so internalized his own insignificance to the cosmos that he was simply incapable of writing anything with much ego attached to it. Intended or not, this has been a great lesson to me, since I come from a long line of people who tend toward the dour and grandiose. We really needed Vonnegut.

My father, who purchased most of those Vonnegut novels that populated our house back in the 1970s (others were purchased by my godfather, and "borrowed" by our family for decades) called me Tuesday to tell me that his cancer treatments had failed to stop its spread. Here's how he summed up his attitude: "Life is a sexually transmitted, terminal condition." And I thought at the time, "That's a very Vonnegut way of looking at things." It serves us well.

Does anybody "get" Vonnegut? I dunno. But I think reading Breakfast of Champions was an awful lot like sitting down for a private conversation with the man, and if you buy that, then he was very pleasant company.


Oh, and another irony.

Every Wednesday I have to think up a reader game for the Friday Fun & Games page. And the game I came up with this week involved asking people to write clever epitaphs for recently deceased celebrities.

So I wrote it up, and later that day Vonnegut died.


god almighty, i had forgotten about Bokonon!

and getting Vonnegut? oh, hell yes. maybe not the specifics, but certainly the almost but not quite hopeful melancholy, the resigned cynicism, self-medicated with wit and wry. Kurt was a voice from a forgotten home planet, soothing, vaguely familiar of a time now long since. maybe that had to do with the world of cultural reference he wrote from - my parent's world, WWII and so forth. his malaise was a generational symptom that i, like all of us of a certain age, grew up marinading in. i think i read Vonnegut looking for answers about those curiously intangible years and events in the decades before i got here, to explain how the people i knew who lived thru them all came to be bent in their particular ways.

i got the same sort of flavor from Jerzy Kosinski, abet a darker, less enjoyable one.

"A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
from Sirens of Titan


One of the reasons I loved Vonnegut was because he was one of very few authors I did get. Did I get every nuance he worked into his work? Presumably not, although only Vonnegut knows the answer to that. I read him through high school and college, and he was the first author I would read and understand the meanings behind the entiretaining story. And I loved him because even though many of those meanings and lessons were quite obvious, I didn't feel like he was lecturing me or beating me over the head with it. I'm not good with subtext. I generally read fiction just for entertainment. Really, the only other person whose subtext I "get" is Neil Gaiman. Then again, I'm not much of a fiction reader anymore.


I love Neil Gaiman. Have you read Coraline? I know it's one of his works for children, but the dark undertones of that story got to me.


No, never read Coraline, although just the notion of Gaiman writing for children scares me. ;) I've just read Sandman and American Gods, both of which are excellent. I find American Gods in particular to be phenomenal.

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