12 April 2007

So it goes.

"Self-portrait" by Kurt Vonnegut

If the names Killgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim and Bokononism
mean anything to you, then you probably already know
that America has just lost one of its greatest authors.

Like most fans, I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut’s work
in high school. Indeed, Cat’s Cradle was the first reading
assignment I ever truly enjoyed (and finished!) The style,
the humor, the ideas contained within that book hit me like
a bolt of lightning on a clear day. Back then, it was the
playful language (delivered in the bite-size, staccato
rhythms of a great stand-up comic) and the absurdly silly
plots (which often involved aliens, time-travellers and used
car salesmen) that made me an instant fan.

As an adult, I can appreciate the deeper aspects of
Vonnegut’s books. I came to realize, for instance, that
Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really about a man who travels in
time and is held captive by the Tralfamadorians on a
distant planet. It is, in fact, about a man desperately trying
to maintain his sanity and faith in humanity after
witnessing the terrible costs of modern warfare. Vonnegut,
who witnessed these horrors firsthand as a POW in
Dresden during World War II, didn’t need a lot of words to
get the message across.

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every
so often to see what it was like outside, then he
would come down and whisper to the other
guards. There was a fire-storm out there.
Dresden was one big flame. The flame ate
everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until
noon the next day. When the Americans and
their guards did come out, the sky was black
with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead.
Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but
minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in
the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut was notoriously difficult to pigeonhole. Equal
parts Mark Twain, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, his work
defied conventional genres and labels.

But Tom Shippey, an Oxford scholar and author of J.R.R. Tolkien:
Author of the Century,
coined a term that describes not only
The Lord of the Rings creator but also Vonnegut and many of
his peers. He calls them traumatic authors -- writers who are
forced to use elements of fantasy to express the profound (and
unspeakably horrible) truths they’ve experienced in life.

Shippey writes:

The authors are trying to explain something at
once deeply felt and rationally inexplicable,
something furthermore felt to be entirely novel
and not adequately answered by the moralities
of earlier ages...

...this ‘something’ is connected with the
distinctively twentieth-century experience of
industrial war and impersonal, industrialized
massacre; and it is probably no coincidence that
most of the authors concerned (Tolkien, Orwell,
Vonnegut, but also Golding and Tolkien’s close
colleague C.S. Lewis) were combat veterans of
one war or another. The life experiences of many
men and women in the twentieth century have
left them with an unshakable conviction of
something wrong, something irreductibly evil in
the nature of humanity, but without any very
satisfactory explanation for it. Nor can they find
such an explanation in the literature of previous
eras: Billy Pilgrim’s friend Rosewater in
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five agrees that,
‘everything there was to know about life was in
The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor
Dostoyevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough anymore’.
Twentieth-century fantasy can be seen as above
all a response to this gap, this inadequacy.

So it goes.

I had the good fortune of seeing Kurt Vonnegut at a book-
signing event for Timequake in 1997. I was sad, though a
bit skeptical, when he announced it would be his last
novel. Though he stayed true to his word, Mr. Vonnegut
continued to live, speak and write for another decade. The
essays he wrote and appearances he made in those last
years were always bittersweet affairs. His weariness with
the world and pessimistic view of human nature could no
longer be obscured or diluted with ironic punchlines.

His final book, A Man Without a Country is a collection of
those late essays. It is vintage Vonnegut, stripped of all

Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can
be, to protect yourself. Finally, you get just too
tired, and the news is too awful, and humor
doesn’t work anymore. Somebody like Mark
Twain thought life was quite awful but held the
awfulness at bay with jokes and so forth, but
finally he couldn’t do it anymore. His wife, his
best friend, and two of his daughters had died. If
you live long enough, a lot of people close to you
are going to die.

It may be that I am no longer able to joke -- that
it is no longer a satisfactory defense mechanism.
Some people are funny, and some not. I used to be
funny, and perhaps I’m not anymore. There may
have been so many shocks and disappointments
that the defense of humor no longer works. It
may be that I have become rather grumpy
because I’ve seen so many things that have
offended me that I cannot deal with in terms of

This may have happened already. I really don’t
know what I’m going to become from now on.
I’m simply along for the ride to see what happens
to this body and brain of mine. I’m startled that I
became a writer. I don’t think I can control my
life or my writing. Every other writer I know
feels he is steering himself, and I don’t have that
feeling. I don’t have that sort of control. I’m
simply becoming.

All I really wanted to do was give people the
relief of laughing. Humor can be a relief, like an
aspirin tablet. If a hundred years from now
people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.