Thursday, April 12, 2007
So it goes.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. passed away yesterday, April 11. He was a true original, an outspoken critic of incompetent leaders, an advocate for the joys and benefits of maintaining extended families, a semi-Luddite who thought the Internet depersonalized society, a secular humanist (and heir to the throne of Asimov himself) who reminded the world that atheists are as compassionate and moral as everyone else, a defiant smoker of Pall Malls, a creative and talented writer not afraid to dip into the surreal or the grotesque to make a point. Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut.
He and I go way back to my high school years. I discovered him in a used book shop inside the Rockford Public Library, though when I picked up the book I had a vague impression that "Slaughterhouse-Five" was going to be about a gang of five very tough men. I remember reading about the time travel and the Tralfamadorians and being generally boggled by the whole experience. But despite the surreal plot, parts of the book stuck with me forever. The blue and ivory feet, the Tralfamadorian applause, and the vitamin-laced syrup and the post-firebomb cleanup operation. Other bits of his books stuck with me forever, too. I remember actually gasping in amazement when Rabo Karabekian finally revealed the mysterious object in the potato barn. I laughed hysterically about the visitors from another world who attempted to share their simple ideas about how to achieve lasting peace, but could only communicate via farts and tap dancing. And I was amused to learn that the purpose of humanity is actually to relay messages to Titan regarding an ensuing rescue operation. His stories were laced with truths and events and characters that were startling in their clarity and sadness and joy--but always, always gut-punchingly real--that I often felt compelled to go back and savor paragraphs again. There are not a lot of authors I can say that about.
I skipped out of work early one day in October of 2001 and scored a front row seat to see him speak at the Chicago public library. I was engaging in a bit of awestruck hero-worship throughout the event, and although I did have my camera, I managed only two bad pictures of him: Vonnegut at CPL
I remember being too shy to take pictures when he was looking directly at me holding the camera; I was afraid to distract him or annoy him, so I waited until his attention was elsewhere. He talked a lot about his writing and about current events, and any follower of his works had heard most of what he had to say before (he tended to reuse stories and even specific phrasing, which to a virgin audience sounded fresh and eloquent, and to the experienced Vonnegut devotee were old gems), but hearing them in his own voice was a rare treat and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to go.
Now to go pull Slaughterhouse-Five off the shelf and read it again. I leave this with a couple of quotes, exactly the same quotes everyone else is putting on their own blogs, but I never claimed to be original:
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." -from Mother Night
"We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane." -Kilgore Trout's epitaph, Breakfast of Champions