Thursday, April 12, 2007

'Who Doesn't Have an Atomic Bomb Nowadays?' Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007

Few men could express as bleak an outlook on humanity as Kurt Vonnegut while making us laugh about it and give us hope, and no one could do it with the same level of wisdom and insight. One of my heroes, the great Vonnegut died last night as a result of brain injuries sustained in a fall a couple weeks ago. He left behind 14 novels, at least three of which are masterpieces (and I would argue for some of the others as well), as well as a body of essays, short stories, plays and radio programs. Perhaps Vonnegut put it best when he—a lifelong atheist, humanist and joker—gave a speech as the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Speaking of the organizations former honorary president, Isaac Asimov, he said, "He is in heaven now."

I fell in love with Vonnegut when I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school for a banned books class. It inspired me to devour everything in his catalogue over the course of a year. Other people got into Vonnegut at that age as well, not because he wrote youth-oriented novels, but because his humor, unmistakably unpretentious voice and fearless exploration of the profound questions of humanity are refreshing to teenagers surrounded by adults who prefer to ignore such questions. Without Vonnegut, I cannot say with any certainty that I would have made it through high school.

Slaughterhouse Five, written in 1968, dealt with one of the defining moments of its author's life: the British fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut witnessed the obliteration of an entire city as a POW in World War II. Vonnegut wrote that he was originally looking to capitalize off his experience with a macho military picture, until his friend's wife reminded them that they were just babies during the war. Vonnegut's end result was a brilliant mish-mash of science-fiction, dementia and troubled memories.

Delving into his catalogue yields more riches. After finishing college, Vonnegut wrote two novels, Player Piano and The Sirens of the Titan, in the 1950s, and finished his first stone-cold masterpiece in 1963. Cat's Cradle created a religion, Bokononism, satirized the short-sightedness of military science and taught us why we should never write our own indexes.

In 1973, Vonnegut's experimentation reached its pinnacle with the unforgettable Breakfast of Champions a masterful meditation of what it means to live in this modern world, what it is to means to make decisions (if the chemicals in your brain don't make them for you), what it means to be alienated, what it means to write a novel and what it means to go insane. Filled with simplistic illustrations of assholes and American flags, references to himself as a deus ex machina and reminders that he knows how it ends. That a film of this unadaptable work was made is baffling. That it in no way lived up to its source was no surprise.

Vonnegut finished his last novel, Timequake, in 1997, vowing never to write another because it is too difficult and, since he's still in print, too hard not to repeat himself. Hocus Pocus, his novel before that, is one of his best later works. He kept the promise to stay out of novels, but did turn two collections of essays, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, in which he takes a a series of trips to the after life, and A Man Without a Country. He continued to write attacks on the Bush administration for In These Times and practiced his illustrative talents.

Vonnegut's endings always linger. After all that came before, it would be easy to be disappointed at the conclusions. But they were vibrant, hopeful and alive, begging you to turn a few pages back and take them in again. Vonnegut's 84 years may be over, but he left us a hell of a lot of stuff to go back to and read.

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