Kurt Vonnegut, occasional author and professional curmudgeon, died last Wednesday. So it goes.
Now that his obligatory catchphrase is out of the way, it’s safe to say that Vonnegut represented one of the last true authors to make a career out of simultaneously hating the world and loving it at the same time, a feat unparalleled until Burger King authorized a senior discount for the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich.
Vonnegut was a known pessimist—though, to be fair, not really. He was, occasionally, a sunshine optimist, believing that reason and rationality would one day take precedence over misty-eyed tribalism and short-sighted realpolitik. But mostly he would look at the world and see a cloudy mess of self-interest and brutality, and often clutched forcefully onto the glass-half-empty for much longer than was absolutely necessary. Walking away from the final acts of a Vonnegut novel would make me seem like the pollyannish grand marshal of the Everything’s Always Gonna Be OK Happy Time Fun Parade. But this elaborately inventive grasp of all that is dark and wrong with the world was the perfect fit into the social abyss that was the late 1960’s.
The defining moment of Vonnegut’s life occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, a horrifyingly violent act that demonstrated to Vonnegut what kind of soulless destruction the human will was capable of propagating, regardless of whether it was to establish a Third Reich, expand religious belief, or sell diet pills to fat housewives. This event no doubt contributed to his fascination with fatalism, something that fares very well when writing science fiction or living through the Vietnam War. Hearing something like this that can be a very humbling experience for someone like me. The single greatest trauma visited upon me when I was a child was the day I missed the Inspector Gadget where the Chief replaces him with a computer, but in the end find out they need him after all, because sometimes computers aren’t capable of feelings. How dastardly.
Though, quite frankly, Vonnegut should only be labeled as a science fiction writer with the loosest of definitions available. His novels are more black comedies mixed with healthy doses of abject satire, armchair physics, and vivid displays of anti-authoritarianism. Like many authors of his generation, he believed in the austere finality of science but was pessimistic about its application; the arms race had created a mockery of the definition of diplomacy and the exponential destruction that nuclear weapons introduced to warfare were not in the least bit offset by pull-string plastic garbage bags, digital stoves, and Tang.
His books were a jumble of perfectly coifed sentences and “experimental” context, often inserting himself into storylines and keeping an arm’s-length distance from the conventional rules of punctuation and grammar. Sometimes these devices introduced a novel way to advance the plot, while others found it to be pretentious, awkward, or an award-winning combination of both. He was also accused of excessively reusing his characters, making most of them mere caricatures of himself, though he defended himself my stating that if he wasted all his time developing new characters, he wouldn’t have the time to find new and creative ways to recycle his plots.
Vonnegut himself specialized in being a killjoy about most things, in some areas more than others. Late in life, he became somewhat of a provocateur without the benefit of being an active author, stating quite plainly that he had paid his dues to the literary establishment long ago and had no desire to continue, a sentiment one hopes will some day, preferably soon, afflict Rosie O’Donnell and Ann Coulter. He presumed that terrorists were “brave people,” acknowledging that he only meant that they were fighting for a belief and not simply random brutality in the inevitable non-apology slash explanation he expressed when the media got wind of it. He regarded the Bush administration as not much more than a gathering of head-barely-above-water frat boys looking to score extra points in some sort of universal Fantasy Global Domination League. Surprisingly, given his ideological influences and disdain for organized religion, he was a detractor of the theory of evolution, refusing to believe that the harsh determinism of science was solely capable of producing occasional acts of genius in the gene pool, geniuses such as (cough, cough) oh, I don’t know, say, Kurt Vonnegut.
His physical troubles paralleled his mental proclamations as well. In the early 80’s he attempted suicide, as his mother had rather unfortunately done, and in the last decade caught his mattress on fire whilst smoking in bed. Indeed, his fatalistic outlook almost made him seem like he was “unstuck in time,” as Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim had done. He seemed to know how and when he was going to die, but for some reason the world wouldn’t let him. And then he fell, and then he died. All together, now: so it goes.
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