Category Archives: Vonnegut

Another thought on Vonnegut

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Rothman, told me to “write what you know.” It’s an old rule of thumb for writing fiction. For today’s novelists, the rule seems to be more “write what you don’t know, but make sure you do two or so years of exhaustive research on it first.”

I’ve read a lot of novels in recent years that I really enjoyed but impressed me more with the depth of their research than their artistry. Kavalier and Clay. Carter Beats the Devil. The Plot Against America. They’re research lit, clearly written by authors terrified of getting a single detail wrong about the birth of the comics industry or the golden age of magic or the cryptofascist American antiwar movement before World War II.

Kurt Vonnegut didn’t do any of that. He sat down, thought a bunch of stuff up and combined it with “what he knew,” such as surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, or working soulless, unsatisfying jobs in an industrial Upstate New York burg, or struggling as a high-concept science-fiction writer. And it made his writing so much richer, more exhilarating and more fun than even 10 years of research ever could. Truth wasn’t stranger than fiction when Vonnegut was writing the fiction.

I wish we had more writers like that today. Historical exactitude has its place, but I’ll take whimsy.


Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

I am very, very rarely actually saddened by the death of a celebrity. The last time I can remember it happening was Mr. Rogers four years ago. But just as Mr. Rogers was, no joke, probably one of the most important people in my early childhood, being my television neighbor and all, Kurt Vonnegut, who I just learned is dead at 84, was one of the most important people of my adolescence. I won’t tell you he’s the greatest author who ever lived. But to this day, I’ll tell you he’s the greatest author I’ve ever read.

Vonnegut easily shaped my cynical worldview more than anybody I’ve ever known or anybody I’ve never known. He’s my literary hero. Every time I’ve ever made an abortive attempt to write fiction, from age 12 until now, it looks exactly like watered-down, cut-rate Vonnegut, all choppy sentences and free-flowing irony. His books are beautiful to read, and every one of them makes you think about some serious issues. They’re easy books, but they’re not easy books. From junior high through college, I read every book he ever wrote. I used to think that made me special and imagined that one day I’d meet him and tell him that, and that would make him happy. Then I read in interview in which he said tons of kids come up to him and tell him they’ve read all his books.

Here’s how much my brain was affected by Vonnegut: I was thinking about him just last night. I think about him a lot. Last night, I just so happened to be scouring the Internet for information about San Lorenzo, the fictional island nation in Cat’s Cradle, the first Vonnegut book I ever read and still my favorite, for sentimental and other reasons. Along the way, I came across a page that collects all the material from Cat’s Cradle about Bokononism. Has anybody ever invented a better fake religion? Vonnegut, of course, was a Bokononist himself, which is why it’s so convincing. I don’t expect he actually recited the Bokononist last rites, but I hope that’s how he felt at the end. I bet it was.

In my first few weeks of college, I found out a play based on one of my two or three favorite novels ever, The Sirens of Titan, was showing in Chicago. Nobody wanted to go with me, so I went myself. I got on the el, rode to the stop, got off, walked two blocks, was terrified by the sketchy neighborhood, and turned back. I still regret that for a variety of reasons.

A couple of years later, he came to the school to give a lecture, and I was excited for weeks at the prospect of actually seeing him in person. Then, back home in New York, he was sitting directly behind me at a small play about a female cop and a doorman falling in love. When I graduated and moved to the city, I lived near his neighborhood and saw him three or four times. I still remember the last time: He was looking withered and old, hunched over in a sweater vest, depositing something or other into a corner garbage can. He clearly lived on that block, and I remember wondering why he would have to use a public garbage can.

All those times, I never worked up the courage to talk to him. Now I never will. So it goes.

I saw him on the Daily Show last year. He sounded terrible, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. Now he’s dead. I remember when Timothy Leary, like Vonnegut an influential hippie-era counterculture philosopher, died of cancer years ago. He talked a big game and announced he was going to make a big show of his death, broadcasting it on the nascent World Wide Web. But somehow I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Sure enough, the time came, and we got nothing. He chickened out. Who can blame him? But somehow I bet Vonnegut wasn’t scared, even though he was a proud secular humanist who fervently believed there was nothing waiting for him in the great beyond except maybe, if he was lucky, a purple light and a hum for all eternity. He did a lot, a lot of thinking about death, and he seemed completely OK with it. Read all his books and see if you don’t believe me.