Thursday, April 12, 2007


Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt

Kurt Vonnegut has died. For reasons which now escape me, I derived a considerable amount of comfort from his novels in my darkest hours, in particular Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, neither of which are particularly comforting books. I had the great good fortune to hear him speak on the campus of the University of Texas while I was a student there. He was responsible for distorting the shape of my thoughts in ways I'll probably never be able to fully appreciate. (For example, I adopted his disdain for military pilots for years without realizing the source of my unfounded antipathy.) Vonnegut was a deeply pessimistic dude, who in later years seemed to me even less able to see any ray of hope, but for some reason I derived a kind of boundless optimism from the experience of reading his books.

I often think in terms of Vonnegut plots. Just yesterday at lunch I described a plot contrivance of mine as being an immitation of Mother Night. And I'd be surprised if there wasn't a little of Bokonon in the beliefs of the inhabitants of Kovoko-ko-te'maroa.

I think my favorite Vonnegut novel may be one of the less regarded ones, Slapstick. It was the subject of a truly horrific film adaptation starring Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn, but don't hold that against it. I think that Slapstick comes closest to espousing Vonnegut's view of how humanity should best be organized, at least based on the essays I read and the talks I heard. That it's housed in this silly story about a pair of superintelligent twins who are imbeciles when separated is just part of the charm.

Vonnegut will be missed. But then, his books aren't going anywhere. Maybe I'll have to read Slapstick or Cat's Cradle again, one of these days.

I saw him speak in Chicago in 1995. That talk had a profound effect on me. I remember he said then, "American's are poor soldiers. The best soldier is a Nazi. But we'll become better and better soldiers as we become more and more like Nazis."
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