April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut.

His novels — 14 in all — were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. He invented phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism (based on the books of a black British Episcopalian from Tobago “filled with bittersweet lies,” a narrator says).
What Kurt Vonnegut book meant the most to you? To me it's "Cat's Cradle," which is the book they had us all read before we showed up as freshman at the Residential College (at the University of Michigan) in 1969. When we got there, we sat on the floor and talked about it, and, on the instruction of our professors, tried to Boku-Maru.

I wrote a post about him, back in '04, when he was ranting about a lot of things, including his own will to live:
But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are.
I said:
I sometimes like to think that we were given a choice whether to be born, that there was a beforelife (we like to think there's an afterlife) in which the range of possibilities in a human life were fully explained and we could say yes or no, just like you can look at a rollercoaster and decide if you want to take the ride. So all of us here are the ones who decided to take the ride. I like to speculate about what percentage of beforelife dwellers decide to say yes. I imagine Vonnegut's suggestion is correct: the percentage would be small. The downside risks are too horrible. But we're the brave souls--we're Vonnegut's nuts--who once found the idea of being human so appealing.
Vonnegut had quoted Camus--“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”--and said: "All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being," and "I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me."

Was he sorry to still be alive when he said that? I couldn't believe it, maybe only because I wasn't sorry he was alive.


Galvanized said...

I read quite a bit but am embarrassed to say that I have somehow never read a Vonnegut novel. But I had someone recommend Breakfast of Champions to me a few weeks ago, saying it was great. Has anyone here read it?

the Rising Jurist said...

My favorite is probably Mother Night; I think the faux-memoir thing was clever. Welcome to the Monkey House is also a wonderful collection of short stories that's served me well.

Breakfast of Champions is also good, galvanized, though not my favorite.

SteveR said...

I read a lot of his books in my high school, college, young adulthood. The one I have always liked best was The Sirens of Titan.

MadisonMan said...

In my line of work, Kurt Vonnegut's brother Bernie is more famous. That two brothers should achieve fame in very different fields is fascinating to me.

The suicide of his mother really colors his remarks on the will to live.

Jennifer said...

I've read Cat's Cradle a number of times and am always delighted with new insights or details that I've missed before.

And of course the short, Harrison Bergeron.

I know I've read others, but I can't seem to recall titles at the moment. What a fascinating man.

Peter Palladas said...

So it's gone - somebody had to say it.

Oligonicella said...

Never cared for his work.

He had people lay on the floor with the soles of their feet touching? For that, they paid? Yeesh.

SWBarns said...

So it goes. At least we have "Back to School" that classic 80's movie with Rodney Dangerfield to remember him.

and *another* thing, Vonnegut! I'm gonna stop payment on the check!

F. me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips, F. You! Next time I'll call Robert Ludlum!

Richard Dolan said...

"Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John."

That was a great opening. It's the only bit of Vonnegut that's stuck with me. Like Ann, I read this stuff a long time ago, and enjoyed it then. But that was then. Several of his novels are still on my bookshelf, but I don't have any interest in reading them again.

Jeff said...

Vonnegut, RIP, was overrated. Philip K. Dick wrote in the same vein but was so much better.

SippicanCottage said...
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BrianOfAtlanta said...

Jennifer, Harrison Bergeron is definitely the one that has stuck with me over the years.

Hamsun56 said...

I'm a '56 model and Vonnegut was a huge influence on me during junior and senior high school. "Cats Cradle", "God Bless You Mr.Rosewater" were favorites. I lost interest in him after "Breakfast of Champions", partially because his writing lost its edge and partially because I grew up a bit.

Joan said...

I was introduced to Vonnegut from the film version of Slaughterhouse Five, which I loved. Then I read the book, and I loved it, too. I think I was still a teenager, and that remains the only Vonnegut I've ever read.

I wonder if I would like it, now -- it has been years since I've seen it. I remember it quite vividly, but that doesn't mean I'm remembering it correctly, or that whatever messages it holds would resonate with me the way they did when I was teenager.

dwhite414 said...

Interesting Factoid:

Media Matters reports that Vonnegut was on Don Imus' show in 2007:

"1/16: Kurt Vonnegut, author; Evan Thomas, Newsweek assistant managing editor; Montgomery Gentry, singer"

http://mediamatters.org/items/20...ms/ 200704110005

Jack said...

I shall miss the old fart. He was my Guru. Slaughter House Five is my favorite, but Sirens of Titan, Dead Eye Dick (what a downer),Player Piano, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, all will do just fine, but you must read Slaughter House Five. I really loved him. I am so relieved that he didn't kill himself. I was very worried that he would.

Revenant said...

I thought "Slaughterhouse Five" was ok. Never read any of his other stuff.

He seemed like a deeply unhappy man in the last years of his life, so I'm glad that he's finally at peace.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

The only Vonnegut I've read is Galapagos , and I read that in my early thirties.

I found it tedious and boring.

Earlier today I spoke with a friend who's first words were "my favorite writer died".

Same story as I've read here everal times- his work was godlike, when she read it in college (10 years ago), but she hasn't read him lately.

I considered Dr. Suess godlike when he was my favorite author (I was in second grade), but have since moved on.

Vonnegut is the same; he spoke what appeared to be 'profound truth', to those to whom 'profound truth' was new, but doesn't affect those to whom 'profound truth' is old news.

That being said, Dr. Suess is still my third favorite author; anybody read Yertle the Turtle lately?

johnstodder said...

I'm also a '56-er. "Slaughterhouse-5" was one of the first grown-up novels I read, and I found it mesmerizing. I immediately began a program of reading everything that came before it: Cat's Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, all of them pretty wonderful. Breakfast of Champions came out in about '73, I read it almost immediately, and laughed crazily throughout the entire thing.

If Breakfast of Champions had been his last novel, he would be far more revered as a comic novelist/satirist/speculative fiction writer, funnier and more imaginative than Joseph Heller, and a pioneer in using various pop and genre styles to tell stories with great resonance. But almost everything he wrote after Breakfast has diminished him: Obvious, repetitive, smug, propaganda, stylistically lazy, characters who don't connect.

But that's okay. The greatest American writer, William Faulkner, didn't decline quite as precipitously, but his last great work of fiction was published about 20 years before he died, and he kept at it. Many treasured writers run out of gas long before their careers are over. I'm thinking of the great screenwriter Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo within a span of about three years. And then, nothing worth remembering, even as his career continues.

stoqboy said...

I loved Kilgore Trout, even read his book, Venus on the Half Shell. I recently found out that Mr. Trout and Mr. Vonnegut are not the same. Maybe I should read some of Mr. Farmer's books. Anyway, my daughter is now a serial reader of Mr. Vonnegut and recently took one of his books on a trip to visit a college.

blake said...

I've only read Jailbird which sorta pissed me off. Clearly, the guy could write. Just as clearly, he didn't really want to.

Oh, and "Harrison Bergeron". I actually saw a low-budget Canadian filmed version of that which I liked better than the written story.

And Dr. Seuss rocks.

clairedm said...

Oh, Cat's Cradle is my favorite. My copy used to belong to my father. When I was in high school, I made a wall hanging with one of the Calypsos from the Books of Bokonon on it: "I wanted all things/to seem to make some sense/ so we could all be happy, yes/ instead of tense./ And I made up lies/ so they all fit nice,/ and made this sad world/ a paradise."

That's from my memory, so some words may be wrong. But that is the gist, at least. It hung on my bedroom door for a few years.

YAMB said...

Breakfast of Champions isn't a great novel to start with, because it contains characters from his previous novels. And having read it in high school, and finding it hilarious then, it probably hasn't aged well.

Galapagos is, frankly, not a good novel. I think I quit reading after Jailbird.

I, too, worried he might take the same path as Jerzy Kosinski, a troubled writer of bizzare stuff, with horrible WWII experiences, and commit suicide. He does have a line in one of his books, or the intro, about "committing suicide by smoking."

sonicfrog said...
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Ruth Anne Adams said...

He was Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law from 14 December 1971 to sometime in 1975 as Geraldo was married to Vonnegut's daughter, Edith. I just found that interestingly odd.