Kurt Vonnegut has remained a favorite author of mine for over forty years. The first book of his that I read was Mother Night, then followed by Slaughterhouse-Five, then Breakfast of Champions… I was so impressed by his writing that I started looking for as many of his books as I could find, and read them, then read them again, and again. I haven’t read all of his books, but I’ve read a lot of them – Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and a collection of short stories, Welcome To The Monkey House.
I was trying to think, before starting this essay, just what it is about Vonnegut’s writing that appeals to me so much. He’s been on my mind a lot lately because I’m collaborating on a book of art and poetry that has a lot to do with the human condition. Sometimes a well-placed quote is useful, and more than likely if I do a search on a topic I will primarily get quotes from Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. In fact, my book has three sections, which translate loosely to “the beginning, the middle, and the end.” I chose And So It Goes for the title of the last section. Just those four words expressed exactly how I felt about what we are trying to convey. Another quote I was able to use effectively was: All this happened, more or less… after writing a narrative of an abuse scene.
I don’t get rid of books, even if I’ve read them several times. I was recently moving my bookcases to another room, and was trying to start with some semblance of order in my new “library.” There were all my Vonnegut books, finally together again, and I gave them a prominent place on the bookshelves, alongside Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.
Vonnegut, along with Mark Twain and Douglas Adams, had the ability to see the absurdities that life has to offer sometimes, but relate those absurdities to our real lives. His books could be scathing in one area, then ludicrous in the next. Reading his books is like being on a literary roller coaster – he has you going up… up…up, and then whoosh!, the bottom drops out from under you.
I was in high school when I first started reading Vonnegut – at that impressionable age when you are still trying to figure out who you are, and who you want to be. My father also read Vonnegut, especially his science fiction, and we would sometimes sit and discuss what the author meant by this or that. His books taught me to not always take things at face value, to question the intent of the book, and to think “possible”, even though it was just totally crazy, as in Ice-9.
More than anything else, though, he taught me how to read. Not just the words, but what is between the words, and behind the words. You have to be willing to suspend your sense of reality to enjoy his work. Nobody in the real world has done time travel or gone to an obscure galaxy, but somehow he makes the most ridiculous plot seem plausible. He removes our masks and shows us as we really are, warts and all. He has reluctant heroes, everyday people who get caught up in some improbable plot and have to work their way through the minefield of a plot. I would often get totally caught up in one of his books, and wouldn’t move out of my seat until I had read the book cover to cover.
My family has two very obscure connections to Vonnegut. He was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana and attended Shortridge High School, which is the same high my father attended (but at a different time.) The other was that Kurt Vonnegut lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a time, and my parents did, too – less than 10 miles from him. It always seemed like such an interesting coincidence that two young men would make their way from the same school in Indianapolis, to the same area of Cape Cod. It doesn’t mean anything, of course, but it was just one of those little tidbits that make you want to follow somebody’s career more closely.
I’ve been thinking about re-reading his books, because he keeps popping up for me in the most unlikely places. I wonder what words of wisdom I’ll be able to glean from his books at the age of 60 that I didn’t at the age of 16 or 17. I know he influenced my views on life which took me from being a fairly conservative mid-Western teen to a liberal thinker in New England years later. He helped me develop that ability to look at issues from different angles, to consider alternate possibilities, and to break down the bs that we are fed daily into manageable tidbits to take or discard as we will.
My son gave me a copy of Hitchhiker a few years ago (after he totally wore out the copy I had loaned him) and he said something that feels just right for how I feel about Kurt Vonnegut’s writing: “This tome, for better or worse, has had a major influence on who I am today.”
That is what Kurt Vonnegut did for me.