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Dave Riley on Kurt Vonnegut

This is now...

Here's a rule of life: never go more than 10 years at a spell without re-reading Vonnegut. I mean ALL of Vonnegut you can get your hands on. So I'm back there on rewind, reading Kurt Vonnegut. 

And starting back with Breakfast of Champions seemed like as good a place to start as any. 

But then there is no beginning and no end to Vonnegut -- it's all one big story written in parenthesis. It's stuff that ambles through the universe and into our social and political lives like the musings of a indulgent Alien, who ,after so long on earth, has learnt to appreciate the locals. 

Pity them too. 

Always there is pity coming from Vonnegut. 

***

This is 1993...The view from Tralfamadore

Fates Worse Than Death — An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980sBy Kurt Vonnegut
Vintage, 1992. 240 pp. $12.95
Reviewed by Dave Riley
Once upon a time artists were people; that is, they were for the people, by the people and of the people.
But all that changed. They began to fall back on themselves in search of a private vision, which in their lonely quest for profound expression made them incomprehensible to the rest of us. They tried very hard to tell us of our plight, but they had read so many books and thought so many thoughts that they forgot our language.
Then came Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote weird stories. People seemed to like him. His popular acceptance as a paperback writer rested on his literary prominence in the 1960s. He was a hero of youthful radicals, and his books sold in their millions.
Now 70 years of age, Kurt Vonnegut is still pumping it out.
Fates Worse Than Death is a freewheeling memoir of the '80s done as only he can. Recollections and anecdotes range through time, written with the wry wit and the sardonic good humour of an affable tolerance.
Vonnegut's idiosyncratic views are so profoundly human that he has not recovered from the fire-bombing of Dresden — which he witnessed as a POW in World War II — nor has he forgiven the United States government for the Vietnam War.
But he is not bitter enough to be satirical. "Listless playthings of enormous forces", is how he once described his fictional characters. In this most recent book, that listlessness seems to include himself. His attempted suicide and his mental breakdown are all part of the universal narrative. As many a Vonnegut devotee will tell you: so it goes.
Vonnegut really doesn't live in anyone's street directory. Formally a resident of the United States he seems to have his abode elsewhere, perhaps on his beloved planet of Tralfamadore.
Written from that perch his books have a quirky long view about them, where earthly time and place have little significance. In Galapagos — which he wrote in the mid-'80s — the human species is wiped out and replaced by a gene pool generated at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
In the books of Kurt Vonnegut the future comes uncomfortably close. The fates that are worse than death are really with us now, if only we could recognise them. Fortunately, surveying from a distance, Kurt Vonnegut is there to chart them for us.

***
If you haven't read Vonnegut, you don't know what you're missing. More than any other writer, I think he embraced the political promise of the sixties. It's almost impossible to consider that he could have had a career as a writer without a marriage with that broad insurgency. His initial success basically had to wait until that radicalisation began to kick in.



The period saw many novelists being taken up and embraced as radical chic: Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, Hunter S.Thompson, Herman Hess, Jean Genet, Allan Sillitoe, Gunther Grass, Yukio Mishima, Joseph Heller... (yes, primarily a list of males)but I doubt few were as generous as Vonnegut was in offering substance to mull over.

I think I've read Slaughterhouse Fivefive times over the past thirty years and I have tried to read ALL he wrote because there was so much there that was worth the reading, even though like a massive serial, the novels tend to merge with one another as often as the distant planet, Trafalmadore , becomes part of all these seemingly separate narratives. It's like this long line of montages:Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, The Sirens of Titan...

"and so it goes...."

Of course, Vonnegut -- he died this week at the age of 84 -- was no optimistic idealist. He was dogged by a very bleak vision indeed, affirmed in Dresden, that nonetheless was played out with such tension in his novels that you had to get caught up in the struggles this guy was having with himself. Vonnegut wasn't about insularity and angst or about giving up(despite his unsuccesful attempt at suicide ).

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden not because fate or some god willed it, but because other men with morals and interests beyond Billy's comprehension, put him there. It wasn't his fault.

And Vonnegut thereafter kept on asking: why?

And Billy, like all of Vonnegut's protagonists,were victims of this nameless barbarity which for some unknown reason they had the capacity to survive as though survival -- humanely and desperately -- was all you could hope for.

In his way, Vonnegut was a bookend to Harold Pinter because they kept addressing the savagery that stalks us from without and, I guess in the case of Vonnegut, the only way he saw you could protect yourself from it was to ignore it and adopt an alienated & sterile existence that was such a shallow shell that to go looking for anything else was to court madness or a stint on a planet far far away.

I'm having trouble here trying to describe the way Vonnegut pitches all this. He is/was unique as a writer. A science fiction novelist -- who wasn't. That's because his stories were about the here and now rather than fictional futures. These were not hypotheses, at all, but exercises in lives lived in alienation under capitalism.
KV:" …I have wanted to give Iraq a lesson in democracy—because we’re experienced with it, you know. And, in democracy, after a hundred years, you have to let your slaves go. And, after a hundred and fifty years, you have to let your women vote. And, at the beginning of democracy, is that quite a bit of genocide and ethnic cleansing is quite okay. And that’s what’s going on now."
-- Appearance on The Daily Show (September 2005)
***

Vonnegut: This stuff-that-he-wrote.

The very best thing about someone dying is, as the late Kurt Vonnegut is sure to agree, that you have an excuse to think about them.

"Oh," you say, "Kurt Vonnegut is dead? He wrote stuff."

And so it goes that you wonder about this stuff-that-he-wrote.

I did that. I went to Wikipedia and vetted the bio. I then thought I had a very little bit of Vonnegut to catch up with before I could put him to rest.

So I tracked down and read his last book, A Man Without A Country.

Darn good book. In his eighties Vonnegut is still very much Vonnegut. It was so poignant that it almost moved me to tears for its celebration of living even if that in turn is dogged by a massive desperation.

The thing was almost wise and wise isn't a term so much allowed today.

Headline:Wise old Vonnegut dead at 84.

Stiff bickies , Kurt. I guess it had to come some day.

As for me, I get to exploit the opportune excuse offered by Vonnegut's dying to go read what I missed and re-read what I hadn't.

So after I put down Timequake everything else is a going to be e-read.

That's what I call a fortunate death.

You should try to do that more often, Kurt.

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