Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I am certain that over the next couple of weeks there will be countless eulogies, remembrances, and salutatory obituaries as the world bids its final farewell to one of the greatest of American writers, Kurt Vonnegut, dead today at the age of 84.

I, like many others before and after me, discovered Kurt Vonnegut while in high school and his influence shaped my literary preferences for many years. The first novel of his that I read was "Slaughterhouse-Five", a copy loaned to me by my friend Lee Davis. Vonnegut was a relentless pessimist, irreverent, profane, and intractable. But his books sing with a voice like no one else's. His mix of humor, anger, compassion, and satire is unique and irresistible. I have not read every book he wrote, but I have enjoyed and been affected by each one that I have read. "Breakfast of Champions", "Cat's Cradle", "The Sirens of Titan"...all excellent.

My own beliefs are not nearly as cynical as Vonnegut's, nor do I admire all that the man has said and done. But he has had as indelible an effect on literature in my generation as Ernest Hemingway did on the previous, I think.

I have one personal, strange story about Kurt Vonnegut. In February of 2001, I flew in to Dallas for some business meetings at the corporate headquarters and to represent my company at an industry tradeshow. I lived for many years in the D/FW Metroplex and when I found I had some free time one evening, I just drove around to the old, familiar haunts. After dinner, I wandered into a Barnes & Noble nearby. Browsed for a while, of course, and then left with a copy of "Timequake", Vonnegut's self-proclaimed "last novel", published in 1997. I hadn't read a Vonnegut novel in more than ten years and I had been wanting to read this one for quite a while.

By the time I got back to the room, it was late and I was tired, so I didn't even crack the book. The next couple of days were chock full of business stuff so, when it finally came time to head to the airport for the trip home, I packed the book with my carry-on stuff so that I could read it on the way home. This was on Tuesday, February 13, 2001.

After I settled in, I got the book out and began to read. I had not even made it through the prologue when I noticed something peculiar...and I scrambled around for my ticket stub to confirm what I thought was true....and yes! The first big thing that happens in "Timequake" is a kind of cosmic hiccup that disrupts the space-time continuum, and it actually takes place in the book on February 13, 2001!

Basically, in the book, on that date, the universe gets yanked back to February 17, 1991 and everyone and everything is destined, or doomed (per KV's perspective) to relive that whole decade over again...without substantial alteration, really, just doing the same thing all over again. Never mind, it makes a kind of sense in the book, but the point is I was sitting there in my seat on the plane, about to take off, looking around nervously, grinning, and muttering under my breath. I wanted to tell somebody that I was reading a book whose narrative was supposed to be happening on the same day and time that I happened to be reading about it. Even though it had actually been written 4 or 5 years earlier.

But I didn't tell anyone. Instead I just nestled into my seat, and lost myself in the book. I half-wondered, as we landed in Dayton, would the world be the same? Or would it really be 1991 again when I got off the plane. I couldn't help freaked me out, but I kind of half-hoped/half-expected something to be different. Vonnegut had once again completely suspended my disbelief. What are the odds that someone would actually be reading a book, a work of fiction, at the very same time that the events in that book were occurring?

It made for yet another singularly enjoyable, intensely moving, and absolutely unforgettable literary encounter with Kurt Vonnegut, one of the great writers of the 20th Century.

1 comment:

Jenn said...

I remember encountering Vonnegut, as you say, in high school. (Well, his writings, anyway.) And really liking it. And then never reading anything else by him until I got a free used copy of something (probably Slaughterhouse 5, though I regret to say I can't remember) and reading it on a train from London to Wales.

All of that has nothing to do with what I really want to say, which is that your writing about this man and his writing and your experience of it was incredibly well-written, too.