Gesundheit, Mr. Vonnegut
“All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, The Paris Review – The Art Of Fiction No. 64
Five years ago this week, 84-year-old Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — humanist, satirist, father of seven, World War II veteran, and man after whom an asteroid is named — died from irreversible head injuries caused from falling down a flight of stairs.
Lung cancer would have made sense, at least. He’d chain-smoked since adolescence and only made two brief attempts at quitting. But you’d just assume he’d gently waft, like Pall Mall smoke, to wherever he so well pleased to go once science could no longer keep him alive.
So it goes, I suppose.
It was a year or so after his death that I picked up The Sirens of Titan — his breakthrough novel, published almost half a century ago — from a display commemorating his work at the front of my college’s library. The week or so that followed was my first official encounter with what I’d call The Vonnegut Effect. My guess is that you’ve read up to this sentence because you too have felt its reassuring, cerebral warmth, if not from different books, for different reasons. But this is how I’d define The Vonnegut Effect: The sudden realization that the words on the page are making more sense, out of everything you assumed nonsensical, than anything you’ve ever read before. That the book, and its author, like the crowd gathered outside the walls of the Rumfoord Estate at the first chapter’s end, is undergoing, “an exercise in science and theology — a seeking after clues by the living as to what life was all about.”
It is an unfortunate fact of life that his was shaped so thoroughly by his experience in before, during, and after The Bombing of Dresden, which, as even the most ardent American apologists will concede, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it is, I believe, the source of his greatest talent: taking a billion senseless things, of all kinds of magnitudes and nuance, and through some weird voodoo alchemy making them seem not only endurable but conquerable. He would often dismiss the notion that he possessed any sort of preternatural acuity, noting that he could perceive concrete and abstract concepts synthesizing but that he had no real talent for articulating them. But he undeniably did. He wrote science fiction about fictional scientists in such a way that his work seemed as equally fitting to be shelved in the science section of the library as the fiction.
“Sirens of Titan is just one of those books – you read it through the first time and you think it’s very loosely, casually written. You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realize what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual.”
This is from Douglas Adams, in a 1979 interview, discussing the works that influenced The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
He was talking about a single book of Vonnegut’s, yes, but it could be said equally so of any of his prose, his demeanor, his life, your life, my life, life in general.
If you have never read him, read him. If you are reading him currently, continue to read him. If you have not read him in a while, read him again. Like Mark Twain before him and David Foster Wallace after him, he captures his time and place more coherently than any American writer of his generation, because no other writer of his generation was molded with such brutal yet particular force by the country and times he so earnestly tried to make sense of.
So read him. He’ll teach you to view existence with greater clarity and yearning, with a mutually dependent faculty of humor and goodness. He’ll render joy from mourning and exhaust your lungs with laughter. He’ll help it all make sense, even if it clearly doesn’t.
“I wanted all things
to seem to make some sense
So we all could be happy, yes
instead of tense.
And I made up lies
so that they all fit nice,
And I made this said world
– The Book Of Bokonism
Conor McKeon is a Webby-Honored writer/editor living in Brooklyn. In addition to being a former CollegeHumor staff writer, he has contributed to The Onion, Yankee Pot Roast, Mental_Floss, and CNBC.com. He tweets here and blogs here.