Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84, was very important to me in my school years, in the 1970s. I started reading science fiction at a young age, and Vonnegut was there, a bridge to lead me from genre fiction to the world of ideas. He was a satirist, an ironist, a writer eager to stare down the pitiless reality of life and death, but he was also funny (I might have prized that most at the age of, say, 14), and he took it as a moral imperative not to take himself too seriously. To this day there is no critical consensus as to his literary stature. As a creator of worlds he was very ambitious, but he didn't experiment with prose style or narrative form the way "literary" writers often do. He was comfortable with his instrument, a dead-pan delivery full of quick changes. He reminds me of Russian writers, Gogol with his noses on the moon, and Eastern Europeans, Kafka and Kundera: a fabulist of outrage. Slaughterhouse Five is his masterpiece, and I also recommend the movie version on its own terms (I don't know who directed). For myself, Cat's Cradle was always the definitive Vonnegut, whimsically portraying the human-caused end of the world as part of some cosmic joke, but not too big a joke. The Sirens of Titan is underrated I think, further exploring the possibility that we might become unmoored from our planet of origin (as Vonnegut was during the fire-bombing of Dresden). His first novel, Player Piano, contains the themes that he developed over many subsequent books, and stands as a good novel on its own. A 70s story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, holds its own with the novels. Later I moved on, I remember being disappointed with Breakfast of Champions, finding the ironic glibness now cloying, and it's true that his range was not endlessly wide. But Douglas Adams, cyberpunk, the films of Terry Gilliam: none of that would have been done the way it was without Vonnegut. I don't know that he's a "great writer," whatever that is, but as a cultural influence he was an important, blackly funny, ultimately humane voice.

1 comment:

Scott Sandel said...

But one of my all-time favorites is Hocus-Pocus, not only because it takes place in our old stomping grounds, just south of Monroe County. There are roads and towns and lakes to be recognized, as well as a great story.