After the sad news of Kurt Vonnegut’s death, I immediately emailed several bloggers and asked them to contribute their thoughts on the man and how he affected their lives. The response was overwhelming. Many of the bloggers who responded are novelists themselves. Several talked about their own personal encounters with the author, while others honed in on a specific work of his that had particularly touched them.
Below, you’ll find several of those responses I received. I’d like to invite anyone to contribute your own thoughts in the comments section (the comments will go into moderation but I’ll take them out shortly). Many bloggers have already provided tributes on their own blogs. The blogosphere is full of mini personal obituaries for Kurt Vonnegut. This will just be one of many:
Mark Sarvas (from The Elegant Variation):
I came to Vonnegut comparatively late in life. The common Vonnegut experience seems to have been to have encountered him in college but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I pulled out the dog-eared family copy of Slaughterhouse Five and, at once, saw what the fuss was about. My most vivid memories, however, turn on reading Mother Night, presented by Vonnegut as the confessions of an American Nazi spy named Howard J. Campbell, Jr., and merely edited by him. The book’s central question – spelled out by Vonnegut in the 1968 introduction added seven years after its release – that “we are what we appear to be” had all kinds of resonance, that stayed with me through the writing of my own book. Plus, he made me laugh with a novel dealing with Nazis, which made me uncomfortable but is impressive in its way. The Mark Twain comparisons are a bit overworked but seem, finally, apropos – it’s hard to bring to mind another writer who is so successfully engaged with the follies of our age with such sharp humor and, finally, compassion. His heirs are not apparent.
C. Max Magee (from The Millions):
I’m very sad to see Kurt Vonnegut go. His death was a surprise though not altogether unexpected considering his advancing years. It is comforting, though, that he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.
When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.
Levi Asher (from Literary Kicks):
I had three real-life brushes with Kurt Vonnegut. The first was at Albany State, where I went to college. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I chose to study at Albany State because I had read about the school in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick”. Kurt’s brother Bernard Vonnegut is a professor of atmospheric science at Albany, and there are some good bits in this underrated book involving Kurt’s relationship with his adult brother (who he likes, but never hugs, though he likes to hug his dog).
I guess I was hoping Bernard’s presence would draw Kurt in as a college speaker, and during my junior year Kurt finally did show up. I won’t bother saying that Kurt is quite a public speaker, because everybody already knows that. There was a reception with drinks and a cheese plate after his talk, and I lingered there as a few other students parried with Kurt about whether or not humanity was better off in our caveman past than in our present state (it seemed to be Kurt’s position that it had been mostly downhill since the invention of agriculture and fire). I noted that Bernard Vonnegut showed up at the reception (though not at the speech), and that the brothers shook hands warmly but did not hug.
My other two brushes with Kurt Vonnegut both took place in Manhattan’s East 40′s, where I presume he lived (though I never verified this fact, so I’m not sure). One fine day in February 1996 I was in a supermarket on 2nd Avenue when I suddenly spotted Kurt Vonnegut in the drink-mixers aisle, picking out a bottle of (I think) Tom Collins Mix. I was fairly blown away but I did not say anything or do anything. A writer deserves to buy a bottle of Tom Collins mix in peace.
Then, in the summer of 2002 I was walking down 2nd Avenue when I saw a literary countenance bearing down upon me in the opposite direction. It was Kurt Vonnegut, strolling down the sidewalk, and the only thing I noted was an intensely sad expression on his face. Again, I did not bother him. A writer deserves to be sad in peace. I hope he went home and had a Tom Collins and hugged a dog and felt better.
Kassia Krozser (from Booksquare):
This is actually a tougher question to answer than you realize
. I’ve been thinking back to his appearance on The Daily Show when he was promoting Man Without a Country, and (I will paraphrase), he noted that we’ve done our best to destroy this world we inhabit and now the planet is fighting back. This was post-Katrina and it was one of those “Yes!” moments. Over these past years, we have been asked to pretend that killing people prevents killing people and that war is the answer to questions that weren’t properly asked. Kurt Vonnegut reminded us — many times — that war is not without sacrifice and should never be treated with casual disregard. I would have loved to see him debate Cheney, but that’s because I have a secret penchant for seeing bullies cut down to size.
Also, sadness is the greatest source of humor — and once you can find the humor, you know it’s all going to be all right.
Kurt Vonnegut was that rarest of writers in that he was widely, nearly universally read thanks partially to high school requirements, but also had a devoted cult of enthusiastic readers, and he was, until the other day, alive.
Most writers just get the last bit, and only for a while.
Cult fictions generally don’t last once they get institutionalized, and they do all the time. High school English teachers tend to be dorky misfits with a secret plan…turn the world into a haven for dorky misfits and thus save the whales, clear the skies, and reverse their past personal tragedies. The apparatus through which they hope to affect this change is the fiction of their own youths. Thus the generation that loved THE CHOCOLATE WAR, for example, ruins it by assigning it to a bunch of sullen teens their age. Good job, feeding a book about a boy standing up against mob rule to the mob that rules. Now they know our secret hopes and revenge fantasies!
I tease. Most people just fake their way through THE CHOCOLATE WAR.
Vonnegut is hard to fake one’s way through, because if you so much as glance at a page, you’ll start reading. His voice is avuncular, conversational, and just so much more compelling than that of the average high school English teacher. So you get hooked, quick-like.
Vonnegut’s fiction has also lasted simply because it is superior to most other cult fiction. Cult fiction is that fiction that is about something Ã¢â‚¬â€ but generally only one thing Ã¢â‚¬â€ which is what makes it very teachable on the high school level. “The theme of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE IS ______.” And you can fill out that Ad-Lib with any of Vonnegut’s work as well. But there’ more to it.
Most fiction isn’t about anything at all but giving you something to do while in a plastic chair so you won’t have to talk to your fellow passengers or patients. Cult fiction is, as I’ve said, about one thing. The greatest works of literature are about many many things, which makes them very handy for making sure that generations of doctoral students have something to write about.
Vonnegut’s stuff? It’s about two things. It’s about how miserable you feel within an absurd world, and about being glad to be alive anyway. And there are two ways to be introduced to Vonnegut: you can be assigned Vonnegut, or you can be surreptiously passed a worn paperback by an older relation, friend, or nervous teacher.
If you are in the former group, you’ll be sad today because Vonnegut died, but you will soon go back to your abiding pastime: watching the TV news with clenched fist and fuming nostrils, so upset and perplexed that someone somewhere might have gotten slightly more than you think they deserved.
If you’re in the second group, you’ll be able to answer the question at the end of this anecdote.
In high school, I had a crush on a girl named Loryn Picard. (I hope she’s still alive and Googles herself occasionally! Hi Loryn!) She was one of those quirky types, perhaps a bit troubled. Played the flute. Dressed like Molly Ringwald, I swear. Played the flute, but only for herself, not in the school band or anything. Didn’t come to school much. (Troubled, she was troubled!) Was in some honors classes, some not.
One time, as we were shuffling out of Spanish class, she asked the teacher, Mrs. Henry, “Do you like the works of Kurt Vonngut?” and Mrs. Henry said, “Yes, yes, I do” and then reached an arm out to tug on my shirtsleeve. The teacher knew that I was a Vonnegut reader Ã¢â‚¬â€ genesis: my uncle Peter, the book was SLAPSTICK, and is still a sentimental fave though even the author gave it a D Ã¢â‚¬â€ and thought that the three of us could have a wonderful conversation about Unca Kurt in the two minutes between classes. But I rolled my eyes and twisted my mouth like she’d squirted sour orange juice up my nostril, and quickly turned the corner and escaped.
Keith R.A. DeCandido (science fiction author):
Oddly, my strongest memory of Vonnegut doesn’t come from anything he did — exactly.
Years ago, I worked for the late Byron Preiss. One of my colleagues, Howard Zimmerman, was editing a comic book adaptation of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, with art by Christopher Bing, a very talented (if slow) artist. On Howard’s birthday one year, his assistant, Ken Grobe, gave him a page of artwork by Christopher from the adaptation, which included three panels of Howard and Kurt Vonnegut having a conversation at a party.
Howard absolutely loved it, as he was a big fan of Kurt’s and was thrilled at the chance to work with him. (Sadly, the graphic novel never actually saw the light of day….)
David Louis Edelman (author of Infoquake):
The news of Kurt VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death today hits me particularly hard. For me, Vonnegut was the novelist. He was perhaps the first Ã¢â‚¬Å“adultÃ¢â‚¬Â novelist I read seriously, the first novelist I fell in love with, and undoubtedly the novelist who got me through high school. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure there are millions of people out there who can say the same thing.
My first exposure to Vonnegut was through his seminal collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. I was probably around 13 or 14. Up to that point, my reading had consisted mostly of straightforward, unironic science fiction and fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. My other recent obsession at that time was Douglas Adams, who strove all his life to achieve Vonnegutdom with mixed (albeit funnier) results.
Then my sister brought Welcome to the Monkey House home and it quickly swept through the whole family. I was stunned. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d never read anything like these stories. Cynical, yet wondrous; funny, yet deadly serious; childish, yet crammed full of adult insight.
VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lessons are the lessons that I think all teenagers should be required to absorb. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the lessons that saved me from completely withdrawing into my shell.
These are, I think, the main lessons of VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work:
* Adults take many things too seriously.
* We all get buffeted around by powerful forces we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t understand.
* Religion, art, politics, and careers are largely full of shit.
* Just because something is full of shit doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be wonderful or useful.
* Be nice to each other. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all trying the best we can.
Kurt Vonnegut is dead. The world has lost one of its brightest literary talents. So it goes.
I never met Kurt Vonnegut. Never passed by him on the street, never spotted him on the subway, never sat at the next table in a restaurant. I never attended a reading or lecture given by him. I never sent him a fan letter, although I now know he probably would have answered it.
My first exposure to the late great master of American letters was a five-second cameo that he did for the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School, in which he played, naturally, himself. This was sometime during middle school, and I felt like I’d get in trouble watching it because of a very brief female nude scene the very beginning of the movie, but it was a movie I enjoyed, and Vonnegut’s cameo never left my mind.
And that sort of sums up my experiences with the man and his work: tangentially, ephemerally, a glancing blow. I read Slaughterhouse-Five a few years later while in high school, and while it was like an armed claymore to my pubescent brain, I didn’t read his words again until much later (Timequake and A Man Without a Country). I bought three of his other books in paperback (Cat’s Cradle, Galapagos, and Welcome to the Monkey House), but never got around to reading them, and ended up selling them before my recent move to Singapore.
However, his words have always stuck with me, and his philosophy, summed up from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater — “God damn it, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to be kind” — is one that I took to heart early on, and will continue to do so. And so, even though I never met the man or shook his hand, I will miss him as much as if I had.
With the death of Kurt Vonnegut the world, and more specifically, America has lost yet another sane voice, another clear head, another person of integrity. Since the turn of the century, and as the US has gone stark raving mad, there have been many similar figures snuffed out by disease, despair, or simply the unyielding impact of time’s passage. Susan Sontag, Octavia Butler, Joseph Heller, Robert Sheckley, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut are all up in Heaven now.
But before we move on to the next thing, and the next, we would be wise to take a close look at what Vonnegut decided to do after he turned 80 in 2002. This man who had wanted to quit writing when his book “Slaughterhouse Five” turned out to be a smash, a man who had been filled with despair over the human condition since highschool, whose mother committed suicide in 1944 and who often wanted to follow her example, who threatened to sue the manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes because their product had failed to kill him in a timely manner, spent his final years writing political essays for a socialist magazine out of Chicago called “In These Times.”
Let me say that again: Kurt Vonnegut, a sane man who understood how horrible and humiliating life could be, spent his final years writing for a socialist newspaper and considered himself a socialist. This, to me, is perhaps the most significant fact about good old Kurt. He proved, over and over again, that the sane and rational thing to do in the face of the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, is to have hope, to be kind, to try to be better. This was his message.
Kurt Vonnegut is up in heaven now. He’s up there where, in the words of his character Wanda June (a little girl who was hit by an ice cream truck), “Everybody is happy–the animals and the dead soldiers and people who went to the electric chair and everything. Nobody is mad. We’re all too busy playing shuffleboard.” I’m sure that Kurt is happy as a clam up there too, grateful for his the way he stumbled and fell, and ultimately thrilled with the brain injuries that took his life.
He’s up there where things are good, and we’re down here.
So it goes…