Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

We lost a giant. Kurt Vonnegut is dead. A man of sharp intelligence and even sharper wit, his books were smart and clever, always with an edge but always human. Colored by his experience as one of the seven American prisoners of war in Germany during WWII to survive the Dresden firebombing, after which he was put to work collecting dead, burnt civilian bodies, there was always a sense of shock and sorrow in his works, a darkness around the edges, even when he made you laugh out loud.

A secular humanist, Vonnegut was fascinated by relativity and quantum mechanics and he was one of the few who could translate the strangeness of modern physics into the structural elements of a plotline in a way that was not artificial. He truly was one of the first to write science fiction in a way that took it beyond cheesy dime store novels. Incredibly insightful in realizing that Einstein's relativistic notion of time challenged not only the linear structure of story-telling, but also the elements of the created world itself, Vonnegut made time and causality central characters in some of his best works -- Slaughterhouse Five and The Sirens of Titan, for example.

The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut's second book was optioned for film rights by Jerry Garcia who worked on the project for many years, writing a screen adaptation for it and trying to get it produced. Sadly, it never happened and after Jerry died, Vonnegut bought the rights back. Mary Eisenhart has a wonderful interview with Jerry about Vonnegut and his love of his writing.

My favorite Vonnegut story comes from my dear friend and occasional playground commenter Frank who lives up in Manhattan. Frank is a life long Vonnegut fan and one day after walking his dog Scarlet, he was leaving the local dog park and at the entrance passes none other than Vonnegut himself. Stunned, he says to Vonnegut, "There's a question I've always wanted to ask you, but I can't remember it." Without missing a beat Vonnegut looks at him and replies, "That's ok, i've forgotten the answer," and walks away. Certain people just are the way you wish them to be.

From an interview in the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?

VONNEGUT: It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.


VONNEGUT: I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I’m always offending feminists that way.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.

VONNEGUT: In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.

From a commencement address at Agnes Scott College:

But about my Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now. One of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy; He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?" So I hope that you adorable women before me will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

From "Knowing What's Nice"

Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in Heaven now." That’s my favorite joke.

You will be missed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., now that you are up in heaven...