Monday, June 2, 2014

My Love Affair With Kurt

In the spring of 2004, I became bored with college. It wasn’t boredom in the classical sense where you have one of those existential crises about the role of education and what you’re doing with your life.  I simply got better at managing my workload and actually figuring out how to purposefully practice, study with a goal, parse out my workload, etc….2.5 years into college.  (I now also recognize it as a highly manic time in my life, but that’s something for a different op-ed piece.)  I nailed my first and only straight-A semester, so feel free to hate me for it.  I don’t mind.  Stay with me, though, because there’s a happy ending…which does not involve straight-As.  

My friend Sean and I were living off-campus in a tiny apartment that would have needed a coat of paint in order for it to be upgraded to “shitbox” status.  Since neither of us had the means to pay for cable TV and internet-streaming was a few years off, we both found ourselves with a little bit of leisure time coinciding with our early-20s boredom.  Sean’s escape was videogames and working—my escape was books.

After finishing Al Franken’s latest scree, I found myself with nothing to read.  I remember sitting in the music computer lab (another sign of my age) and turning to my friend Hayley for a recommendation.

“Hmm,” she thought, “what about anything by Vonnegut?  I’m sure you’ve read him.”

“Vonnegut?” I said, “You mean the Slaughterhouse-Five guy?”

“Yeah…wait…you HAVEN’T read anything by him???”

“No, just some excerpts from that one book in high school.”

“Oh Keith,” she said, as she closed her eyes and shook her head, “You have to CHANGE this!”

Fine, fine. I told her I’d wander over to the campus bookstore (yet more signs of age) on my way home that day and look for something.  My institution of undergraduate-teachy-us-thingies had two bookstores in those days, one of which was immediately adjacent to the subway station and had a decent fiction section.  I popped in, and I picked up a copy of Breakfast of Champions.  I shoved it in my bag and hopped on the subway.  I was lucky enough to find a seat not next to a crazy and/or homeless person, so I took out the book and began reading.  Almost immediately, I began to realize just how different things were in the mind of Mr. Vonnegut.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, in the first three pages of Chapter 1 of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut lampoons the National Anthem, flag-dipping laws, and our national motto—E pluribus unum.  By now my eyes were wide.  I stopped reading and looked around the car.  I hid the cover of the book in my bag as I read on…as if I was reading something embarrassing or pornographic.  You have to understand—this was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the country had LOST ITS MIND around the idea of patriotism.  There was a lot of bogus binary-logic going around—either you were American or you were al-Qaeda.  If you didn’t wear a flag lapel pin and sing the national anthem loudly (and badly) you might as well have been burning aborted fetuses whilst dancing around a cenotaph dedicated to Saddam Hussein.  OK, It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was getting out of hand.  And here was someone poking fun at cherished national symbols.  I wondered…should I be reading this?

Which is right about when my crazy-paranoid-mind-voice started kicking in:  

“Had anyone seen me with this?  Am I going to be on some sort of list for buying it?  OMG, I used my debit card, they can TRACK me!!!  I like America, I don’t think the flag-dipping law is stupid…no really, please don’t draft me!!!!!!”

Fortunately, I also have a voice of reason, which soon chimed in:

“Hey dummy, Vonnegut is a decorated war hero who fought the Nazis so you COULD read things like this.  Why don’t you keep reading.”

Oh, right.  You’re right, Scoutmaster-esque voice of reason!

“…Reading it sure did give you a thrill, though, didn’t it?”


Back to non-crazy talk:  it did (and still does) give me a little bit of a thrill reading that passage—like being backstage at a magic act, or seeing someone drop a communion host in church (Catholic roots go deep).  You start to realize what things look like from the other side.  Symbols (like flags, anthems, mottos, and communion hosts) are only as sacred as we make them (I haven’t taken communion since 2002).  Take away the sacred-ness, and these symbols start to look pretty absurd.  Our national anthem IS a run-on sentence that ends with a question mark.  Why are we the only nation that has a flag-dipping law?  You start to wonder about these things.  

Do these absurdities make these sacred symbols less sacred?  No, I opine.  In fact, I would argue it is our collective will to accept and ignore these absurdities that actually add mystique to these items and reinforces their sacridity (a word I just inventified).  After 10 years of reading everything by and about KV I could get my hands on, I think his opinion was similar to mine.  He was clearly a deeply patriotic man who loved his country, and loved the fact that he could publish a book that has a hand-drawn scribble depicting an asshole in it.  Here was a guy who literally fought Nazis—and he’s telling us to back up, clear your field of vision, and try and see things for what they are, not as others tell us they should be--and draw our own conclusions.  This was immensely appealing to me, and is, I think, why his books have remained popular with young people for almost three generations now.

I finished Breakfast of Champions that very night.  I immediately wanted more.  What did I love about it?  The fact that the book ends with nothing more than a shrug was shocking.  My dark sense of humor lined up with his nicely.  The story also had such a strange climax--the action builds and builds and builds to a catharsis, and then...well, I won’t ruin it for you, other than to say don’t expect a “traditional story arc”.  Breakfast of Champions was also my first experience with so-called metafiction--KV inserts himself in the story periodically and tells us his thoughts on why he made the characters do what they did.  It was so unlike anything I had read before.  And it was refreshing.

I proceeded to tear through his novels at break-neck speed.  KV’s known as much for his short stories as he is his novels, but I’ve always been drawn more to the long works--just a personal preference.  Initially I expected more like Breakfast of Champions, but quickly discovered that his books are all quite different, though you can categorize some similarities.

Vonnegut excels at the “fake autobiography”.  Many of his books are structured as a narrative being written by a fictitious protagonist.  Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos (sort-of), Bluebeard, and Hocus Pocus all fall into this category.  He’s good at the first-person voice and amazingly, all of these fake autobiographies “sound” different.

There are the meta-fiction novels--Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Timequake.  These often throw people for a loop--is it fiction or is it non-fiction?  Answer:  both.  It’s tough to explain here--just read them.

Early in his publishing career, Vonnegut got categorized as a science fiction writer, a label which hasn’t really stuck.  He uses elements of science fiction, but they are inserted into works that are something else.  I don’t think anyone would argue Slaughterhouse-Five is a science fiction book, but it does involve time travel and a race of aliens (the Tralfamadorians).  This literary buffet of styles is what makes him difficult to categorize, but also unique.  You could (and should) say the same about Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, the Beatles, or any great modern artist.

His magnum opus is Slaughterhouse-Five, and it’s in a class by itself.  Vonnegut is a humorist, but Slaughterhouse-Five is not funny.  It wasn’t written to be funny. There is exactly one joke in the book.  I’ll leave you to find it.

My favorite book?  Probably Cat’s Cradle.  A story that outlines the end of the world with a fake religion, a banana-republic dictator, a midget scientist, and a xylophone gets an A+ in my book.  And when the denouement happens, you laugh.  And laugh and laugh.   

My least favorite?  Probably Slapstick.  I don’t really know why.

The hardest to read?  That’s a tie--between Mother Night and Hocus Pocus.  They both scare the hell out of me.  That’s what happens when fiction hits close to home.  Hocus Pocus is about a beloved teacher at a boarding school who goes down in flames over a series of misunderstandings--a fear I live every day.  Mother Night is about an American spy who pretends to be a high-ranking Nazi and does so well at it that he is brought up on war-crimes charges--having a Grandfather who is perhaps the only American citizen to also have been a Hitler Youth, can see the slight parallel.  

Vonnegut has finally taken his place in the American pantheon of writers, though he is not without his detractors.  “He’s anti-war.”  Not so—he’s antijingoist.  Big difference.  Never once did he argue World War II was not a necessary and just engagement.  The wars that followed WWII...well, I’ll just point out that he wasn’t the only one protesting.  The jury of history remains out on the more recent conflicts.

“He’s vulgar.”  He sure is—if by vulgar you mean writing complex characters that act and think like actual people.  This is not the vulgarity of some pre-adolescent using four-letter words to get attention.  The infamous “Move, you mutherfuckers!!!” line from Slaughterhouse-Five has been the source of more public school-board debate than probably any other 20th century novel--Catcher in the Rye excepted. The fact that that line was spoken by a private who had just thrown himself on a grenade in order to save his platoon often gets overlooked—you’d curse in that situation, too.  And so would Brigham Young.

There are some criticisms that stick—the biggest one I hear comes from my learned female friends and colleagues.  “He doesn’t have one single female protagonist in all of his work!”  There is actually one strong central female character in Galapagos, but they’re right—females are noticeably absent from his work.  Shrug.

I re-read a KV novel about every two months.  They’ve become like old friends.  I know the characters of Midland City, Indiana and Ilium, New York forwards and backwards.  I know the plots and twists and turns of all of them.  I know which cast of characters appears in which book and which characters reappear in others.  I could write Kilgore Trout’s biography.  What keeps me coming back?  I’ll say this--I find something new each and every time I re-read one.  Like all great works of art, they withstand time, and bear revisiting often and with fresh eyes.

I love the anti-romanticism.  I love the flawed characters.  I love the non-linear stories.  I love the wit.  I love the irreverence.  I love the Americanism.

I love how HUMAN it all is.

Thank you, K.

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