Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

Last year, I referred to Kurt Vonnegut as the "great benevolent uncle I never had". Doubtless that phrase sounds painfully sentimental, especially in light of his death, but the feeling behind it was, and remains, genuine. Given this, I feel a strong desire to write something to commemorate Vonnegut's death. However, I fear becoming maudlin should I attempt to do so; I also fear appearing self-absorbed. After all, I didn't know Vonnegut the man, I was simply one of many who read and enjoyed his books. So this post is not an obituary. While it is ostensibly about Vonnegut it is actually, inevitably, more about me, and I apologise in advance for that.

Vonnegut was the first writer I encountered who was making a conscious attempt to move beyond the boundaries of genre. (Ballard was a close second.) I came to Vonnegut through sf and in fact Sirens of Titan remains one of my favourite sf novels. The real eye-openers however were his early - and arguably only - masterpieces, Slaughterhouse 5, Cat's Cradle and Mother Night, all of which I first encountered in my mid teens when my taste in literature was limited to the po-faced intergalactic chess games mapped out by Frank Herbert and the like.

Vonnegut was from somewhere else: Tralfamadore, perhaps. His books were full of slogans, or parodies of slogans ("So it goes") and childish sound effects ("Poo-tee-weet"). Twee, homespun wisdom gave way to despair which in turn gave way to the blackest satire. Mother Night was the real killer: a sharp, funny novel that also happened to have a Nazi propagandist for a main character. It had me shaking my head. Was this sort of thing allowed? And: where can I find more books like it?

Of course by the time I got around to reading Vonnegut he was well past his prime, in terms of both output and relevance. The books I loved were, I discovered, icons, relics really, of the sixties. But there is something in Vonnegut's books that drew me in, and I assume that something is still potent today, still drawing people in.

That something is, I suppose, Vonnegut himself. Like his hero Mark Twain, Vonnegut's personality - his literary personality - permeates almost every sentence he ever published. It's even there in the early sf stories: the sardonic, deadpan humour, the flashes of melancholy, of anger. Few writers feel as there as Vonnegut does. The connection is intimate but never cosy, and you are always half-aware of its artificiality, as indeed you should be. This is where the "benevolent uncle" simile comes in. Vonnegut feels close, but somehow removed, like an uncle you love but only see once or twice a year. He is full of sage advice, full of funny stories, and often just plain full of shit, but behind his every utterance is a generosity and a moral force that is unfailingly enriching. Everyone should have an uncle like that.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.