Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye, Kurt

I started reading Kurt Vonnegut as a teenager, as I started reading so much science fiction,* because he was in my Dad's paperback collection. I think I probably started out with Cat's Cradle, or maybe Slaughterhouse-Five. Player Piano. The Sirens of Titan. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I remember my sister's favorite was Welcome to the Monkey House. There was something addictive, and liberating, about his ideas: the karass, people to whom you are spiritually connected, whether you like it or not; the time-traveling aliens of Tralfamadore, who can't understand that humans live in linear time; the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. His irreverence, black humor, scorn of authority, and cynicism were a perfect reflection of the times and of my rebellious youth; they really spoke to me.

I tend to think of Vonnegut as having an underlying core of tenderness for people. Then I remember that my favorite story of his concerns deliberately handicapping any talented or gifted people so they won't embarrass the ordinary. Maybe not.

My favorite book of his was Breakfast of Champions. I loved Kilgore Trout, writer of bad science fiction novels like Venus on the Half-Shell or featuring aliens who communicate by tap-dancing and farting; but I was really blown away when Vonnegut appeared in his own story like a semi-benevolent god -- meta-fiction at its most audacious.

Unfortunately, I never really enjoyed what he wrote after Champions. Did he just grow more jaded and pessimistic, or did I outgrow the stage where those qualities appealed to me? I don't know, but I just stopped finding him so funny or so profound.

But he was important to me, and I'm sorry he's gone. Goodbye, Kurt. I hope the Tralfamadorians treat you well.

*Vonnegut never liked the label science fiction, because he was determined not to be ghettoized. But I don't think it's a contradiction to say something is both SF and literature, and I don't think it's shaming to Vonnegut to recognize his work for what it is.

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