Thursday, January 14, 2010

Art That Changed My Life: Kurt Vonnegut

I would not be in the nebulous place I stand upon today (more of a precipice)— college graduate, part time teacher, aspiring writer, barely published poet, fake critic—were it not for the work of Kurt Vonnegut. I am sure the late Mr. Vonnegut did not write his books with the intention of influencing some half-assed kid, though that is exactly what he did. Not just me—there are countless numbers, young and old, who have long cherished Vonnegut. His style is imitated; his words repeated. His influence is unwavering.

Up until his death, he was our greatest national treasure. His works, I am tempted to say, belong to the world, not merely the U.S. of A. Sadly, from what I have heard/read, his books are not as appreciated elsewhere. He wrote, in one of his many fantastic essays, that his books were poorly translated into French, thus there were no red carpets being unrolled when Kurt set foot in Paris. While I want to believe that Vonnegut is read all over the great globe, part of me does not care. What does it matter if he is read by anyone other than me? Yes, I am safe in the knowledge that many, many people read and love Vonnegut, but I can still remain under the self-delusion that his books exist solely for my greedy eyes.

I cannot choose a favorite. I first read Slaughterhouse 5 while attending Moraine Valley Community College. My comp teacher noticed the book and, being such a Vonnegut fan, altered his lecture that day to speak about the book for a good fifteen minutes. After that, I moved to the next “classic” in the oeuvre, Cat’s Cradle. If I had to pick a favorite—if, say, a gun were placed to my head—then this would be it. The description on the back cover never does justice to what I think the book truly accomplishes, and the sci-fi element that has lured many a fat, nerdy teen is just a rickety vehicle for what may be the greatest metaphor in American literature: no damn cat. No damn cradle.

Both of these books contain an apocalyptic event, an oft used Vonnegut theme. In his fiction, bombs annihilate cities, a mysterious substance called Ice-9 send most of humanity into deep freeze, prisons riot, pregnant women get shot, otherwise well meaning people’s lives are ruined, mayhem ensues. Most famously, and not at all an invention of Vonnegut’s fertile mind, Dresden is fire bombed. Vonnegut, as you probably know, was there. He survived; he saw the destruction; so much of his literary career was informed by this catastrophic event.

Maybe it was the horror, written with such humor, that first attracted me. The humor had a lot to do with it. I have laughed out loud while reading Vonnegut, a claim I cannot make about many other writers. Humor, for whatever reason, is one of this country’s least acknowledged literary skills. Well, at least in academia. Scholars and critics brood over the smallest moments in somber texts as if they were doing cancer research, yet a giggle is all too quickly dismissed. Poor Kurt—how often have I defended your work against academic accusations of “light reading?”

Back to the beginning: when I read Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick and Breakfast of Champions and Hocus Pocus, everything changed. Stephen King and Anne Rice, who I had devoured through the later part of my high school years, no longer seemed interesting. Nothing they could create matched the absurdity of Vonnegut’s horrors. What is a monster clown or a goth vampire in comparison to Ice-9? Like much of the art that changed my life, the art of Kurt Vonnegut opened a door that led to something bigger than what I previously knew. From Kurt I found Twain, Celine, Faulkner, Sexton, Whitman, Grass, Calvino, and the like. His books are quick reads, often, as I said, funny, written in an idiomatic style, and populated with all brand of sympathetic and contemptible characters. They are deceptive in their immediacy. They are the perfect gateway drug. Use and abuse them.