Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Is Dead. So It Goes.

I can’t remember which Vonnegut novel I read first. It might have been “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” I know I read “Slapstick” on my own in high school and “Breakfast of Champions” as part of a senior-year English assignment. (Given how some local educators are currently freaking out about “Kaffir Boy,” I can’t imagine how the school authorities ever allowed “BoC” on the reading list. But it was the Seventies…) I read “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Mother Night” and “Cat’s Cradle” in college or soon after. With the exception of “Slapstick,” which really is a terrible novel, I enjoyed them all.

I think Vonnegut’s black humor appeals to readers on the cusp of adulthood because it confirms their growing suspicions that life is absurd. They tend to regard their ability to perceive it as such as a hallmark of sophistication and intelligence. I know I did.

When you read Vonnegut later in life, after you have some experience under your belt, you still see and appreciate the absurd humor, but now it’s tempered by anger and regret and a longing for a universe that makes some kind of sense. “Slaughterhouse-Five” was still funny when I read it again at age 44, but this time it was heartbreaking, too.

In most of his novels, Vonnegut’s narrative strategy is unusual. He has no interest in conventional suspense. He tells you the beginning and the ending of his story, then fills in the middle. It’s a difficult trick, but he usually pulls it off.

We all have stories. In a sense, we all know how they’re going to end. As with Vonnegut, it’s how you fill in the middle that matters.


Here’s an interview with Vonnegut I conducted for The Chronicle back in 1990. It’s not bad, especially considering how punchy I was from sleep deprivation following the birth of my daughter a few weeks prior:

In conversation, Kurt Vonnegut sounds and looks pretty much as one would expect from reading his fiction.

Bushy-haired and spaniel-eyed, the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" sits at a conference table at The Chronicle, appearing weary but agreeable. He speaks softly, punctuating his sentences by tapping his glasses against the tabletop. You can never tell what might set off a wheezy bark of laughter.

The subject at hand is his new novel, "Hocus Pocus" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 302 pages, $21.95), the digressive defense of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam-era public relations officer-turned-physics teacher and reading instructor. Soon to stand trial for leading a bloody prison break, Hartke reflects on the forces that turned him into a "genius of lethal hocus pocus."

The book is a sharp-toothed satire of American life and values, casting a jaundiced eye on war, education, race relations and Japan's influence on the U.S. economy. Recounted in Vonnegut's patented mix of unadorned prose and absurd humor, it's the kind of writing that's a lot more difficult to achieve than it looks.

"I got about two-thirds of the way through it when I said, "No, this is wrong. This isn't working,' " Vonnegut says. "It upset my publisher a lot, but I started all over again."

Vonnegut claims there are two kinds of writers, swoopers and bashers. Swoopers push their way through the first draft and then go back to fix things. Bashers like himself, however, "get page one right, then page two right, and so on . . . It's painful. It's not a comfortable way to make a living."

While other Vonnegut books have come under fire from self-appointed censors, "Hocus Pocus" contains not a single dirty word. Vonnegut claims that the squeaky-clean language ensures that readers won't miss his more important social observations.

"I think a lot of justified political protest in the '60s was ignored because it was coupled with obscenity. Although it'll probably happen anyway, I don't want someone to throw my book away because of offensive language. But it's also a playful joke. Here I am, nearly at the end of my career, and it's fun to leave out all the dirty words."

Set at the dawn of the next century, "Hocus Pocus" refers a number of times to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Vonnegut says he is mocking the film's optimistic view of life in the future. "It's more hocus pocus. Naive people have been led to believe that just as we came to the New World, next we're going to take advantage of all these other great real estate opportunities in space. We're not going anywhere, ever. Not in this form."

Asked whether there is any subject he would never dare satirize, the man who has managed to find humor in war, mental illness and nuclear holocaust nods gravely. "What happens to children," he says. "In "The Brothers Karamazov,' Ivan collects newspaper clippings about the abuse of children. That's why he hates God, and that's why I hate God. The saintly Alyoscha kisses his brother Ivan, and that's Dostoyevski's answer to the problem." Vonnegut chuckles sardonically. "Not for me. I'm still pissed off. I just can't bear what happens to children."

Vonnegut's sense of encroaching doom made him give up public speaking for a time. At the behest of his publisher, though, he is now accepting a limited number of engagements. "You hate to tell young people about the state of the Earth," he says. "They're going to have to lead their lives, and optimism would be useful to them." Judging by its title, his upcoming collection of speeches, "Fates Worse Than Death," won't be brimming with sweetness and light, either.

Asked to grade "Hocus Pocus" on the report card he created in "Palm Sunday," his 1981 collection of autobiographical essays, Vonnegut says emphatically, "An A. Particularly in view of my age. It's a pretty good book for a 67-year-old. Male writers are customarily dead or at least burned out by 55. So I consider myself lucky to still be writing."

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