Friday, April 20, 2007


I still haven't really had time to process Vonnegut's death, but I hate the fact that in some quarters he's being viewed as a kind of fossil and in others as a pop icon, which is ironic given his dark sense of aburdism, or, perhaps, in an odd, twisted way appropriate. First and foremost, Vonnegut was a writer who documented the absurdism, horror, and humanity of our modern world. All of his novels, in the ways they deal with evil profound, casual, or banal, and individuals trying to find their way in a world that tries to dehumanize, are completely relevant today.

Two things disgusted me in particular, though. One, the Fox News obituary for Vonnegut, digesting him into propaganda, unwilling to even let a dead man have his truth. The second was a list of the Essential Vonnegut in Entertainment Weekly that had four offerings: Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, and Back to School. Yes, that's right: Back to School, the Rodney Dangerfield movie. Whether the result of a lack of imagination, an idea that backfired, or whatever, I just found that to maybe sum up how ridiculous the world is right now.

Somehow it also made me think of a question a student at Trinity Prep asked me about politics. He observed that I liked to make artists and writers into politicians of a kind, or to wield political power, and that this was unusual in the real world. To which I replied with some anecdote about how Austin invested in culture and business followed while Tallahassee invested in business and became a bit of a backwater culturally, by way of proving a point I've forgotten. What I should have told him is that we in America are often dysfunctional in our idea that politics and other important matters of governance should fall to people who are either lawyers or businessmen. In Europe and in other places, it's not uncommon for writers or other creative people to run for public office, even if they don't always succeed. Here, it's treated more like a freakshow.

I'm just rambling now, but I guess my point is, in another world Kurt Vonnegut would have been an elder statesman not just figuratively, but literally. I read his novels from an early age because my dad read them and left the paperbacks lying around the house. Some of them had lurid covers and even though I didn't understand everything I read him them, I was drawn to them. When I read them later, I felt a kinship in the absurdism if not the style and enjoyed his work for many, many years. I still remember my delight in Hocus Pocus, a later novel that Salman Rushdie uncharitably slagged in the NYT Book Review. It did not deserve the abuse.



At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but agree with you on the strange reaction by the media to Vonnegut's death. In a way, it seems almost as if they feel they must make light of a man who spent so much of his career predicting how the media would become - without any of the irony or self-recognition/reflection that his work allowed for. Vonnegut more than anyone else seems to have understood what the future of mankind would look like: an endless parade of men hell bent on dehumanizing their fellows behind grandiose words and false smiles.

As for pop culture icon... well, the Discordians have long maintained several of Vonnegut's characters as sainted figures. They and the Church of the Sub Genius have also been murmuring strange plans to add Vonnegut to their respective, and intertwined, pantheons. And me, well, I place him in the same class as Alfred Jarry and Emperor Norton. I figure they must be having one hell of a tea party somewhere right now...


Divers Hands

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's why I avoid watching Fox News.

-- Mo.

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Joe said...

I contented myself with the knowledge that Kurt is one of a very select number of authors who has achieved literary immortality; his books will still be being read by both casual readers and by generations of students in schools and colleges. There are an awful lot of very good writers in the world; some never get read by as many as they should, some do but a few decades later are all but forgotten. A very small percentage remain in print through the decades and even centuries. Fox news is a small blip of noise in the face of those decades, just a newscast told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing and soon to fade to white noise. A good author like Kurt, however, is for the ages.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Beth Adele said...

Following the tangent of creative people and their role in the business and political sectors, are you much familiar with Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class? He's promoting the idea that urban centers who want to revitalize need to foster the arts communities first.

I just recently came across his work through a Studio 360 piece on the indie music scene in Omaha, Nebraska (of all places).

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes, I'm very familiar with that book. In fact, the mayor of Brisbane, Australia, referenced that book when talking about the revitalization of that city when we were there two years ago. I think that's where I was going with the Austin-Tallahassee comment. Tallahassee still hasn't learned.

I know some people have problems with Florida's book, but I find the ideas fascinating.


PS Joe--you're absolutely right.

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, did you ever get the chance to meet Mr Vonnegut?

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Steve Buchheit said...

Whenever I read Vonnegut, I heard Mark Twain. And whenever I read Twain I heard Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

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