David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

The news of Kurt Vonnegut’s death today hits me particularly hard. For me, Vonnegut was the novelist. He was perhaps the first “adult” novelist I read seriously, the first novelist I fell in love with, and undoubtedly the novelist who got me through high school. I’m sure there are millions of people out there who can say the same thing.

I’ve read just about everything Vonnegut ever published, including his obscure drama Between Time and Timbuktu and his experimental children’s book Sun Moon Star (with Ivan Chermayeff). I’ve probably read Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle at least a dozen times each. I own Philip Jose Farmer’s convincing Vonnegut ventriloquism act Venus on the Half-Shell, penned under the name Kilgore Trout. I brought Timequake with me on my first honeymoon. Just about the only book of Vonnegut’s I never got around to buying was his last collection of essays, A Man Without a Country (though I do own some of his other late output, including Bagombo Snuff Box and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian).

Kurt VonnegutMy first exposure to Vonnegut was through his seminal collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. I was probably around 13 or 14. Up to that point, my reading had consisted mostly of straightforward, unironic science fiction and fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. My other recent obsession at that time was Douglas Adams, who strove all his life to achieve Vonnegutdom with mixed (albeit funnier) results.

Then my sister brought Welcome to the Monkey House home and it quickly swept through the whole family. I was stunned. I’d never read anything like these stories. Cynical, yet wondrous; funny, yet deadly serious; childish, yet crammed full of adult insight.

In short order, I discovered that we had a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five in the home library, and devoured that in one late-night insomniacal sitting. My sister also owned copies of Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, which I quickly appropriated and wore to pieces. After that I went on a buying spree of mass-market Vonnegut paperbacks until I had bought and read all the Vonnegut I could get my hands on in those pre-eBay days. I remember eagerly passing Bluebeard and Palm Sunday back and forth to friends in high school.

Vonnegut’s lessons are the lessons that I think all teenagers should be required to absorb. They’re the lessons that saved me from completely withdrawing into my shell or going Columbine on my classmates.

These are, I think, the main lessons of Vonnegut’s work:

  • Adults take many things too seriously.
  • We all get buffeted around by powerful forces we don’t understand.
  • Religion, art, politics, and careers are largely full of shit.
  • Just because something is full of shit doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful or useful.
  • Be nice to each other. We’re all trying the best we can.

If you’re going to read one Kurt Vonnegut novel, I’d suggest Cat’s Cradle, which is probably the purest encapsulation of these lessons. The novel pits the cold and brutal scientific worldview of Dr. Felix Hoenikker against the ludicrous made-up religion of Bokononism. The adherents of Bokononism engage in silly rituals, speak gibberish to one another, hold contradictory beliefs about God, and have lots of sex. On a purely metaphysical level, the Bokononists are dead wrong about how the universe works; and yet Hoenikker’s scientific truths bring the world nothing but misery and apocalypse.

Second on your list should be Slaughterhouse-Five, which is perhaps the better written book though twice as cynical. In that book, Vonnegut writes about Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and witness to the firebombing of Dresden (as Vonnegut himself was). Like the Bokononists, Billy’s defense against the horrors of the world is to retreat into insanity. He decides that he’s “come unstuck in time” and become the plaything of a fantastic race of aliens who experience their lives by dipping in and out of time at their leisure.

Third on your list should be Breakfast of Champions or Galapagos. Or maybe Mother Night. No, The Sirens of Titan. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Hell, if you’ve read two of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and you’re not chomping at the bit to read every single scrap he ever wrote, then there must be something wrong with you.

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. The world has lost one of its brightest literary talents. So it goes.

Update 4/17/07: Boy, did I pick the wrong week to use the phrase “going Columbine.” My apologies to anyone who took offense.

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  1. J Alan Erwine on April 12, 2007 at 11:59 am  Chain link

    Very nicely written! He was a major influence on me, and he will certainly be missed. Too bad his death won’t get as much attention as Anna Nicole’s did…at least he contributed something to the world…

  2. […] predictably enough, the blogosphere (sf-nal and otherwise) is heaving with tributes. I liked David Louis Edelman’s look at Vonnegut’s work and the effect it had on him as a young re…,

  3. Alis Rasmussen on April 13, 2007 at 4:54 am  Chain link

    Many of the stories from Welcome to the Monkey House are still seared into my brain. The other only short story writer whose work had an equivalent effect on me at that tender age (early adolescence) was Bradbury.

    The offspring have read Slaughterhouse Five, but I see I must make an effort to bring more into the house asap.

  4. Max on April 13, 2007 at 4:54 am  Chain link

    Very well said, sir. Kurt Vonnegut meant an awful lot to so many of us. He will be sorely missed and the world will be a poorer place without him.

  5. Cindy Blank-Edelman on April 16, 2007 at 6:45 pm  Chain link

    As the sister who introduced you to Kurt Vonnegut, I hereby take credit for all your subsequent literary success. :-) Thanks for writing this; it made me want to go read my Vonnegut novels again….

  6. James on May 2, 2007 at 11:38 pm  Chain link

    I am 16 yrs old and I am doing a project on Vonnegut for my AP Composition class. I read this and thought it was great that you did this for Kurt Vonnegut. I love the 3 books I have read so far and i hope I can read all his works.

  7. David Louis Edelman on May 3, 2007 at 7:53 am  Chain link

    Thanks, James. You might also want to read my summary of Vonnegut’s works I did later that week.

  8. […] "Vonnegut’s lessons are the lessons that I think all teenagers should be required to absorb. They’re the lessons that saved me from completely withdrawing into my shell or going Columbine on my classmates."– David Louis Edelman […]

  9. melissa on September 9, 2007 at 4:02 am  Chain link

    I am very happy to see that so many other people looked up to Mr. Vonnegut as I did. To find someone who thought the way I did about things and had the courage to say them publicly and with such sarcasm amazes me. He is a great influence to my brother and myself, we often find ourselves saying the hi ho at the end of things.
    Hi Ho.

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