Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

kurt vonnegut
As a teenager, I was not particularly interested in novels. I lived on the second and third floors of the downtown library. The first floor was for checking out or returning books as far as I was concerned. At the time fiction seemed like a waste of time. Why read about a world that doesn’t exist when I could explore all the incredible parts of the actual world? (This naïve view would of course go by the wayside as I got older). And then there was Kurt Vonnegut. For me, Kurt was a different kind of writer. Vonnegut did not believe in clichés. There were no happy endings, no “guy gets the girl” plots which often seemed too disconnected from reality to be interesting to me. No, in Vonnegut’s writing he pulled no punches. He was undeniably dark and unflinchingly honest about the ebb and flow of life’s ups and downs. And he really loved talking about the down parts.

Kurt Vonnegut was a master at creating a world that was so over the top, so transparent about tragedy, that it ended up somehow seeming a more true representation of the parts of life that are glossed over in other writing. The absurdity of this thing that we’re all a part of, modern life, was always pulsing underneath the individual stories Vonnegut created. And yet, despite this seemingly nihilistic attitude (his stories tended to end with the death of most of the characters, sometimes all of humankind), despite the dark places he went, there was something oddly satisfying and happy about his writing and where it left the reader.

Vonnegut pushes through the individual bad aspects of his stories, the frail morality of his characters, the cruel twists of fate, and somehow managed to keep the reader from falling into despair. It’s not that he ended things happily. It’s that he did it all with a bit of a smile. Supposedly, Vonnegut was once quoted as saying: “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward”.

It’s that kind of whimsical refusal to get bogged down in the dark parts of life that is so powerful about Vonnegut’s writing. To be able to laugh in the face of the worst of calamities, even death, is the key to Vonnegut’s charm. There are rare occasions when the sheer magnitude of a piece of information is so unbelievable that the only possible reaction is to laugh incredulously at the shock of the news. However, when I heard about Kurt’s passing I finally felt appropriate in quietly chuckling at the news, just as I imagine he would.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. We’ll miss you.

Submitted by Brad Barnett
Central Library
Fiction Department

Search the JCLC catalog for a list of Vonnegut's works.


The Official Website of Kurt Vonnegut

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