| May 10, 2007

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Feature Article - May 10, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

by Robert Dale

It may seem odd that I am so belatedly eulogizing Kurt Vonnegut, who died a month ago at the age of 84. Busy student life got the best of me. Mr. Vonnegut’s death followed the closure of all the campus publications for the year, leaving me without much of an avenue for written remembrance. Any avenue still open to me was obstructed by a legion of schoolbooks demanding to be studied during the hectic climate of exam season. Nonetheless, I feel it would be improper not to write something.


By now you are probably aware of the composite parts that made up Kurt Vonnegut’s biography; his time at Cornell, his military service during the Second World War, most notably the fact that he bore witness to the horrific firebombing of Dresden; his lifelong battle with depression; and, of course, his authorship of a literary output that ranged from novels to essays to plays, a body of work whose most commonly cited exemplars are Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. Rather than plod familiar turf, I would like to share my personal remembrance of Kurt Vonnegut’s work.

For me, Mr. Vonnegut’s work skillfully combines an untrammeled, imaginative portrayal of the world’s absurdity with a sense of bruised camaraderie forged between the reader and the wandering characters who populate Vonnegut’s world. Any world-weariness that could result from such an approach is tempered by humour and the realization that these characters, like you, are overwhelmed and wandering in a world that they do not completely comprehend.

Vonnegut’s is a wonderful vision that soothed many a teenage mind, not to mention minds of all ages. I cannot say, as Jon Stewart did when introducing him on The Daily Show in 2005, that Vonnegut’s work “made my adolescence bearable,” as I didn’t encounter the bulk of his output until slightly later. It’s true that an elementary school teacher lent me a collection of Vonnegut’s short stories, the most notable of which was “Harrison Bergeron,” whose warning against the possible extremes of the “everyone is special” mentality was immensely appealing to me at the time. However, it was not until my late teenage years that I did more than dip my toe into Vonnegut’s work. Slaughterhouse Five was required reading in Grade 12, and revelatory as it was (and is), I gleefully felt that I had no choice but to voraciously consume as much of Vonnegut’s oeuvre as possible, which led me to Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, and Timequake in a short period of time. To anyone on the cusp of adulthood who is beginning to tire of rigmarole and absurdity - either on the world stage or in their immediate surroundings - these books offered a welcome sense of affirmation. Slaughterhouse Five is an excellent anti-war novel, and for obvious reasons it still resonates, but when I first read it, it took a different shape. Its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a man “unstuck in time,” thrown uncontrollably from one moment of his life to another in his recollections, a phenomenon interrupted by bouts of fantasy. Doesn’t this sound like the kind of deep introspection we’ve all been through? Breakfast of Champions also remains important to me. In large part, the novel concerns the progressive maddening of Duane Hoover, a used car salesman. Apparently, Vonnegut took a look at all the fast food joints, suburban housing, and other urban ephemera that had sprung up in the Statue of Liberty’s shadow during the latter half of the 20th century and disliked what he saw. At the time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of certain unfortunate portions of Kingston. But whatever gloom these books may have invited was diminished by humour and one of Vonnegut’s cardinal principles of fiction writing: that there must always be at least one character you can root for in any given story. Happily, such characters clutter Vonnegut’s body of work, their inherent decency, as well as that of the author, standing defiantly despite everything and allowing us to view the world more clearly.

The initial media reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s death at first saddened me, then pleased me. The nature of his work allowed for this transition. First, the sadness; in a way, the media reaction was of suitable perversity to fit snugly into one of Vonnegut’s novels, perhaps as an alternate fate for one of his recurring characters, Kilgore Trout, an oft-ignored science fiction author. Obituaries were generally kind, but the Huffington Post news ranker shows that they were relatively sparse; mentions of the fallout surrounding Anna Nicole Smith’s death and Don Imus’s casual racism dwarfed mentions of Vonnegut’s passing. It seemed that the detritus of detritus had trumped someone more worthy of attention. However, it was heartening to discover that news blogs of all kinds rarely failed to pay tribute to Mr. Vonnegut. There is justice! In the midst of rampant absurdity, the true concerns of individuals had shone through. More trifling concerns will amount to blips in history, while the writings of Kurt Vonnegut will be remembered so long as there are inquisitive minds to read them. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

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