Thursday, April 12, 2007

AN OLD FART WITH HIS PALL MALLS. I heard a bunch of people today who said they read Kurt Vonnegut when they were young. So did I, tons of it. It's easy to form the impression from this experience that Vonnegut, who passed Wednesday, was a YA author: simple prose, outlandish premises, and what seemed to me then a clever fatalism that fit well with my other early and ill-digested experiences of literary despair. It's easy to forget that Vonnegut's best-known works were written from a mature perspective; he was a 47-year-old World War II veteran when he created Slaughterhouse-Five.

But I picked a copy of Jailbird out of the dollar bin a few years back, and was surprised and delighted to be reacquainted with his prose, which is indeed simple, but also sturdy enough to support all kinds of fantastic conceits -- Tralfamadorians, Ice-9 and so forth. It also supported a world view which was not, in retrospect, so much despairing as accepting, and at times wise.

Not that Vonnegut didn't recognize the absurd and unjust -- he just saw the humor in them. And his wasn't the common kind of black humor, either, with which most of us seek to neutralize our outrage when it becomes too much to bear. In fact, the absurdities and injustices that were his great subjects -- war, world annihilation, the plight of unrecognized innocents, and the decay of age -- called for something much larger than the gesundheits with which we normally brush away our little glimpses of these things. It required an epic imagination, which Gore Vidal noted in his post-mortem remarks: "He was imaginative; and our generation of writers didn't go in for imagination very much."

I see what he means: while James Jones, for instance, gut-punched his way through the feelings that the War left him with, Vonnegut wove fantasies from them -- fantasies of what might be behind the worst things in human experience that made them, well, part of the human experience. A Nazi in the afterlife, for example, from Happy Birthday, Wanda June:
It was almost worth the trip--to find out that Jesus Christ in Heaven was just another guy, playing shuffleboard. I like his sense of humor, though--you know? He's got a blue-and-gold warm-up jacket he wears. You know what it says on the back? "Pontius Pilate Athletic Club." Most people don't get it. Most people think there really is a Pontius Pilate Athletic Club.
He then figures that he should get a warmup jacket ("we got very good tailor shops up here") bearing the name of the man who killed him. This is utterly fantastic, but that a Nazi might react this way to Christian forgiveness is very easy to believe.

Much later, when age oppressed him, Vonnegut wrote books like Jailbird, in which an old man who, despite his best intentions, finds himself a convicted Watergate felon, muses on the grand caprices of fate as he watches a dog at play:
I observe how profoundly serious Nature has made her about a rubber ice-cream cone -- brown rubber cone, pink rubber ice-cream. I have to wonder what equally ridiculous commitments to bits of trash I myself have made. Not that it matters at all. We are all here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure. The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.
He may have been brought to this understanding because of the outrageously grim twists in his own fortunes, but his epiphany comes from a dog with a rubber ice-cream cone. This is absurd but, I think, more dignified than most absurdism. It is an insight into the universal via the particular, which is the business of first-rate writers.

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