Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut

by Tony Shea on November 19, 2012

in AUDIO, ESSAYS, IN PRAISE OF..., ME AND..., NON-FICTION

Kurt Vonnegut would have been 90 this year. His birthday was November 11th. I missed it, not that there is any grand celebration per se. I usually just read some of my favorite work of his – Mother Night, if I had to pick an absolute favorite, although I love them all, and Bluebeard, which I think of as his later day masterpiece, and maybe Breakfast of Champions, or Cat’s Cradle, or The Sirens of Titan. Some years I even read his bad books, like Slapstick or Hocus Pocus, because even his bad books are better than most people’s best efforts. But this year, I forgot.

“What can you do? It’s a busy world,” I imagine him saying to me, letting me off the hook. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great contributions to literature was his ability to throw out a short, almost whimsical phrase that would sum up a number of complex causal scenarios, a sort of irrefutable fact. In his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, every time somebody dies he writes the line “So it goes.”

I forgot about Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday this year because I was summarily exhausted from celebrating my son’s birthday, which occurred the previous day, November 10th. My son turned one year old, a prime number. El Numero Uno. 1. His birthday, as all good birthdays should, required floating chandeliers of paper hung from the trees, miniature sandwiches, and tables and chairs and cutlery, and punch, and candles, and a host of other things that needed to be purchased from various stores, not to mention a cake made from half vanilla cake impregnated with vanilla pudding and half from chocolate cake similarly impregnated with chocolate mousse that had to be picked up from the bakery an hour before the party was to begin. It’s a lot of pressure to welcome someone into the world. It would wear anybody out.

Incidentally,  there were many ladies at my son’s birthday party who themselves had been pregnant at one point and given birth to the children racing around the enclosed patio, where a fresh strip of sparkling green AstroTurf had been placed to minimize injury to this new generation, some of whom, like my son, were just learning to walk, stumbling around like a Leprechaun on  St. Patrick’s day. There were the husbands as well, standing around snapping photos, and looking at their watches. And there was a puppet show by a nice lady. And the puppets were very nice to one another,  and very polite, just like we all should be.

That’s the kind of thing Kurt Vonnegut might have written, like he does here in the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

That sounds like good advice. It’s stuck with me since I first read it back in high school. I guess I think of it as the humanist motto, and a competitor for the Golden Rule. Do unto others…God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

More than any other writer/thinker perhaps, including Jean Paul Sartre, Sigmund Frued and Henry Miller,  Kurt Vonnegut has effected my overall strategy.  Probably because his work is the most fun, even though he dealt with themes of power and control, free will, determinism, genocide, madness and war.  So it goes.

I remember reading Slaughterhouse Five for the first time when I was fifteen. I remember being impressed by the work’s bravery, it’s condemnation of the love of carnage by both the enemy and ourselves, the Germans’ mad extermination, and the Allies’ bombing of Dresden. I remember thinking its narrative structure, which revolves around the hapless character Billy Pilgrim as he becomes unstuck in time, traveling without cause or effect through the many moments of his entire life, was ingenious. And I remember laughing. Out loud. Many times.

Along with Mark Twain, whom he came to resemble in his later years, Vonnegut is one of the funniest writers America ever produced, darkly satirical, despairing the fate of the human race, while at the same time being utterly hopeful that we all might find new ways to be better to each other in the long run.

Kurt Vonnegut did not believe in the power or validity of religions, although he did seem to believe that a kind of cosmic architecture was at work, and that perhaps we were all slaves of a grand design. Who hasn’t wondered if this is all some sort of cosmic joke, at one point or another? Kurt Vonnegut was anti-authoritarian and a liberal humanist. He was, in fact, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, an office held at one point by Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Jonas E. Salk, B.F. Skinner, and Abraham H. Maslow among many other luminaries, so he’s keeping good company. He believed in kindness and that we must all do the best we can by other humans simply because of our mutual humanity–an idea that is needed now as much as ever, when we must contemplate the seemingly endless human thirst for war.

Kurt Vonnegut used the details of his own life as the basis of his fiction, whether it was living through the fire bombing of Dresden as an Allied prisoner of war during World War II, his deep relationship with his sister, his failed suicide attempt, or his time as a salesman at a Saab Dealership. His work was always part auto-biography, and even when he stepped back, his voice seems to shine through on every page.

As he says in The Sirens of Titan: “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

I guess that’s why we throw birthday parties for babies.

(Listen to Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic reading from his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions)

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) candygramformongo.com who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sandy Asher November 19, 2012 at 5:57 am

Brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing the reading and your observations, Tony.

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