Thursday, April 12, 2007

in honour of "poo-tee-weet?", late father of "shit."

kurt vonnegut died. and i'm not quite used enough to the fact to master his iconic "so it goes." (which he derided as his own "clumsy" attempt to imitate celine's hallucinatory comradeship with death.) i'm left with the childish rudeness vonnegut said he was paid to produce (i'm not usually paid for mine, at least not much):
people had got down on vonnegut in recent years, if they hadn't forgotten him entirely, saying that his recent books were tedious repetitions of what he'd done better before. vonnegut, scouting out ahead of his critics like any good artist, thought so too. i heard him say so on a tv talkshow a couple of years ago. he said he'd felt he should stop trying to write, and had done so repeatedly, but then fell off the wagon from time to time. he also got off a couple of good lines at the expense of BushCo. the audience roared, kurt looked pleased.
good for him.
no, it feels cheesy to imitate him...and though it's shockingly simple to do passably, it's just as shockingly, and more surprisingly, difficult to do well. he is the father of a whole generation--multiple generations now--of whimsiests, but as with any father, the debt is not easy to acknowledge, can be galling to remember. the short folksy sentences and paragraphs, the ironic takes on popular culture, the "what the hell...?" licensed storyspinning, even the pictures ("my drawing of an asshole" in Breakfast of Champions): versions of these are all on the bigbox bookshelves today, they were all in vonnegut. but, at his best, the rhythms that float merrily along and then drop without warning over the falls, the brass tacks tossed in with the party balloons, the fantasy that roams at lightspeed but bounces back home...the loose-feeling but intricate braiding of all this....
so rare. (and the tics of his style, like the tics of celine's, are so contagious that you want to rid yourself of them, scratch them off anyway you can...or at least cover up where you got them.)
he welcomed asides, so here is one: there is a moment in a Sopranos episode where Christopher, the film buff gangster, seeing Martin Scorcese get into a nightclub ahead of him, shouts out impulsively, "Kundun, Marty! I loved it!" Marty doesn't turn but perhaps he heard the defense of his lesser, dissed work. any artist deserves to be judged by his/her best. the penchant to do otherwise is perverse, like harping on the one time a master casserole-maker put in too much pepper.
this has gone on too long. i wish it could have been focused, pithy, heart-catching, like kurt vonnegut at his best: Kilgore Trout crying "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" to his creator (Vonnegut)...the character who had a penis millions of miles long, but all but 5 inches of it were in another dimension...the aliens in The Sirens of Titan manipulating all of human history to get a part for their broken spaceship...the obese, good Mr. Rosewater--"This is the Rosewater Foundation. How can we help you?"--and his nemesis, venal Norman Mushari who had "an enormous ass, luminous when bare"...and the Nazi memoirist of Mother Night, who "served evil too openly, and good too secretly"--
it would be easier to multiply these examples by the hundreds, either sending people screaming from this blog or, much much better, running out to check their sources...but i'm quoting from memory, since my vonnegut books are mostly in storage with my vinyl albums from a few moves in succession back almost two decades now. i suspect vonnegut is in storage with a lot of people, metaphorically and literally.
shit. i miss all of that stuff. sometimes. i also hate clutter. it depresses me sometimes to the point where i want to nuke rooms. leaving them clean white with wood floors, ready to start again. which i suspect is, more or less, one of the main impulses behind the chaotic off-loading that, at its best, makes vonnegut's novels unforgettable carnivals, and at their worst, rummage sales.
but i remember the best and forget the worst. it's one predilection i'm thankful for.
this is already too long and cumbersome. i have to crop off other things that occur to me. it's difficult to know what to call the deceased. "vonnegut" seems too cold, too anybody/everybody if i didn't know him at all (which i didn't?). "kurt" seems too cute, too presumptuous, as if he was a friend (which he wasn't?). it used to drive me crazy when my friend spoke of "bob's" new album, meaning dylan's. it's hard to get a handle on the famous you can live with. sometimes, after they die, i don't know what to feel...or if i should, if i can, feel anything. especially if the mourning is a one-million-cannon affair. after john lennon died, i kept having the subversive (it seemed subversive) thought that he was as alive to me as he ever was. i had the songs, photos, interviews. there wouldn't be any more, but then again, there hadn't been any more decent ones in years. yet...? it was confusing. so is this.
shit. (maxim i'm learning by rote--my rote--today: the simpler a stylistic tic, the faster it gets tiresome. "shit" x "shit" = "shit" squared)
vonnegut gave kilgore trout the thought of having his tombstone read: "Somebody. Sometime to Sometime. He tried."
i suspect vonnegut, who talked openly of his depressions, imagined it as a suitable epitaph for himself. or, since he talked equally openly of his pessimism, for anybody.
i would answer it at the moment with what a character in another novel by another writer said to somebody who shrugged and said he tried:
"bullshit. everybody tries. you succeed." vonnegut, kurt, did too.


Anonymous said...

I've never read Vonnegut. He's been on my list for some time, but I fear/ed that time past. It was, in my late teens, early twenties, the people who so often read him that put me off. He seemed so much a part of the Kerouac to Pirsig to Tom Robbins schtik. 2nd rate philosophy, 2nd rate humour, little style or taste. As a bookseller I could tell within 15 paces that a guy (& it was always a guy), would ask after Vonnegut. If you didn't have him, you might be able to sell him Salinger, or the aforementioned trio, but otherwise it was splitsville. (Or Ray Bradbury: all part of the same late adolescent, battle fatigued and hung over package.)

But after this, mike, perhaps I should give him a go. Looks like Slaughterhouse or Rosewater. Suggestions?

- Dan

Anonymous said...

Slaughterhouse Five...then these 3 in any order: Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night...that is where i would start.

what you say about aversions based on author-associated types, scenes, is interesting...though in this case (obviously) we're hooked up differently...i never could finish a robbins book, and bradbury seems a stale hack compared to vonnegut at his best...though agreed there is a "best by" date for first meeting (any?) author.

good question: which author have you (perhaps unjustly) shunned due to his/her fans? (answers swim legion: 1) some horrible snobs have got between me and wallace stevens, woolf, genet....)(...oh, and rilke...i met too many "angels" reading his angels....)

biblioasis said...

I could never read Robbins either. Fahrenheit 451 is the only Bradbury I made it through.

I'm getting over some of my hangups. Cormac McCarthy had been one, as I assumed for a long time that he was just another boring historical novelist. How wrong. You mentioned Celine: he's another. Of more contemporary authors, Michel Houellebecq. Fascinating, and terribly funny, though in a very discomfiting fashion. There are certainly others...