Thursday, April 19, 2007

180. Good-Bye to All That: Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

I was at work today, and someone asked me to look over a flyer and check it for errors. I suggested changing a semicolon to an ellipsis, and a colleague asked me if I knew the Kurt Vonnegut "quote about semicolons."* I said I didn't, and she said she'd forward it to me. And she did, and that's when I realized that Kurt Vonnegut died last week.

Ray Bradbury will be next--he'll be 87 this August. And I'm not trying to jinx Bradbury--besides, that old Gothicist would probably be happy to see his mortality batted around like a shuttlecock. I'm simply watching the seconds tick on the deathclock of my youth. Bradbury may have held my hand through the Dark Ride of childhood, with eternal Autumn and music like thin breath through a thighbone flute, but Vonnegut helped me climb on the goggle-eyed bucking bronco of adulthood; and I was scared to death but ready to whoop n holler. (I cannot think of Vonnegut without a flickering under-image of Slim Pickens riding that H-bomb in Dr.Strangelove. Learn to apocalypse the easy way!) And I was thinking of him the other day--could it have been, in some unstuck moment, last Wednesday?--as I considered his warning from Mother Night that "you must be careful what you pretend to be because in the end you are who you're pretending to be," along with George Orwell's image of the young man who becomes an instrument of Empire: "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it." Perhaps Orwell's is the more elegantly worded version, but both devoted their careers to exploring the processes of disguise and deceit, and the effort to breathe beneath that mask. Vonnegut, though, was a pal of mine, if I can put it that way--as Marc Bolan once sang, "Book after book, I get hooked every time the writer treats me like a friend." He understood the American wish to be both the man in the gray flannel suit and the beatnik on the road, and could catalogue--sometimes with sad smile, sometimes in grim exactitude, the "alarms and diversions" (as another of my college-onward heroes, James Thurber, would put it) that result from such divided sympathies.

The trick, Vonnegut always seemed to be telling me, was to live in love--but to do so without pretense. I will admit, though, that I was--and maybe still am--not strong enough to do the first without indulging in the second. But every once in a while I splash some Vonnegut on my face like cold water, and it's no fun waking up, but necessary. And while a part of me, knowing he's dead, wants to cry, "What now!?" I think the more I peer at them, the more Bradbury and Vonnegut, two eighty-something Midwesterners--Illinois and Indiana, leaning on each other, square edges broken off by rivers and grudges--begin somehow to look the same, smiling like Halloween moons as the world regularly turns its face away from the light--while always insisting we look out for each other, lonely and lovelorn, and try to keep each other company, and love each other enough to pop the skins of every granfalloon with holy glee; because, as we should always remember, "a really good religion / Is a form of treason." God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, and see you sooner or later.

*For what it's worth, here's the comment, Vonnegut being his usual contrary self, giving us "a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college." Thanks, Kurt; I've been to college, and I like semicolons; indeed--and there; I've just used the word "indeed"; take that!--in this footnote alone there are FOUR semicolons. (And looking at this mess, Vonnegut may be right.)

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