Kurt Vonnegut died today, aged 84. I'm really upset about that. Somehow I hoped he'd live forever.
He was one of my biggest influences when I was growing up. I found two of his books in the otherwise desolate school library, and they were like nothing I'd ever read before. For several years, all my short stories were bad Vonnegut ripoffs, as I tried to mimic his style. Eventually, I stopped doing this, and found my own style - but elements of his style remained, the irreverence, the sarcasm, the optimism and pessimism mixed together. I love his books, how they can be simultaneously important works of art *and* the deranged ramblings of a madman.
Halfway through reading Bluebeard, years ago, someone innocently asked me what it was about. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. After a long pause, I had to say: "I don't really know..." Many of the books aren't really *about* anything, not in the "a man needs to get X so that he can achieve Y" kind of way - they just present you slices of someone's life, hilarious slices, tragic slices, and it all comes together to thoroughly entertain you. They're about everything, they're about nothing. They just *are*.
One of my favourite Vonnegut moments is, strangely, in a Rodney Dangerfield movie, "Back to School". Rodney hires him to do a Vonnegut book report for his kid, and Vonnegut delivers it in person - the punchline is that the teacher fails the kid, saying "and whoever wrote this obviously knows nothing about Vonnegut!" Later, Rodney is on the phone, complaining to Vonnegut about the work, before finally shouting "Fuck me?? Hey Vonnegut, fuck *you*!" The man himself probably thought this was hilarious - he was very self deprecating, and hated pretentious literary critics. He deliberately wrote his books in plain language, so that nobody would be excluded from reading them. So when I picked up those books in the school library, when I was 12, I found them easy to read, but incredibly complex and deep at the same time. Plus he swore, and liked drawing pictures of "assholes", like this: *
He stayed sparky right to the end. His recent appearance on the Daily Show was hilarious, his mind as contrary and mischievous as ever. I hope to have even half his energy and wit when I reach that age. And I hope he had some idea of how many people he inspired and influenced over the years. He's a big part of the person I became. And you should all go and read all of his books immediately. This is one of my favourite quotes of his:
"Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, ''Isaac is up in Heaven now.'' It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ''Kurt is up in Heaven now.'' That’s my favorite joke."
I hoped I'd never get to make that joke. But Kurt is up in Heaven now. And the world is a sadder place.