Nov 11, 2016

God bless you, Kurt Vonnegut, and happy birthday. Also, can you stop being unstuck in time?

BYGautham Shenoy

Dear Mr. Kurt Vonnegut,
Happy Birthday! It’s November 11, 2016, and you’ve not been seen on this planet for more than nine years. But the good news is that your books are still being sold (and more importantly, being read with relish too!). And yes, people are still debating whether you are a science fiction author or not, still pondering over your love-hate relationship with the genre. Especially because you said you yourself found out that you were writing ‘science fiction’ only when the reviewers of Player Piano called you a science fiction author. And there you were, thinking all along that you’d just written a novel about life! My humble opinion? That you are as much a science fiction author as Orwell’s 1984 is a science fiction novel. You could agree, but you’re no longer alive. So it goes.
“Look, you can say what you like. I’m dead. I won’t mind.” Isn’t that what you told Neil Gaiman when he met you as you were mowing your lawn outside the arches of heaven shortly after your death; when he told you how much your books meant to him – The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughter-House Five, books he had read and loved as a child and learned from? I know this because Gaiman relates this brief encounter with your posthumous self in his foreword to God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. So I sure hope Neil Gaiman is telling the truth, and what you told him applies to your other readers as well, and you really don’t mind me saying what I like. But then, you’re dead. So it goes.
So I’ll say this — you wrote in your introduction to Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” You, sir, did a good fine job of pretending you’re not a science fiction author. But I don’t blame you. You made your reasons amply clear in your essay about science fiction that you so aptly titled ‘Science Fiction’ where you said, “I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

Five of Vonnegut’s genre-defying classics.

If it’s any consolation, you made it halfway out of the drawer-mistaken-for-a-urinal — some stores stock your books in the literary wing (even the ones that can be completely considered science fiction) and some in the science fiction section (including the ones with no sci-fi in them and even your non-fiction books). There is general agreement though on the other labels attached to your books: satire, black humour, postmodernist, counter-culture. Of course you didn’t like being labelled, and I’m sure you still don’t. There’s no way to know. You’re dead. So it goes.
Clicking on the ‘People also search for’ link after doing a Google search for ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ is quite revealing. You should try it. Assorted relatives apart, the link throws up Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, as also Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon. You made it halfway out of the drawer Mr. Vonnegut. It’s not your fault that you couldn’t — or didn’t want to – get out completely. And the blame is on you too.
After all, it is you who kept saying good things about science fiction and science fiction authors. In Slaughterhouse-Five, you made Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater, traumatized as they were by their WWII experiences, find solace in SF (‘They were trying to reinvent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was big help.’). Or the tribute, to sci-fi authors and to what they do, that you made the very same Eliot Rosewater deliver, this time in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, when he says, “I love you sons of bitches. You’re all I read any more. You’re the only ones who’ll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You’re the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die.”
The 1972 film based on Vonnegut’s book featuring Michael Sacks as protagonist Billy Pilgrim

What further proof do we need of your love for the genre than the fact that you made your most famous character, Kilgore Trout, a science fiction author. The inspiration may have been Theodore Sturgeon, but the fact hasn’t escaped us that Kilgore Trout was perhaps your alter-ego.
Sometimes people ask which Kurt Vonnegut book they should start with. Mine, by the way, was Breakfast of Champions because the blurb promised me Vonnegut magic that makes pornography seem like plumbing, violence like lovemaking and guilt like child’s play. It delivered that. Anyways, I point their attention to the grades you gave your own books after comparing yourself to yourself, and let them choose for themselves. I hope you remember the grades. If not, here they are (I think were a little unfair to Breakfast of Champions and I wish you’d graded Mother Night better as well):
Player Piano: B
The Sirens of Titan: A
Mother Night: A
Cat’s Cradle: A+
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
Slaughterhouse-Five: A+
Welcome to the Monkey House: B−
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
Breakfast of Champions: C
Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons: C
Slapstick: D
Jailbird: A
Palm Sunday: C
I tell them to read Kurt Vonnegut if they like a good read, sci fi or otherwise (since some of the above fall into the ‘otherwise’ category). If they like their stories well told with uncomplicated prose, for their relevance, their satire, their observations on humans, humanity and society, for the brilliant aphorisms and epigrams your books abound in. And yes! For your irreverence, wit and humour and the many LOL moments. You sir, are the funniest author I have read who’s written so many science fiction novels (excepting Douglas Adams of course). So far no one I know has complained after reading you or asked for their money – and time – back; they’ve all enjoyed your books, and thanks to you, I get the ‘thank yous’ just for recommending you.
Well, I’ll stop now Mr. Vonnegut. Am sure there are millions of others who are sending you birthday messages and writing you letters better than this one that you’d also be wanting to read. And I hope you do, even though you’re dead, at worst, or at best ‘unstuck in time’. So it goes.
PS: Remember that impassioned letter you’d written to the Drake Public School Board President, Charles McCarthy when you found out he burned copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the school furnace? About books being sacred to free men and freedom, and what we should let children read and why? Well, a video of it being read by this English actor called Benedict Cumberbatch keeps cropping up every now and then, and promptly goes viral. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

PPS: Remember that chap you called ‘the worst poet alive’? He just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
PPPS: Thanks also on behalf of many readers of Breakfast of Champions, who can never look at an asterisk the same way ever again.

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.