Goodbye, iUniverse

My first royalty check

No, iUniverse isn’t going out of business.   (Well, maybe they are – I haven’t checked.)  I’ve just decided to pull my books from iUniverse.

I’ve done three books with them, and the idea of print on demand radically changed my writing career.  I mean, I have not made millions from it, but prior to the advent of PoD, I thought the only way I’d ever hold a printed copy of my book in my hands would be if I wrote a million agents and publishers and found one willing to print it, or if I payed thousands of dollars to fill my garage with a short print run, or maybe if I went to Kinko’s and printed my own copy.

Someone told me about iUniverse back in 99 or 2000, and this was around the time Summer Rain was close to done.  It was an incredibly revolutionary idea back then, this thought that I could get real copies of my book, and get them in Amazon and other book stores, and even have it so brick-and-mortar book stores (remember those?) could order copies through Ingram.

There were a couple of issues with PoD back then.  One was cost.  Summer Rain was incredibly expensive compared to the per-unit cost of offset printing a few thousand books.  There wasn’t the setup, and you didn’t have to produce a bunch of books at once and then warehouse them, which was awesome.  But selling a paperback book for thirty bucks was never easy.

The stigma was the worst part.  Back in 2000, everyone looked down at PoD as hackneyed and just another extension of vanity presses.  The party line was that real writers don’t self-publish, and you weren’t shit unless you had a book deal.  The irony of this is that the proponents of this attitude are the same people who can’t shut the fuck up about the kindle revolution.  (You know who I’m talking about.)  To some extent, this didn’t matter to me; I had a copy of my book on my shelf at home, and friends could buy it and read it, and people enjoyed the work.  That’s all that ultimately matters to me, but there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my head when the “real” writers talked shit about self-publishing.

I also didn’t have high hopes that PoD publishing would reap all of the rewards that getting a book deal with a Big 6 publisher would.  There was a lot of PoD backlash from people who dumped a book onto a PoD publisher, and then bitched and moaned when it didn’t take off.  I never saw iUniverse as anything more than a printer, and didn’t expect them to do anything more than fulfillment.  But some people thought you would just upload your PDF and your book would suddenly take off like a Dan Brown release.  Truth is, PoD involves just as much hustle as printing off copies yourself and trying to sell them one by one.

So, why am I dumping iUniverse?  A few reasons:

  • When I first started, there was almost no initial setup fees – I may have paid some trivial amount, like a hundred bucks, but it wasn’t much.  This fee went up and up, and after my third book, Lulu came on the scene with no setup fee, and that was the end of the line for me and iUniverse.  Now, their most basic package is $899, and the “Book Launch Premier Pro” is a whopping $4499.
  • All I really wanted was fulfillment and distribution.  iUniverse tried to differentiate themselves with all of this “value add” stuff that was mostly useless.  I have no need for bookmarks, press releases, book signing kits, or other crap I could get online for a dollar.  (Vistaprint is your friend.)
  • Without asking, iUniverse decided they would create e-book versions of my books and price them the way they wanted to price them.  And they made it damn near impossible to remove those versions.  So while I made a new version of Rumored to Exist for the kindle and priced it at $2.99, they made a crappy version and priced it at $3.99.
  • The per-unit pricing was too high.  Summer Rain was $29.99 on iUniverse.  The lulu version was $14.99.  The createspace version will be $13.99.  My profit is roughly the same on all three.
  • All of the processes at iUniverse are antiquated.  To find out your royalties, you have to wait for the next month’s statement.  To pull a book from publishing, you have to write them a god damned letter.  Ugh.
  • One of the things iUniverse had over createspace was that createspace is part of Amazon, which meant you wouldn’t get into B&N or brick-and-mortar stores.  With iUniverse, you could get into anyplace that used Ingram’s database.  In practice, 99.99999% of my book sales are through Amazon.  I don’t know if I’ve ever sold a book through a brick-and-mortar store.

So I wrote a letter to iUniverse and pulled my books.  (Seriously, a letter?)  There are currently only three books on there: Summer Rain, Rumored, and Tell Me a Story About the Devil, which is a journal archive from 97-99 that none of you ever bought.  The first two are already moved to Amazon/createspace.  The last one can die on the vine.  If you’re really desperate to get any of the iUniverse editions before they go away, I think you probably have a few days to grab them.  But the newer versions are not only better, but cheaper.

Next up will be hemming and hawing about what to do with all of my books on lulu, and if they should also get moved.  I should probably stop screwing with all of this and actually write new books, though.


Summer Rain, now on kindle

So I spend all week editing a book that’s set in Indiana University, and my news feeds explode with news about IU basketball. Weird how that works sometimes.

Anyway, I’m proud to announce that my first book, Summer Rain, is now available in a new edition on the Kindle, and will soon be available in print on Createspace.

This is a new third edition of the book, which contains some very light edits to correct minor typos.  There was also one change in book three involving Bloomington street directions that nobody ever caught, but now the ordering of streets when driving from Mitchell and Atwater to Colonial Crest is correct.  (Sorry, OCD.)

For those who have never heard of this before, my first book is a fictional account of a summer I spent in Bloomington, Indiana in 1992.  Bloomington is one of those midwestern college towns that normally has something like 40,000 students, and overnight in May, it becomes a beautiful little ghost town of nothing but townies and people stuck in summer school.  This was the point in my life when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and was about to flunk out of school.  I was dead broke, just got dumped, dealing with some heavy depression issues, and doing my fair share of self-medicating with barley and hops-based compounds.  I was also deep in the world of underground death metal, writing letters to obscure bands in Sweden and Japan, trying to publish a zine, and DJing a late-night show that nobody listened to.  And this was the apex of the internet, the beginning of the explosion of technology that’s making it possible for you to read this crap.  I worked with computers, these giant VAX mainframes, and ancient Macs and PCs.  So I spent a summer trying to figure out what the hell to do with life, if I could ever make money on music or if I should pursue this computer thing, and of course always trying to figure out love and romance and sex and friendships and everything else that constantly burns at a 21-year-old’s brain.

This book is huge – 710 pages in print form.  When I first self-published it in 2000, the cheapest I could price it was $29.99, and I made almost zero money on it.  But it wasn’t about the money – I just wanted to do this as a tribute to all the people who knew me back in 1992, and to those who grew up in that era, slumming it on college campuses and hacking away at C and Pascal programs in the days before the web.  So now I’m very excited that I can avoid the dead trees and make this available for only $2.99.  This isn’t the kind of writing I do anymore – it’s very much “straight” literature, and a labor of love.  But I have a lot of fond memories of that era, and of putting this thing together.

And if you do like killing trees, the CreateSpace edition will be out soon.  It will be $15.99, which isn’t three bucks, but it’s cheaper than $30.  The book’s a huge chunk of wood, and you can’t get around the pricing situation on a 710-page book, but CreateSpace did make it considerably cheaper, for the same quality book.  And I finally get to ditch that godawful cover on the first edition.

A lot of people helped me with the book, and there is now a thanks page listing them.  Thanks to everyone listed, and if I forgot you, please tell me and I’ll update it.

Okay, here’s the link to go get it on amazon.  Thanks to everyone who has checked it out!

[Easter egg that nobody’s ever mentioned, probably because only three people bought this: the car on the cover has an Indiana front plate. Indiana doesn’t have front plates, or at least they didn’t in 1992.]


Review: Editorial by Arthur Graham

I’m sick of plot. I mean, I’m sick of the unshakeable, so-called undeniable truth that books have to have three acts, a hero’s journey, twelve points, three trials, or whatever the hell archaic structure every hack writer regurgitating genre fiction on the kindle tells you that you must have in order to sell books. Maybe you do have to make something a blatant rip-off of the same exact script mainstream Hollywood has been green-lighting for the last two or three decades in order to sell millions of copies to bored housewives in flyover states, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I personally want to read.

That’s why Arthur Graham’s latest, Editorial, interested me. This novella, recently re-released by Bizarro Press, doesn’t follow the template of every vampire romance thriller the make-money-fast crowd is hawking online. It’s a clever bit of meta-fiction, which starts with a collection of vignettes that are seemingly unrelated: a narrator talking about his days as an orphaned youth, a drifter with a Kafka-esque phase shift into a snake, a world 470 years in the future where global cooling has shrunk the seas and made formerly underwater areas the new waterfront property. There’s also the metafictional appearance of an editor, working on his own science fiction story, which is (or isn’t?) the story you’re actually reading.

It’s admittedly hard to focus while in the first dozen or two pages of Editorial, as I found myself thinking, “where is all of this going?” But the stories start to bleed into each other, in an almost dream-like fashion. I then realized that each story was a ring, and as you passed through the first circle, that ring contracted, telling you just a bit more truth about the interconnectedness of the different pieces.

In my previous failed career as a computer scientist (damn you, Calculus II!) my algorithms classes talked greatly about the concept of recursion, or the repeating of items in a self-similar way. For example, when given a huge list of numbers to sort, us humans like to iterate through the list, start at the beginning and go through it in a linear way, comparing numbers and switching items. That might make sense to us, but it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things. Instead, you could define a procedure that compares the first item in the list to the rest of the list, passed into the same procedure. That means that the list minus the first item is sorted the same way, which involves taking its first item out, and sorting the rest with the same procedure, and so on. Eventually, you reach a point where you have just one item, and the base case comparison is obvious, and then you blast through this huge stack of partially completed sub-steps until everything is solved.

Editorial works in the same way. It’s asking the eternal question of what is truth and what is real, but the first half of the book involves a lot of busy-work in setting up all of these self-referential calls. (And I by no means am saying the writing is sub-par or ineffective; there’s a good deal of sharp prose and character building contained throughout.) But once you get past the halfway point, you start to hit the essential truths, the point where those recursive calls hit their base cases and make you start saying “yes! exactly!”

The book also contains a lot of reptilian imagery, characters turning into snakes, or really being snakes, which at first seemed like a curious choice. But there’s this constant return to Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, which you see prominently on the book’s cover. It’s the same as these concentric, ever-constricting pieces within the book, the archetypal representation in Jungian psychiatry of the human psyche. Since Plato, different mythologies use this idea of a snake eating its tail as the central force in the creation of life. Editorial struggles with the basic idea of if this character is alive or being created by the editor. It’s ultimately the same question we’ve always been asking.

Writing style? I’ve seen other reviews throw around mention of Vonnegut, and the book contains little scribbles and drawings similar to what V used in Breakfast of Champions.  It reminded me a bit more of Slaughterhouse-Five, probably because of the unconventional plot.  It goes blue a bit, which is fine by me, but if you’re the type who attends regular book burnings, you might not be cool with a dude who was once a snake hooking up with another dude at a truck stop, so be forewarned.

Editorial isn’t an easy read. I mean, it’s not Ulysses, but it isn’t Twilight, either. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one, and my only regret is that I have so much difficulty finding this type of book amongst the seas of detective murder mysteries and YA romance stories.  Anyway, check this one out.  It’s available in print and on the kindle.  Also stop by Arthur’s web site at and give him a holler on facebook, too.


Summer Rain Redux

I’ve spent the last few days doing something somewhat monotonous and incredibly nostalgic: importing the manuscript for Summer Rain into Scrivener.  The import itself wasn’t difficult, except that the original book was written in emacs, which meant every single line ended in a hard return, and all of the quotes were straight quotes.  Both of those are trivial fixes in Scrivener, though.

The reason for this project was to retire the iUniverse and Lulu editions, and do a CreateSpace and a kindle version.  I also wanted to hit the thing for some very basic spelling corrections, a different interior design, and a new cover.  One of the problems with that is just the sheer size of the book: it weighs in at just over 220,000 words.  I had to do the page layout in Word, and also used it as a second opinion on the spell check.  Word can deal with a book that long (about 700 pages), but not without the occasional stutter.  I think if I had the manuscript in a single Word file during its composition, the resulting bit rot of repeated saves would have quickly corrupted it.  Luckily, Scrivener doesn’t have issues with that, because internally, it’s storing the book as fifty or so files.

I had mixed feelings about this book going into the project.  It’s very much not what I’m writing anymore; it’s not gonzo or bizarro in any way.  It’s not even terribly funny.  There might be a chuckle or two in the book, but nothing like my recent stuff.  So there’s a strong desire for me to discount the book, or maybe retire it.  But I also felt some need to revisit it.  I just didn’t want to spend my time rewriting it, trying to do anything similar, or go off on that tangent of straight fiction or creative nonfiction, which isn’t really my bag.  I love to read that stuff, but I’m of the opinion that my real life is much more boring than the twisted world inside my head, and I’m probably better off trying to get that down on paper.

That said, there’s something mystical about going back through this book again.  For one, I don’t know how the hell I managed to write this.  It’s so damn long, and although it’s not as heavily plotted as a best-seller, it’s got some serious amounts of character development.  The most interesting part of this is that one of the main characters is entirely fictional.  I mean, writing semi-autobio stuff lets you cheat on the character development, because you can just ramble on about yourself, and you sort of get it for free.  But I spent a lot of time futzing over the character Amy, trying to make her believable, and I’d forgotten how much went into her story.

And it’s been twenty years this summer since the events in this book happened.  That’s a serious amount of distance, and it makes me think about what did and did not happen.  I mean, at this point, it’s hard to separate what really happened in 1992 and what I think I remember happening, and in that pre-web environment, there’s no clear way to untangle the two.  That’s always why I take great interest in when I run across an old friend from back then, or I find some old trove of photos or an old newspaper or some other relic from that age.

For example, I recently found a youtube clip from this band Haunted Garage, which I absolutely loved back then.  They were a sort of splatter-punk/metal band, sort of like Gwar, with elaborate stage antics that involved a lot of fake blood and guts.  The band only did a single album and then fell apart, but me and Ray used to worship that album, and I played songs from it constantly on my old radio show.  Watching this few minutes of interview was a portal back to the early 90s for me in a strange way, because sometimes 1992 seems like it was 18 months ago, and then I see a video like this, done on crude VHS camcorder technology, and see how it was really last century, and half a life ago.

Going through the book again was full of touchstones like this, bands I’d forgotten about, events that fell out of my brain, feelings I don’t really feel anymore.  And it makes me think about when I wrote the book, too.  I started writing this book in 1995, less than three years after the events really happened.  The difference is that when I was in Seattle or the start of my time in New York, there was still this feeling that I could go back.  I returned to Bloomington a few times in the late 90s, and although the pizza places changed hands and the undergrads looked way younger, it still felt like the same life to me.  I felt back then that I could always go back, that I was a plane ticket away from that summer I spent there.  Now, especially when I was there in December, I don’t really feel that anymore.  I still have fond memories of the place, but I know there’s no real bridge back to the era anymore.  If I moved back to 47404 and rented out an apartment and decided to start over, I would just be that creepy old guy, and not a part of the experience.

The other thing I think about when reading this book again is how the writing has some power and depth in places, how I could capture some of that emotion.  It’s not like when I go back and read Rumored again, which I still find magical and incredible; SR is pretty uneven, and there are some parts that are a total dud.  But, for example, when I read the last chapter in the book, it always feels like I nailed it.

It’s also hard to believe it was almost twelve years ago I handed this thing off to iUniverse and shipped.  I have regrets I haven’t done more in that dozen years, but I’m picking up some momentum, and I know what I need to do now, so there’s that.

Anyway, stay tuned.  I’m hoping to get the new version out there in the next couple of weeks.

(And that picture of the car above — trade secret — it’s not the VW I had in Bloomington.  I had a second Rabbit in Seattle in 98/99.  It was silver and had the moon roof and was a stick shift, but the one shown above was a two-door, and had a gas engine instead of diesel.  Yes, I bought a near-duplicate car during the writing process of the book.  That’s what you call research.)



Windows 8 is the next Microsoft Bob

I just installed the Windows 8 preview in a VM and tried it out.  My first impression: these people do not get it.

Here’s the deal: Windows 8 is basically Windows 7 with the Windows Phone Metro UI slapped on top of it.  To be fair, Windows 7 isn’t a bad OS.  I’m a Mac person, and all of my personal work is on a Mac (or iPad), but I also use a Windows 7 machine for my day job, and I’ve been using some variety of Windows for my job for decades now.  (I’m not saying I love Windows 7, but it’s relatively stable, and some of the major rough edges have been smoothed over.  I could write a book about all of the philosophical problems I have with the Windows paradigm in general, but I could also write a book using a Windows 7 machine, and I have.)  Duct-taping this huge piece of Metro on top of it hasn’t doubled system requirements and it doesn’t eat up major CPU or memory.  For the most part, if your system ran Windows 7 fine, you can expect somewhat similar performance in Windows 8.

The Metro UI: either you love it or you hate it.  I personally don’t like it; I think it looks like a poor attempt at a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme, and I don’t understand how all of this swiping and tiling is supposed to simplify life.  Based on the number of ardent fanboys furiously masturbating all over this new paradigm, maybe there’s something there.  Based on the abysmal sales of the Windows Phone, maybe not.  But if you are one of the people who are in love with this UI, the good news is that it’s now glued on top of your Windows interface.  If all of your apps are using the Metro interface, and you’ve got a touchscreen, you can interact with your PC just like your phone.

And there are two caveats right there.  Most people don’t have a touchscreen monitor.  And I personally barely want to lift my hands off the home row of my keyboard and go to my mouse; it would be an ergo nightmare to have to stop and pause and reach for the screen and pinch and grab and zoom and flick and swipe every god damned time I wanted to look at the clock or switch between apps or cut and paste or whatever.  Presumably there will be some keyboard shortcuts, but I foresee this as being a huge pain in the ass.  Plus you have to go drop another three or four hundred bucks (or more) to go get a new monitor?  No thanks.

And one of the great strengths of Windows is the ninety-eight zillion programs already written for it.  Roughly 17 of them will use this new Metro interface at launch.  That timesheet program you have to use at work that looks like it was written for Windows 3.1 is still going to look like it was written for Windows 3.1, but your magical world of touching and swiping and spinning and scratching isn’t going to work so well with its mess of radio buttons and drop-down lists that were all the rage in 1996.  And if you don’t have a mouse to fall back on and just have your fat fingers and that touch screen, forget it.

If you are a power user, and you do need to use the old fashioned mouse and keyboard, you’re probably going to shut off Metro and go back to Windows 7 and the Start menu and the same old same old.  If there’s an easy way to do this, fine.  But this means that Windows 8 offers no compelling upgrade from Windows 7, and there are going to be tons of Windows 7 faithfuls for years to come, just like there were millions hanging on to their XP systems as Vista marched on.

This system-wrapping is reminiscent of Microsoft Bob, Compuserve Wow, the harsh coexistence of DOS console programs in a Windows world, and every other attempt to reskin the complex world of Windows and dumb it down so it’s so easy your mom can do it.  You can create a really cool interface that looks like the fuckin’ Minority Report computer, but when you fire up that garbage income tax program your bank sticks you with, at best it will turn the whole experience sideways and clutter up the whole thing.  Or, maybe it won’t work at all.  Windows 8 does have a fallback, essentially running a Windows 7 desktop and explorer in its own sandboxed metro app.  But it’s as elegant as if you were browsing away on your iPad and a DOS window popped up and started a copy of WordPerfect 5.1, and you had to figure out how the hell to do a Shift-f7 on a keyboardless tablet while a white on cyan monstrosity of a window took over your display.

Here’s the bigger problem: if you are on a tablet, why do you need to bring an entire desktop OS with you?  Everyone’s talking about how Windows 8 will be the “iPad killer”, but if Microsoft thinks this Metro UI is so great, why aren’t they taking a version of the OS running on Windows Phone and scaling it up to a tablet?  When I pull out my iPad and want to look up a movie time or find out what year Leon Czolgosz was executed, I press a button and the screen is instantly on.  When I sit down for a day of work at my Windows 7 laptop, I give it the three-finger salute and wait and wait and wait and watch Macaffee scan my crap and wait and wait and eventually get to my desktop.  Why would you haul around the entire Windows 8 OS on a stripped down computer meant for quick interaction?

And why would you set your minimum system requirements for a tablet OS so high?  The iPad is a different system architecture than Windows(*), but if you could run Windows 8 on it, it would be godawful slow, and would need double the RAM and double the disk space.  And yes, the fanboys will say “well, maybe Apple sucks for releasing such a crappy tablet then.”  Sure, but how is someone going to release a competitor with roughly double the specs, and come in at a price point that doesn’t seem outrageous?  And if you do release a nicely-equipped-for-Win8 tablet, how much is it going to weigh?  How long will the battery last?  (Real world example: Lenovo has a ThinkPad tablet that uses a core i3 processor, has 4gb of memory, and a 320gb hard drive – a real, not SSD hard drive, mind you.  It’s about an inch and a half thick, compared to the iPad’s half-inch, weighs in at about four pounds versus the iPad’s 1.5, and costs about twice as much.  You may say it’s an unfair comparison because the Thinkpad is basically a full laptop cut down into a tablet, but then you can’t run Windows on a lightweight tablet like an iPad, which is my point.)

I said (*) because the iPad uses the A4, which is an ARM processor; Microsoft has said that there will be an ARM version of Windows 8.  That’s good news for tablets.  That means you might be able to use a cheaper/faster machine that’s more optimized for a tablet than your x86/64 Intel hardware.  It also means (but is unclear) that the ARM version of Windows 8 might be stripped down or more lightweight, to fit on a cheaper machine.  The bad news is that those ninety-eight zillion programs that work on your desktop Windows machine won’t work on your tablet.  You’ll need to buy new versions of everything, and that’s assuming that your software will be available in an ARM version.  That obscure timesheet program you’re forced to use?  Not available for ARM.  And sure, it’s not available for the iPad either, but this large base of software that’s a major strength to Windows is suddenly gone.

Tablets are not desktop computers.  Desktop computers are not tablets.  You use a tablet to browse the web or plink away at a text word processor or play Angry Birds.  You spend 90% of your time in a browser looking at facebook or watching YouTube; you don’t need a god damned supercomputer for this.  Yes, Microsoft fanboy, the iPad can’t run AutoCad and can’t render trillions of polygons a second, just like the Toyota Yaris can’t do 0-60 in under three seconds or haul around a concert grand piano.  Does that mean the Toyota isn’t a useful, easy, cost-effective way to drive to the mall?  Does everyone need to buy a $160,000 supercar to drive to the mall?

And why not have different interfaces for different machines?  Do motorcycle manufacturers put steering wheels and gas pedals on their bikes to offer a seamless interface between customers with both machines?  Why does my shower have this confusing two-knob system for mixing hot and cold water?  I’m a computer user; why can’t it have a QUERTY keyboard and a mouse to make the interface seamless?  Or maybe my computer should have a Hot and Cold knob, and for the 90% of the time I can’t run an app with those, I can switch over to a keyboard?

Or maybe because my next little Toyota should have a similar architecture to a large moving truck I’d use to haul around furniture.  They should make a car to compete with the Smart that contains a full-sized big-block V-8 engine.  And then, to make it cost effective, they could detune that thousand-pound engine in a 1500-pound car so it only puts out 61 horsepower, and everyone’s a winner.  Right?

Sorry, I don’t get it.  I don’t see how Microsoft is going to catch up to the hundred million iPads already sold with this strategy.


And So It Goes

I just finished reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, and have mixed feelings and unchecked nostalgia.

The mixed feelings part: the book was somewhat lopsided, but I liked it more than most of the reviewers.  Like someone reviewed it “and so it goes – into the trash,” and I didn’t have that bad of a reaction to it.  I do think Vonnegut probably deserves a more scholarly approach, something that carefully studies all of his books, analyzes their meanings and connections, and focuses less on his life.  That was the main criticism from many reviewers, that Shields didn’t “get” Vonnegut’s work, and dwelled on stuff like his assholishness and extramarital affairs.  I don’t know if he “got” it or not, but he didn’t spend the amount of time on it I would have liked.

That’s not to say Vonnegut wasn’t an asshole.  There’s plenty of examples covered in the book, from the extended divorce-or-not-divorce antics with both of his wives to the various affairs and infidelities.  There’s also all of this business about Knox Burger.  Burger was one of Vonnegut’s early champions, someone who, as the editor at Collier’s, got his short stories published; later, when at Dell, he got his books put out there.  When Burger was thinking about quitting Dell and taking the great leap into being an agent, Vonnegut whole-heartedly encouraged him to do it, and said he’d totally jump ship from his representation and come over to him.  So Burger quit, and Vonnegut told him he couldn’t do it.  There are several other examples of this kind of indecisiveness, and maybe Shields just cherry-picked some of the worst incidents and framed them to draw a morbid picture, but it’s all the kind of stuff I didn’t think about when reading Vonnegut’s fiction the first time.

I think that’s what bugged me about Vonnegut’s post-Timequake career, and this book.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as a college freshman, sitting in the IMU building on the Bloomington campus (which, coincidentally, Vonnegut’s dad helped design) and that metafictional construct of mixing himself and fiction into the same story line made me think that in some weird way, I knew him.  I didn’t know anything about him outside of his books; there was no wikipedia back then, and maybe he was in the New York gossip papers, but he wasn’t in the news out in Indiana.  I didn’t hear about the divorce news or the struggle he went through to write Timequake, and being oblivious to that stuff left the persona of Vonnegut much more impressive to me.

When I first started writing in 1993, Vonnegut was one of the writers I took a serious deep dive on.  I bought every Laurel paperback edition I could get my hands on and plowed through them all quickly.  My favorite was Breakfast of Champions, and I probably read it once every year or so, especially when I’m sick of everything else and just need something quick and decent to straighten my head again.  That said, Vonnegut was one of those lithosphere layers of literature for me, something I could easily consume and that would leave an impact on me, but all of the books blended together and didn’t have the forever scarring effect that a more difficult read might.  Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut, which meant his stuff was unique, but it also meant I couldn’t descend further into his madness.  I read the core canon of his stuff, then moved onto other things, occasionally dipping back in to reread a book out of nostalgia.

But at some point, Vonnegut started to lose his charm to me.  I think part of it was the balance between his fiction and his hashing out his personal life in the form of metafiction, until it got to the point (maybe around Palm Sunday) where there was no story and he was just throwing out straight memoir.  By then, he moved, in my eyes, from metafictional genius to cranky old man.  Timequake tried to turn this on end, with this strange twist of exploring determinism with the gimmick of time being stuck in a mobius loop, but he ultimately got dragged into this sea of autobiographical misery.  Everything he did after that was either re-releases of stories that were originally published before he his his stride, or old man rants on the state of politics in the Bush era.

So to read a whole book that contains only these personal life details was somewhat depressing.  The part of the book up to the publishing of Slaughterhouse, the bits about his struggle to find an audience, were compelling.  But after that, it feels like the back half of the book was nothing but Vonnegut waiting to die, which was incredibly depressing.  It’s not that Shields did a smear job on him; the content made it unavoidable.

Oh well.  Maybe I need to re-read some of his old books to get this out of my head.