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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.

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And so it goes

Well, Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. I’d make the “so it goes” joke, but everyone else already has.

When I started writing, there were a couple of writers that I worshipped, that got me rolling for a dead stop and toward thinking about writing fiction. One was Henry Miller, and the other was Vonnegut. I read Slaughterhouse 5 back in high school, when a teacher told me I should, but it didn’t really click. In 93 or so, I got back to Breakfast of Champions, then immediately found myself making trips to Morgenstern’s books to buy two or three of the paperbacks at a time.

Everyone called Vonnegut a science fiction writer, which I never understood. I guess there were some aliens and other weird things here and there, but I mostly identified with the fact that there was a guy from Indiana writing hilarious stories, but also creating these characters anyone could identify with, and very clearly laying out their wants or desires. He broke out of the typical structure of a story by becoming a lot more informal, a Mark Twain of the 20th century who became more of a conversationalist in the story, talking about the author more than the character, yet wrapping it all up into a neat little novel, a paperback I could easily digest and take with me on the way to school.

I never tried to write like Vonnegut, and I moved on to other writers that challenged me in ways more relevant to the writing I was doing. I always came back to his books and re-read them when I was bored. They’re the Chinese food of literature – you can plow through them fast, and then an hour later, want to read them again. I ended up buying all of his books within a year, and he’s one of the authors that takes up a good chunk of a shelf in my collection. (I think only Bukowski takes up more room.)

I saw Vonnegut in ’95, and for whatever reason, that pretty much ended up obsession. He talked at the IU Auditorium, and he seemed like an old man on the verge of death. I seriously didn’t think he’d make it to the parking lot, let alone another 12 years. Vonnegut himself was pretty coarse and random during the talk, but it made me realize he was done as a writer. He came out with the book Timequake two years later, but it was just as scattered as his talk. I guess back then, I categorized him as ended, and didn’t think much when he published his short stories, or last year’s book (which was largely just his lecture, cribbed into print with a bunch of fuck-bush screed added for sales effect.) Anyway.

—–

It’s really cold today. I went to the Air Force Academy yesterday. Colorado Springs is deceptively far from Denver – it looks like a thumb’s width on the map, but the actual drive is like an hour. Maybe it’s not that long, but I forgot my iPod, and Denver is not a radio town, so I spent the whole time flipping through AM radio, trying to find some talk radio that wasn’t right-wing bitching about why Imus shouldn’t be fired, or NPR. (And I don’t know why people bitch about the horror of Fox News, because NPR is basically apocalypse radio; if you listen to it for ten minutes, they will give you 19 reasons why the world is totally fucking ending tomorrow.) Anyway, I went to the Air Force Academy, because there are some planes there I wanted to see. But about two minutes after I cleared the gate, it started pouring snow sideways, and got to total white-out conditions. So I only got to see their B-52 and do one quick lap of the visitor center. Pictures: here.

(Aside: I think I am ditching Flickr soon. At the least, I am letting my Pro account lapse. I still don’t know the value of using it. And it makes me have to do everything twice now. Actually, I do it three times, because I do it in iPhoto. That’s another huge project for another day.)

The visitor’s center was strictly propaganda related to the academic mission of the academy, and nothing about the Air Force per se. To me, this was very depressing, because these images of well-rounded people pushing themselves and doing all of this shit in a high-caliber institution make me want a mulligan on the last twenty years so I could do something of value. I wished someone would have pulled me aside at age 15 and told me to cut the shit and run five miles a day and learn Latin and memorize every calculus book I could find. At the very least, I wish they would have told me the horrors of technical writing. There are times now I wish I could go to medical school or law school or plumbing school or something, but now that I have the time and money to do that, I don’t have the drive. I keep thinking about applying to school and doing something, but I have pretty much fucked up my academic career up to this point to prevent any kind of graduate program, and most schools won’t let you re-bachelor, because they’d rather have the grad tuition in their pocket. And anyway, what would I study? Creative writing? Computer science? Home ec? I don’t know.

In slightly related news, I did get into cooking school. They called me last night and asked if I wanted to get into the next round of classes, after the ones I tried to get into. So in May, I take the knife class, and in June, the basic skills class. This is not a professional training course like going to CIA or whatever; it’s just the bored housewives class. They are hands-on though, so maybe I’ll learn something. Or maybe this will reinforce my current belief that I should stick to Easy Mac and sandwiches.

Still working on my story for AITPL #12. It is mostly done, except it needs a way to tie the middle to the end, and that has me stumped. I mean, it’s also a piece of shit and in very rough shape, but I will finish this pass, then let it ferment a bit and get back to it. I still haven’t started the damn book I planned to write on this sabbatical, which is getting me more and more irritated. I will get there. I just hope I don’t freeze first.