Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

I don't remember exactly how old I was when I started reading Vonnegut. My guess is 13. I think I started with Slaughterhouse Five, and then tore through just about all of his stuff, probably over the course of a few months. He was the first grown-up novelist who got to me, which is probably why he still feels so influential, even now. (Because his work is so accessible, some dismiss it as lightweight. Bullshit. Complex and esoteric are easy. A paragraph as simple most of Vonnegut's is damned hard to write. And a sentence as elegant as most of Raymond Carver's is just shy of impossible, but I missed my chance to eulogize him.)

I rarely read novels now -- just when I travel. I can't even remember when I last read science fiction. I'm pretty sure I've read better novels since I inhaled Vonnegut, but I'm not sure if I enjoyed any of them as much.

When Vonnegut appeared on The Daily Show a few months ago, he seemed only slightly diminished by time, and his powers of observation were still vital.

Here is a quote from his final work, A Man Without A Country, full of wisdom and humanity:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
I haven't read the book, but I will make the time to do it now that he is gone.

So it goes.


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