OK, I probably could have, but we didn’t read Moby Dick that semester. Our instructor, an attractive woman who seemed to take quite a fancy to a certain young, aspiring writer with the chest span of a Greek god, and she was more concerned with teaching us contemporary lit. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what the class was called; Hard to remember between all the years and magic marker fumes that have occurred since.
This was a summer class so we had to read and discuss seven novels in as many weeks. Among them were “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” “Being There,” Seize the Day,” and Vonnegut’s “Slaughter-house-Five.”
Having spent two semesters in intensive creative writing classes filled with loads of interpretive fiction discussions, I tended to shine above the others in the room when it came to the more esoteric novels. Soon people wanted to join my discussion groups, assuming I would have the “answers,” as if there were any. Of all the novels we read, Vonnegut’s had the greatest impact and is to blame for everything I have done since.
Until then, I’d never actually thought of anarchy as a literary tool of self-expression. My early and mostly sad attempts at writing short stories were often abysmal descents into meandering, cliché’-riddled trick endings and great reveals. It was as if P.T. Barnum and Rod Serling made love and miraculously gave birth to…M. Knight Shaymalan? Hmmm. More on that in a later post, methinks.
For those unfamiliar with “Slaughter-House Five” (And shame on you) the novel is a loosely connected series of stories involving a man who finds himself “unstuck in time.” Employing a fascinating blend of wartime commentary and quantum physics theory, Vonnegut has his protagonist jump back and forth through his own lifetime to pivotal and mundane moments and not once does he save the world like Sam Becket from Quantum Leap. The novel itself is Vonnegut’s way of dealing with the horror of what he witnessed as a POW during the World War II allied bombing of Dresden.
My imagination was a time bomb now triggered to explode in all directions at once. Sadly, I was the only person in a class of nearly thirty who understood the book. In fact, my classmates were in awe as I provided my overview of Vonnegut’s masterpiece, some of them making that face that, as they got older, would become the look of the clueless yet somehow superior idiot with the SUV and secure home-life. I harbor no delusions that this made me a brilliant student in a sea of inferior intellects, unlike my instructor who I really think had a thing for me. I just think the average person is either incapable of or hasn’t been trained to think outside of their comfort zones.
I never had a problem with that, but I don’t think I was very good at it until Vonnegut’s sparse and direct prose showed me what I needed to be doing. It wasn’t an easy or short process by any means. I’d already spent a few years copying my favorite writers who, as I grew to mimic their styles well, stopped being my favorite writers. One must stumble before indulging in ballroom dancing, of course, and so I find it necessary that I imitated mediocre talents on my way to establishing a voice of my own.
Once the class ended and I was free to choose what I read, I ran to my local bookstore and started going through Vonnegut’s rather sizable collection. My instructor and I had discussed my newfound favorite writer so I had a good idea of which books to read first; namely, nothing she recommended. I didn’t want the academic picks, I wanted my own. During the class I’d actually purchased and read “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and loved it. Vonnegut’s ability to discuss taboo subjects such as going to the bathroom and masturbating in such cold, dispassionate sentences freed up my on writing inhibitions.
Over the years I would purchase a Vonnegut book as if it was an event, waiting months and sometimes even a year before purchasing another. I spaced it out so it took me over a decade to read his novels and short stories. Along the way I learned about the man as well.
That, I believe, is the mark of a great writer as opposed to an author who just cranks out populist books that make good movies of the week. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but is the former that will be remembered in the final moments before the sun goes forever dark.
Vonnegut broke so many literary rules with his writing he wound up creating new ones to be broken. One of those rules he broke involved not injecting oneself directly into the novel. He did just that time and time again, once even inserting his actual self into “Breakfast of Champions, the main inspiration for my novel. Writing is and should be a form of therapy, and that particular book dealt with Vonnegut’s own sense of his mortality and getting older. It is one of those rare novels I can re-read at any time.
One of the rules Vonnegut indirectly created says that if you, as a writer, decide to inject yourself into the proceedings, make sure you keep yourself at a distance and don’t actually become the story. I have now broken that rule. Any good work of creative fiction is built on some measure of self-indulgence. Any great work of fiction is admittedly so.
Without Vonnegut I might never have learned that important and lasting lesson. I might still be taking myself much too seriously and imitating forgettable writers. I might never have been able to look inside myself and see the ugliness and the beauty and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to tap into them in equal measure. What Vonnegut taught me without having ever met me was to, as objectively as possible, observe the human condition without losing the human connection. Not enough writers have learned this lesson and the world of fiction suffers because of it.
With Vonnegut’s passing, the world of letters was dealt a massive blow. He was the last of a generation of groundbreaking and innovative writers. Recently I found a copy of his final book, “A Man Without a Country” at a Borders Outlet store in hardcover for $3.99. I’d read it when it came out but have been reading pieces of it over the past week as if savoring this final running commentary by my favorite writer. The book contains two ironies:
Vonnegut came out of his semi-retirement because of what he perceived as a horrible direction being embarked upon by the Unites States.
His final book was the best glimpse into the mind of Vonnegut ever printed.
Vonnegut died the way he lived: Cynical, disillusioned, agnostic, and funny as hell. When my time comes, I hope I can say I created a body of work a tenth as brilliant and influential~
Suggested Reading List:
Breakfast of Champions
The Sirens of Titan
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
A Man Without a Country
Let me know when you've read those so I can submit a new list. You have one week!