Good-bye, Unk, and thanks

By the hushed tone of my mother’s voice last night, I knew that someone close to us both had died. Barely audible through a crackling cell connection that has to run through a series of Pacific-carved cliffs to get to me, it took her five tries to convey whose passing had so depressed her: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Suddenly, the world felt smaller.

Not that either of us had ever met the great writer personally — a trifle surprising, in my mother’s case, as she spent the 1950s married to a fairly prominent science fiction writer who certainly shared many readers with Vonnegut. At the time, SF was a small, close-knit world; my late Uncle Alec regularly published short stories in GALAXY. Like Vonnegut, most of the members of that early SF community were prone to complain bitterly about how the literary establishment ignored the fact that some great writing came out in genre form.

Anybody who has read more than one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels is already familiar with the lament, I suspect. Suffice it to say that those of us who write now have every reason to be grateful to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and scores of other great toilers in the SF and fantasy genres, for proving once and for all that genre and smart, literate writing are not mutually exclusive.

In the bad old days, SF, like mystery, horror, romance, and other genre fiction, was officially held in contempt by the literati. Science fiction novels were almost never reviewed by the mainstream press, a fact that rendered Vonnegut’s undoubted popularity doubly impressive. Hard as it is to comprehend now, SF was treated a little like pornography those days: nice people read it voraciously in secret, in the privacy of their own homes, but they took wincing pains never to discuss their taste for it amongst the snobbish.

Those who admitted such predilections openly were odd, somehow beyond the pale of polite society. Such people held their own conventions, for heaven’s sake. They believed it was perfectly legitimate for adults to read — and even own — comic books. They dressed up as characters from Star Trek. They understood how computers worked.

Even today, one still bumps into literati who retain this old attitude, confusing snobbery with discernment. A couple of years ago, at one of those publishing world cocktail parties where everyone drinks bad wine, I told an eminence grise of literary fiction who sits on the boards of several major grant foundations about the memoir I was writing about my relationship with Philip. If the grand dame had been wearing a skirt, she would have instantly swept it aside so I would not touch it. “Well, obviously,” she intoned, curling her aged lip, “I never read science fiction.”

Back in the day, even well-established SF authors were often treated by the press as though their success were some sort of a parlor trick, a word-based scam to fool a credulous reading public. Philip used to do hilarious impressions of the reporters who came to interview him: “Are you well-known in your field?” they would ask the Hugo Award winner, whose work had been featured as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. “I wouldn’t know. Naturally, I never read it.”

Or, still more maddening: “Do you write real fiction, too?”

Genre fiction IS real fiction — and potentially important fiction, too. As my mother said, sighing unhappily into the phone, when Vonnegut’s PLAYER PIANO came out in 1952, readers went mad with joy, and with disbelief: no one else was writing anything remotely like it at the time.

Or at any rate publishing it, which as we writers know often amounts to the same thing.

Kurt Vonnegut (he dropped the Jr. very emphatically after his father died) wrote smart books on smart topics. He wrote in such a spare, economical style that I was stunned to learn that he had been John Irving’s writing teacher in graduate school. (Yes, THAT John Irving, king of the modern-day Dickensian novel.) His comic timing was flawless, and he had the temerity to insist — in print, and often — that writing was an important contribution to humankind.

Or, as he would have put it, mankind. Female characters were certainly not his strength as a writer, nor his focus — interesting, in someone who wrote so much about evolution and reproduction. I must admit, after a blazing literary love affair with his books so marked that I literally wore out three copies of CAT’S CRADLE in high school, he lost my attention after TIMEQUAKE, where it became abundantly clear that his target readership uniformly sported Y chromosomes.

Frankly, I felt a bit betrayed. For those of us XXers amongst his fans who had been waiting for decades for him to create a believable female character (JAILBIRD’s Mary Kathleen O’Looney was his closest, and certainly his funniest), who had been making excuses to our friends for his depictions of rape (especially in WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE), his blaming the decline in reading in the US on women writers came as something of a shock.

At least, it did to me. For years, I had worshipped the man as an advocate of art, a writer brave enough to speak out on political issues, and most of all, an unparalleled crafter of words. If I hadn’t respected him so much, the slap would not have hurt.

I know, I know: it’s customary to speak no ill of the dead, and the difference between the admiration one has for a favorite writer at 15 and at 40 is the realization that all of our heroes have feet of clay. That’s what makes them interesting as characters, over and above their achievements, those contradictions.

But — call me zany — I suspect that for the next week or two, there will be no shortage of articles out there calling attention to the genius, the humanity of Kurt Vonnegut. Already, I have read no fewer than three obituaries that claimed — unfairly, I think — that he essentially wrote the same novel over and over 19 times. (Um, JAILBIRD? MOTHER NIGHT?) Already, there is no dearth of print pointing out that SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE is an anti-war novel that has arguably influenced more readers than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

I am all in favor of everyone in the world reading both, by the way. They’re both marvelous books.

Since we’re all writers here, however, and complex, I am not going to pretend that Vonnegut’s writing didn’t occasionally madden me. It did — but it gave me many more moments of joy, and a real glimpse growing up into the power of the intelligently-applied creative word. He was a terrific writer, and we are all diminished by his passing.

To American writers of my generation, he was the cool, wacky, Einstein-haired uncle who always said precisely what he thought. Anyone who does that throughout the span of a 55-year writing career is bound to annoy his nieces and nephews a little from time to time.

In CAT’S CRADLE, when Bokononists are about to commit suicide, they say, “Now I will destroy the whole world.” But a writer’s world, particularly one as well-peopled as Kurt Vonnegut’s, is not destroyed when he dies. His vision lives on in his books and — at the risk of invoking a standard eulogy cliché — in the readers whose lives he touched.

So good-bye, Uncle Kurt, and thank you, ten million times over, for Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater — and yes, even that bimbo extraordinaire, Montana Wildhack. Thank you for the RAMJAC Corporation, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the last great realist painting, and the transformative power of the Galapagos Islands. Thank you for books that I wrote about on my college applications after reading until the covers fell off. Thank you for an entire shelf of tattered, well-beloved volumes, work I love enough to critique 30 years after I first read them. (Hey, I started young.)

The world is a better place because you lived, and because you wrote. That’s as fine a eulogy as any writer can hope to deserve. Best of luck in whatever alternate reality now contains you, and if you were right about the non-linearity of time, enjoy all of your planes of existence. Don’t forget to write — and thanks for all the good work.

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