I’d only heard his name in passing as I read other works of fiction and science-fiction. I’m not even sure how my girlfriend got me to start reading Kurt Vonnegut: what the precise details of that moment were like but I remember other details.
It was summer of last year. I was still in the process of (procrastinating) writing my Master’s Thesis and driving myself crazy. I’d finished reading Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game–or Magister Ludi if you’d like–and I found that once I did I wasn’t really interested in reading anything else of his. But I was starving for reading material: so much so I didn’t even know that I was.
I don’t exactly remember when my girlfriend and I started talking about Cat’s Cradle, but we did and I really wanted to read it. But as I write this I remember that it had to do with her introducing me to Vonnegut’s made-up religion of Bokononism–of the concept of a karass as a strange unification of people under God or divine influence, and especially a granfalloon: the creation of a forced or “false” group of people who really have nothing in common whatsoever but–again–something forced or artificial. I’d had some personal experiences with both–and it is hilarious and fitting just how fictional concepts make human nature and interaction easier to understand–and I wanted to know more about the book from where it all came from.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find her copy. So I gave in and borrowed it from York’s library. As I was reading it and making commentary on the way as I usually do, all my girlfriend really told me at the time was that she found it “cute” that I thought I could predict how a Kurt Vonnegut novel would end or even continue.
She was right.
What can I tell you? That summer, Kurt Vonnegut–or “Grandpa” as my girlfriend likes to call him–exposed me to a world of black, black humour and rendered spectacularly the banal frailty and stupidity of the human race in such a way that was immensely entertaining. His “what-the-fuck” moments were plenty and awfully true to the strangeness of life. I started Cat’s Cradle slow. It was a deceptive little bugger: with each chapter little more than a few pages for the most part. Then as I got towards the middle I consumed each page with voraciousness and a notable lack of mercy or pity.
After that there was an old, tattered, and well-loved copy of Mother Night for my consideration: where what we consider war crimes and human atrocity, stupidity, and uniqueness essentially and cunningly “fuck you the fuck up” and your preconceptions too. The best lesson I got out of the thing that I read as I took the bus to school, lay in our bed, and even rode with my friends to a table-top role-playing game session with Lego is to be careful of what you pretend to be, because you might become it.
I remember mornings where my girlfriend forced me to go meet my friends for gaming weekends and those books accompanied me with lunch. I didn’t think about my looming school project, but I learned from Grandpa Vonnegut instead–my cynical, grumpy, literary grandfather–about life. I don’t remember the last Vonnegut book I read. It was about a man who was a former soldier and he taught at a college close to a prison. I never got farther than the chapter with him and his class looking at old and failed perpetual motion machines found in an attic.
I remember that part well. I was riding by myself back down two buses from York Region back downtown from said gaming session and the serious work around it :). It was the bus I took on Bloor in the late warm summer night: under the amber artificial lighting of the bus, the ambiance of the passing streetlights outside, the fading blue darkness in the sky. and a metal framed red-purple seat. I put that book on hold to read A Song of Ice and Fire–based on my friends’ constant pestering that I needed to–and I never picked it up again. I wish I had.
My Vonnegut education is not complete. I didn’t finish that book and my girlfriend doesn’t have Slaughterhouse Five. I hear Vonnegut likes to break the fourth wall so much after a while that he just gets fed up and it is less a spectacle and more a matter of a “I don’t give a damn” course. I can sympathize with that. I think I will be a grumpy old man like that when I’m old. I’m already half-way there with the grumpy part. Or maybe that’s crazy I’m thinking about.
I do think that you need to have time between readings of Vonnegut: just like you don’t want to eat bitter-sweet chocolate all the time: just occasionally and when the summer times come, and when you have a long bus ride far past two in the morning and you need some black therapeutic entertainment on the TTC … all the way home.