This morning, as I open my web browser to Arts & Letters Daily, I see a link to a New York Times article reporting that Kurt Vonnegut has died. Vonnegut passed away in Manhattan last night. He was 84.
I haven’t picked up a Vonnegut book in years, but he and his work were a full-blown obsession to me once. There’s only one way to describe what happened when I discovered Slaughterhouse-Five in high school. I freaked out. There was something so exciting about the blend of fact and fiction. The directness of the address. ‘You are a reader and I am a writer,’ Vonnegut’s prose said, ‘and I am telling you a story. Let’s not pretend otherwise.’ And he threw in drawings and weird chapter breaks and put the obviously-memoir chunks up against the obviously-science-fiction ones because that strange brew is what he needed to get the point across. Looking back, I see now that Vonnegut was my first brush with metafiction. His writing answered to some need in my high-school brain. If I studied it hard enough, I thought, I would find an inkling of how to develop my own true and necessary voice.
The Times obituary quotes Valerie Sayres pointing out what she calls Vonnegut’s “continuing interest in the highly suspicious relationship between fact and fiction.” I have that interest (fixation?) too, and for what it’s worth, Vonnegut’s writing took it from latency into full flower.
I still have a novelette that I wrote, patterned after Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, during senior year of high school. It sits in a yellow Pee-Chee folder in my closet. And it occurs to me this morning that at the end of that year when I was seventeen, I chose a Vonnegut quote to paint on my high school class’s ’senior wall’ in the hall outside the school library. It was “All this happened, more or less,” which spoke both to my urge to document life, which I’d started to find endlessly fascinating, and my sense that high school had been in some way hallucinatory, the myths and the reality of it impossible to pick apart. Or perhaps I just felt superior for having picked something more literate than “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “It’s Been Heaven ‘97.” Doubtless that was part of it.
Point is that Kurt Vonnegut is gone and he was important to me, as he was to a lot of young people. Second point is that 400 Words is now gathering stories about work, and I was very taken by the Times’ run-down of Vonnegut’s early working life.
When the war ended, Mr. Vonnegut returned to the United States and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. They settled in Chicago in 1945. The couple had three children, Mark, Edith and Nanette. In 1958, Mr. Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, and her husband died within a day of each other, she of cancer and he in a train crash. The Vonneguts took custody of their children, Tiger, Jim and Steven.
In Chicago, Mr. Vonnegut worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. He also studied for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.” It was rejected unanimously by the faculty. (The university finally awarded him a degree almost a quarter of a century later, allowing him to use his novel “Cat’s Cradle” as his thesis.)
In 1947, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and took a job in public relations for the General Electric Company. Three years later he sold his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” to Collier’s magazine and decided to move his family to Cape Cod, Mass., where he wrote fiction for magazines like Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post. To bolster his income, he taught emotionally disturbed children, worked at an advertising agency and at one point started a Saab auto dealership.
That’s so perfect. And I think a good reminder of how just the facts of a life’s choices over time, with basically no emotional editorializing at all, can be effective and fascinating.
Kurt Vonnegut did a lot to kindle my love of a good true story. I’m not surprised that he himself had a great one.
Cross posted at 400 Words.
Cross posted at 400 Words.