I know I’ve read Vonnegut before, most likely under coercion as a student.  While at Borders yesterday I picked up a book put together by the author’s son Mark Vonnegut, a short anthology of some unpublished works and speeches called “Armageddon in Retrospect.”  Kurt Vonnegut reminded me immediately of Mark Twain (who I later found is the namesake of his son).  Their literary voices are similar, but their actual voices are uncanny.  Before reading too much of the man himself I decided to read his fiction and so finished half of Slaughterhouse-Five while still at the store.  After finishing the book this afternoon I am now an unabashed fan.

Here is an excerpt that I found to be simply genius:

Billy Pilgrim padded downstairs on his blue and ivory feet. He went into the kitchen, where the moonlight called his attention to a half bottle of champagne on the kitchen table, all that was left from the reception in the tent. Somebody had stoppered it again. “Drink me,” it seemed to say.

So Billy uncorked it with his thumbs. It didn’t make a pop. The champagne was dead. So it goes.

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this :

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

* * * *

Lately, as in the last couple years, I’ve been reading primarily non-fiction peppered only sporadically with fiction.  Fiction has always been my great escape, but I have trouble finding authors that fascinate me.  In my youth it was Anne Rice.  I believe literally that The Vampire Chronicles helped me survive adolescence, no pun intended.  She wrote enough under various pseudonyms to keep me happy for quite a while.  Mario Puzo, while not especially mentally stimulating, was another author from my youth.  While Anne Rice stimulated my cognitive side, Puzo touched that machismo core that exists in every young man.  Oh, how I had wished I’d been born sicilian, or been bitten by a vampire for that matter.

These, mind you, are relatively new writers, not yet accepted as canon.  I was never exposed to the so-called classics except, as I said, under coercion in school.  What teenager could possibly find a literary work interesting when a book report was looming over head?  As an adult I can now appreciate the difference between, say, Ernest Hemingway and Clive Cussler.  Hemingway is intriguing and thought provoking.  He has a unique style that takes the reader away from familiar speech and cognitive patterns.  Cussler on the other hand is predictable in dialogue and his plots are formulaic.  His writing style is non-existent and he clearly targets the lowest common literate.  I picture Cussler re-writing sentence after sentence, trying to dumb things down in order to sell more copies.

While the above comparison is useful, I’ve been trying to create a short statement of truth that separates the airport news stand authors from the true heroes of literature.  The first one I came up with goes like this:

If I don’t require a dictionary to complement my reading then the book is not worth my time.  How could one be stimulated by an author with a vocabulary no larger than one’s own.

This seems too simple, though, and speaks only to diversity of language.  There are also, most likely, many exceptions to this statement, although none come immediately to mind.  How about this one:

Any work that can easily be made into a major motion picture should not have been literature in the first place.  It should have been a major motion picture.

I like this one much better because it is agnostic as to style, dialogue, plot, etc.  It too has holes, though.  Take the Vonnegut book I just finished.  It was made into a major motion picture in 1972.  It won several awards and Vonnegut himself praised it as, “a flawless translation of my novel,” and noted that it was, “so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”  Though I haven’t seen the film, I know that there were important things cut from it.  Slaughterhouse-five is a story within a story, but the film-makers omitted the outer story entirely.  They also added extra dialogue.

So maybe there isn’t a perfect filtering statement to separate the good from the bad, the classical from the pop-cultural.  Here is a list of great and noted authors that I recommend based on recent readings:

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Aldous Huxley
  • Mark Twain
There is one author I’ve read recently that will no doubt be listed amongst those above in due time.  Matthew Pearl has written “The Dante Club” and “The Poe Shadow.”  If you like historical fiction and are a fan of American poetry, you will enjoy Pearl a great deal.
Kurt Vonnegut died April 11th, 2007.  He was 84.  So it goes.
photo credit: unknown. please contact dlucas@tampabay.rr.com to update

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