Wednesday, April 18, 2007


1. From the New Yorker's archives, here's Updike on Vonnegut's Slapstick.

2. And from an e-mail last week, here's Chrita Marri on the passing of one of his favorite authors:
I had an idea. I had what seemed initially to be an odd reaction to the Vonnegut thing, which upon further inspection I've decided was closer to appropriate than I'd thought. It's a hard thing to quantify—Vonnegut was my first "favorite writer", and to some degree because of that always will be—but if I had to give it a name, it'd be something like "thank God that's over." Which of course, isn't exactly right, in terms of identification, but it's as close as I think I can get

Here's the thing: there's obviously an element of defeatism, maybe even nihilism, throughout the work, which was leavened by the desert dryness of the humor. So I think that people tend to regard his stuff as something short of truly hopeless, because if taken literally—which I don't think it's necessarily misguided to do--it's just completely soul-crushing. And given that he himself was so present in his work, often literally (literarally?) as a character, you get a portrait of a man that's just been... I dunno, broken. Honestly, I'm hard-pressed to think of any artist who seemed to give as clear a sense of autobiography in his own not-actually-autobiographical work. In other words, I don't feel facetious saying that I felt that I knew Vonnegut, to a much greater extent than anyone else I've never met.

(I remember what might not be there, a passage from one of the nonfiction books, maybe Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, where he talked about the prodigiousness of his smoking as being a more cowardly form of suicide. Of course, I was fifteen when I first read that and naturally overromanticized the ethical contranianism of a matter-of-fact view of suicide. So it took me a while to realize that he probably wasn't kidding, except maybe himself.)

So here's what I've come to. Is it wrong to think that maybe his death might've been a relief, similar to (but not to the same extent as) we regard the death of those long suffering from a terminal illness? Frankly, if I were younger when he'd died, closer to having read all that for the first time, I might suggest something appropriate in the idea, the unintentially smug cleverness of death as, quite literally, rest punctuated with a "so it goes." It's not right to think that there's something ironic about a man so relentlessly disappointed in life living so long, counterintuitive to try to balance this with the patina of legitimate hopefulness that he used strictly as a breath freshener ("Maybe life is worth living, the finality of his long life a sly winking contradiction of his work"). His death came just as most of us—though not him!—would want it, at the end of a long accomplished life. It's too clever to think of this as an extention of literary irony, too ignorant to just ignore it. So what do we make of the man who lived too much of a life that he quickly realized he never wanted in the first place?



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