Thursday, August 13, 2009
Vonnegut: Bargain in Good Faith With Destiny
Last month at a yard sale I came across a VHS of Footloose. I'd never seen it, and at twenty-five cents it passed the "what the hell" test. Several hours later my wife and I were watching Kevin Bacon strut subversively in the corn belt, me for the first time, she for the first time since she saw the film in the theaters 23 years ago.
Early in the story there is an exchange that, due to recent events, really tickled me. High school senior Ren MacCormack (Bacon) has just moved from Chicago to a small town that - gasp! - doesn't allow dancing. He and his mom are on a front porch, enjoying a meet-and-greet with Reverend Moore (John Lithgow), leader of the anti-dance crowd, but not an altogether bad guy. Things are pleasant enough until a bow-tied prig and his wife join the group:
Bow-Tied Prig: Reverend, we have a little problem. I heard that English teacher over at the high school is planning to teach that book.
Bow-Tied Prig's Wife: Slaughterhouse-Five - Isn't that an awful name?
Ren: Oh, yeah, that's a great book.
(Long, tension-filled silence. Locals stare incredulously at Ren).
Ren: Yeah, it's a classic.
Bow-Tied Prig: (condescendingly) Do you read much?
Bow-Tied Prig's Wife: Maybe in another town it's a classic.
Ren: In any town.
Bow-Tied Prig: Tom Sawyer is a classic.
Now this is far from the best reference to Kurt Vonnegut in an eighties film. Number one would have to be his actual cameo in Back to School, when he was hired by middle-aged college student Thornton Mellon (Rodney Dangerfield) to write his paper on Kurt Vonnegut (Recall that Mellon gets an "F" on the paper, along with the professor's remark that "Whoever wrote this paper for you doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut"). The nose-thumbing quality of that appearance (complete with a profanity-laced quarrel with Mellon over whether he deserves to be paid) seems true to Vonnegut's irreverent spirit, much truer, anyway, than using his most famous book as literary ammo in a humorless showdown between enlightenment and ignorance.
And yet that moment in Footloose testifies to Vonnegut's iconic status in America. The screenwriter had scores of objectionable titles to choose from. The line could have been, "The Communist Manifesto - Isn't that an awful name?" or, "Lolita - Isn't that an awful name?" In both cases our hero's defense of the book might have given us the willies about him. Marxists and perverts tend to score low on the popularity scale. But everybody loves a hip rebel. This screenwriter knew what he was doing when he gave Ren Slaughterhouse-Five to stick up for. That's the kind of cachet Kurt Vonnegut used to have, and perhaps still did when he died last month.
Like most other Vonnegut fans, I came across him at a time in life when a locker combination was one of the numbers I had committed to memory. In the tenth grade I was ready to graduate from Mad magazine to more substantial forms of satire. A guy a year ahead of me - a most-likely-to-succeed intellectual whose opinion counted for a lot in my crowd - turned me on to Vonnegut by recommending Cat's Cradle, a work of darkly-humorous apocalyptic science fiction. Ice-Nine! Bokonon! Granfaloons! It was mind-blowingly hilarious, especially compared to the stuff I was being assigned to read at school (Silas Marner, Great Expecations). Pip in the graveyard just couldn't compete with Vonnegut's absurd parade of mad scientists, banana republics, and fake religions. Reading Vonnegut for the first time, in the midst of those ossified classics, I felt like a boy who had been assigned to rake a two-acre yard and found a box of firecrackers - with no adults around to tell me what not to blow up.
More Vonnegut books followed, but Slapstick became my favorite. It is the story of Wilbur Daffodill-11 Swain, last President of the United States, who, as the story opens, is living in the lobby of the Empire State Building in the ruins of Manhattan, which has been overrun by the Green Death, which, if I remember correctly, is really Chinese people shrunk to microscopic size. As President, Swain had tried to solve the national problem of loneliness by giving all Americans artificial extended families, based on peculiar middle names composed of a noun and a number, i.e. Chipmunk-5 or Bauxite-13. I recall that much of the book revolves around Swain's strange symbiotic relationship with his twin sister, Eliza. Both of them were so large and ugly at birth that they were thought to be monsters (and mentally retarded). Strangely, when they are together they become a pair of geniuses - when separated, they are hopelessly flawed.
All this was Vonnegut's use of farcical science fiction to write indirectly about his relationship with his late, beloved sister. He says so in the introduction to the book. I've read it many times and think of its phrases often. He suggests an approach to life that I think I still, at some level, subscribe to: "Bargain in good faith with destiny." He says that the book is "about what life feels like to me. There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on." He tells of his fondness for Laurel and Hardy, of childhood in Indianapolis and of flying back there with his scientist brother for the funeral of an uncle, and of his sister's death many years before, from cancer. He confesses how much he lost when she died because she was the audience he secretly wrote for. He writes, "Any creation which has any wholeness or harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind." For some reason these twenty pages of digressive autobiography are the Vonnegut I know and love best.
In the introduction to another novel, Jailbird, Vonnegut reports of a letter he got from a high school student who said that having read all of Vonnegut's work, he could sum up its central message in a sentence: "Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail." Vonnegut agreed. How I envied that high school student. To be an interpreter of Vonnegut, with an interpretation certified by Vonnegut himself and preserved for all time in one of his books!
My Vonnegut phase began to wane about the time I lost interest in Salinger. Yes, I liked them at the same time. Adults had two equally insufferable mes to choose from: the oh-so-clever Vonnegut reader or the oh-so-sensitive Salinger reader. Ultimately, my passion for Salinger was done in when a freshman English professor of mine made some trenchant criticisms of Catcher in the Rye. Suddenly I wasn't so keen on Holden Caulfield any more, and I left Vonnegut behind at the same time. I can remember almost precisely when and where I stopped - halfway through Deadeye Dick, sometime in the mid-eighties at a hair salon on Alps Road in Athens, GA (waiting to get my mullet trimmed, no doubt). When my book club takes up Slaughterhouse-Five this month it will be the first Vonnegut novel I've read in almost 25 years.
I was going to say here that I gave up Vonnegut because it was starting to sound like kid stuff, but looking through some of his books I am reminded that what he wrote about was never kid stuff, even if his work appeals to a younger audience. In retrospect, I think I was developing misgivings about his famously dark worldview. A while back I heard R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe use the expression "store-bought cynicism" and that may be the name for the negative effect Vonnegut had on me as a reader. He came by his cynicism the hard way, of course, by living through the bombing of Dresden, his mother's suicide, and a stint as a G.E. public relations man, but his books engendered in me an unearned cynicism about people and their endeavors. Most of the adults in my world bore little resemblance to the fools and monsters that populated Vonnegut's novels, and the jaded Vonnegutian "so it goes" (his version of "whatever") had become a recurring phrase in my mental soundtrack, when the worst thing I had experienced in life was changing middle schools in the seventh grade. And when bad things actually did start to happen, "so it goes" didn't do much to get me through the night.
But I still treasure my days reading Vonnegut. His satire was sometimes breathtaking and it was almost always aimed at a deserving target. In fact, I still think so much of him that I would never assign his books to any student. I might have been on the side of the bow-tied prig in that front porch dispute about Slaughterhouse-Five, but for all the wrong reasons - I would want to rescue Vonnegut from the teacher, not rescue the students from Vonnegut. The canonization that comes with a place on an assigned reading list - of being labeled classic - disserves Vonnegut's books. For the thrill to be authentic they ought to be discovered the old fashioned way - passed around and read furtively by teenagers who feel that they've finally found some literature that is just for them.
Posted by Jim at 11:46 PM