Friday, April 13, 2007

So It Goes

The death was announced yesterday of the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr, aged 84.

Vonnegut's later work was uneven, with some of his stylistic tricks wearing thin, and he has rather gone out of fashion these days, but I believe several of his early novels will in time be seen as among the great masterpieces of 20th Century literature.

Cat's Cradle (1963) introduced the world to the fictional religion of Bokononism, which proclaims its own untruth while asserting the value of foma, the comforting lies that make humans happy. Isn't that essentially what all religions provide?

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) was prescient in its early identification of what has become a central question in the post-industrial economy: what to do with people who are no use. Rosewater's (and by implication, Vonnegut's) answer is simple: love them. Makes sense to me.

Though I doubt if it qualifies me as a member of Vonnegut's karass, I do have a slight link to him in that my late uncle was, like Vonnegut, a PoW drafted as what Vonnegut calls a "corpse miner" following the controversial 1945 bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Unlike Vonnegut, he was not able to exorcise his horrific memories through writing, and suffered attacks of depression throughout his life.

Having achieved some sort of catharsis through writing Slaughterhouse Five (1969), based on his Dresden experiences, Vonnegut never again reached quite the same heights, though all his later works, however patchy, contain some interesting ideas. His last book, A Man Without A Country (2006) was, he said, driven by his contempt for President George W. Bush.

"When you're dead, you're dead." (Vonnegut, Mother Night) So it goes - but his books will live.

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