Kurt Vonnegut died.

Kurt Vonnegut, Counterculture’s Novelist, Dies” (via)

Kurt Vonnegut was part of my formative reading years, my final transition into literature. The sequence: The Hardy Boys detective mysteries (elementary school) to assigned texts (high school) and then to The Lord of the Rings and poetry (Bible college) and then the rest of the world of literature (university). That’s not to say that Tolkien and poetry aren’t literature, or that Tolkien isn’t poetic, but until I met John Irving (in A Prayer for Owen Meany), Joseph Heller (in Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut (in The Slaughter-House Five), I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to find, much less read, a book.

It seems to me that every university literature student goes through a Kurt Vonnegut phase. I’m not sure why, exactly, but it might be because he’s a little bit edgy and his works still have an air of counterculture about them. Also, his books tend to be short and easy to read, making for an easy merge into the world of words and story.

The Slaughter-House Five was the first book by Kurt Vonnegut I read and I was hooked. I loved that book. It was the first book that ever made me laugh out loud (the second was Catch-22. Both books, ironically, are about war). After that I went into a Buy Every Vonnegut Book I Can Get My Hands On. I bought them used, I bought them new, I didn’t keep up with the reading.

Vonnegut altered my view of literature, so that I no longer looked at it as an inaccessible, pretentious form, but one which could be free and quirky and fun.

In my third year of university I wrote a fifteen-page paper on The Slaughter-House Five entitled, with the appropriate pretension of academe,

So It Goes:

An Examination of Time, War, and the Representation Thereof

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five

When I got the paper back, the title had been corrected to

So It Goes:

An Examination of Time, War, and the Representation Thereof

Iin Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five

Digression 1: The professor had also written this below the title: “No cover pg; use MLA format”. I find it amusing that even though the professor was so grammatically precise, using the ever-enigmatic semi-colon, he still abbreviated “page” and neglected to end the sentence with a period.

Digression 2: I was in university for four-and-a-half years and I never managed to figure out what the hell my professors were talking about when they referred to the “MLA format”. It seemed to mean something different in every class, and no previous professor had complained about having a cover page. I guess I could have opened one of my grammar handbooks, but ignorance was easier.

Digression 3: Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why the professor crossed out “Thereof”. Granted, it was a poor choice of word, but it works, however awkwardly. I’m not sure the title makes sense without it: “An Examination of Time, War, and the Representation in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five. The representation of what? Did he just make that into a dangling verb or some such technical term (help me out here, those of you who opened the manuals)? If I take out the “the” as well, it becomes a different paper altogether, as if I was writing about “representation” as a general thing.
But nobody likes a smart-alec, argumentative student—not even the other students in his or her class.

Back to Kurt Vonnegut: the paper was written for English 317: “American Literature: Modern to Post-Modern”. I originally signed up for the class because Vonnegut’s Bluebeard was on the syllabus and I was in the middle of my Vonnegut obsession. Plus, I had already read Bluebeard and would have one less thing to read that semester. Come term time, the syllabus was changed and Bluebeard was replaced with Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories. Alas.

The next Vonnegut book I read was Breakfast of Champions, which seemed to be everyone’s favourite. I read it twice after that and, although it was a reasonably pleasant read, I still didn’t understand the fuss. I’ve been meaning to read it again.

Then I read Cat’s Cradle (excellent; Ice-nine), Galapagos (pretty good), Bluebeard (not bad, but I didn’t get it) and was stopped dead by Hocus Pocus. It was a bestseller—the book all his other book covers referred to—but I liked it least of all. The upshot was that it introduced me to the wonderfully sanitary phrase “that’s when the excrement hit the air conditioning.”

Perhaps now is the time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books again. I’ve got several unread works packed for the move. Perhaps I’ll read them as they get unpacked.

6 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut died.

  1. Simon

    I’ve always meant to, but I have yet to pick up a Vonnegut novel. Must remedy that. Put Slaughterhouse Five on my growing list.

  2. JT

    why wouldn’t someone want a cover page? I remember having to mark students on the stupid cover page.
    I too have not read anything of his – but then again, I only took one American class, and all I remember of that was Toni Morrison and Tillie Olson.
    It’s a little disheartening to realize you will never read all the people you want to – I have finally reached peace with myself that there are people I just don’t WANT to read and don’t feel guilty about it. For example, I was/am a big Canadian lit reader, but I just HATE Atwood. Ok, Surfacing was ok, and The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s about it.
    Anyway, I am rambling, but let’s just say, once you reach the 3-kid stage, the stack of books on the bedside table gets bigger, and nothing gets finished.

  3. Marc

    I hear you, JT, on all counts. Feel the same way about Atwood. I read Alias Grace and didn’t care to read more. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time. (I still have The Edible Woman on my shelf).

  4. Collette

    my favourite Vonnegut book is still the first one of his that I read: Timequake. it gets zero coverage when people talk about his books, but I loved it. I thought it was a beautiful tribute to life and I enjoyed that it read like a memoir (albeit a very quirky one). when I found out that all of his books are kind of like that, I was a bit disappointed. here I thought I’d found this unique, quirky book. turns out Vonnegut is just generally unique and quirky, which is really not a bad thing after all 🙂 Vonnegut is one of my favourites, even though the books of his that I’ve read all kind of seem the same to me.

    I’ve been trying to buy Timequake for a while, but the local Chapters never has it, I am trying to save money so I don’t want to buy $35 worth of books to get the free shipping from Chapters and Amazon, and I just haven’t gotten around to simply asking Chapters to order it in for me (you avoid the issue of shipping charges that way).

    as for Atwood, I do love her. I started with The Edible Woman and found it fascinating. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale. the rest have been pretty good. I can see how if you don’t like one, you’d not like any. although Oryx & Crake is pretty good. it’s more like The Handmaid’s Tale – if you like that, check out Oryx & Crake.

  5. Marc

    I bought Timequake several years ago (during the obsession), but haven’t read it yet! Strangely, it seems to me that Timequake is the one I always see in bookstores. Have you tried The Book & Briar Patch? What about some of the smaller bookstores?

  6. Collette

    funny! nope, haven’t tried Book & Briar. I’m actually mad at them because their history section is so stupid. it’s sorted by author, rather than by topic. bah. that was a few years ago; maybe it’s changed. I should check, buy Timequake if they have it, and then send them a letter explaining how difficult it is to find a book on Scottish history when the section is sorted by author.

    I support small business when I can, but not when they’re being stupid.

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