Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Busy, busy, busy

We do, doodley do, doodley do, doodley do,
What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must;
Muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, muddily do,

Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.

When I was a kid, we had a bookshelf in our family room with a pretty eclectic array of books on it. I still remember some of them: Ben Hogan's Five Lessons, a Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh (Winnie Ille Pu), Frannie and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. But for some reason, the one that stood out the most was a slim novel called Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I don't know why that book intrigued me so much. Maybe it was the title. Maybe it was the cover. I'm not sure why I chose to take it down from the shelf one night and read it. I seem to remember my Dad recommending it to me. I was in ninth grade at the time and that book changed my life.

I read it all in one sitting, in a big easy chair in the living room. It was the same chair where my Dad would sit and read the paper after coming home from a long day at General Electric. We lived in Louisville at the time and General Electric was a big part of our lives. Kurt Vonnegut worked for General Electric once, too.

So it goes.

I remember very clearly how it felt, sitting there in that big chair in the living room in Louisville, and seeing those words arranged on the pages and being drawn into another world, a world of time travel and fire bombing and optometry. But there was also this other feeling, the feeling of making contact with an amazing mind. Unlike any book I had ever read, the author of this book had stepped out from behind the pages and introduced himself to me. He had made himself a character in his own novel. He had shattered the invisible wall between reader and writer and revealed a universe where there are no boundaries or rules or pretense. It was like he was inside my head, guiding me to a whole new way of thinking.

It was that night that I decided to become a writer.

After reading Slaughterhouse Five, I had to have more. I think the next Vonnegut book I read was Player Piano. The main character in Player Piano lives in a society where everyone is ranked by their IQ and their entire lives are determined by this ranking. When I was in fourth grade I was given an IQ test, the results of which led me to be taken out of my "regular" classes and away from my friends at my neighborhood school and shipped off to another school to be put into a class with a bunch of strangers. Vonnegut supposedly got the idea from the practice at General Electric of ranking and categorizing employees to determine exactly where and how they could be best used by the company. Their system was so effective it was copied by the U.S. Government. My Mom told me that once when my Dad tried to get his secretary a raise, he was told he couldn't because she wasn't in the right category. Apparently he had to figure out a way to have her re-categorized in order to get her the raise he thought she deserved.

So it goes.

After Player Piano, I read every Vonnegut novel I could get my hands on. Cat's Cradle was a big influence with its intriguing concept of a substance called ice-nine, a version of the water molecule that causes it to freeze at room temperature and eventually leads to the end of the world. Cat's Cradle also introduced the religion of Bokononism, which unlike other religions I'd studied, seemed to embrace the randomness and futility of life and yet still offered a vision of hope and love.

To me, perhaps, the quintessential Vonnegut book was Breakfast of Champions. I read it at the height of my Vonnegut craze and used it as the basis for a major book report in 11th grade English class. Vonnegut once again appears as a character who interacts directly with his own creations, even telling them that they are under his control. The book is full of Vonnegut's personal observations and bizarre musings. Reading it was like spending time with a favorite teacher outside of school. You finally got to see that he isn't just a teacher, he's also just a regular guy who's a little weird and doesn't always have the answers.

Vonnegut himself gave the novel a grade of "C."

Breakfast of Champions was made into a very bad movie starring Bruce Willis. Slaughterhouse Five was made into a very good movie by director George Roy Hill. Vonnegut gave the novel Slaughterhouse Five the grade of "A plus."

So it goes.

I continued reading Vonnegut through college. His world view and unique terminology were incorporated into my own. I have often felt "unstuck in time" like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. I have noted the absurdity of "granfalloons," groups of people who falsely believe they have some kind of spiritual connection, like sports fans or Democrats. I have envisioned a day when the "Ghost Shirts" of Player Piano rise up and destroy the mindless machinery that dehumanizes our society.

But mostly I began to see the world through the eyes of a writer.

Senior year of college I took what had begun as a journal of a road trip to California and turned it into a novel. And even when I was writing the journal, the lines between life and storytelling were not always well defined. The journey was the story and the story was the journey. I was a character in my own novel. I created myself and then observed my creation as it floundered its way through the chapters. Unstuck in time. Believing in lies. Embracing irony. Devastated by meaninglessness.

There were many other writers now to serve as guides. But Vonnegut was the one who set the tone. After college I moved to San Diego and wrote another novel. I was finally embarking on the life I had imagined that night in the living room back in Louisville. My Dad sent me a copy of Vonnegut's latest book. It was good to have him by my side. He was an old friend.

Last fall, my Dad sent me another Vonnegut book. His last. It was great to be back for a visit with my old friend and mentor and to see that the genius still lurked beneath the sarcasm and the silliness. I particularly enjoyed an essay about going to the post office. Vonnegut takes a simple act like mailing his latest manuscript and turns it into a comment on the loss of human connections and authentic experience in our high-speed broadband culture. We need more voices like his around to point out how ridiculous and dangerous we can be. And even though I haven't kept in touch over the years, I'm still going to miss him.

So it goes.

God bless you, Mr Vonnegut.