Exactly five years and one day ago, Kurt Vonnegut — the great author, humanist and, yes, Midwesterner — passed away, and, somehow, someone or something unstuck my eighth-grade heart.
I knew Kurt Vonnegut well — in my bookshelf and in my backpack, after dinner and between classes. I knew Kilgore Trout, Dwayne Hoover and Harrison Bergeron; I knew Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater and even Montana Wildhack. I read Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard and Mother Night and conceded with some embarrassment that I didn’t really like Player Piano all that much, but maybe I’d give it another shot. I never did.
To read the entire bibliography of an author is dedication; ask anyone who has ever conquered the canon of Tolkien or fallen in love with Harry Potter. To do so at the age of 14 — living, like a Vonnegut character, in the cusp of a war I could barely understand — is admittedly unmitigated obsession. But to identify so deeply with the philosophy and art of an author in the months leading up to his own death? That’s the stuff of pure literary coincidence — the kind Vonnegut brings to life in “Cat’s Cradle” and the kind that’s stuck with me far beyond my middle-school years.
I sometimes think I learned everything I know from Kurt Vonnegut. At least, he taught me most of it, anyway. You’ve heard all the quotes before, I’m sure: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” for instance. There’s “Busy, busy, busy,” and “So it goes,” and even maybe “Poo-tee-weet?” They’re powerful, and they’re popular, too. They often find themselves stripped of context, scrawled over faded photographs of forests in anonymous Internet diaries.
The commercialization — or rather, the progressive decontextualization — of Vonnegut suits him well. Vonnegut understood the value of symbolism and repetition. He squeezed pen ink doodles into the pages of his novels and signed his name with a symbol that was half-asterisk, half-anus: contradictory and irreverent, yet self-identifying. For what it’s worth, no author since Vonnegut has signed his name with anything even remotely resembling a butt.
But Vonnegut also provided me with one of the most enduring literary torments I have encountered. Maybe I’m just sensitive, though. Anyhow, here is how “Breakfast of Champions” ends: with Kilgore Trout — Vonnegut’s infamous semi-autobiographical creation — shouting at the skies. “Make me young! Make me young! Make me young!”
It is, indeed, a harrowing image, to think of arms yearning and outstretched, begging for youth. Yet we beg for youth all the time, hoping to isolate it — to cling to it. Yishai Schwartz (“More than a wrinkle in time,” March 27) addressed the flaws of viewing college as a place separate from the cycles of life and time. This type of culture, frozen in a state of “forever 21,” seems to permeate society, too. Phrases like #youonlyliveonce and songs like “We are Young” — not to mention the existence of multiple campuswide dances dedicated to the promise of hearing “Sk8er Boi” and the Spice Girls — relish in either self-imposed immortality or self-imposed nostalgia. Time, we think, is fluid, and we seek to control it, bending it to conform to our desires.
This fluidity of time is one of Vonnegut’s central themes. Yet the idea of being unstuck in time — as Billy Pilgrim finds himself in “Slaughterhouse-Five” — reinforces, rather than challenges, the linearity that underpins our notion of existence. Rather than conceive of time as web, or a net, or even intersecting planes, time is a line — and sure, you can jump forward or jump backward, but it rails forward and backward all the same.
For the Tralfamadoreans in Vonnegut’s opus, everything that is going to happen has always happened, will always happen and is happening right now. These happenings are fixed and unchanging — even if they can happen all at once. After all, determinism won’t save you from the eventual explosion of the sun.
Yet time churns forward. Another semester ends, classes grind to a halt, another “Now That’s What I Call Music!” album finds its way to Best Buy shelves. We are not Tralfamadoreans; we can’t unstick ourselves from the moments in which we live. Yet we can revel in the wonders of existence and rebound from the trials of life, so that we may never, pitifully and universally, weep for what could have been. These are the lessons Kurt Vonnegut taught me — and, five years and day after his death — he can still teach all of us.
Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.