The world woke up on Thursday to some very bad news. I was jostled from my sleep by the sound of my cell phone vibrating on my nightstand, alerting me that I had just received a text message. It was short and to the point: Vonnegut died last night.
I didn’t completely assimilate what I read just then. I listened for a few minutes to the sound of the rain falling heavy in the gloom outside of my window and then I went back to sleep, deciding that going to class was out of the question. When I awoke three hours later, it was still raining. And one of the greatest voices of the past century was still gone, felled (in my small world at least) by a text message.
In reality, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died of complications related to brain damage resulting from a fall several weeks ago in his Manhattan apartment. He was the author of works that have been read by millions of people worldwide, works that include favorites like “Breakfast of Champions” and “Slaughterhouse Five,” but also more obscure titles like “Bluebeard” and “Mother Night.” You might not be aware that Vonnegut also wrote several plays, including “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” the conception of which Vonnegut describes in a letter, saying: “And then I remembered the blowhard father of a girl I dated in high school, who had heard of huge rubies to be found in the Amazon Rain Forest, and wanted to quit his job and go look for them. The rest is history.”
For any reader of Vonnegut, the rest is indeed history. Yet although moments like these may stand apart, luckily this history itself is not static (if there’s any doubt about this, read “Timequake”). He has often been called a “dark” writer, as Rule No. 6 of his rules to writing a short story points out: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” But as a writer of fiction, Vonnegut delves into his exploration of humanity by characterizing both its best and worst with the same depth of language, insight and hilarity. Because when we are observed from afar, as Vonnegut so often does in his writing, we really are hilarious. In “Sirens of Titan,” he describes sex: “New people come out of women when men and women sleep together. New people hardly ever come out of women on Mars because the men and women sleep in different places.”
This way of speculating about life is what has kept Vonnegut pertinent in the modern culture of fast food, the Internet and TV On Demand. In his 2005 collection of essays and stories “A Man Without a Country,” Vonnegut approaches everything from writing to technology to politics with the same vigor and humor as his novels — but not without the trademark sadness that has made him such a keen observer of the human condition. He writes, “If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning, big time, big time.”
I dressed myself and sloshed through the rain to lunch, where I loaded my tray and proceeded to sit by myself and stare at the people moving through the room like ants in a farm. Everyone, so busy, so driven, so motivated. I trudged to my next class, where I sat listlessly next to one of my friends. He asked what was wrong, and I told him about the text message. He nodded and said, “I’ve gotten eight or nine calls today about it. He’s probably the most important person to ever come from Indianapolis. So it goes.”
His use of Vonnegut’s frequently employed adage brought me back to the first time that I read those words, years ago in the back of a high school English class. And for the first time all day, I laughed. “Sirens of Titan” ends with the following exchange:
“‘We’re — we’re going to Paradise now?’ said Constant. ‘I — I’m going to get into paradise?’
“‘Don’t ask me why, old sport,’ said Stony, ‘but somebody up there likes you.’ ”
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.
James Braden Pollack is a sophomore in Silliman College.