On an earlier podcast, I briefly mentioned the story of why I finally started reading Kurt Vonnegut. It’s actually a rather embarrassing story: I like watching repeats of Criminal Minds on Netflix while doing laundry (folding clothing is insanely boring and requires distraction). The show doesn’t always have the most erudite plotlines, but I found myself intrigued by and then identifying with the FBI agent Emily Prentiss. In the second season, she confessed to Agent Derrick Morgan that she was a “huge nerd” who loved to read Vonnegut, a fandom that they share.
I’d been told by a number of friends that I would probably like Vonnegut, but it wasn’t until this fictitious woman who is everything I want to be—strong, beautiful, and a bit of a real-life superheroine—revealed that she liked the man’s work that I actually decided to try reading it.
Let me be honest, I don’t believe in the “great American novel.” I actually loathe most classic American literature. Hawthorne is boring and preachy, Melville is so deep in the analogy of his struggles with insanity that his rantings don’t even appeal to anyone still retaining most of their own sanity, and Steinbeck and Faulkner are nearly inscrutable. Thus, I was less than enthusiastic to crack some of such a critically acclaimed American author’s work.
My local library did not have any of Vonnegut’s most popular books on the shelf when I went to look. The only one with a title that I recognized was Bluebeard. I checked it out, and it sat on my desk for several weeks, silently judging me. When I finally opened the book, I read a few pages of Rabo Karabekian’s mostly internal monologue and wondered what exactly was going on. Then I came to page twelve, where I saw this:
I find myself doing whatever she says I must do. During our twenty years of marriage, my dear Edith never once thought of something for me to do… Is this woman a friend? I don’t know what the hell she is. All I know is that she isn’t going to leave again until she’s good and ready, and that scares the pants off me.
Her name is Circe Berman.
I was hooked. I love the calculated bizarre. Even vernacular turns of phrases, if executed well, pull me in and make me laugh. But, of course, this is Vonnegut and he didn’t stop flirting with mere quirk. No, no, he has more tricks up his sleeve.
Vonnegut is also as ADD as I am, or at least, he writes in a way that appeals to the ADD mind. His story flits all over the place. In this case, the protagonist Rabo wonders gives little pieces of information about Circe Berman, about his friend and fellow author Paul Slazinger, about his relationship with his dead wife Edith and the personal fallout he experienced after her death, and most importantly, about his own childhood and the first woman he loved, Marilee. At no point can I get bored with the conversation he is having with me, the reader, because just before we reach a lull, he introduces another topic of conversation—usually one which I’ve been wondering about.
And then there are the references. These are not slippery pop culture references that are significant for a few years, remembered for a few years after that, and then forgotten, rendering the referencing material irrelevant. No, these references are to historical facts and historical tomes. “Talk about loaves and fishes!” he says, “Antibiotics would defeat all diseases. Lazarus would never die: How was that for a scheme to make the Son of God obsolete?” [I chortled with glee when I read this.] He references Armenian history, not as a joke, but with genuine pathos covered by pragmatism.
Vonnegut was a much more intelligent and interesting conversationalist than I expected, and I hope to have many more such one-sided discussions. I’ve got Slaughterhouse Five, and Mother Night waiting for my attention, so if you’ll excuse me…