Kurt Is Up In Heaven Now

Yesterday, I might have written what I believed — “Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest living American novelist” — and I don’t think I would have faced much of an argument. Oh, there might have been feeble peeps from here or there for Norman Mailer or Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, but nothing resembling a serious challenge.

Today, I don’t have the faintest idea who the greatest living American novelist is. “Kurt is up in heaven now.”

Today, I will write what I believe — “Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century” — but that won’t go unchallenged. His books blow the doors off Hemingway’s, I’ll say that. His best work stands toe to toe and nose to nose with Steinbeck’s best, and his weaker stuff is a lot better than Steinbeck’s weaker stuff. But I guess you compare best to best, so I can only say this with complete confidence: “Vonnegut was one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th Century.”

This is silly, you know — comparing and ranking very different writers, trying to pick the one winner and champion, turning everything into a horse race. I feel stupid and pathetic, because what I really want to do is write something with just one percent of the grace and power of a single sentence in a Kurt Vonnegut book.

In the previous blog post, I said, “So it goes.” I look around on other blogs. Lots of people are saying “So it goes.” Those who have read Slaughterhouse-Five understand. To everyone else, it looks like a kind of secret handshake. I can’t explain it to you, either. Every sentence in a Vonnegut novel is part of a carefully woven fabric, gaining power and meaning from every other sentence. Not one word is wasted.

I avoided Vonnegut for years. I had heard that his writing was… well, different. At that time, there were some authors noted for their verbal stunt work and determination to boggle the reader’s mind and leave him feeling stupid. But Kurt Vonnegut wrote to communicate. He had something to say. He said it so well it boggled the mind. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians were aliens who lived in the fourth dimension, who could see past, present and future all at once:

Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes == “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” says Billy Pilgrim.

On a trip to distant Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim looks at some Tralfamadorian novels:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

Kurt Vonnegut is gone, and he is still here. The many marvelous moments remain.

Read the books.