With the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, I have been affected by the death of a celebrity, someone I never met but admired, more so than anyone since Miles Davis died. I was informed of Miles’ passing out of spite by a girlfriend in the dying days of the extended death throes of our relationship. I was a voracious reader of Kurt Vonnegut after discovering him at university through my good friend Chuck.
I’ve often felt that Vonnegut was like another American institution, The Simpsons. You can read Vonnegut purely for entertainment, but there are so many layers beneath a deceptively simple veneer. Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post talked about the contradictions of Vonngeut:
In person he had the same effect as in print: He could somehow chill you with stories of a cruel universe, yet leave you inspired. He made you think. He made you want to be a better person.
Of his books, I first read Cat’s Cradle and then devoured much of the rest of his catalogue. If you’re unfamiliar with that apocalyptic book, scientists created a form of water that froze at much higher temperatures than zero, actually 45.8 degrees Celsius), called ice–nine. The seed crystal was unleashed and the world destroyed. I found out from a college chemistry teacher that there were several crystals of water that froze above 0 degrees Celsius, but not one of them had ever been called ice–nine because of Cat’s Cradle.
The books had a huge influence on my life. I remember reading Bluebeard when I was at university. In it, there is an illustrator turned abstract expressionist painter. It introduced to me to the work of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Also, it framed a debate in my own mind that was only reinforced by the passing barb from an angry friend when she said to me: “You’re not a writer. You’re just a journalist.” In the book, the main character can paint in exquisite detail, but his skill passes from creativity into a too precise realism drained of passion and creativity. It’s an internal debate that I continue to this day whether I’m a writer or somehow just slightly above a court reporter, a fast typist.
Both Miles and Kurt Vonnegut were born in the Midwest, where I’m from. As a matter of fact, Miles was born in southern Illinois, my home state. It seems only right to end with a Vonnegut quote that bridges both his writing and the music of Miles. Vonnegut was a humanist and took over the presidency of the American humanist society from Isaac Asimov. Last autumn, he said:
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD