bitguru blog

a guru of bits, or just a bit player?

So it goes

Posted by bitguru on April 12, 2007

Today, for the first time in 84 years, the world is without author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When I was in high school I read all his novels straight through, which pretty much means I can’t recall which events happened in which book. Still, I’m glad I did it. I should probably put in some effort to find another author whose catalog I would want to consume the same way.

I’m sure the obituaries will be ubiquitous, so I’ll be brief and mention only two things:

1) In his novel Galapagos he uses a clever device. He prepends an asterisk to characters before they are about to die. So the novel may have discussed Jane Doe from the beginning but when her name appears as *Jane Doe in chapter 8, the reader knows that she’s doomed and will not survive into chapter 9 or 10. The narrator disingenuously explains that this is to spare the reader the stresses associated with unexpected deaths in the narrative which, it is implied, may have negative effects on one’s health.

Some have argued that Vonnegut uses the device to express a diminished value of human life. There may be some truth to that, but I like to think of it as just a very effective running joke. It shows playfulness with language and disdain for conventional narrative climax. When, late in the novel, Vonnegut started slapping asterisks onto the name of an inanimate object I laughed out loud, even though I was alone at the time. I have done this only a handful of times in my life so far.

2) My father’s uncle regularly interacted with Kurt Vonnegut Sr. for business reasons. Once he dined with both Sr. and Jr., and he told me (essentially) that Vonnegut Jr. was a prodigious jerk and that he had no desire to meet the famous author ever again. I mention this not to knock Vonnegut but to present an anecdote that you won’t be reading in any of the obituaries. Perhaps Vonnegut was having a bad day, or my uncle was. Or perhaps Vonnegut truly was a jerk. He wasn’t going to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony anyway.

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One Response to “So it goes”

  1. Alan Cole said

    At 1 time I might have thought ill of the guy for coming across as a prodigious jerk way back when. Now I think it’s good that he transcended that & went on to create absorbing books & stories which bcame memorable to so many readers over such a long time. What would make me think ill of him would be if he started out as a successful & widely read author & then over time became just a prodigious jerk. One way is progress in a positive direction. The other way is the opposite. So it goes.

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