“Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
—Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)
When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.
On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.
How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?
Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More