Sunday, April 15, 2007

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Kurt Vonnegut's death this week has left me with a peculiar sadness that is hard to describe. Though I enjoyed (very much) the two books of his I have read (Galapagos, Timequake) and have fond memories of my stepdad telling stories about Tralfamador, from which planet a younger brother was purported to hail, I've never really thought of myself as a Vonnegut fan. Thinking about it now, I suppose that Mr. Vonnegut might have thought about the concept of fans as slightly ridiculous anyhow. I've not yet read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle, though I have vague plans to do so in the way that I think all English majors have a list of great books they just haven't gotten around to reading yet. In spite of this all this good-natured disinterest, Vonnegut's death leaves a hole in my world that I don't think I could define better than Jon Stewart's comment, "the world got less interesting." Vonnegut was one of those rare authors who seemed to be able to work hope out of postmodernism. A comment made in a literary obituary in The Observer sums up Vonnegut's genius this way: "he told us the hardest of truths, but in the gentlest, funniest and most amiable way he knew how." I really think Vonnegut is what Mark Twain would have been like had he been an optimist.

Vonnegut's death made me think of another unexpected loss of an author whose distillation of hope from the absurd has helped me understand the human condition. Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy and all its related stories, and Last Chance to See. Though Adams' death is several years past, his passing also permeates the sense of loss I feel for Vonnegut. I think that it is increasingly rare to see such selfless truth-giving from authors, and that we're worse off without them. I don't think that their perspectives necessarily need to be lost, though, as their readers--dare I say, fans--can take advantage of a cultural tipping-point in calling to account the absurd abuse of power in the world. I don't think their lessons are being lost, we just have to act rationally irrational. Both might agree, "Don't Panic."

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