Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Vonnegut saved fiction

I thought I'd held fiction's head underwater long enough to drown it. Then Kurt Vonnegut saved it. It's not the first time he's done it. And he doesn't work alone.

Vonnegut first saved fiction while I was in college. I was uncovering the secrets of the Universe in the poems and proverbs of William Blake, the dialogues of Plato, the scientific mysticism of Fritjof Capra, the interconnectedness of Buddhism and the aphorisms of Nietzsche. What did I need fiction for? The highfalutin make believe of blowhards.

But "Slaughterhouse-Five" is short and I'm on break... And "Cat's Cradle," and then I remembered why fiction mattered. How, in Vonnegut's hands and voice, it doesn't take itself all that seriously, but does; is irreverent, but genuine, is made up and autobiographical; imparts philosophy without preaching.

There have been co-conspirators: trying to navigate the mind and work of James Joyce in school; discovering and devouring Tom Robbins when graduate school for philosophy didn't happen; backing into David Mitchell while writing speeches and feature articles. When I think I need to back slowly out of fiction's room, someone taps me on the shoulder.

This past week in Ocean City, I was unmotivated by a novel I was reading. I'm searching for a job, wondering where life is going, if the girls had sunscreen on them, if the beer has enough ice on it, you know, equally important existential questions. Fiction, I got no time for you. And then I start looking at titles of books on the beach house's shelves. And there is "Bluebeard," a Vonnegut I haven't read.

I picked it up and half finished it in a day. We were leaving the beach, so I picked up my own copy at a book store on the way home. In the midst of job applications, getting rid of a tree in the yard, feeding kids, Vonnegut seeps into the day. "Bluebeard" is finished. Fiction matters. Its ideas. Its voice. Its humor.

Vonnegut has saved it. Again.

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