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Monday, April 11, 2011

On the fourth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death

During my freshman year of high school, fresh off an assigned (and traumatic) reading of Elie Wiesel's Night, I was presented with a choice: Ayn Rand or Kurt Vonnegut.

True! I was literally presented with a literary choice. A friend, a young woman my age with bushy brown hair and a wealthy pedigree, mentioned that she was reading Atlas Shrugged. Since at the time I was toying with heterosexuality and found it kind of hot that someone--anyone, really--was reading a three-pound book, I'd decided I had a crush on this young woman. I decided perhaps the best way to nurture this ill-conceived forced crush was to get into the authors she was interested in. Ayn Rand? Certainly. I'll give it a shot.

And did!

Except at the same time another person--a young man with wavy blond hair and James Joyce glasses, with a unique fashion sense and a serene face, suggested I try Vonnegut. He said it in an off-hand way after a class discussion of the Holocaust during which I expressed my shock and horror over Wiesel's story: "Marc, you should try Kurt Vonnegut."

Rather than explain I was already embarking on the journey to discover 'Who is John Galt?' I simply swallowed. "Vonnegut," I repeated. "Got it." His eyes were blue, which is to say they were all the things blue eyes need to be: deep, curious, reflective, cool, mystifying to those of us with muddy brown eyes. "I've read..." Trailed off.


"Read, like, this thing he wrote. For an introduction for a collection. Of Mark Twain. He used to be Kurt Vonnegut, junior, right, but he says in the introduction that he devoured the junior in a fit of Freudian cannibalism."

"Kurt Vonnegut, jr. That's right."

While I continued my forced crush on the young women, and continued my half-hearted attempt to get thru Atlas Shrugged, conspicuously balancing the tower of Rand on my knee each morning before school, I also slipped Vonnegut's best known work--Slaughterhouse Five-- in my bookbag, and when I tired of both the forced crush and the dense Rand prose I'd switch. I'd pull out Vonnegut and place the book low in my lap, bending over the small slim paperback while using my left hand to cover the front of the book. So for a few days, here's what I'd read:

Rand: "Every man builds his world in his own image," he said. "He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power, he abdicates the status of man, and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence – by his own choice."

Vonnegut: "'I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,' I said. 'The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned to the ground, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he's given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad.'"

Rand: "She was speaking with a swift, bright certainty, conscious of nothing but the joy of performing her natural function in her natural world where nothing could take precedence over the act of offering a solution to a problem."

Vonnegut: "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."

Here's what I got out of my short-lived concurrent reading of Rand and Vonnegut: Vonnegut knew language, and Rand didn't. Also, Rand didn't know humanity, and Vonnegut did. I also learned I was incredibly, naturally crushing on the young man with the blond hair and the complex blue eyes, and didn't give a damn about the rich young woman with the bushy hair. After a few days of dueling books, I gave up on Rand and devoured Vonnegut. I moved from one of his books to the next, and then moved back again, reading them all, then again, then picking my favorites and reading them again.

Favorite Vonnegut quote (from The Sirens of Titan): "The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn't want to be used by anybody."

Favorite Rand quote: "."

Interestingly, last Saturday I was walking along West 35th St. to meet Greg at his new office. I was behind two young people, maybe 17 or 18, a young guy and girl. They were holding hands, and talking in the braying, brash, slang-infested language of urban youths. The young woman--who did, in fact, have bushy brown hair--was wearing a hoodie. On the back of the hoodie was this, airbrushed onto the black knit fabric:

And, yeah, I smiled. And thought about how much Vonnegut meant to me in high school and how much he still means to me. And then I met up with the tall, thin young man with the wavy brown hair and the dark brown eyes that do all the things brown eyes are supposed to do.

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