A Vonnegut Appreciation and Bipolar Disorder
I just finished reading (or rather re-reading) Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. This is the latest on my current Vonnegut binge, that has involved me inhaling Slapstick, Galapagos, Hocus Pocus, and Timequake. More Vonnegut awaits.
My first encounter with Vonnegut occurred at age 20 four decades ago when I picked up Welcome to the Monkey House. It was love at first page. In no time, I was into Slaughterhouse-Five, which had come out the year before, and then all his earlier work. I had to content myself with constant re-reads until fresh stuff came out in the form of Breakfast of Champions in what seemed like an eternity a few years later.
There was something about Vonnegut’s vivid imagination, dark humor, deep humanity, and sense of moral outrage that appealed to the youthful cynic/idealist in me. That plus the fact he was so unbelievably easy to read.
But I was young. What did I know about literature? Surely I would outgrow him the way I had outgrown Mad Magazine. One day eventually, I knew, my mind would open to the sublimity of Joyce and Faulkner and the rest. Vonnegut? He had to be a childish trifle, right?
I grew older. I never cracked open a Joyce or a Faulkner. Vonnegut became a guilty pleasure.
Six or so years ago, I ran into someone who operated a university bookstore. The kids love Vonnegut, he told me with no prompting. Douglas Adams, too.
Ah, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. I couldn’t get enough of Douglas Adams during the 1980s.
Several months ago I downloaded the five Hitchhiker’s Guides into my Kindle and began re-reading. Brilliant, imaginative, funny, but … something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps, decades later, I was finally growing up.
There was a stack of musty Vonnegut paperbacks. Someone had just left them there outside the clubhouse of the apartment complex I live in, along with some beat poets and other cool stuff. I wrapped my arms around the pile and rushed the treasures home. But then I broke off the embrace and dumped them on one of my bookshelves.
There they remained, for months on end, daring me. But what if I were to open one only to find it fell a bit flat? I wondered. What if I were to open one only to discover there is indeed less to Vonnegut than meets the eye?
Why prick a hole in my cherished recollections?
With trepidation I picked up Timequake, the one Vonnegut novel I had unaccountably not read. "Imagine this," I read. "A great American university gives up football in the name of sanity. It turns its vacant stadium into a bomb factory. So much for sanity. Shades of Kilgore Trout."
It seems that the universe had suffered a crisis of confidence and stopped expanding, resulting in everyone having to live the last ten years over.
In a flash, I was bathed in exhilaration. Brilliant I exulted. Effing brilliant!
Four decades later - the love is still there.
For an earlier Vonnegut appreciation, please check out the tribute I wrote here immediately following his death in 2007, God Bless You, Mr Vonnegut.
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John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.