Tuesday, August 2, 2011

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Kurt Vonnegut, GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN.  New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

Acquired at Christopher’s Books, Potrero Hill, San Francisco.  New.

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”  (Mark Twain, not Kurt Vonnegut.  Though I kinda have the feeling they’d have gotten along.)  My generalization: Where Nabokov- subject of my last Book entry- wrote ecstatically, churning out thousands of words to produce one perfect picture, Vonnegut wrote minimialistically, bringing to bear the fewest words in the simplest language to effectively communicate his intentions.  And his intentions were always passionately moral, searing, incisive, blazing in sincerity despite being shrouded in his trademark tired and world-weary demeanor.

I love this little copy of God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (which literally took me half an hour to read; it’s 92 Vonnegut pages, which are about a quarter the length of Nabokov pages).  It’s all green, and it has a 2010 foreword by Neil Gaiman, written three years after Vonnegut died.  The book is about Vonnegut’s near-death experiments with Kevorkian (not actual), performed at a Houston prison’s lethal injection facility, which allowed him to go down the blue tunnel to heaven and communicate with many famous and interesting dead people.

(The impulse purchase of this book was serendipitous, as it was made while wandering around 18th Street after my first day of work as a website content writer; the website’s subject happens to be death [or more accurately “the end-of-life experience”].)

I can’t write as simply and effectively as him so I’ll just share a few of my favorite passages:

[on Birnum Birnum]
When white settlers came in the nineteenth century, the natives of Australia and nearby Tasmania had the simplest and most primitive cultures of any people then on Earth.  They were regarded as vermin, with no more minds and souls than rats, say.  They were shot; they were poisoned.  Only in 1967, practically the day before yesterday, were the surviving Australian Aborigines granted citizenship, thanks to demonstrations led by Birnum Birnum.  He was the first of his people to attend law school.
            There were no survivors on Tasmania.  I asked him for a sound bite about the Tasmanians to take back to WNYC.  He said they were victims of the only completely successful genocide of which we know.  Louis Armstrong broke into our conversation to say that Tasmanians were as gifted and intelligent as anybody, given good teachers.  Two members of his current band were Tasmanians.  One played clarinet; the other played a mean gutbucket, or slide trombone. (33-35)

[on John Brown]
John Brown is a Connecticut Yankee, born in Torrington.  He said there was a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who had actually encapsulated God in only six words [sic]: “All men are created equal.”
Brown was twenty when Jefferson died.  “This perfect gentleman, sophisticated, scientific, wise,” John Brown went on, “was able to write those incomparable sacred words while owning slaves.  Tell me: Am I really the only person to realize that he, by his example, made our beautiful country an evil society from the very first, where subservience of persons of color to white people was deemed in perfect harmony with natural law?”
“I want to get this straight,” I said.  “Are you saying that Thomas Jefferson, possibly our country’s most beloved founding father, after George Washington, was an evil man?”
“Let that, while my body lies a-molderin’ in the grave,” said John Brown, “be my truth which goes marching on.” (39-40)

[in the intro]
Why are so many people getting divorced today?  It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore.  It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything.  The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to…
            But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person.  The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman.  The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
            When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever.  What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:
            “You are not enough people!” (20-21)

There.  That was like half the book.

I miss Kurt Vonnegut.  He and his sad dog eyes died in 2007, when I was a senior in college and already a (comparatively) long-time fan, mostly because of Slaughterhouse-Five.  His facile, almost absurd reductions of complex realities into straightforward and seemingly unsentimental statements always seemed to unearth profound, overlooked truths.  Yet I’d add they should only be taken half-seriously.

(Why?  As a[n] historian I can’t help but balk at his cynicism-coated idealistic commitment to secular humanism and American left-wing liberalism; the deceptive, in that they were disguised, patness of his parables; or maybe it’s just a kneejerk reaction to an old-fashioned simplicity that is so at odds with the “everything is so much more complex” outlook of the academy.  Being a humanities scholar in the post-post-modern age has made me believe that there is no simple truth, that values systems are comparative and never absolute, that one person’s humane is another person’s barbaric [hypothetical Ph.D. thesis topic alert!], etc. etc. and even that all generalizations are false.  Including this one.)

((...Whenever I get too posty, though, I stop myself and say, it's better to commit to believing in something than to question the validity of everything.))

Regardless.  His moralism and his prophecy and his textual succinctness are greatly missed.  I hope where he is "everything is beautiful and nothing hurts."  Dr. Kevorkian died recently, too, but not before being immortalized by Al Pacino on HBO, like Roy Cohn was before him.

1 comment:

  1. I've always enjoyed Vonnegut, though some of his work can be devastatingly difficult to follow. Not prose-wise, mind you, but narratively. I am especially fond of Cat's Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House, sub-especially the short story about how he met his wife.