12 April 2007

Billy Pilgrim

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
American novelist

Like a lot of brainy, vaguely disaffected folks, I read a lot of Mr Vonnegut's writing when I was a teenager. As time went on, I got tired of the self-indulgent clowning that consumed much of novels like Breakfast of Champions, and was disappointed by the Cranky Old Guy rôle he took on late in life.

But Vonnegut did write Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat's Cradle, and either one of those would be more than enough to qualify him as a Great American.

My favourite of his novels was neither of these, but rather his lesser-known little book Mother Night. It's about the moral challenges one faces living in the face of political oppression—which being Vonnegut's work, is a good deal more entertaining than I make it sound. Its lesson is simple, and timely for our current age: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I'm going to have to track down a copy to reread in honour of his passing.

You might want to check it out, too. It's short, lively, and will make you think, I promise. In the meantime, I just have my father's favourite passage from Slaughterhouse 5:

He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

(Image from a collection of other quotes from Slaughterhouse Five.)

Cracking good writing, and now we'll never hear any more from him.

Update: Warren Ellis says a few words, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper offers several more, the city of San Francisco remembers, Salon collects some famous folks' remembrances, and Content Love Knowles offers a quote from him appropriate for this moment.

I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored.

And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in heaven now.” That's my favorite joke.

Kurt is up in Heaven now. So it goes.

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