Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shoot, the Player Piano Player Dead, at 84

Kurt Vonnegut died, a few weeks after he absorbed injuries to the brain in a fall. For me he is up there with Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Pynchon as a great American writer of my life time. He looked something like Mark Twain and he filled the role manfully during his life here on terra firma, until he died, at 84.

You have to think a defining event for Vonnegut was the Bombing of Dresden .. a great historical event but seldom noted. As a POW, he happened to be in Dresden when the Allies firebombed it toward the end of World War II. A lot of our fathers were maimed in some way or another by the WWII experience. Like Joseph Heller, Vonnegut steadily wrote, and finally snuck up on this subject. He wrote about it most especially in Slaughter-House Five [assumedly the name of the underground meat locker he as a POW was working in making vitamin supplements for his captors when the British and the Americans deliberately created a firestorm upon the city].

He was a master of the elliptical and the fragmentary. Jumped time. Post modern before there was modern. And a guy’s guy. He considered alternative universes in prose. Brought a whole new tone to science fiction, maybe in order to make ends meet, but to important effect nonetheless. He was called a comic book philosopher. What do we need more?

He was a paperback guy. His early novels were not deemed heavy enough for hard cover. Which was perfect!

He worked in public relations [at GE] and sold cars – imports, in my parent’s adopted home of Hingham, Mass., in fact. I discovered reading his own bit, that, having three kids and hard scrabbling, he adopted his dead sister’s children [she dead of cancer one day, her husband dead in a train accident three days later]. Gotta give his wife credit too…but he was in a unique position to comment as the corpses ‘created by military science’ piled high in Vietnam.

What I had completely forgotten was Player Piano [1952], his first book which I bought at Shorecrest circa 1965. A satire on corporate life that carries echoes of Brave New World and concerns an engineer working at Ilium Works [GE] who comes to lead a band that destroys machines they think are taking over the world. [NYT]. The story of our epoch in germinal. I heard him - an old crank and beyond the pale of now what is admitted to the airwaves - on Imus show about a year or so ago [and Imus today coincidentally loses his job]. He was an artist for sure. He would start rapping on the notion of Hitler in orgasm in hell – cut to commercial!

Yes he repeated himself. Reading two of his book was enough for me. But a Passage of his stays with me forever. I think it is a great moment in literature.

I read it in Esquire before Slaughter-House. It’s oft quoted I’ve found on the Web. Ex-GI-Ex-POW Billy Pilgrim on the night of his daughters wedding watches old movie on TV. He sees it backwards. Bombers bombing. In the early days of surrealism the movie technology brought forth new visions. Still in the 60s in Vonnegut’s hands it did the same. Just play the movie backwards, moron, and describe it, if you will, and you will see anew. It’s not rocket science.

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.

This Passage as I said is oft quoted. In some way I have carried it with me. A great failing of the film of Slaughter-House Five that I saw on 8th St [w Valerie Perine, vavavavoom] was that it didn’t center on this [don’t even use it]. So it goes. It was great moment. Great art. And I have discovered today via this magical Internet that K.V. recorded this, and I got it off Itunes for 99 cents. Related links are below.The link below is to Amazon [$10.99] Awwhh.

The passage
Wash Post writer meets KV in 2005
TockTick – A recording of K.V.
Kirt Vonnegut, Novelist Who Caught the Imagination of His Age, Is Dead at 84 -NYT
NYT Kirt Vonnegut topics page [links]

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