Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

I was about to leave the house to engage in a wonderful combination of working out and doing taxes, when I decided to check the news and discovered that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. It sort of shocked me in a way that the death of an 84-year-old human being I never knew really hasn't in quite a long time. That's an awful sentence, but I don't really know how else to express the sentiment.

I think that Vonnegut was the first writer that really made me feel smart. My grade nine history teacher--a man I thought was quite possibly the smartest man alive, and perhaps still very well might be--told me about Vonnegut. I then remember reading Breakfast of Champions and feeling like I was in on some secret society of hilarious smart people. It was as if I snuck in through the back door and, after finding me out, the hilarious smart people let me stay. I sped through book after book, devouring Galapagos, obsessing over Slaughterhouse Five.

In around grade eleven, I read an announcement for a talk by Vonnegut at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto. I was super excited, and, of course, had more luck convincing my parents to let me go and see a real live author than my normal desperate requests for permission to see hardcore punk bands. They even let me drive the car into the city for the occasion.

I remember sitting next to my boyfriend at the time--he was equally impressed with Vonnegut--hanging on the man's every word. Incidentally, at the end of Vonnegut's talk, which was interrupted every fifteen minutes or so for a smoke break, members of the audience were allowed to ask questions. My boyfriend lined up dutifully, but the fellow right before him was given the pleasure of asking the last question.

The best part of the talk was when Vonnegut discussed literature. I have repeated his explanation of what makes good books good ad nauseum, to every literature class I've taught. Anyone who saw Vonnegut speak probably has heard this, but I'll repeat it here for those who weren't so lucky.

Drawing intersecting X and Y axes on an old, rickety freestanding blackboard, Vonnegut labelled the X as representing the range of negative to positive events and the Y as representitive of time. He then announced that, in order to evaluate meaningful literature it would require him to graph them on the board. He began with "Cinderella".

Cinderella, you see, starts with the title character in somewhat of a bad state of affairs, lower down on the graph. She then has the magical opportunity to go to the ball, which improves her lot substantially. Then, at the stroke of midnight, all is lost, so the line dips back down. Fortunately, we find out that the prince will search his kingdom for the girl whose foot fits a shoe left behind as his beloved rushed out the door. Upon locating the beautiful Cinderella, the story ends with the line of the graph travelling up towards infinity.

Now, let's take a look at, say, Kafka's "Metamorphosis". The story opens with an introduction to main character Gregor Samsa, an insurance salesman who lives with his parents. Perhaps this might be someone's idea of a good time, but for the majority of people, this might not figure so highly on the graph. Samsa wakes up one morning and finds he's been transformed into a hideous bug. We don't really need to continue too much longer to conclude that we're looking at a graph that plunges downwards, infinitly.

Okay. What about Hamlet, say? The tale of everyone's favourite Danish prince begins with a visit by the ghostly apparition of Hamlet's father, detailing his death at the hands of Claudius. Hamlet is then charged with avenging his father's murder. How does one graph this chain of events? Good? Bad? Seems like it might be best to run the line down the middle. How about the relationship with Ophelia? Good? Bad? Killing Polonius? Good? Bad? Is revenge wrong? Does Hamlet go to heaven? Hell? The whole darned play is ambiguous, leaving us with a straight line across the middle of the graph.

Hamlet, suggested Vonnegut, demonstrates what makes good literature meaningful. We, as readers, are stuck living lives in which we've got no real idea whether the graph should be drawn up or down. Life is ambiguous.

Though a humanist, Vonnegut ended his discussion by saying that if, at the end of life, he should find that the whole God thing wasn't a fiction, he'd ask the following question: "What was the good news and what was the bad news?"

I hope he's finally got his answer.

1 comment:

Annie Paul said...

What a great memory! Wish i had heard Vonnegut in real life, and what a fascinating argument! wow! i feel like re-reading him now.