My interview with Kurt Vonnegut two years ago remains my greatest professional disappointment to date. And I'm still not sure why things went wrong. He was doing publicity in support of his ephemera collection A Man Without A Country, and I was beyond intimidated about talking to him. What could I say that would possibly engage a man of his intellect and experience? How could I cover a career that broad in such a short phone exchange?
As it happened, the point was moot. We talked on the phone for about 10 minutes, largely about the tenor of the book and the philosophies he's been expounding on in interviews and lectures for the last 20 years: Mankind, he said, is doomed. We have no hope. There is no future. We've ruined our environment and ruined ourselves. We used to have a great country, and we crippled it. We used to have a great educational system, and now it's disgraceful. And so forth and so on.
And then he stopped and said, "You know, this interview is too lugubrious. I don't like the image of myself I'm projecting at all. Let's just cancel it." And he said some polite goodbyes and hung up.
At the time, it was more baffling than anything else. He wasn't saying anything he hadn't said before–in his books, in his lectures, on The Daily Show the previous night. Why was this interview any different?
Later that day, his book publicist called and apologized. She said he was stressed, that A Man Without A Country was generating more publicity than he'd ever had to deal with in his lifetime, and he was finding it overwhelming and worrisome. He was, she said, aware for the first time of what he sounded like, and he didn't like it. She was sorry, but she hoped we'd respect his wishes and kill the piece, rather than running a transcript of the 10-minute exchange we'd had. We agreed, and that was that.
It's bizarre to think of Kurt Vonnegut, back at age 82, suddenly dealing with more publicity than he'd ever gotten in a lifetime of being a counterculture hero. It's even more bizarre to think of him suddenly realizing that his beliefs could be depressing to people, and that he should therefore withhold them. This is someone who'd made a career out of undermining not just the establishment, but the structure of society. A man who'd playfully and not-so-playfully advocated suicide (and attempted it once as well), a man who'd written about the apocalypse as a practically inevitable and almost cheery event, a man most noted for his pessimism and his wickedly black sense of humor. How could he possibly consider himself maudlin?
Like so many of his other fans, I loved him for his unrestrained caustic pessimism. Because it was so extreme, it seemed fresh and authentic, like he was willing to express truths no one else dared to address. He had a way of discussing the darkest side of humanity–the bleak urges, the conviction that everything's coming apart–with humor, cleverness, a poetic rhythm, and insanely catchy repeated refrains. His books made up new societal structures, traveled to other planets, and jumped back and forth through time, always looking for something better and more sane than the society he lived in. He questioned everything, and derided much of it.
And his stories rarely came to happy conclusions. (I'm always cataclysmically struck by the force of the ending of "Harrison Bergeron.") There was no false uplift in his work. There were no happy masks. Maybe they were bitter, but at least they were uncompromising and direct.
But apparently that pessimism occasionally made him tired. I don't mean to imply that our failed interview was any sort of watermark for him; the things he said to me and then asked me not to print, he said again to Newsweek the following month. At most, it was probably a momentary exhaustion, an acknowledgement that he wanted to take a break from his own morbidity. Maybe that's inevitable; it has to be hard to feel that bad about where we're all going, and still deal with the world on a daily basis. What he salvaged, he salvaged in his work, via humor and alternatives to hope: family (especially made-up family), whimsy, creativity, and particularly the sort of smart-ass grace that came from acknowledging how crazy the world is, and moving on with life anyway.
Back in 1976, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a science-fiction novel called Inferno, in which a callow young science-fiction writer, dead in a stupid alcohol-related stunt, attempted to escape from the hell described in Dante's epic poem. Along the way, the protagonist ran across a giant mausoleum illuminated by a neon sign that flickered out Vonnegut's much-repeated line from his novel Slaughterhouse-Five: "So it goes." This, it was implied, though never directly stated, was Vonnegut's tomb: an isolated memorial in the Circle Of Heretics, perpetually flashing the same cynical, world-weary, but accepting refrain. It isn't a flattering image, but it's a surprisingly apt one. That line, more than anything else Vonnegut wrote, seems to sum up his philosophy. Things happen, there's nothing we can do, but we soldier on.
Kurt Vonnegut is dead. His work lives on. We will miss him. So it goes.