I remember the first Vonnegut novel I read. It was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I was sixteen or seventeen. I don't think I really got the book at the time. Actually, I know I didn't. I'm not sure I do now, despite having read it -- along with most of Vonnegut's other novels -- at least a half dozen times. But I remember the following passage, which has been seared into my memory since I first read it:
The client who was about to make Eliot's black telephone ring was a sixty-eight-year-old virgin who, by almost anybody's standards, was too dumb to live. Her name was Diana Moon Glampers. No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring. On the rare occasions when she had to introduce herself, she always said her full name, and followed that with the mystifying equation that had thrust her into life so pointlessly:It sounds almost breathtakingly cruel, this passage, and I'm pretty sure that was my impression twenty years ago, too. But something about this Vonnegut meanie kept me coming back for more. I read all the mainstays: Slaughterhouse-5, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle. And then I read the lesser-known books: Galapagos, Player Piano, Jailbird, The Sirens of Titan (and many more). And then I read the essays and various pieces of short fiction (of which there are many). Every three or four years, I would feel this powerful compulsion to go on a Vonnegut bender, and I would read five, six, seven, or more of his novels in a row. At the end of each binge, I was very little wiser, but strangely satiated.
"My mother was a Moon. My father was a Glampers."
After all this reading, I don't know how much I know about Vonnegut. I know that that first passage about Diana Moon Glampers that so fascinated me probably captures, as well as anything does, the complexity of Vonnegut's writing. Because you pity Diana Moon Glampers, don't you? But don't you also hate her a little bit, for being so stupid and helplessly cowlike? And she makes you afraid, doesn't she, because deep down in your egalitarian, humanist heart you don't want to believe that there are really people like that, not really REALLY? Because if they do, then why? What is their purpose? What does it mean? And what are YOU supposed to do about it? Are you even SUPPOSED to do anything?
This is the terrible dilemma that Eliot Rosewater, the fourteenth-richest man in America is in. He has a pathological need to help the Diana Moon Glamperses of the world, even when his help is dubiously received and has questionable success. And you sort of pity and hate Eliot Rosewater, too, and you want to shake him for launching this futile project. But at the same time you love him, and it makes your heart happy that he's out there trying.
This is kind of how I feel about Vonnegut. He's been described as a pessimist, and I guess he is (was). But it seemed like he always felt that you should still struggle for goodness and compassion and love -- and that he knew what these things are and that they exist and are real and are probably the ONLY things worth fighting for -- even if your struggle is probably doomed.
These days, it seems like pessimism and cynicism and irony are pretty thick on the ground. And when we do encounter idealism, it's overly earnest and unpalatable. Vonnegut made our idealism real and noble and, even in failure, heroic and tragic. I don't know when or if another writer like this will come along.