An “Any Soldier” care package was no curatorial feat. Rather, it was a cardboard box filled with good intention, a.k.a., Chef Boyardee and Dinty Moore cans, as had been skimmed from a pantry, or collected by a church drive. It seemed designed to make both recipient and provider feel precisely, lukewarmly O-K.
This was fine. It was lovely.
Still. No offense, but when a troop saw an open Any Soldier box, we generally moved on without a glance. We wagered that anything worth anything had been picked out or bartered, and we were just too spent for a letdown.
An unopened Any Soldier package, however, held value. Because no matter how hard you tried to murder hope — a mandate of the job — you couldn’t help but feel a flare of it ascend if you found an un-ravaged box. If you got to be the first and only Any Soldier.
This happened to me exactly once. The result: I learned about fiction from a box of Kurt Vonnegut books, Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
The scene was sand, and tent, and swelter, and blast concussion, and a small, unopened box, and me: a 19 year-old private in a camp in the desert void; a kid who’d gotten in enough trouble back home to risk his future, but who held enough privilege to get him out of said trouble; a kid whose father and grandfather had done tours in their respective wars. A white boy from the South who got into a state school based on base smarts and sub-base grades, the latter coupled to the asterisk* that he had joined the Army Reserve.
*He was a Good Kid who had found his way past setback c/o serving his country.
(At the time of my enlistment, the era of George H.W. Bush, the Army did not test for the chemicals I was fool enough to ingest.)
Point here was the Any Soldier box, unopened. No return address. I looked around as if to thwart a setup, then squatted on the sand floor of the tent and went at it. Ripping the tail of packing tape off of the top, I expected a reward of Spaghetti-O’s or Cheerios, or pray-God, Jolly Ranchers.
There was nothing there. Nothing but books. I read Slapstick out of obligation, and because it sat on top of the stack, and because its cover featured an illustrated clown. The titular allusion to clumsy, physical violence was wedded to the novel’s leitmotifs: “And so on” and “Hi ho.” Though employed as one-liner punchlines, these phrases also imported rhythmic, recurrent notes of social satire. “Hi ho” in particular addressed the futility of any given situation, including my own. It became a snare-pop to the ridiculous, We’re fucked, circumstance at camp, e.g., SCUD missile, Saddam, Sarin gas…Hi ho.
A few days later, when no one had rifled through the open box, I took it and stowed it in the sand under my cot. I then read Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, before turning to the two texts I’d actually heard of, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The former was a devastating, on-the-nose narrative about a veteran, Billy Pilgrim, whose life cycled back and forth through time, war to postwar, and again back to war.
Yet it was Breakfast of Champions that snared me, that made me think about the writing process itself. Specifically, I fell in love with Vonnegut’s “picture of an asshole” on page two, a description wed to an illustration like an asterisk:
Alongside crude scrawl, I’d been unaware that one could build a narrative out of nonlinear snippets, or wield language as declarative and disruptive as “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.”
Christ, I thought, this is writing?
This was naïve. Breakfast had spent a year on best-seller lists before I turned three; there was a reason that even an applied non-reader like myself knew the name Vonnegut.
In fact, I realize now how puerile and/or unhip this reads. Whatever. Hi ho. Because in that desert, on the eve of the ground assault, as Warthog jets and tactical missiles slashed the sky, and as Republican Guard mobilized within striking distance of our compound, Breakfast’s complexity and humor, its polemic and timing and asterisk assholes were a revolution. Salvation, even.
Turns out the novel was the genesis text of “and so on,” having been published well before Slapstick. (I’d been reading the books in random order.) These three little syllables brought a gale force sandstorm. Importing both resignation and protest, and echoing the dehumanized, passive-aggressiveness of war, “and so on” represented everything my comrades and I were going through, and would go through.
Character-wise, I learned that Kilgore Trout could recur in additional works, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast and elsewhere; that his biography could alter, as could his physical appearance; that Trout’s very presence may or may not have anything to do with the narrator in Slaughterhouse — let alone Vonnegut himself. In other words, a character did not have to look, act, feel, or even exist the same way, let alone stay in the same story, or in any story whatsoever.
The Rules, to employ Slapstick, had the consistency of a “sparrow fart.”
Thus, reading Vonnegut in the desert, I was introduced to character, language, setting, satire, narrative structure, leitmotif, and an asterisk asshole. I vowed to get home alive, and to write.
Though my life did inch toward letters, it took another Iraq War for me to go all in. This time, the scene was grad school, Chicago, in the post-9/11 world. I was 32. Alongside workshops and lit theory, I scoured the public library for the primer texts I had avoided in high school and college. I read “Hills Like White Elephants,” and wrote a weeper about a couple whose clipped dialog hovers just above their anguish. After reading Jay Mac et al., I produced a pair of astonishingly poor novels featuring bruised young men. I signed letters to friends back home with “so it goes” — the Slaughterhouse-Five catchphrase, as is repeated over 100 times in the novel — and did not cite my source.
I was working to be a writer, working quite hard, actually, but I was still mostly a mimic. Which was fitting, perhaps, since what came next was the most Billy Pilgrim-esque sort of echo: the call for a new war in the old desert — Iraq — against the old enemy — Saddam Hussein — as waged by a new President Bush. I was 19 again — only I wasn’t. I was a bystander to my own memory.
This time, instead of mobilizing for deployment, I marched in the streets, hurling slogans and pamphlets. One afternoon, I stood at the back of a massive protest that featured an African-American state senator as keynote. (He was the only politician brave enough to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and I loved him for that, and his wisdom helped him become President.)
Yet just like those Vonnegut stories, made absurd by their refrain, our efforts came to naught. The war launched anyway. I lost it; I lay on the floor of my tiny apartment for days, skipping school and work and meals and sleep, and watching the war on television. Hi ho. I also wrote, finally, furiously, my depression unspooling with every hour of embedded news coverage. A rerun, I concurrently watched and remembered the sand and soldiers, Saddam and Bush. I recalled the lessons learned as the Any Soldier who found Vonnegut, or, perhaps, who was found by him.
At some point, the news coverage flashed a photo of Shoshana Johnson, a young, African-American female soldier. Shot in the legs, she was one of the first troops captured by the Iraqis.
She went to war. I went on a search: through humor, pain, sarcasm, critique, polemic. Filth. Violence. Quirk. Only, I didn’t want to write about me. I wanted to write about soldiers whose war stories didn’t earn as much coverage (and/or our relationship to the coverage itself). What’s more, I needed to explore the culture of war, this Pilgrim-esque loop, this Vonnegut-esque recurrence, and how and why the hell we perpetuate it. I wanted to write my own version of an asterisk asshole. I wanted to pluck up the emotions of the faraway battlefield, and plop them right down in your kitchen, your office, your car wash. I wanted to bring the war home.
I sometimes regret that I have never sent those Vonnegut books to a new Any Soldier. Since 1992 I’ve only moved them from shelf to shelf, college to job, marriage to divorce, all over the country. Twice, they have spent a year in a pal’s garage while I traversed the planet. Slapstick and Slaughterhouse, talismans of sorts. My war story, my memory, as written by someone else — which is mostly the case with a war story, it seems. Billy Pilgrim cycles back, just as George Bush cycles back, as did my grandfather and my father and me. As did Shoshana Johnson, and the thousands of young troops on my television. Any Soldiers, all the time, locked inside a story.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”