TWO DAYS IN LEEDS
WITH KURT VONNEGUT:
TANGLING OF TENDRILS
‘One requirement is that the opening of a book be seductive.
If he’s smart a writer will begin a little archly, a little cutely,
a little too forward. A stranger is going to open this book and
either decide to read it, to give it the next few hours – or not.
And so, if I’m a little cute, or a little too glitzy in the beginning,
this is to hook the stranger. This person will not read the
damn book if you do not seduce them. It’s… prostitution, yes.
It’s ‘I’ll give you the best night you ever had if you give me $7’
– Kurt Vonnegut (March 1983)
It was then my biro snapped.
Sat alone in the swish ritz of the ‘Queens Hotel’ reception feeling vaguely displaced and disapproved of, with the nib in one hand bleeding blood-blue bile and the open-mouth plastic tube in the other, drip-feeding my fingers a steady pulse of ink.
Then the vinegar-corpse receptionist starched-smiles at me. ‘You can go up now, Mr Darlington.’
Manoeuvring splintered plastic bits down between my shoes and soft-shuffling them back out of sight, streaking rich pile, I head out for the elevator (chintzy inner décor of Yorkshire Moors) and angle down a corridor of doors, carefully not smear-touching anything. What if Vonnegut wants to shake hands and I fingerprint him… biro ink him? Cosmic confrontation time with the author of ‘Player Piano’ (1952), ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ (1959), ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ (1973), ‘Slapstick’ (1976), and more, and I’m sticky-fingering blue goo…
First floor. Room 116. A room with window gawping out across City Square where cars revolve in endless train and some armoured King in equestrian statue is fenced in behind a scaffold-cage having pigeon-shit surgically sandblasted. Two chairs over-low slung are drawn too close to a gas fire ratcheted too high and in cherry-red intensity. Vonnegut in short red scarf is hunkered down there miserly slurping up a surplus capacity of heat. He gets up, draws me in, his guileless smile plastered aslant. But thankfully, he doesn’t offer his hand…
He’s about my height, but slouched, defensively drawn in slightly, despite the openness of his manner. His moustache is a couple of shades greyer than his hair, which is as tight-curled as clusters of cartoon thought-bubbles, like on the book-covers but a little more disciplined, not as raggedy-tousled – as if he’s made an effort to smarten up his act for this tour. His brown close-check jacket doesn’t match his pants, and there’s a tiredness in his eyes that you pick up on lurking just behind the homely courtesy.
Formalities disposed of, tape-machine positioned between us, I confess I’m writing this up for a Rock-orientated paper (‘Hot Press’), and – priorities up front, ask his views on the state of the art of music journalism After all, didn’t the Grateful Dead name their music publishing company after his ‘Ice Nine’ invention? Didn’t Al Stewart tag a track off his ‘Modern Times’ (1983) album for Vonnegut’s ‘Sirens Of Titan’? and isn’t there, even now out the window and across the square, a band in Leeds called Slaughterhouse Five?
He grins hugely. ‘To be honest, I don’t understand a single word of Rock criticism’ he confides.
Is it true that certain of his books are banned in certain American States? ‘Well, they try to ban them.’ The fact seems not to faze him. ‘It’s illegal, but we have to sue these people again and again. Periodically remind them of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Somebody circulated a list of supposedly bad books and this list has never been upgraded. It just keeps floating round and floating round, and it’s twelve, thirteen years old now, but school boards and parents in small towns lift this list and wonder if these bad books – which they’ve never read! are in their libraries. And they are. And they throw them out!’
Banned or no, his Science Fiction travelogue of the Dresden apocalypse – ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969), was translated into an incandescent film by George Roy Hill (1972) of ‘Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid’ notoriety. Around the same time, Vonnegut’s play ‘Happy Birthday, Wanda June’ (1971) – ‘a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t’, less successfully became a TV-movie starring Rod Steiger and Susannah York. Then 1975 saw a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of various elements from the Vonnegut canon whipped up into a low-budget fly-past for American cable and BBC biopic slots called ‘Between Time And Timbuktu’ (13 March 1972) with Vonnegut himself as ‘advisor and contributor to the script’. Since then, Robert (‘M.A.S.H.’) Altman reportedly tried for the stillborn rights to his 1973 ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ novel – and was outbid. It eventually surfaced in a 1999 version with Bruce Willis and Albert Finney, directed by Alan Rudolph. While John Cale even more recently announced he’d completed the score for a short movie based on Vonnegut’s vignette “Who Am I This Time?”. Broadcast as part of PBS’ ‘American Playhouse’ series (2 February 1982) – with Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon, it was directed by Jonathan Demme of ‘Caged Heat’.
Are there other stories he’d like to see filmed? ‘No. I don’t want to push my luck. I don’t think my books make good movies. It’s just the way I write. I don’t praise myself for this, but I am a presence in my own stories. So anybody who tries to make a movie out of a story of mine is gonna wind up a character short. Because I am, in fact, in it. And I can’t act a sour apple.’
He was quoted as disliking ‘Happy Birthday, Wanda June’. Is that true? ‘That was the worst movie I ever saw. There was a big depression in Hollywood when that was made, and when ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ was made. There were only two movies being made in Hollywood at that time – and they were both mine! One was the best movie ever made, and the other was the worst movie ever made.’
‘I, Billy Pilgrim, will die, have died, and always
will die on February thirteenth, 1976’
Of course, he’s absolutely right. Like Billy Pilgrim’s first glimpse of the Dresden skyline ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is ‘intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd.’ It gives the impression of being spontaneously episodic, thrown together casually like a series of anecdotes. Yet the tone of its vast, absurd sadness is exactly right. ‘There are almost no characters in this story’ writes Vonnegut, ‘and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.’
But with nothing else volunteered, I go for the wide-angle lens. Kurt Vonnegut – destroyer of worlds, black humourist, existential absurdist, are you an optimist? ‘As regards human nature –sure.’ An expansive shrug, a dismissive gesture with his hands. ‘But I think what our culture requires us to do is extremely dangerous. And so ‘the culture’ is a leading character in my books again and again. And the culture is a very stoo-pid taskmaster. It makes these bizarre demands on us – and THERE IS, IN FACT, NOBODY THERE! There’s an actual lack of personality in culture – although television is coming close to being such a person in our lives now.’ A pause. ‘But there have been these acts of mercy on battlefields where someone has declined to kill. THAT’S what they’re there to do! ‘Why on Earth are you here? Why on Earth were you ever born? – in order to KILL this person before you!’ And yet people have declined to do this, and managed to survive themselves.’ Vonnegut talks slowly, humorously, when he talks he focuses his whole concentration on you, eyes at pinpoint attentiveness. When he talks, he talks for you and no-one else.
So he sees social pressures stuck in absurd ruts, while individual acts provide an escape clause? ‘Yes. There’s a great campaign in the United States by people who have guns and ammunition to sell, that every household should own a gun. And of course, it’s very American to have a gun, supposedly. But I mean, this is all just advertising. So much of this culture has been ‘created’. How Americans act has been ‘created’. No American should go out with his shoes un-shined. When you go out a-night, you should get dressed up. These are ideas derived from people with something to sell you. They would love to sell you a tuxedo. And they would love to sell you shoe polish. They would love to sell you razor blades, and look at you with your beard!
‘The culture is so absurd. Most people can’t even imagine stepping outside their culture and criticising it. They assume it’s utterly given, just like the chemical make-up of the atmosphere. And yet it’s clearly an invention that can be added to all the time by vested interests. Look at what Hitler added to German culture! Children came up through the Hitler youth, or whatever, and accepted it. None of it is criticised. But it’s not fear that makes them unwilling to criticise, they just don’t realise, just don’t understand that it CAN be criticised. That it IS arbitrary.’ An odd, quirky smile. A long deep-furrowed fourth-generation German-American face. A man who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden by sitting out the storm in the ‘natural living rock’ bunker of an abattoir numbered ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. That was 13/14 February 1945. Now he homes in for the punch-line. ‘I mean – we’ve gotten in enough trouble trying to imagine what god wants. We’re in worse trouble giving our sole respect to our culture…!’
It’s odd. Vonnegut is on a promotional tour for his current novel, ‘Deadeye Dick’ (1982), the story of Rudy Waltz who accidentally kills a pregnant woman while she’s vacuuming, and who lives the rest of his life feeling guilt and remorse while seeking forgiveness. The tour is a tight round of appearances, cities, press and radio calls, some TV, world-in-a-trunk repetition chaperoned by the brisk knife-edge-crease efficiency of smart upwardly-mobile PR men. But in this impersonal hotel room, slotted in sixty-minute interview segments, he unwinds the whole automatic-pilot pre-programmed rigidly schedule-bound cat’s cradle routine down to a relaxing interlude with an old friend. A neat trick it seems comes natural to him. A calm, slightly-fuddled eye to the promo storm.
The ink on my fingers suddenly not so outta place after all…
‘I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how
everything worked and then make it work better.
I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one,
some scientist would have taken a color photograph
of god almighty – and sold it to ‘Popular Mechanics’
magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so
happy and comfortable… what actually happened
when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific
truth on Hiroshima. We killed everyone there’
(‘Breakfast Of Champions’)
‘To be is to do’ – Socrates
‘To do is to be’ – Jean Paul Sartre
‘Do be do be do’ – Frank Sinatra
Chicks. Sausages. Antlers. Pennants. A clothesline. A Pawn-shop sign. A ‘very poorly cleaned’ chalkboard. Last time I was here at ‘Leeds Playhouse’ it was Ian Carr’s Nucleus a-stage, not this Props Dept detrition of pantomime oddities. Carr blew a stunning set – possibly causally connected to a large chunk of the theatre’s roof coming adrift in subsequent gales, but even then the place wasn’t this full or this abuzz with electric expectancy. The foyer is awash with refugees hunting cancellation-seats or camping out to catch His Master’s Voice relayed on wire through tannoy amplification as a management concession to the punters they’re either shoe-horning in or having to turn away. Press immunity has its advantages. I’ve seen much here from Brecht’s ‘Chalk Circle’ to Mike Westbrook’s magnificent ‘Cortege’, but I’ve never witnessed owt like this. And this night is for a sixty-one-year-old writer who shuffles out in blue two-piece suit, round-toe black shoes, red tie, sleepy eyed. To deliver a rambling idiosyncratic talk (very) loosely pegged out around a thematic clothesline of his life achievements. ‘I want credit as the man responsible for (a) the Kilgore Trout story, (b) the Neuter story, etc etc’ (the latter a reference to Rudy Waltz, who is so traumatised by his accidental manslaughter that he lives the rest of his life as an asexual ‘neuter’).
His humorous, sometimes comic performance is received as holy writ by the sycophantic assembled. Each anecdote rapturously revelled-in, each in-reference smugly responded to, each hint of near-profundity applauded to death. From ‘if you want to hurt your parents and you don’t have nerve enough to become a homosexual, least you can do is go into the arts,’ to ‘I was raised a pacifist. I’m a pacifist now.’ Hi Ho, so it goes.
Courteous Vonnegut – who ‘doesn’t understand a single word of Rock criticism,’ says that ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine gifted him the sixties. They opened up the counter-culture for him. And looking around, I’d guess this is something very like a videofit fake-up of what your statistically average ‘Rolling Stone’ readership might look like in 1983. Still hairy, but also rather threadbare. Brightly crosspatch and fringed in attempted suburban bohemia, but in strict monogamous couples, or student clusters, arty manuscripts is closets, piles of poems in manila folders in drawers filed in with their relevant rejection slips. Low-culture literate. With Vonnegut books programmed in alongside Tolkien, DM Thomas, Mervyn Peake, and ‘Watership Down’…
And Vonnegut plays to expectations. Extends the woolly eccentricity of his novels across the stage for around forty-five highly entertaining minutes. A hectically assembled ramshackle self-indulgence of inner mumblings, slapstick monologues and muddle-headed throw-away whimsy. He taps it out with chalk on the blackboard and peppers it richly with ‘Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons’. Random notes? ‘It’s ALL random notes!’
He does his ‘farting tap-dancer’ routine from ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ to illustrate the ‘Kilgore Trout’ technique (Trout is the fictional hack-writer he created who took on a life of his own). The story concerns the ‘alien Zog from Margo, a planet where the natives converse by means of farts and tap-dancing. He lands at night in Connecticut. He’s no sooner touched down than he sees a house on fire. He rushes into the house, farting and tap-dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they’re in. The head of the house brains Zog with a golf club. An example of a tragic failure to communicate.’ He feeds an ad for ‘Deadeye Dick’ – ‘my new book, my wonderful new book’ in off-hand send-up, which still gets the message across to the satisfaction of his PR chaperones.
Then, in what appears to be a less ambiguous vein, he speaks out against writers who ‘present their credentials as educated people. Showing some familiarity with Latin and Greek, and Greek mythology. They – having travelled in Europe some, seen the important Cathedrals, the important paintings. I,’ he protests, ‘make no such allusions. I offer no credentials to prove that I am indeed an educated person.’ Instead, he declares ‘I am educated as an anthropologist, and what impressed me is what the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss said at the end of his career. That he thought all cultures were equally rich and complex. That there is no-one with a deprived culture.’
Elitist academics and writers scorn ‘the sort of population we have in New York today – Hispanics and Blacks,’ but ‘I’m sure the Hispanics and Blacks have myths and a culture as rich as mine, or as rich as those elitist academics and writers, or as rich as anyone’s. What used to be standards for style or literacy – or evidence that you are a good writer, are becoming obsolete. Most critics believe in those standards – that a person SHOULD have a little Latin, a little Greek, and should know the myths of the Minotaur and so forth. This has made it very hard for us to create an American literature. I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana, and when I express that culture, or do honour to that culture, it is scorned by some critics as simply being beneath notice. This is a cultural matter and should be acknowledged as a cultural matter. The cultural standards for judging literature should be abandoned, and everyone should be credited with having a rich culture to begin with. And let’s begin from there, and see what a person can do with his own – rather than the critic’s culture.’
The audience goes ape-shit. Like he’s delivered a personal exoneration on the sanctity of their taste. But it makes me a little uneasy. It comes just a whit too cutesy, a bit like telling the people what they wanna hear. A pat on the head for the collective ego. I mean, I don’t know Indianapolis, but I’d guess that it’s dominant popular mythologies aren’t that different to those of Dublin, Leeds, or pretty much anywhere else in the West-World… TV, Rock and Sports stars, Comic-book heroes and movies. Sure – I’d agree that if a writer wants to reach anything other than a micro-elite then they’ve got to engage with that culture. But to eulogise it on this podium seems slightly over the top. Vonnegut infects this audience with an awe at their own profundity. Rubber-stamps their smug complacency rather than stimulating them to s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Isn’t there just the merest whiff of condescension? And – with security as tight as a drum, there’s no chance to explore the theme, yet. There’s no time-squeeze between his set’s completion and the PR men hijacking him for book autographing chores in the lobby.
But I determine to find time…
‘He walked out into the night with his flashlight.
He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight
beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside.
He put his hand on my head, and do you know
what that marvellous man said to me?... ‘Son’ my
father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours’.’
The intense heat from the keyed-up gas fire, and his insistence on poring directly over it to scoop up as much as possible, gets uncomfortable. I want to put to him the question of his condescending to his audience but can’t find a way to do it without running the risk of interview-time being abruptly terminated and winding up back in reception with the vinegar-corpse receptionist and the bits of my broken biro. So I bide my time, with droplets of sweat running down the inside of my shirt. And we talk around his career as an SF writer, through the highpoint books, ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963), ‘Sirens Of Titan’ and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. Then his apparent decline into a clutch of self-referential books content to serve the by-then massive Vonnegut industry. Does this new book break from this sequence?
He capsule-reviews the ‘neuter novel’, ‘Deadeye Dick’ – ‘Rudy Waltz, the hero, has no interest in sex whatsoever’ he relates amiably, ‘because he accidentally shot a pregnant woman when he was twelve years old. He has no interest in anything actually. But he foresees, and I foresee the next big parade up Fifth Avenue is going to surprise American civilisation. Of course, the homosexuals suddenly poured into Fifth Avenue and marched, revealing how numerous they were, how proud they were, and how many votes they had.’ ‘The next flurry up Fifth Avenue is going to be the Neuters. And it’s going to be the biggest parade that New York City has ever seen! There’s going to be women who look like Marilyn Monroe out on the street carrying signs – ‘DID IT TWICE: NEEDED IT BOTH TIMES’. There’s going to be professional athletes, perhaps American Football Players stripped to the waist, holding placards saying – ‘HAVEN’T DONE IT FOR TWO YEARS: NEVER FELT BETTER’. And that sort of thing. This may turn out to be three-quarters of the population of New York City. We have no idea how many neuters there are around, because they send off no sex signals. They’re not signalling to other people to ‘come to me, look at me’ and all that. So you simply don’t notice them. Rudy Waltz – the hero of my novel, this neuter, looks like Gary Cooper! He’s that big and that handsome. And in Greenwich Village, the sex capital of the world, nobody sees him when he walks down the street. He’ll walk into a coffee shop and sit down and not get waited on, because he is a neuter…’
The phone rings. A persistent reminder from the lobby that my time’s up. With nothing to lose I make my play for extra time. One of the things that struck me last night, I offer, was your put-down of ‘high culture’ (knowledge of Latin, Greek etc), in favour of ‘folk culture’ (television and street culture?). It seemed to me rather condescending, I mean, YOU obviously relate to literary precedents as well as Pop influences…?
‘No. But I didn’t – you mentioned television, I didn’t. But these people have…’
Was it just ethnic cultures you were referring to then? ‘Well, whatever. You can get bizarre combinations in a city like New York, where there is a lot of intermarriage and all that. But then, I believe that everyone has myths, which are ways of discussing life. In the same way that the Bible parables say ‘here’s a story, we can talk around that.’ And the Hispanics and the Blacks, for example, or the Eastern European Jews or whoever is in New York, have parables already. You and I don’t know them, or perhaps I do know them. They also have rich music traditions. A lot of Hispanics are part-Indian, and presumably know old legends from pre-Columbian times. Every culture, every person has a parable.’
You mean a common currency of ideas to which people relate. But must that only apply to ethnic groups?
He’s shrugging his coat on. Thinking on his feet. ‘The telly was your invention, because I didn’t say they had a culture built on television.’ Actually he had hinted as much a few thousand words back when he’d accused television of ‘coming close to being’ the ‘personality in our culture.’ But instead I just suggest that the dominant contemporary mythologies would be TV, Rock and Sports personalities, Comic-book heroes and movies, that sort of thing.
‘Well, you can certainly discuss life around them, around those things’ he concedes. ‘That’s not a question of how bad that stuff is, or how good.’ He’s warming to the subject. ‘I wouldn’t mind having somebody be hit pretty hard by some drama on television – but certainly NOT a situation comedy, and choose to refer to it from time to time in the presence of other people who had seen it.’
Coat flapping, glasses now perched precariously on the end of his nose, a giant case bulging in all the wrong places, he turns on me unexpectedly, demanding ‘Now why did she DO that?’ Initially thrown off balance, it’s soon obvious to me he’s acting out possible Soap plot-dialogue. ‘Why was she drunk that night? Did she have to get drunk that night… or was she only pretending to be drunk…?’ He continues the argument, tested it, tasting it in different ways.
Then he pauses for a moment as we head out for the corridor. ‘It’s the same sort of thing as ‘was Hamlet crazy?’ One is reputable, and one isn’t. Ye-e-e-e-s…’ Perhaps that just occurred to him? Perhaps that’s what he meant all along? Perhaps to the ‘Yorkshire Playhouse’ audience it’s Vonnegut’s writing that has created their mythologies, not Shakespeare or TV?
Minutes later, sat alone in the swish ritz of the ‘Queens Hotel’ reception lobby playing back the interview-tape, I see Vonnegut, coat unfastened and dismally blowing, looking vaguely tired and harassed. He exits through the plate-glass doors to be swallowed up by a waiting taxi. En route for Manchester, another stream of interview games and impertinent questions. Another night, another $7!
‘About endings, people complain about the endings of my books.
Endings do not matter. They don’t. I end ‘Cat’s Cradle’ with
the end of the world. Somebody thought that was a comment of
mine of some sort. It wasn’t. It was just a way to end the damn
book. People imagine the ending is what we’ve been building
up to the whole time. This is not what we’ve been building up to.
What we have been building up to has occurred about two-thirds
of the way through the book. Every message has gotten through,
every scene has been played. The last part of the book is saying
‘thank you for coming, really, that’s all there is, the food is gone,
we’re out of ice-cubes, look what time it is, here’s your coat,
let’s get together again real soon’. It’s goodbye…’
– Kurt Vonnegut (March 1983)
All quotes and novel extracts courtesy of Jonathan Cape Publishers.