Dear Mr. Vonnegut,
Upon contemplating writing this letter to you, I was rather nervous about what you might think of it. I had pondered what you might think of me should I say something you mighn’t like, or what your secretarial staff (if you have one) might think of its contents. Then I remembered that you are in fact dead, and that took most of the pressure off.
Until recently, I had never really read any of your work. Sorry about that. There are many things to read in the world, some of it good, a great deal of it crap, and I confess that I read a lot of crap. I am not sorry about reading crap, however, because it’s all been made by someone, and reading trash fulfills some sort of human need, I would suppose.
As I said, I hadn’t read much of your work. I had once read your short story about Edison’s dog, and that was rather novel. I also spent three years teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to ninth grade English classes, and while I quite enjoyed it, it didn’t make me seek anything of yours out, not even when I saw Nick Nolte in Mother Night, which I confess made me fall asleep.
Last year I read your short essays and the like that you put out a few years ago, shortly before you died. I remembered liking it, though I was rather sad for you because you seemed really upset. This is not to say that you didn’t have things to be upset about. I am often upset at things whenever I poke my head out of the hole I jam myself into and call a home, which is why I do my best to see my shadow and dart back in all the time. It’s not the sun that makes me do this. It’s NPR. Still.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to keep reading your work because, in fact, it was rather depressing in the sense that I identified with your dismay and general disgust for the world as a whole, and in my limited experience on this earth, I have learned that hanging about with other people like me only tends to make me worse. But I did like your rather happy ideas about talking to people, because people are in general fun and worth knowing, on the one-to-one ratio. As someone who in my youth used to idolize misanthropes such as HL Mencken (whom I have also never read, which tells you much about my symbolic infatuation), this was a novel idea. So I began to experiment with the idea that people might actually be worth talking to.
I gave it a try. In the past fifteen stores I have visited, I have struck up more than passing “thank you have a nice day” conversations with the clerks and other people waiting in line with me. About anything—potatoes, stickers, weather, scarves, coats I think are adorable. Hairstyles I think are pretty. Shoes that are great. The general sense of camaraderie one gets waiting in line at the post office for an hour before the Christmas Holiday. And you were right. In every instance, I felt a little better about the universe, or at least, I realized that I was part of something as a whole, and not surrounded by idiots. Idiots run in packs called societies. People run in individual universes that are, on a whole, worth visiting.
I am sure that there are exceptions to this rule. Just the other day I made stabby eyes at a lady blocking two pumps at the four-pump gas station. I did not feel the need to talk with her. And perhaps if I had, I might have felt better about her relative nonchalance at inconveniencing a line of cars waiting to be fed. But I was not in a mood.
I take pills for this kind of thing. Most of the time they work just fine. I understand you took pills, too.
I don’t know what compelled me to pick up Slaughterhouse Five, but at some point in the past two months I must have said to myself that I needed to give it a try. So I checked it out of the library and started down that path to find out what he hell everyone was talking about.
I liked Slaughterhouse Five, enough that I read Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. Last night I finished Breakfast of Champions and read a few of your short stories, like “Welcome to the Monkey House” and “Fortitude,” which really, Mr. Vonnegut, was fucking depressing. I think that might have been your intent. But after I finished every single book, I set it down in my lap and thought about it for a few moments, and I guess that has to mean something.
I’d be rambling on and on if I tried to talk about the contents of the books themselves. I haven’t read any of your other books, and I am not sure that I want to. Your works are depressing, really, in some ways, and I know you knew that, but still. I only take 20 mgs of Prozac every day, and I don’t want to have to amp it up just for you.
Having said that I will tell you that I adored them. I adored Kilgore Trout and all of his stories and novels. He makes me want to write a short story where everyone on the planet works in a call center, and all the other work is done by robots. That way everyone spends their days just calling up everyone else, and the money they make convincing people to buy things they in turn spend on things other people convince them to buy. I don’t know the end of this story because I am still living in the middle of it.
I loved Billy Pilgrim, and I wasn’t that fond of the narrator from Cat’s Cradle, who I am told is named John, but I must have missed that part. I loved Billy the Poet, though in this day and age, my generation might call that story “a little rapey”. I don’t know if one can have only a little rape, but there it is.
I also loved the way your stories are science fiction, but not. I say that because as long as I can remember I have generally not liked science fiction. I don’t really care to read about space, aliens or anything in space, unless it’s written by Joss Whedon or there are lightsabers involved. Perhaps I don’t like to think about space because it makes me think about our finite resources here on earth, and that leads me to think about how we are all going to die in our own filth. I might have something to do with the fact that I think we are all doomed. Maybe science fiction, for me, then is a big wish list of things I never think we will have, like hope, and exploration, and a future. But there it is.
But most of all, Mr. Vonnegut, you write science fiction in a way that made me think of my own work, because writers are horribly vain and must compare everything they read to what they write, even if it is just to say, “I don’t use as many semicolons” with a smug air, or secretly whisper in their head, “I will never write again” after reading something quite compelling.
A few times after reading things you had written, I said to myself “I will never write again”. Then again.
For the last few months I had been feeling sorry for myself that a great deal of the fiction I write doesn’t seem to have a home. It’s not horrible enough for horror, or it’s too crazy for mainstream. It’s got everyday people doing things like working at Wal-Mart in it, and while society talks about how they like that stuff, they only want to see it if at the end of the story the person gets a promotion and is finally able to make a living wage. They are less enthused about the Wal-Mart worker whose head is crushed by a ladder. I would complain about their lack of vision, but I sense that this is just another version of my own fear of NPR.
So I have been writing to spec. And it’s not going well, Sir. It’s not going well at all, because I could care less about some of the things that presses are asking for. I am sure that someone out there has great ideas that for those prompts, but I am not one of them. Or if i am, I am not able to produce it on the time-table that is required. And so it goes.
But, ‘I like your writing’ is the gist of this letter. I like the way everything doesn’t tie together at the end, except for when it does. I like that Eddie Key, who drove the mobile disaster unit at the end of Breakfast of Champions was both related to Francis Scott Key and had family that owned Bluebird Farm. I like that Eliot Rosewater was Billy Pilgrim’s roommate. I like the albeit sad story of how Billy Pilgrim’s wife died. I like that for a while I wanted to be a Bokononist. I liked that in the end of everything, Kilgore Trout wanted to be young again. Because, yeah.
It is with a bit of embarrassment that I admit I wasn’t aware of the bombing of Dresden, and so I have decided to do a little more reading, because I feel like I owe you that much. I am sorry that you had to see that, that anyone had to see it or feel it. And my new-found sorry-ness is probably your fault, even though I am applying it to all kinds of things.
The other day I stood in line behind an older lady in the donut shop. She bought an extraordinary amount of donuts. Four boxes of them. I was starting to feel irritated that she was being so slow. Every donut she bought was different, and she had to select them all by name. Finally, when her boxes were bagged up, she said to the counter girl, “I will have to make two trips, because my back isn’t good.” The girl said okay, and then sort of belatedly offered to carry them out with the lady.
“You don’t have a coat on,” the lady said to the girl as she rounded the counter.
It occurred to me that I did have a coat on. “I’ll take them.”
And so I carried the donuts out to the car for the lady, who was impeccably dressed, with perfectly coiffed hair that was dyed unnaturally black. She was driving a Hyundai. I might have helped her because she was Asian, and she reminded me of my grandmother-in-law.
“My husband is in a nursing home, and I’m taking donuts to all the nurses there,” she told me. And just like that I realized that it was worth it, this trip out in the cold with two boxes of donuts that I laid carefully on the floor of the backseat so they wouldn’t fly about. In that moment I had become part of her story as well as my own. I had taken donuts to the nurses, too.
And the lady, I’ll call her Liang-Liang, became part of this letter. So now we’re connected. Sort of. I’ll never see her again, will I? I wonder if it matters.
Somewhere in all of this is a moral, and I know how you hate those, and I’m not bright enough to find it. Maybe it’s open-ended, like ending an essay with a question so that your teacher says, “You never finished!” I used to do that a great deal in college. It always seemed like the right thing to do.
So thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for something. I don’t know what exactly. It’s sad, and funny, and very pointless, but, you know, there it is.