I ordered this book of “Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions” mostly out of curiosity. And I’m again swept away in the joy of pure reading, of saying, “Yes, yes!” and forgetting about plot and POV and tense and pace. I am thinking non-fiction is so much closer to my heart than fiction. And I say that with more than a little trepidation. Because, what if it’s true?
At any rate, this book is wonderful. I must comment on the three-chapter section titled
“Why I Crush On Vonnegut”, which fits in with Zin’s post on the purpose of literature, and the difference between Art and Entertainment that was raised in the introduction to BASS 2011. And with what has transpired in the US over the past few days.
Steve Almond is fiercely obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut, has been since he did his thesis on him years ago. The chapter covers, among other things, his attendance at a panel presentation by Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jennifer Weiner. I have never been a huge fan of JCO, though I thoroughly enjoyed her recent New Yorker story, “I.D.” And I was embarrassed to admit I don’t know Jennifer Weiner at all until I found out she writes some kind of “chick-lit” about shoes which get turned into movie vehicles for people like Cameron Diaz and Justin Timerlake. Now, if she had written “Love Story” it might be different (in my defense, for our Senior Class Song I voted for the Randall Thompson setting of Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” rather than the theme from Love Story, but I and the two others in our class of 500 who knew the song from chorus were seriously outvoted).
Almond’s account of the panel has an eerie similarity to the Singer panel and lecture related in the BASS 2011 introduction, except it is Steve Almond style rather than Richard Russo style. That is not a slam on either one of them. I can like two different things equally well. In this case, they both work beautifully.
But back to the point, which is the purpose of Art, or Literature. Steve Almond attributes to Vonnegut the belief that “artists should serve as instruments of destiny;” and reports “He had spent his entire life writing stories and essays and novels in the naked hope that he might redeem his readers…every one was written under the assumption that human beings are capable of a greater decency.” He found, in the archives of Vonnegut’s papers: “I now believe that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue their planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.”
Literature is here to save us. From ourselves.
It was a fortuitous convergence that this book arrived today, as I watched more news coverage of the craziness from the weekend, including the actions of the state legislature of Arizona which today voted to prevent protesters from approaching within 300 feet of the funeral of the nine year old girl who was murdered on Saturday at a public forum with her congressional representative. This legislation was necessary because the God-fearing Christians that make up the Westboro Baptist Church have decided they will vocally and visibly demonstrate, at the funeral of this child, as her parents walk her to her grave, that her death was the result of homosexuality. Or God’s anger at Catholics, I have seen both explanations, I am not sure which one is true. I am grateful to Steve Almond and his paean to Kurt Vonnegut for offering me some comfort at this bleak time, when I am in despair about our endless capacity to make things worse. Because Steve Almond goes on to say: “But something occurred to me…something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgement of the distance between ourselves and our appointed happiness. And at certain moments, it is reason enough to live.”
Thanks to both of these fine gentlemen, on a day when we all need to be saved from ourselves.