INSIDE the cover of the copy of one of Kurt Vonnegut's books, Mother Night, that belongs to the third largest library in the country is pasted a very-old-looking bookplate. The plate bears an oval portrait of a woman beneath which is written "IN MEMORY OF PERMELIA E. CHENEY HERSEY/ 1848 VE RI TAS 1926/ THE GIFT OF HER SON/ FRANK WILSON CHENEY HERSEY/ CLASS OF 1899/ FOR RECENT BOOKS IN BRITISH AND AMERICAN LITERATURE."
I decided that Frank couldn't have possibly known what he was doing when he gave us "this book." Nor could Permelia have known what she was doing when she conceived and raised a son in such a way that her death would cause him to provide us with a book by Kurt Vonnegut to read.
Then I decided that somewhere in the buying and selling room of the library which keeps seven million other books someone slapped this bookplate in this particular book on the basis of a decision-making process that was essentially random. But since the two had now been living together so closely for so long, I reasoned they must have come to share with each other some of their own individual meanings.
The picture was of a very quietly incredibly-beautiful girl dressed in funny - looking turn - of - the - century clothes, the kind of innocent girl I've always wanted to meet at a be-in. I guessed that if she were alive and at Harvard now and still looked like that, she would be deeply involved in relationships with two boys, and she would have one of the most serious and agonized minds in history.
Kurt Vonnegut, whose books are funny and whose mind couldn't be overly tortured, would, I thought, be pleased with my assumption that since a relationship between the bookplate and the book obviously existed, that relationship would have as much significance as the relationship between any other two objects, people, or ideas. The causes and effects of random occurrences being so complex that man can never foresee which events and relationships will become ultimately more valuable.
I finally concluded that since Vonnegut never explained, in so many words, what the title of the book, Mother Night, meant to the "I" of his narrative, obviously Permelia Hersey is, herself, Mother Night.
KURT VONNEGUT has written five novels (Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, Mother Night, and The Sirens of Titan); periodic short stories that keep popping up in magazines like Playboy and science fiction anthologies like Tomorrow, the Stars; a book of collected short stories called Welcome to the Monkey-house; and a new novel out this spring called The Slaughterhouse Five, the first two chapters of which were recently printed in Ramparts.
What Kurt Vonnegut does for us is to give us simple two-sentence to single-word answers to all those great questions we've forgotten we're asking while at the same time making the narrator seem disinterested, almost unconscious, of what he's told us. It makes us think we've discovered something on our own. We want to tell Vonnegut about what he's put there in his book. And because the thought is ours, we free-associate the thought into our own experience, the petty incidents of our own lives, until then it becomes crashingly meaningful to our personal existence.
Vonnegut writes his novel, as a series of events reported; his purpose, ostensibly, is to show us how one event led to the next event in a man's life, and how a whole situation of complicated events determined even further turns in his life. Vonnegut's casual comments revealing the true meaning of existence and identifying the nature of the values of most people in the population are either stuck in modifying clauses (so Vonnegut can be saying it without a heavy hand). Or Vonnegut puts great truths in the mouthes of characters who don't seem to be aware of what they've said--who are only interested in the ideas to the extent that they will determine future events in their lives (thereby letting the reader still think it is he who has discovered the great significance in the event).
He rarely uses adjectives that are of other than the visually descriptive kind (such as "orange," "six-foot," and "sad"). Experience, as it is related, is a series of intellectual predicaments; decisions are made neither by the debate of deep-rooted philosophies nor by the agonizing of mind-searching emotions, but by the empirical evidence of the accumulated experiences.
HIS CHARACTERS accept major defeats when they happen because they accept everything that happens. They even come to beg for defeat when it becomes clear that influencing cause and effect, indeed determining the course of their own lives, is for them impossible. Mother Night opens with the voice of Vonnegut coming at us through the mouth of a Nazi war criminal sitting in an Israeli prison awaiting trial. At the end of the book he does himself in when he suddenly finds he has the evidence to acquit himself.
The scope of time that Kurt Vonnegut deals with in his novels covers the entire length of a given man's life. It is as if Vonnegut sees this, not as the unit of man's work that turns out to be the most meaningful, but rather as the unit of man's hopeless groping for meaning that finally runs out on him. Yes, his characters do come up with sentences that explain their purpose in life, sentences which send us, the readers, into chuckles of heart-warmed complacency when we discover them; but Vonnegut's people never stop hoping for a better explanation of what's happening.
Because Vonnegut's people do all things (including suicide) as a matter of course, the books move right along from event to event unimpeded by emotion (most of which we are left to intuit or fabricate from our own experience). His books are unusually fast reading; and their being, as I've suggested, something of participatory novels, we find ourselves reading at a pace determined by what the book means to us rather than a pace determined by the looseness of the prose. Vonnegut told us, when two friends and I visited him at his home early this fall, that he thought it was terribly important for the writer to write for his reader--essentially to say what you want, but in the form your reader will accept because your object is communication.
Another thing we found out was that whereas it took him years to write Cat's Cradle, a crazy book with mini chapters that leaps forward and around so fast one would think it was written in weeks, he put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan, a much more intricate book, in one night. Vonnegut says he was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind. It's really amazing, but it makes you feel a lot better that Vonnegut always thought of it as a whole.
IF I COULD tell you just how great a book The Sirens of Titan is, I would tell you all these things; and they would make you feel happy.