Ideas Fly As Kurt Vonnegut Visits a Writing Festival

Kissing the novel goodbye

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut is in crackling good form. A rapt crowd of 700 enjoys the sparks at Arlington Church in Boston as he denounces computers, calls for "kindness" amendments to be added to the United States Constitution, worries that loneliness is the chief product of the Industrial Revolution, and says a good story is like a good blind date.

Then quietly, almost under his breath, with his big, dark, throw-pillow eyes looking sad, he says, "I've had a nice run. I'm working on my last novel, but it doesn't matter if I finish it. The novel is all over with."

Did everybody hear this?

Kurt Vonnegut, the master of brilliant antiestablishment goofiness and episodic rambling irony, the writer who gave us "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Player Piano," "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," "Breakfast of Champions," and "Welcome to The Monkey House," says the novel is over.

Plenty of critics and second-tier writers have stabbed and buried the novel in the last 20 years, but Mr. Vonnegut, probably the most novelistic of America's playful/serious novelists in the last half century, says what he loves is over. Deep down he doesn't want it to be over, but it is.

"I don't see much sense in it anymore," he tells the crowd, most of whom would not be at this writing festival sponsored by the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) if they truly believed him.

While Vonnegut blames television's astonishing ability to swamp and change the consciousness of people for ruining the purpose of the novel, his overarching concern is humanistic. Aim just at television, he says, and his point is missed.

"I want a constitutional convention," he tells the crowd. "I want to add four new amendments. A: Every new child shall be welcomed into the world with joy. B: At the age of puberty, say 14, every child should take part in a ritual of adulthood. C: Every adult must have worthwhile tasks to be performed day after day. D: When a person dies, he must be sorely missed by many people."

If this could be done, if people could gather somewhere in Indiana (Vonnegut's home state) and discuss the amendments, they would be inside a Vonnegut novel.

There, the implausible becomes rational, the absurd becomes thinkable. Wit serves the heart. "Isn't this what all the politicians have?" Vonnegut growls. "They get all this kind of help."

He leans forward in the pulpit of the church, one hand running through his great bushy hair. "We've got to get back to extended families," he says. "We need more people to talk to. I pretend to be interested in sports just to say good morning to people."

He cites teaching as the noblest of all professions, as long as class size is limited to 18.

"How many of you have had a teacher that made you glad to be alive because of what you were learning?" he asks the crowd.

Almost everyone raises a hand.

"Now what I want you to do," Vonnegut says, "is turn to the person next to you and tell him or her the name of that teacher." The crowd erupts in delight, suddenly a family sharing good news.

The next day, at a master writing class sponsored by BCAE, Vonnegut, the curmudgeon, shares more good news. He looks over the large class seated in a gilded, chandeliered room and says, "This is absurd [the size], but we'll make the best of it."

In the audience, Cindy L'Esperance is listening intently. She is one of nine writers selected to have one page of writing critiqued by Vonnegut. Most of the work he slides over, commenting casually and saying one page is not enough here for him to evaluate their abilities.

"What were you thinking when you wrote this?" he asks Ms. L'Esperance of her humorous writing about a murder scene.

"I thought it was funny," she says. "I laughed a lot as I wrote it."

"Right," he says, grinning. "Good. Sing and dance. You were a little Hollywood. You don't have to do that to be interesting."

Hollywood is hardly Vonnegut's favorite industry. "It's the scum of the earth out there. They have entertainment breakthroughs," he says with scorn, mimicking producers. "We haven't shown mutilated corpses yet. Let's do that."

He reads a few lines from another work, stops, and looks up.

"There are two kinds of writers," he says. "The creative writer, and the hack. The hack is skilled. Ask for a 20 page story about a cowboy in a week, and he'll deliver. Ask the creative writer, and he'll promise to deliver, but he can't do it."

To the serious novelists in the room, he says there are three things wrong with their manuscripts. "First, throw away the first three pages," Vonnegut says, "probably because nothing is happening. Second, you're one character short. You need somebody mean. Third, you have to have the will to close with the enemy. Beginning writers are too polite. They don't want to hurt their characters."

After the class L'Esperance says she has always been a fan of Vonnegut.

"I came because I thought he might have some wisdom to offer," she says. "Now I'll have plenty to think about when I go home."

For Don Brown, an advertising executive who has written two unpublished novels, Vonnegut was in good form during the class.

"I remember a short story he wrote about Stonehenge," Mr. Brown says. "Nobody in the story could figure out how it was built - because the stones were so heavy. Vonnegut says it was built during a period when there was hardly any gravity on earth. That's Vonnegut."

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