In recent years I’ve taken to reading literary biographies and autobiographical books about writing by famous and important authors. I’m in the middle of big books about Chaucer and Dickens and Emerson, I’ve begun but made little headway into ones about James Joyce and William Wordsworth, the other day I started a new one about Stan Lee. I’ve read two books about Neil Young and more books about Bob Dylan than I care to count. I’ve read a book about George Eliot that’s also about what it’s like to read George Eliot, and I’ve read books about writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury and John McPhee and Robert Caro that are more about being Le Guin and Bradbury and McPhee and Caro than they are about anything else. I don’t know why I do this, surely my time could be better spent reading the actual books these writers wrote than reading about their lives which are, in the end, more or less ordinary lives following traditional patterns of joy and tragedy, success and failure, work and betrayal and loss. I suppose what I’m looking for is an explanation as to why anyone bothers to write anything at all when they could be reading, or listening to music, or watching a movie, or god forbid, talking to other human beings.
Near the end of Robert Weide’s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, we hear archival footage of the author explaining that people are terribly lonely because we’ve evolved to be social creatures with large extended families, networks of people we can interact with on a daily basis, but modern society has isolated us into ever smaller nuclear units. He exhorts his audience to create a larger network for themselves (they don’t even have to be good people, they just have to be there). I suppose that’s what’s so addictive about social media, it creates the illusion of interaction in the same way a narcotic can create the illusion of happiness. We read a book or watch a movie or hear a song or see a funny ten second video clip and share it with the internet and, when someone responds, however meaningless the interaction, for a brief moment we get the rush of feeling like we’re not alone in the universe. I suppose that’s what all writing, all creating really is anyway, and the best artists are the ones that are most fully able to express their own lonely humanity, such that when we read their work we can say, “ah, here’s a person who is just as screwed up as I am.”
I suspect this accounts for much of the enduring appeal of Kurt Vonnegut, and Weide’s film is admirable in its ability to foreground the essential humanity of such an iconic figure. It comes out in the way Vonnegut’s family and friends talk about him, in the home video footage Weide has unearthed, and in the many speeches and interview clips of the writer himself. The old footage is especially poignant—I don’t know that I’ve ever been so moved by home movies in an otherwise pretty standard biographical documentary before. I don’t think there’s anything special about the footage itself, or its editing, but rather the stories around it, the way his children talk about their father, the way he talks about his sister, or his mother, that make it almost unbearably bittersweet.
I don’t know Vonnegut well. I’ve read some essays and speeches, but none of his novels. I did read his short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, but I don’t remember much about it. I read on my kindle every night before falling asleep, which helps me get to sleep easier but also means that much of what I read comes in a state of only semi-consciousness, so I often remember very little of the actual content, but nonetheless can sometimes develop a strong emotional connection to the material. I remember the feeling of reading the book more than the book itself. Monkey House is one of my favorite late night reads (others include Train Dreams, Big Sur, The Dubliners, Annals of a Former World, and the first half of Against the Day). But after watching this film, I think I understand his work a little better. At least, I know the structure of his final novel, Timequake, because Weide somewhat brazenly adopts it for the structure of his own film, at once a typical biographical documentary and also a film about the difficult (but not impossible) process of making a biographical documentary. I should probably read more. In the daylight.