In high school my favorite authors were Kurt Vonnegut and Orson Scott Card. Science fiction and dystopian literature seemed edgy and profound at the time, and I’m still drawn to those categories. I was fairly good as suspending my belief in reality, something my teacher impressed on my freshman English class saying it was necessary for reading Animal Farm. He emphasized that we must overlook the implausibility of talking animals and he repeated this every day for about two weeks. A bit of a priggish ninth grader I concluded that because I understood him the first time, I must be smart. Also because I had read the book in only two days. I suppose I was priggish and an overachiever. This also bolstered my view that reading Vonnegut (as well as Heinlein, a little Asimov, Atwood, and Huxley) was my duty to my intelligence.
This year I’ve reread some Vonnegut – Welcome to the Monkey House, Man without a Country, and latest, DeadEye Dick. I’d like to make it known that I wasn’t actually as smart as I perceived myself. For all my knowledge that pigs couldn’t talk in Animal Farm, I also literally accepted the concept of Ice Nine in Cat’s Cradle, unaware that it might be a metaphor. I often confused the man Vonnegut with his narrators, who spoke from the first person perspective. A great deal of this confusion was due to the straightforward tone of the narrators as well. I still operated under the assumption that people who could look you in the eye probably weren’t lying. All of his narrators looked you in the eye, therefore they must represent Vonnegut.
So this time when I reread DeadEye Dick, I paused with a chuckle at the introduction in my (Dell, $3.95 US 1982) copy, a chapter full of disclosure, containing a few paragraphs explaining the main symbols. Afterward I went on to read a tale of woe and sadness about a boy who commits an accidental murder in his childhood and doesn’t outlive the ignominy until the whole town is destroyed by a neutron bomb. As Vonnegut himself said, “The crime he committed in childhood is all the bad things I have done.”
Freud would have had a field day with Rudy Waltz, protagonist. Practically every psychological trauma he had could be chalked up to mother, “a cold and aggressively helpless old bat” or his father “a fraud.” Psychologically though, I’m pretty sure it’s accurate to say that what we do, whether with intention or not, follows us around our whole lives – defines us, names us just like Rudy Waltz a.k.a. DeadEye Dick.
Why would a teenager like this book, me at 14 or 16 or whenever I read this for the first time? Emotionally something must have resonated with me; after all at 16 I read emotionally first and foremost. It’s somewhat easy to feel alone as a teenager, to feel as though already you’ve made a mess of things if you aren’t the most popular,smart, or athletic person. But Rudy has made a spectacular mess, a mess he’s always figuratively cleaning up after. It’s nice to think there are people who have mucked it up worse than you have – that social comparison thing again.
But I’m not 16 anymore (thank God), and there’s more to reading comprehension than emotional identification with the main character. There is understanding, interpreting, and evaluating. So I understand that Rudy committed a crime he can’t seem to walk away from, and that it defines him. Rudy’s conclusion has then been to hold everyone at arm’s length, to become a neuter. Neuters make no impact on anyone elses life; they live invisibly. Although Rudy operates almost wholly under this paradigm, I can’t. Although he holds that some people live a full life, and then die figuratively…
…meanwhile literally existing, I can’t accept this either. Yet I can agree along with him, that simply by living, harm is done ecologically or relationally. Yet we must strive toward good. I love life, and want to see good days, therefore I turn from evil and seek peace and pursue it. The evaluation I make, that Rudy doesn’t, is that this pursuit of good is done through people and through community, and that it outweighs the bad being performed simultaneously.