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Remembering Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is dead.

What does that mean?

For the uninitiated: Kurt Vonnegut stands alongside Bob Dylan as one of the most significant and talented social commentators of 1960s America. His most beloved novels include "The Sirens of Titan," "Cat's Cradle," and his magnum opus "Slaughterhouse Five." A collection of short stories, "Welcome to the Monkey House," is also a critical favorite. Vonnegut is widely praised as a key voice in counterculture literature and as a harsh critic of war.

These are dry data, regurgitated facts. His magic lay not in his message, but in the manner in which he delivered it.

Kurt Vonnegut is often (and accurately) portrayed as a satirist. Indeed, bombast and pointed exaggeration were always elements of his writing. Yet his matter-of-fact, storytelling tone added a layer of realism that kept his books from ever becoming over the top. His stories were rich stews of pseudo-science and cutting observation, populated by an endless stream of heartbreakingly zany characters. Still, Vonnegut carefully delivered his streams of consciousness sentence by sentence, page by page, like a man driven to create a perfect scale model of a dreamt-up UFO.

What resulted from this meticulous insanity was the unique dual nature that made Vonnegut's works so enriching to read. On one hand, "Cat's Cradle" is a strident, madcap spoof on the nuclear arms race and scientific progress in general. On the other, the book's tone is eerily quiet and meditative, belying the madness and chaos described.

Far from confusing the reader, this was Vonnegut's genius. The reader cannot simply absorb the allegorical point and move on -- Vonnegut's style is not a hammer to the skull, but a tap on the shoulder. Nor, of course, can the reader ignore the overarching metaphor; because Vonnegut coats his theses with both madness and minimalism, those theses take on a complex and compelling tone not found in less subtle works. Vonnegut does not call us to arms, nor does he provide a cheap laugh. At the end of a Kurt Vonnegut book, readers know they have touched -- just barely, with their fingertips -- something of immense importance, something that will drive them deeper into contemplation and observation of their own. It is magic, it is genius, but it is also small, and simple, and calm. Satire that can make the reader chuckle or fume is prevalent. Satire that can challenge the reader, confuse them, tie them up in bombast and solitude and still be just as effective -- this is a rarer beast.

And now, that beautiful, funny, crazy old beast is gone.

Perhaps the best-known Vonnegut quote comes from "Slaughterhouse Five," the first book of his I read and my eternal favorite. The alien Tralfamadorians, upon hearing of a death, say only: "So it goes."

That remains, in my opinion, one of the most perfect phrases ever put to paper.

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. He once was alive, and was one of the finest writers of our time. You may read his works (start with "Welcome to the Monkey House," end with "The Sirens of Titan," freestyle in between) because of what I've written here, or you may not.

He may be remembered, he may be forgotten.

So it goes.

Emmett Booth is a junior at Amherst Central High School.

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