A friend of mine used to mark the days spent in a particularly useless cubicle. Instead of scratching hatchmarks on a prison's cinderblock wall or a desert island castaway's palm tree, he would keep a list. He kept a list of all the famous people that died while he sat in that cubicle. It was not an exercise in morbidity, it was a means of measuring the collective unconscious of the living world. It was a miniscule part of a population study, a sampling technique that would help measure the depth of the "reservoir of the experiences of our species."
If I was keeping such a list, there would be a bold-faced entry this week. I knew the news instantly when I lay in bed listening to Morning Edition and heard a sentence begin with "Kurt Vonnegut." How many blows have you received at the hands of your clock radio in the morning? It seems all the bad news happens overnight, almost makes you want to blame your unlucky radio and trade it in for a new one that gives you good news. And a kick in the stomach the first thing in the morning doesn't make for a useful day. It's like waking from your last chapter of dreaming that wasn't going so good and your mind just never does get organized, that intricate clockwork just sputters with gears unmeshed until well into the afternoon, sometimes the evening. And folks ask you how is your day and your smiles feel fake like a movie set on the front of your head and you don't know exactly why. This is why, I think. It is because there is a ghost in you rustling about. Not a phantasm or spirit necessarily, but at least a trace, a secondary image of another soul. An imprint on your emotional topography. Someone who got inside you somehow.
I met Kurt Vonnegut once. That's the most starstruck I've been, the biggest idol I've ever met, by far. I went to a book signing in Washington, DC, for his wife, photographer Jill Krementz. I carried with me a postcard of one of my favorite photos of hers, a black and white shot of a smiling John Updike holding a manuscript close against him on a blustery day. When everyone lined up to get their books signed, I saw Mr. Vonnegut, quite larger than I expected, wandering about the rows of books. My heart thumping, I walked over and asked him if he would sign the photo, apologizing that it was of Updike. "That's OK," he said, "He's a friend."
A funny thing happens when writers die. The story dies just as quickly in the media. There's no video, there's no audio. There are no tribute concerts, no retrospectives. You can't do a cover of a Vonnegut essay. There will be no Tralfamadorian costume parties, no Bokononian prayer groups. You won't be able to buy anybody's wampeter on eBay, harmoniums will never cluster about your wrists and sooth you, and nothing will change the fact that we live among a pack of foma.
And so it goes.