Kurt Vonnegut - God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
Being deeply in love with Kurt Vonnegut's "A Man Without A Country" - a book, which in my opinion everybody - and especially every American - should read and that is as up-to-date and relevant today as it was at the day of its release in 2005 - I expected to love this one as well, but I got a little stuck on the level of "like". I will later explain why, but let's get some background information first.
So who is Dr. Kevorkian? I guess, for most US readers of this blog this is crystal clear, but not so much for the ones in Europe.
Jack Kevorkian was born in 1928 in Michigan as the son of immigrants from Armenia and died in June 2011 at the age of 83. He became famous for actively assisting suicides. He had the strong believe, that it is human right to decide yourself about life or death. He famously said about it "Death is not a crime." He never killed his patients himself. He "just" assisted them - in lots of cases with the help of his "death machine" called Thanatron, which injected a fatal dose of poison.
Of course this topic opens the gates to endless discussions about morality, life and death, religion, the relativity of suffering and much more - especially when it comes to the fact that not all of Kevorkian's patients were proven being fatally ill. I won't go down this road now, but just one word: I have seen lots of suffering and there is a certain point of no return, where I am at least critical when it comes to life prolonging procedures and I respect the free will of those people who are beyond this point.
Up from early 1999 Kevorkian served eight years of a 10 to 25 years sentence for second-degree murder. He was released in 2007 on condition he would never assist a suicide again.
Kurt Vonnegut picks up the idea of Kevorkian's Thanatron together with another controversially discussed topic: near death experience.
In this collection of 21 short stories Vonnegut serves as his own fictional main character who works with Kevorkian to experience a bigger number of controlled near death experiences he uses to interview dead people. As you would expect from Vonnegut the episodes are very trenchant and full of his dry sense of humor.
There are a couple of short stops in after life I enjoyed in particular. One is for sure the story of him meeting American union leader Eugene Victor Debs:
"I thanked him for words of his, which I quote again and again in lectures: " As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
He asked me how those words were received here on earth in America nowadays. I said they were ridiculed. "People snicker and snort," I said. He asked what our fastest growing industry was . "The building of prisons," I said.
"What a shame", he said and then he asked me how the Sermon on the Mount was going over these days and then he spread his wings and flew away."
Another favorite of mine is Vonnegut's dialogue with writer Mary Shelley:
"I said many ignorant people nowadays thought "Frankenstein" was the name of the monster, and not of the scientist who created him.
She said: "That's not so ignorant after all. There are two monsters in my story, not one. And one of them, the scientist, is indeed named Frankenstein."
But my by far most loved episode is the one about meeting William Shakespeare. It already kicks off hilariously:
"He said the English dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, "fit to split the ears of groundlings." He asked if it had a name, and I said "Indianapolis.""
There is a full interview following with Shakespeare mostly answering the questions with quoting his own body of work, which is very entertaining.
Oh, and by the way ... there is no need to watch Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous" that brings up the question if Shakespeare was really written by Shakespeare, because the answer to this question is here:
"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," he [Shakespeare] said. "Ask Saint Peter!"
And so did the fictional Vonnegut: "He told me that nobody arriving in Heaven, and there was no Hell, had claimed authorship of any of it. Saint Peter added, "Nobody, that is, who was willing to submit to my lie-dector test."
See - Shakespeare is no fraud - case closed.
The full list of interviews made on the gates to heaven:
Dr. Mary D. Ainsworth, Salvatore Biagini, Birnum Birnum, John Brown, Gorsuch Burke, Clarence Darrow, Eugene Victor Debs, Harold Epstein, Vivian Hallinan, Adolf Hitler, John Wesley Joyce, Frances Keane, Sir Isaac Newton, Peter Pellegrino, James Earl Ray, William Shakespeare, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley, Dr. Philip Strax, Carla Faye Tucker, Kilgore Trout, Isaac Asimov
So why is it just a like although this little book is obviously packed with quite some awesomeness?
I think it is for the slight disappointment I felt reading along. The whole concept is so much bigger. A great science fiction author like Vonnegut could have done so much more with the idea of traveling back and forth between the here and now and the afterlife. The episodes are also very short and although they are so much to the point (which is brilliant) it is sometimes hard to keep the pace. There is a lot to think about in many of the stories and as the reader I felt the quite often the impulse to ask back and go a bit deeper, but before I could really catch up with the things pointed out, Vonnegut jumps over to the next case.
As Christmas time approaches work life comes to its peak and reading time becomes very limited, but for November I have already downloaded a nice piece to my Kindle that looks very promising and has the potential to become one of my favorites. I will keep you posted :)