Some say you can only write a character as smart as yourself, but that’s not true. Meet Webster: he’s a forty-nine year old furniture builder who stuns his small, mountain community when he completes a sixty-three day winning streak on Jeopardy. See? I just made that character and I’m certainly not smart enough to be on Jeopardy. Yet there’s Webster and, as far as I’m concerned, he exists now. So don’t tell me a fictional writer can’t be better at something than his creator.
In my last post I unwittingly referenced Vonnegut. When I realized this it got me thinking about him, even though I haven’t done much of that in nearly a decade. I will concede that I’m a fan of Vonnegut’s short fiction. The Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions deserve their praise for the most part. I loved Timequake, the novel that even his biggest fans tend to dislike. Maybe it’s because the concept scared the shit out of me. Maybe it’s because it’s pure science fiction.
Science fiction writers tend to be bitter about Vonnegut. The guy wrote the stuff, denied what it was, and lived like Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, the main character wanders the circles of hell when he happens upon Vonnegut’s final resting place, which is a tomb with a big neon sign that reads, “SO IT GOES.” As if the writers’ contention wasn’t clear enough, they have their hero say, “I was writing better than he ever did before I left high school!”
And Vonnegut’s most famous creation (other than himself) is Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who crafts weirder stuff than Vonnegut does. I have a fondness for Trout that goes deeper than most characters, especially characters who write. He writes a special breed of science fiction with no regard to how inaccessible it is for normal people. On the other hand there are consequences to writing that way. We sense Trout would be a happier person if he wrote mainstream stuff… or if he denied that it was science fiction and managed to gain entry into mainstream literature circles.
I know what you’re thinking now. How could I compare Vonnegut’s writing, which is in every library in the country, to the writing of Kilgore Trout which is more or less ethereal? But Trout’s writing does exist. Let me explain.
While I’m hesitant to say I’m a fan of Vonnegut (although ten years ago I would have had no reservations) I revel in my fanaticism for Philip Jose Farmer. I’m pretty sure a girl broke up with me once because I told her about the plot of Riders of the Purple
Sage Wage, which contains incest and pedophilia and about a million other taboos. I love the look of shock on “normal” people’s faces when I tell them about Flesh, in which the main character grows horns and beds literally hundreds of strange women, or when I begin to describe To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which involves every human being who ever lived waking up on Riverworld, a kind of science fictional afterlife which trumps the aforementioned Inferno in every conceivable way.
PJF wrote the kind of fucked-up shit Trout wrote with no regard to how inaccessible it is to people who own SUVs, manicured lawns, and 401ks. Predictably, he was met with relatively little fanfare amongst the general public, although many writers in the genre thought he was brilliant including Harlan Ellison. Apparently Farmer felt a kinship with Vonnegut’s fictional character. It isn’t hard to see why.
Indeed, the story goes that Farmer called Vonnegut and professed his love for Trout. The lesser-known writer begged Trout’s creator to let him write as Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut reluctantly agreed after initially refusing Farmer. The result was Venus on the Half-Shell, which reads a little bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s far more insane.