Post Road Magazine #14

Kurt Vonnegut

Sheila Heti

My friend Misha Glouberman, who is one of the smartest people I know, yet who never reads literature and knows nothing about world politics, and who has in his apartment only self-help books like Loving in Flow and feels no shame about this—he admitted to me this morning, when I went to his place to borrow his girlfriend’s copy of Bluebeard, that though he doesn’t like literature, he has always liked Kurt Vonnegut but is kind of ashamed to admit it.

In theory, I must like reading books, since I am a writer, but usually I find myself in a situation in which I’d like to read a book, but I go to my bookshelf, or I go to the bookstore, and a heavy feeling comes over me. For this pleasure I will have to be patient, is how the feeling goes. I’ll have to meet characters and accompany them into and out of their problems. I’ll have to see the world through their eyes, and what their living room looks like. Their problems I’ll have to experience as my own. And so on.

All these formal barriers! When all I want is something for the train or the plane or the bus or the day that will make me feel as though someone else feels what it’s like to be human. All I’m asking for when I pick up a book is a temporary salve for the human condition! When I am in dire need of a book, I do not want to wade through a bunch of literariness. It is in such moments of urgency that I see with horror that most books fall short of the single mark that matters to me when I step on a bus, or during nights of abject loneliness—for these books are often as self-absorbed and humourless as I am. Useless!

Then last night, don’t ask me how, I suddenly remembered: Oh my god. Kurt Vonnegut. The near hero of my teenage years! And now the near hero of my twenty-ninth year too. If I ever again forget how awesome he is, and how perfectly suited to hold my hand in moments of true desolation, then let my next lover have a virile seed that prevents us from fucking without a condom even during my period.

I know how fashionable it is for a writer today to explain how everything in society functions alongside every other thing—as though we’re not also living in society ourselves, as if the details matter so goddamn much! Oh, the author’s narcissistic desire to have every last detail of modern life reshaped by his subtle touch. But it’s not the painstaking elaborations of the MFA grad we long for in our darkest hours, or when we’re getting on a bus—but the simple help of someone who looks at the world and realises: “God never wrote a good play in his life.” Misha, I direct this at you. Isn’t it better to admit to our books, “Even the simplest things I cannot keep in my head. Even the simplest things I am too stupid to teach myself”?

Tell me, Mr. Vonnegut, that I am bound to people I don’t even like because we are doing God’s work, though we don’t know what it is. When I feel most bad, which is the only time literature matters, because for the other times there are friends—but when you feel the absolute worst, you don’t want to burden friends with your wretchedness.

At my most abject all I want in my hands is the work of a human who feels as much a stranger in this world as me, and who admits, without intensity or guile, When it comes to this unlikely planet, my guess is as good as yours is.


Sheila Heti is the author of two books of fiction, a story collection called The Middle Stories (McSweeney’s Books) and the recently-published novel, Tickor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) about a man on his way to a dinner party.

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