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Stalking Kurt Vonnegut

The story was published in cyber-magazine Salon.com eight years ago. The author, Daniel Stern, was a creative writing student at New School for Social Research in New York. I wish I knew what happened to him. I very much liked his short story. And, yes, I am too, like Stern’s narrator, a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is best known for having written Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Short stories aside, of all Vonnegut’s novels, my favorites are : Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Breakfast of Champions (1970). Have you read him ?

Dan Stern’s short story’s title is Stalking Kurt Vonnegut. Whether the story is based on events that took place as described, or not, is irrelevant. The story is true. It begins like this, and to read the full version you may visit the archives of Salon, the story was published as part of a series titled Seven Deadly Sins : Student Writing on Campus Life :

There we were in the packed auditorium, our eyes locked. He was up on stage under the spotlight, a guest in a round-table discussion on the issue of time in our fast-paced, techno-driven world. I was down in the seats, about eight rows back on the aisle. And I swear it, our stares were fixed, one on the other, on and off, for much of the night. Am I inventing this, just wishing that my literary icon, my reason for writing, actually had some special interest, good or bad, in my ordinary face in the crowd? Could my imagination have played such a wicked trick on me?

Yes, it could have. It has before and will again. But this time, no. Kurt Vonnegut was indeed probing my eyes, engaging me in a staring contest of who would give in first. All told, we came out even that night. I’d like to believe the cause of all this was that he saw some divine aura swarming around me, detecting a uniqueness that only comes around every few decades or so, one that he himself possesses. But that wasn’t it at all. Let me tell you a bit about our past, Kurt’s and mine. Then you’ll understand.

There were blogs in 1999. One blogger took the time to write about Stern’s story in this manner :

On the other end of the Salon spectrum, why was this next piece even accepted for publication? It’s a creepy, slobbering first-person account of failed attempts to become friends with Kurt Vonnegut, as though the author is a particularly unique specimen who ‘belongs’ in Vonnegut’s circle. Declaring oneself to be uniquely deserving does not make it so.

He quotes this passage from Stalking, the only piece that may support his view, if taken out of context :

The masses didn’t embrace you until you were well into your 40s. I can’t wait that long, Kurt. And I know I’m not alone in my pursuit of you. I know other hopeless hopefuls want a piece of you, too. I see them standing in line, shoving your books in your face, begging you to scribble down the symbols that spell your name, that they think will make them complete. But Kurt, when I ask for your signature, I’m not only thinking of myself, I’m considering posterity. How prized my signed copies of your novels will be when I’m famous.

Kurt, I am part of your karass, can’t you see? If only on the fringe of it. But I’m in there. I know I am, damn it. And I need you to see that before you head off toward your Galapagosian blue tunnel into the Afterlife.

The blogger says :

If the piece were tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic, that would be one thing. But no, he’s serious. <shudder>

Ok. There are times in our lives when we feel special (and we probably are), when we feel that we have something special going on with someone else who is special too in our own eyes. We may feel a special connection with someone we admire, a sort of kinship. The only risk incurred by such “admiration” I suppose is to meet the person whom we admire, and Stalking is the story of such an encounter. It is full of self-derision, something I am not trying to cultivate myself, and that I am not encouraging in others, but there it is. Low self-esteem is always lurking, and self-derision is a coping mechanism that hopefully makes most people sympathetic. The narrator is conscious, he’s lucid. He’s describing his experience. Notice that I am talking about the narrator, not the author.

I take some time myself to write about someone who took some time to write about someone else... because I feel that I have been guilty of that “sin” : I have on countless occasions felt uncomfortable with people who admired people whom I admired too, I have been uncomfortable around people who beleived they could actually contact, relate with, whom they admired. I have admired writers, different sorts of artists, and people from other professions too, and I have come to terms with all of that. I too have felt and will feel again the emotions that come with admiring a stranger who does not “feel” quite like a stranger, I have felt the excitement, the groupie-ness, around someone that seemed more special and important, in a different league altogether, with an aura, even. I felt that aura, and wanted to get closer to it, to feel it up close and personal.

Last edited by Caroline Schnapp about 10 years ago.