I just finished rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s entire published output, sort of. Thirty-eight volumes in all, including interviews published in book form, and a digital collection of student work from the Cornell Daily Sun. There’s more out there–several forwards to other author’s books, a collection of two essays privately published and exorbitantly priced, probably a few book reviews and essays that have yet to be compiled–but the spirit of the thing is what matters, and that’s why I feel comfortable stating that I’ve just finished rereading Vonnegut’s entire published output.
But I don’t, really. Those dangling threads nag at me. Why come this far and not knock out all of those forwards? What’s $1,500 for two essays when it means that I can say that I am done? All those unread Vonnegut words remain just a click away courtesy of online retailers, if I’d just go get them.
I am a completist. Sets of things satisfy me, and incomplete sets of things make me anxious. Presumably this somehow correlates to the obsessive compulsive order that lurks beneath my mostly calm surface like the shark in Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws: The Revenge, all of which I watched because hey, complete set, regardless of whether three of the four are worth viewing. Liking sets of things should not be confused with OCD, by the way. Lots of people collect lots of things and feel no anxiety as a result. On the other hand, incomplete sets trigger in me a feeling that something bad will happen, and that treads closely to OCD territory.
Often my little side trips into completism arise spontaneously. The Vonnegut reread began with pulling God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater from my bookshelf, and then Mother Night. “You’ve read two, now you have to finish it,” my broken brain insisted. Who was I to argue? That guy is the only one who knows where I keep the cashews–best not to tick him off.
A few years ago the game was Clint Eastwood movies, triggered accidentally by picking up a used collection of his Sergio Leone westerns. Soon I was scouring auction sites for long out of print copies of Francis In the Navy and Tarantula, a ’50s sci-fi in which Eastwood appears for maybe ten seconds as a fighter pilot. In an oxygen mask. And a helmet.
I managed to control the sprawl of that episode by convincing my broken brain that only movies counted, and furthermore “movie” was defined by a theatrical release, thus I didn’t need to sit through seasons of Rawhide, for example, or seek out Eastwood guest spots on TV shows or whatever.
If I remember correctly, the final score was around 65 films in which Eastwood appeared or directed. I knocked all of them out while plodding along on a treadmill, which in retrospect seems like an apt metaphor, literally scratching them off of my checklist as I went. Eventually only two remained, and neither had ever been commercially released on home video. They were early Eastwood appearances, probably no more than glorified extra roles, but if Clint hidden behind an oxygen mask counted then so did they.
The internet wasn’t any help, either. Surely I could at least find his appearances in those movies on Youtube–five second clips of “Your highness” or “Where to, pal?” or some such. No such luck. Desperate, I wrote a letter to Eastwood’s company. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I’m sure it sounded insane. I’m 63 films into this thing. I have to finish it. It’s a matter of life and death. Surely you have these flicks archived. Won’t you help a lunatic out? They didn’t reply. On the other hand, I never received notification of a restraining order, so I guess it’s a wash.
My Vonnegut and Eastwood exercises share much in common. Both remain incomplete on technicalities, of course, but there’s more than that. Surveying bodies of work from artists of such longevity reveals that reputations are made from great moments rising out of abundant mediocrity. That’s an obvious statement, but one we tend to forget once time has helped the mediocre (and the bad) work fade into obscurity.
David Bowie is a great example of this phenomenon. I love Bowie. When asked who my all-time favorite musician is, my answer is invariably Bowie. I am a Bowie completist, one of those guys who owns significantly more albums than Bowie himself recorded thanks to bootlegs, compilations, remixes, tribute albums, etc.
Bona fides established and disclaimers rendered, here is what I can tell you: David Bowie released a lot of mediocre (and even bad) music. Some of that is juvenilia, not unlike Vonnegut’s Cornell Daily Sun work that never would have been resurrected if not for the famous name attached to it. Some of it resembles a slick, heartless cash grab (Tonight, Never Let Me Down), but most of that mediocre work is no more than an artistic effort that didn’t quite gel, like Vonnegut’s Slapstick.
And that’s another lesson learned from consuming decades-long bodies of work in their entirety: Artistic reputations result from simply showing up and putting in the hours. Bowie’s recorded output begins with 1964’s “Liza Jane” and ends with 2016’s Blackstar. That’s over 50 years of stepping up to the plate and taking his cuts. Of course he struck out often but he also hit some grand slams, and those grand slams were glorious.
One of the best monuments to artistic persistence might be The Complete Peanuts. Like Bowie’s recordings, Schulz’s Peanuts run lasted a half century: fifty years of daily strips–fifty years. How did Sparky do it? He showed up for work every day, no magic involved.
Which is not to say that there’s no magic in his work. Peanuts is so ubiquitous today as to be almost unnoticeable, but rereading that universe from start to finish reveals what a wonderfully rich, complex, and human world Schulz created. His artistic achievement deserves a place next to anyone you care to mention–Picasso, Shakespeare, Scorsese, Mozart–and yet it is somehow diminished both by Schulz’s choice of medium and his tremendous commercial success. Perhaps only completists, whose task is much simplified thanks to Fantagraphics, who bother to read in sequence Sparky’s fifty years of daily strips can recognize the beauty and magnitude of his achievement. ( Over a period of 12 years, Fantagraphics published cartoonist Charles Schulz’s life’s work in a beautiful uniform edition that spanned 26 volumes. Of course I bought the complete set.)
Not all of my completist tendencies find their outlets in music, film, and literature. Sets of things exist in many fields of human endeavor, after all. As a kid collecting comic books I tended toward Marvel rather than DC not only because I liked the characters better, but because owning a complete run of Action Comics or Detective Comics was out of the question. Even when I was a kid, the value of golden age DC books made any chance of complete runs cost prohibitive. I had a shot at owning the complete X-Men, though. It was a long shot, but there was still a chance.
Cost is a mitigating factor that keeps my completist tendencies in check. When I find myself thinking about a complete collection of Ford Mustangs, for example, I know that it will never come to pass. Even if I limit that fantasy to just a representative example of each mark from 1965 to the present the notion is absurd. Aside from the cost of the vehicles themselves, the cost of storing, maintaining, and insuring them would be astronomical, and for what: to park my 1975 Mustang II next to my boxy 1981 Fox body ‘Stang, neither of which I ever drive? That flavor of completism is best left to the Jay Lenos of the world.
But when cost isn’t a mitigating factor, I’m a fat, juicy pigeon in the crosshairs of the merchandisers who have the completist’s modus operandi all dialed in. In order to finish the Vonnegut reread, for example, I had to purchase Complete Stories even though all but five of the stories included had already been compiled in other books. I suppose I could have just checked out the book from my local library, but then my Vonnegut shelf would have had a glaring five story gap in it. That’s completism for you. Don’t even get me started on Led Zeppelin reissues.
The Frank Zappa estate finally broke my will. Zappa released 62 albums during his life, but including compilations well over twice that many titles now appear in the Zappa discography, and they’re still coming. I pick up used copies of albums I don’t own when I stumble across them, but I’ve long given up hope of keeping up with the estate’s prodigious output. They have beaten me. My name is James, and I am a Zappa incompletist.
So I guess there’s hope for me. My compulsion for complete sets of things clearly can be sidestepped. Maybe in the course of my next complete reread I’ll even be able to avoid dropping thirty bucks just to read five stories. There’s a library just down the street, after all. Who am I kidding? Even the idea of skipping a book in a complete set that I haven’t even defined yet makes me feel anxious.
And if you happen to work for Eastwood, I really need to see those two flicks. Thanks.