One day in the summer of 1969 my brother handed me a paperback book, saying, “Here, I think you’ll like this one.” The book was ‘The Sirens of Titan’ by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. My brother Phil was a science fiction reader. He went through SF paperbacks like candy, and he knew I was really not interested. But every once in awhile he would bring a book to my attention. What I was on the lookout for was anything that would make me laugh out loud, books like ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Catch-22’. Vonnegut’s ‘Sirens of Titan’ definitely fell into that category. I was amazed and delighted. It was sort of science-fictiony, but mostly just off-the-wall, creative, inventive, and funny!
After that I found and read ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’, ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’, and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. Like a lot of other high school and college kids at the time, I had become a Vonnegut fan. Here was a writer, judging by the evidence in his books, who was about the same age as my parents. But what a difference! He seemed to understand exactly what was going on in the world and what my attitudes were toward God, country and authority. And he kept making me laugh.
The facts of Vonnegut’s life are familiar to many of his readers. Most of the biographical details are revealed in his novels, in his three books of essays, speeches and occasional pieces, or in his many interviews, collected in ‘Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut’. (A good Vonnegut timeline and bibliography are online at The Most Comprehensive Vonnegut Site in the Cosmos, at http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/vonnegut.html).
Kurt was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, the third child of a prominent architect father and a rich and brilliant but mentally unbalanced mother. When the Great Depression came along the family’s financial situation suffered drastically, but Kurt was still able to attend Cornell University, where he studied chemistry and wrote for the school paper. In 1943 he quit school to enlist in the Army. He was a Private in the infantry, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, became a prisoner of war and survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden.
After the War he married his high school sweetheart, Jane Cox, and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. He studied anthropology but his Masters thesis was rejected and he left without a degree. In 1947 Kurt and Jane moved to Schenectady, New York and Kurt took a job as a publicist at General Electric. His first novel, ‘Player Piano’ (1952), would parody the corporate world of G. E. and Schenectady. He began writing short stories which he sold to magazines such as “Collier’s” and “Saturday Evening Post”. The best of these stories were collected in ‘Canary in a Cat House’ (1961) and ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ (1968), essentially the same book.
Encouraged by his success as a writer, Vonnegut quit his job at G. E. and moved with wife and children to West Barnstable, Massachusetts. This is where he wrote his great early novels: ‘The Sirens of Titan’ (1959), ‘Mother Night’ (1961), ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963), and ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’ (1965). On the strength of these books he was offered a teaching position at the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He taught there during the 1965/1966 academic year. After his stint in Iowa, Vonnegut received a Guggenheim Fellowship, visited Germany, and completed the book that remains his masterpiece, his novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'(1969).
Amidst the commercial and critical success of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, and with their children mostly grown and on their own, Kurt and Jane separated. Kurt moved by himself to Manhattan. He wrote a play, ‘Happy Birthday Wanda June’, which played with some success off-Broadway. In 1971 he taught Creative Writing at Harvard and became involved with photographer Jill Krementz, whom he would later marry. Also in that year the University of Chicago belatedly awarded him a Masters degree, citing the contribution of ‘Cat’s Cradle’ to the field of cultural anthropology. 1972 saw the public television broadcast of ‘Between Time and Timbuktu’, a documentary about Vonnegut and his fiction, and in 1973 a movie of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ debuted.
In 1974 a new Vonnegut novel was out and I read it–‘Breakfast of Champions’. In that novel Vonnegut announced the end of his career as a writer. “I am approaching my fiftieth birthday,” he wrote. “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.”
Maybe I was naive, but I believed him. I don’t remember being greatly disappointed. In the mid-1970s everyone was going to achieve enlightenment, or at least higher consciousness. At the time I read ‘Breakfast of Champions’, I was also reading a book called ‘The Master Game’, which identified and explained various paths to permanent bliss. It seemed to me that was what Vonnegut was opting for, that compared to achieving true enlightenment the writing of novels was small potatoes.
I guess I was reading too much in, or the times changed, or the enlightenment didn’t take, because in the years that followed Vonnegut kept writing and publishing novels: ‘Slapstick’ (1976), ‘Jailbird’ (1979), and ‘Deadeye Dick’ (1982). I read the first of these, took a look at the other two, and did not think they were on par with his earlier work. Not only was I somewhat disappointed that he had gone back on his promise to retire from writing, but the quality of his work seemed to have reversed course.
Who knows? Maybe he was in a mid-career slump. At any rate he kept writing. ‘Galapagos’ was published in 1985, followed by ‘Bluebeard’ in 1987. These novels were not as wildly inventive as his early work, or as artful as ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, but they were more learned, more assured. I felt like Vonnegut was back on track, that he was once again doing work almost equal to his brilliant early novels.
‘Galapagos’ was followed by ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1990). Then there was a gap of some years before his next “last” novel, ‘Timequake’ (1997). Vonnegut’s latest publications, both in 1999, were a second collection of early short stories, ‘Bagombo Snuff Box’, for which he wrote a very amusing Introduction, and ‘God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian’, a collection of insightful and imaginative pieces that he wrote for short spots on New York radio station WNYC.
Vonnegut spent the 2000/2001 academic year teaching writing at Smith College, and began work on his next “last” novel, ‘If God Were Alive Today’. He has pursued a late career as a visual artist with shows at several New York galleries. (For more information on his career as a visual artist visit the Official Website of Kurt Vonnegut at http://www.vonnegut.com.) Two more of his novels, ‘Mother Night’ and ‘Breakfast of Champions’, have been made into movies and he has had cameo roles in both. He continues to speak publicly on occasion, most recently at the University of Iowa and at the Chicago Public Library. (Robert Weide, who scripted and produced ‘Mother Night’, is making a documentary about Vonnegut. For more about it check his website at http://www.duckprods.com.)
Vonnegut still smokes Pall Malls, a longtime addiction. You may remember hearing his name in the news when he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a cigarette started a fire in his apartment. He recovered fully and remains active and in reasonably good health. He and Jill Krementz divide their time primarily between a home on Long Island and a Manhattan apartment. They were on Long Island when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred. A friend who spoke to Kurt that day said he seemed relat
ively unfazed, having lived through much worse in Dresden. His principal comment was: “With all the money the CIA spends on intelligence gathering, you’d think they could recruit one Muslim.”
So here it is the 21st century already. Somehow I have gotten to be 50 years old, the same age Vonnegut was when he first retired from writing. Mr. Vonnegut is closing in on his 80th birthday. Neither one of us, as far as I can tell, has yet achieved true enlightenment, but he is still writing and I am still laughing out loud when I read his books. Recently I have been rereading his novels, partly for fun and laughs, partly to see if his work is really as good as I first thought it was. There’s a short answer to that one: Yes, it is.
I had it in my mind that one of the reasons I liked Vonnegut was that he constructed his books of short chapters. I found out that isn’t always true. ‘Sirens of Titan’ has only 12 chapters. ‘Cat’s Cradle’, on the other hand, has 127. What I did notice in both of these books and in his others, is that he usually writes in short units with lots of space breaks between them. Vonnegut himself has said: “My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do– this thing I learned to make as a child–which is a little joke.”
His great strength at all times is his sense of humor, but life is not just a joke to Vonnegut. At bottom there is great sadness, poignancy, beauty and wonder. He deals with moral and existential questions. Who are we? Why are we here? How should we behave toward one another? The first two questions are most often treated playfully and given a great deal of leeway. They may not be answerable, but it’s fun to try. The third question receives some very definite answers. We should treat each other with kindness and common courtesy. We should stop sending children to kill and be killed in wars. We should find ways to break down barriers of class and race. We should start paying attention to preserving our planet for future generations.
A major theme in Vonnegut’s novels is the power of Fate in human affairs, the ways in which seemingly random and unimportant actions have significance when the larger picture is seen. In ‘Sirens of Titan’ most of human history has been an attempt to get a small spaceship part to a stranded traveler on Titan. In ‘Galapagos’, genetic and other “accidents” lead to the future evolution of the human race. In ‘Hocus Pocus’, the Elders of Tralfamadore are using the planet Earth in a series of experiments designed to create a virus that can survive space travel. Vonnegut’s fondness for this theme is traceable to a passage at the beginning of Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, a book Vonnegut says he read “when I was supposed to,” at the age of 18. Wolfe writes of “the dark miracle of chance that makes new magic in a dusty world,” and says that “each moment is a window on all time.” Vonnegut pays tribute to Wolfe in ‘Cat’s Cradle’, when the narrator’s first vin-dit, a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all things, is precipitated by an encounter with a stone angel in a tombstone salesroom.
My friend Attila Gyenis once asked Vonnegut why he was so popular. Vonnegut said it was because he didn’t use semi-colons. A nice one-liner, but it points to the fact that Vonnegut makes a conscious effort to be accessible, not academic, elitist or highbrow. His books read smoothly and quickly. He can be erudite and sophisticated, but he never writes down to his audience, rather he includes them in. The reader sees the conspiratorial wink and feels included in the big in-joke. Parody, satire and irony are prime weapons in his arsenal. (If a pacifist can be said to have an arsenal.) He also juxtaposes high and low culture to comedic effect, and chooses character names that sound like they’re out of W. C. Fields movies — Winston Niles Rumfoord, Ransom K. Fern, Philboyd Studge. The net result is that the reader is amused, delighted and edified. We get the idea that the writer is having a great deal of fun writing the book. And that fun is contagious. The reader catches it.
Many American novelists, as they grow older, seem to lose their way, done in by fame or alcohol, or simply with nothing left to say. Vonnegut has had his own struggles with depression and alcohol, but he has kept writing and has seemed to grow kinder and wiser with age. His continuing popularity and influence are attested to by the fact that all of his books remain in print. He is as likely to be the favorite author of a college student in 2001 as he was in 1969, and a growing number of their professors are paying serious attention to his work.
At this late stage in his career I believe Kurt Vonnegut deserves a Nobel Prize for literature. He deserves the dynamite money. He has, in his own way and in his own time, been as great a writer as William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. He has produced a remarkable body of work ranging over half a century in time. He has spoken unstintingly for peace and kindness and simple human decency and he has done so with humor and sympathy and more than a little art.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You have made the world a better place. You have enriched and nourished our minds and hearts and souls. Thank you for Bokonon and Boko-maru, for Kilgore Trout, Tralfamadore and so much more. Thank you for fathering an extended family of Vonnegut readers, and for making it possible to add to the family simply by handing someone a book, saying, “Here, I think you’ll like this one.”