Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.
A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive — not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).
My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut’s freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.
Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.
Slapstick is considered “late-period” Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary “tribes” with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you’re supposed to be nice to that person.
Close Slapstick, and we’re back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.