Kurt Vonnegut: 1922-2007
I first encountered Vonnegut when I was in college, after stumbling across Timequake in the discount section of a local bookstore. It looked interesting enough, but little did I know that it would probably reawaken my interest in reading, and send me on a journey of discovery of important literature. I had never read anything like it; the science fiction aspects of the book were what caught my interest, but the book was so much more than that. He seemed to be directly addressing the reader in a conversational tone while baring his soul and revealing deep feelings about himself, his family, and the world we live in. It really amazed me, and I quickly sought out any of his books that I could find. His humanistic outlook was revelatory to me, and now that I think about it, he was probably the influence that brought me away from my conservative upbringing and helped me establish the more moderate/liberal viewpoint that I hold today.
As I mentioned, his writing style was revolutionary for me; his love for humanity was obvious, along with sadness at seeing us fail. Chapters, while already short, were broken up into sections of three or four paragraphs, like he was sharing his thoughts one by one. While the story was interesting and full of ideas, he often ignored it to talk about his life and his family. It was incredibly touching; I still remember details even though I haven't read the book in years.
Little did I know that Timequake was one of Vonnegut's lesser works (by a large margin). In fact, as far as I know, it was his last novel, and his last book up until the recent Man Without a Country. I was hooked, looking for anything he had written, and after a few years, I managed to collect and read all of his books. I could probably find something to say about each of them, but I'll stick to my favorites and the ones that are the best-known. By the way, it's been a few years since I've read any of his books, so I'm going by memory here. Feel free to correct me if I get details wrong.
My favorite Vonnegut book is Mother Night (although that might change if I reread it and some of the others). It's the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who was living in Germany before World War II. While he had no love for the Nazis, he ended up joining them and becoming the minister of propaganda, while secretly sending messages to the allies through his radio broadcasts. It's a very sad book, since Campbell is very conflicted about what he's done, especially after some Nazis revealed that he played the part so well, he was the real inspiration for their devotion to the cause. But it's also a good example of Vonnegut's humor, such as when Campbell is approached by a neo-Nazi dentist/minister who is obsessed with using teeth to prove the superiority of the Aryan race, along with an African-American man who refers to himself as "The Black Fuhrer of Harlem." It's funny stuff, but for me the real tone of the book is one of regret, with the lesson (as stated by Vonnegut) being "you are who you pretend to be". The book was adapted into a movie several years ago, and it starred Nick Nolte. It's quite good, and you can see a cameo from Vonnegut if you keep your eyes open.
Another one of my favorites (along with many critics, since it appears on several "best novels of the 20th century" lists) is Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's sci-fi retelling of his experiences as a P.O.W. during World War II. It's actually about a character named Billy Pilgrim who becomes "unstuck in time", experiencing different moments of his life seemingly at random. He learns a lot about human nature and the way we view time (as opposed to the Tralfamadorians, aliens who abduct him and place him on display in a zoo), but the key sequence of the book is Pilgrim's time as a P.O.W. alongside Vonnegut himself, and especially their presence in Dresden, Germany when it was firebombed by the Allies. It's definitely an anti-war book; Vonnegut mentions in the prologue that he contacted an Army friend about some details, and the friend's wife didn't want her husband to help him write a book that would encourage young men to join the Army and get killed; he responds by assuring her that his book will be titled "The Children's Crusade" (it's the subtitle). It's a beautifully-written book that gives a ground-level view of what war is like; the descriptions of the wreckage of Dresden are horrific. It's truly one of the best novels ever written.
This is a good point to note one of the things I like about Vonnegut's writing: crossovers. He often has characters or fictional locations appear in different books, and maybe it's my love of comics, but I dig that sort of thing. If nothing else, it makes all his stories seem to take place in a consistent "universe", and a world designed by Vonnegut seems like a great place to live in. Slaughterhouse-Five has a few examples of crossover, such as when Howard Campbell from Mother Night shows up trying to recruit P.O.W.'s as Nazis. There's also an appearance by Vonnegut's most prolific character, Kilgore Trout, a semi-insane science fiction author. He makes appearances in quite a few Vonnegut novels, going so far as to star in a couple of them. Vonnegut used him often to explore some of his weirder ideas, usually by describing what Trout's stories were about rather than telling the actual story. I love that sort of thing.
One of Vonnegut's other most famous books is Breakfast of Champions. It's not my favorite of his works (although that might change if I reread it), but it has some stuff I like quite a bit. Its popularity may be due to some of the devices he used, such as giving the length of each male character's penis upon their introduction, or interspersing hand-drawn pictures throughout the text. The main character is a car salesman named Dwayne Hoover, and he's in the process of going insane due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. There are several other characters, including Kilgore Trout, who shows up in Hoover's hometown of Midland City, Ohio (one of Vonnegut's recurring fictional locations; it could even be called a character, really) where he has been asked to give a speech. At one point, Hoover ends up reading a book by Trout which takes the form of a letter to the reader from God saying that he is the only real human on earth and everybody else is a robot. Hoover goes nuts after reading this and starts shooting people, thinking they are all robots. It's a good scene, and I like it because this is something that plagues our imaginations, and it would really freak me out if I thought it was true. Maybe it's just me. Another scene I like is one in which Vonnegut inserts himself into the story so he can meet Kilgore Trout and reveal his nature as a fictional character to him. I love metafictional stuff like that, and I think the movie adaptation of the book would have been much better if it had included that scene, with Vonnegut playing himself. Oh well; it wasn't to be.
Other books and short stories worth mentioning:
- Cat's Cradle, in which Vonnegut invents a religion called Bokononism, named after the prophet Bokonon and containing some useful terms like "wampeter", "foma", and "granfalloon".
- Jailbird, a story about a member of Nixon's administration which full of beautiful imagery. I often think about adapting it into a screenplay, since I think it would make a great movie.
- Bluebeard, which is about an artist who was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. It's a good examination of the mentality of artists.
- Slapstick, a wacky sci-fi story about a man who has a mental connection with his twin sister which leads him to become President and establish a new system in which every citizen is issued a middle name (such as Peanut or Squirrel) that makes them part of a family, along with everyone else who has the same middle name. That way everybody always has somebody they can rely on, no matter where they are.
- "Harrison Bergeron", a short story about a future in which everybody is equal, meaning the government forces anybody who excels mentally or physically to endure handicaps that bring them down to the level of everybody else.
- "The Big Space Fuck", a story about the future in which humanity rests their hopes on a rocket filled with jizzum (which has become the accepted term (and spelling) for "sperm") from the best and brightest men of our society. The rocket will be shot into space, and the title is the name of the event. Hey, I think it's funny.
UPDATE: I wanted to point out a couple other tributes that people have done: commenters Nik and RAB, and Tasha Robinson at The Onion AV Club, who describes a failed interview with Vonnegut.