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Kurt Vonnegut Remembered

Farewell to a true original.

by Mark D. Johnson
April 16, 2007

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Kurt Vonnegut Remembered
In the summer of 1989 I attended what were billed as the very last lectures author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. would ever deliver. He was retiring from the lecture circuit, and I was fortunate enough to have a summer job at the venerable Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where the historic event would take place. It was a rare opportunity to literally hear one of the most original voices in the history of American literature, and he did not disappoint, although those of us in the back had no idea what he was drawing on the chalkboard. As expected, he was funny, engaging, quirky, and cynical. It was great. Among the many provocative musings he shared over those two morning sessions, he claimed that the dumbest people on campus were English majors. The second-dumbest were education majors. I was an English major preparing to teach high school English, and I feared he might be right, but the problem with being dumb is that you're ill-equipped to do anything about it, and an English major I remained. Today, I am gainfully employed as a web developer, but I digress. Kurt Vonnegut died last week. So it goes.

I quickly considered Vonnegut one of my favorite writers upon my first encounter with his novels. I have read five of his fourteen novels – a small percentage for a self-professed fan – but there's something to the idea of spreading out the works of a favorite author over many years when there is a small number of those works to digest. This first came to my attention when a college friend (alas, another English major) mapped out a twenty-year schedule for me to read the works of J.D. Salinger. If you read them all in a short time span, that's it – nothing more to look forward to – so you might as well take your time. Here are the five Vonnegut novels I've read, in the order I read them: Breakfast of Champions, Hocus Pocus, Galapagos, Timequake, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Loved them all.
Vonnegut's writing is not for everyone, however. It either clicks with you instantly in a this-guy's-a-genius-why-can't-I-write-like-this kind of way or leaves you mildly angry in a what's-so-great-about-this-and-is-book-burning-really-such-a-bad-thing kind of way. You have to be the kind of person who appreciates "black comedy," or dark humor – I don't know why I like it, but it sure cracks me up. Vonnegut's grim view of humanity (to which I do not subscribe) came out during his lectures, and after a particularly dark, pithy comment, he chuckled through his nose and had clearly smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Incidentally, whatever caused him to give up lecturing in 1989 apparently disappeared – I saw that he was back on the circuit a few years later. Like the books he wrote, he was unpredictable. During the question and answer part of the second of his "last" lectures, someone asked him why he's so pessimistic. "I'm not pessimistic," he said. "I'm going home." And off the stage he briskly went, bitterly disappointing anyone hoping to have him sign the copy of Breakfast of Champions he had in his backpack. Sniff.
Here's what's so great about his writing:
  • The way he sometimes blended fiction and reality, with autobiographical and metafictional elements
  • His use of repetition – some critics called it recycling. His intentional reiteration of key phrases and often unexpected callbacks to an earlier passage made for some very clever and amusing emphasis
  • Non-linear plotlines
  • Several of his novels were broken up into very small section, comprised of just a paragraph or page or two. When combined with a non-linear plot, some said it made for a choppy and incoherent read. I found it refreshing, clever and original.
  • Kilgore Trout – a character that appeared in several of his books ("recycling"). Trout was a prolific science-fiction writer and an alter-ego of sorts for Vonnegut ("Someone I used to be," he once said.) Interspersing plot summaries of Trout's stories was an inspired device.
Vonnegut wrote a short story in 1961 called "Harrison Bergeron" that satirizes the concept of human equality. It begins, "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." Television announcers had speech impediments and ballerinas wore heavy "handicap bags". No one was superior in any way. Great stuff.
During my student teaching experience, the curriculum called for a different short story that dealt with some of the same issues and was set during the time of U.S. slavery. I don't remember the title or author, but my students read it and we dutifully discussed it – a tiresome exercise. Then I went outside the curriculum and had them read "Bergeron." They liked this one a lot. We compared it with the previous story and the discussion was lively. This was back when the term "political correctness" was just emerging. The department head happened to observe my teaching that day and complemented me on my juxtaposition of the two stories, and I thought to myself: God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.
Galapagos may be the strangest work of fiction I've ever read. It is narrated by a ghost (Kilgore Trout's son, no less) who witnesses the last remnant of humans evolving into a seal-like species. (The cause of the humans' demise: their overly-big brains.) It's not something I'd recommend to strict creation story proponents. In fact, its bizarre nature may appeal to very few people in general, but once again, it tickled me in that this-guy's-a-genius-why-can't-I-write-like-that kind of way. I was particularly taken with the use of an asterisk in front of the names of characters who would soon die. Blatant spoilers by the author himself! Hilarious! The suspense was diffused, but anything those characters did or said took on an extra dose of irony. I might have a strange sense of humor, but at least I know I'm in good company.
When I was standing in line at the library to check out Slaughterhouse-Five a couple of years ago, the guy behind me happened to be checking out the audio version. He said he had recently lost an argument with a friend as to whether the phrase "so it goes" came from Slaughterhouse or Cat's Cradle. I was about to discover the answer.
Slaughterhouse – the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel that reflects Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war in World War II – is today recognized as one of the most important works in modern literature. "So it goes" is the phrase said by beings on the planet Tralfamadore whenever someone or something dies. The phrase is used some 106 times in the book, conveying a kind of wistful resignation toward the inevitability of death, or in some instances underscoring the absurdity of man's inhumanity toward man.
I went to the library again on Saturday, in a mood to read either Cat's Cradle or Bluebeard, but all that was left was Timequake and two copies of Jailbird. Clearly I'm not the only one with a fondness for Vonnegut's dark humor.

Vonnegut was not a religious man, but a freethinker and a humanist, which means, as he defined it, that he "tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead." In God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian he said the following:
I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored. … So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, "He's up in Heaven now."
Allow me to join the chorus. Kurt is up in heaven now. So it goes. So it goes.

Comments (2)

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Michael H. Thomson from near Leesburg Virginia writes:
April 16, 2007
I have yet to read my first Vonnegut novel. I started on Hocus Pocus once, but got distracted for some reason. Your article has inspired me to catch up! Thanks for the insight.

The now disgraced Don Imus recently had Vonnegut on his show and Vonnegut's comments were enough to convince me that Kurt's brain was wired differently than the rest of us. But, then again, what do I know? I was an education major.

Don from Bolivar, Ohio writes:
April 9, 2011
Not only was I also lucky enough to attend both days of this wonderful lecture I actually waited out side Mr. Vonnegut's cottage the second morning and walked to the lecture with him. He signed my collected works. I also have the audio cassettes sold after the lecture. My favorite treasures.

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