Vonnegut’s legacy

Like many people, I guess, I’ve felt a special attachment to Kurt Vonnegut since the first time I read anything by him. That first book was probably Slaughterhouse 5, and I read it because they made a film in the early seventies that looked interesting and vaguely science-fiction-ish. Which was a plus.

So that was about 1972, and over here in Britain they started publishing or republishing all of his early works. So I was able to scarf up The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, Player Piano … all leading to the publication of his ‘birthday present to [him]self’ – Breakfast of Champions, in 1973.

So what was it that attracted people to him? What did he do, as a writer, that made the books resonate?

Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are, to some extent, fairly straightforward science-fiction. Except that the latter is very funny, cleverly structured, and speaks with an individual voice practically unheard in 1950s science-fiction. By that I mean that you have a sense of a real person writing the words. It’s there in the first few paragraphs, and if you look closely you can see how he does it: simple phrases, homely words, familiar metaphors. Like this:

“Gimcrack religions were big business.” …
“Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward … It flung them like stones.”

The use of “gimcrack”, “big business” and “like stones” tells us that this language is going to be the kind of language we all use. It’s not “literary” or difficult. It’s slightly ironic in tone but the irony of the common person, the person who regards large institutions with suspicion and who uses language to describe exactly what he or she sees, without fancy metaphors: “like stones.”

Reading The Sirens of Titan now, it actually feels quite literary compared to the later books. There are long sentences, quite a few descriptive passages, and lots of characters and situations. Later, Vonnegut refined his technique further – fewer characters, shorter sentences, less description. It was as if we began to understand Vonnegut-world and he didn’t have to describe it to us any more. What became important was the depth of his insights and the simplicity with which he began to express them.

At one level, this is perhaps why his novels became less successful even as his essays and other writings became more popular. He no longer needed the excuse of fiction to talk to us – he could use his essays and recorded speeches. I was sorry about that, because reading The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle for the first time is a lesson in how to have your head expanded to take in new fictional possibilites. For example, the use of drawings – created by himself – to punctuate and illustrate his books; or the introduction of himself as a character in Breakfast of Champions, pre-dating similar tactics by Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Douglas Coupland by a few decades. (He actually introduced himself as a character, though briefly, in Slaughterhouse 5, as someone excreting his brains … always the comedian!)

I spent a couple of years studying Vonnegut for a Ph.D. thesis, and later went on to teach Cat’s Cradle to college students. Despite these circumstances that are guaranteed to cool your ardour for any author, I ended up admiring him even more as a writer. To the extent that I found my own writing was beginning to lurch towards sub-Vonnegutian aphorisms and brevity. Unfortunately for me – or perhaps fortunately – I hadn’t suffered the same way he had: his mother committed suicide on the eve of Mother’s Day, the day Vonnegut returned home prior to being shipped abroad to fight in WW2; and his sister, Alice, and her husband, both died in one week in 1958 – she of cancer, he in a railroad accident two days before. All of these events, together with the well-publicised circumstances he endured during the fire-bombing of Dresden, gave him a perspective on the brevity of human life that was hard earned.

So Kurt has been there somewhere in the background for me for the last 35 years or so. Even as I read his later works with less and less enthusiasm, my admiration for the man as a humanist and someone who saw things clearly grew. Now it seems like there isn’t anyone out there who’s going to call us to account. My other favourite living author, Gore Vidal, is declining as a literary force, and his playful, if biting, comments more often sound left-field rather than right-minded. Too many disappointments seem to have clouded his judgement.

In these days of Bush, Blair and Bin Laden, we needed Kurt Vonnegut. Shame he had to go.


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