Kurt Vonnegut was a unique voice in American literature. His novels speak of the dark tragedy of the human condition while still remaining comical. His quirky, plain-speaking style mixes elements of science fiction and stylistic invention. He comments on the destructive stupidity of the human species, while retaining as a self-proclaimed humanist and socialist, an acceptance and even love for our frailty.
Although Vonnegut's work employs many fantastical flights of fancy, it was informed by and deeply rooted in his background and experience.
Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on 11 November, 1922. His parents were Kurt Vonnegut, an architect, and Edith Lieber, both of German immigrant stock. In the first half of his career, he published as 'Kurt Vonnegut Jr'. Growing up, Vonnegut led an ordinary, middle-class Midwestern life, playing the clarinet in his high-school marching band and editing the school's magazine. On graduation, Vonnegut entered Cornell University to study chemistry. Here he wrote for and edited the college newspaper, The Cornell Sun, but unlike his elder brother Bernard, who went on to become a prestigious chemist, he did not complete his studies. In 1943, Vonnegut enlisted in the army, and it was while he was home on leave in 1944 that his mother committed suicide. Vonnegut often referred to suicide in his work, including intimations of the possibility of his own.
Wartime service as an infantryman in post-D-day Europe provided Vonnegut with one of his most central experiences. Following capture during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut performed labour duties as a prisoner of war in Dresden. It was here that he witnessed the destructive Allied bombing, and his experience provided the material for his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5.
Following the war, Vonnegut married his former high-school classmate Jane Marie Cox, whom he had known since kindergarten. He continued his studies at the University of Chicago under the GI bill1, switching to anthropology, and worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. His Master of Arts thesis2 was unanimously rejected, although he was later to make some use of his anthropological background in his novel, Cat's Cradle.
Early Writing Career
With an expanding young family to support, Vonnegut took a job in the Public Relations department of the General Electric corporation in Shenectady, NY. Here his duties included writing short stories and playlets for television's The General Electric Hour, which extolled the many consumer wonders produced by the corporation. This taught him a sparse, to-the-point style which was to remain a feature of his work. It was also while here that he wrote his first novel, Player Piano, a dystopian novel concerning the societal impact of automation, its atmosphere of middle-management technocracy informed by his General Electric experiences.
It was the publication of this novel and its adoption as a book club choice that allowed Vonnegut to pursue a full-time career in writing. This was at a time when young writers were supported by a flourishing market in short stories for both mainstream magazine titles such as Colliers,The Saturday Post and The New Yorker, as well as by the 'pulp' titles of 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction', including Astounding and Thrilling Wonder Stories, published by the legendary John Campbell3. Campbell ran a stable of writers, and it was by contact with him that Vonnegut became acquainted with such notables as Theodore Sturgeon, Philip Jose Farmer and L Ron Hubbard4.
Enjoying increasing commercial - if not critical - success, Vonnegut moved to Cape Cod, a location featuring in many of his works. Here he was put under increased financial pressure when, following the death of his sister Alice from cancer and her husband John's death in a train crash, he and his wife adopted their children. Vonnegut took various jobs, including high school teaching and disastrously running the second SAAB dealership in the United States - a venture which resulted in bankruptcy. Nevertheless, he continued to publish and started to receive some critical attention - although some reviewers found him overly simplistic.
Recognition and Success
Vonnegut's breakthrough came with Slaughterhouse 5, a surreal tour de force dealing with the destructiveness of war. It became a best-seller and is still widely regarded as a classic. Following this, he continued to publish steadily. Although he took the publication of Timequake in 1997 as an opportunity to announce his retirement as a novelist, he came out of semi-retirement in 2006 to write A Man Without a Country because of his 'contempt' for US President George W Bush.
In 1979, Vonnegut married photographer Jill Krementz. They were later to file for divorce, only to withdraw the petition. In addition to writing, Vonnegut worked successfully as an artist and sculptor. From time to time Vonnegut he endured psychiatric ill health7 - he made at least one suicide attempt (in 1986). Nevertheless, for much of his life he remained health and of sound mind, despite being a long-time smoker of Pall Mall cigarettes, which he maintains are 'a classy way to commit suicide'. However, in January, 2000 he was hospitalised for smoke inhalation after setting fire to his own bed while watching the Super Bowl.
Slaughterhouse 5: Vonnegut and the Firebombing of Dresden
On 13 November, 1945, Dresden was bombed by 873 Royal Air Force aeroplanes. These were followed over the next two days by over 527 heavy bombers of the United States Air Force. The initial wave dropped high explosives which shattered many of Dresden's wooden, medieval buildings. Incendiaries from the second wave ignited the debris, causing a huge firestorm to sweep over the city, destroying it completely and consuming all oxygen beneath. The death toll - overwhelmingly civilian - is difficult to count, but various sources give it as between 35,000 and 100,000. Vonnegut and his comrades were saved because they were securely billeted in an underground meat locker within the eponymous slaughterhouse. They were later detailed to dig for and dispose of the many bodies - some of which were intact and appeared unharmed, their owners having been quickly asphyxiated.
Vonnegut's greatest novel, Slaughterhouse 5, takes these events as its central focus. However, the novel also includes time travel and abduction by multi-dimensional aliens whose three-dimensional manifestation resembles plumbers' helpers8, with a hand on top and a single eye in the centre of the palm. The novel, although a mere 200 pages long, is a densely-packed motherlode of invention, ideas and stylistic flourishes. The chief protagonist, the hapless Billy Pilgrim, is simultaneously an infantryman, a hospital patient, a respected optometrist and a captive in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore where aliens are trying to mate him with Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack. It has many features which are recognisable as Vonnegut trademarks.
Kilgore Trout: Vonnegut and Science Fiction
It will already be clear that Vonnegut's work is imbued with elements of science fiction. Indeed, many who have not read his work think of him as a science fiction writer.
Vonnegut's use of science fiction differs from the space opera or fantasy genres in that he does not set his books within enclosed, coherent science-fictional worlds. Rather, his starting point is the world as we know it, from which he occasionally sidesteps, throwing in a chunk of science fictional inventiveness. His most heavily science-fictional works are Slaughterhouse 5, The Sirens of Titan9, Cat's Cradle10, Galapagos11 and Timequake12.
In addition, Vonnegut often introduces science-fiction elements in the form of synopses of work by his character, Kilgore Trout, a hack SF writer rumoured to have been based on Theodore Sturgeon. Trout is a seedily shambling, unsuccessful writer who quixotically sends off his stories to various publishers with little expectation of payment. Often they are used as filler material in pornographic magazines, and it is via this medium that they are often discovered by other characters. Trout's plots feature such bizarre elements as aliens who communicate by farting and tapdancing, the election of a chimpanzee as the American president, an alien invasion force that is swallowed by a dog and a planet inhabited by beings resembling automobiles that consume gasoline. Trout features in the novels God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions, Galapagos and Hocus Pocus. In October 2004, Vonnegut produced a magazine article in which he announced Trout's suicide in despair at the predicted re-election of George W Bush.
The role of science fiction in Vonnegut's work, and especially of the Kilgore Trout fragments, is often to give opportunities to slip in satirical observations. But, while he certainly mixed in SF circles in his early career, his literary interests seemed to lie elsewhere: it would be fairly safe to assume that he was not a Trekkie. Neither could he easily be compared with the writers of 'serious' science fiction such as Ursula Le Guin or Doris Lessing. Sometimes he is bracketed with the 'New Wave' SF authors13 who emerged at the same time as Vonnegut's career took off. But his science-fiction references are firmly 'old wave'. He is little concerned with the 'inner space' of the New Wave: his subject matter is sociology more than psychology. Perhaps his nearest equivalent - if there is one - is to be found in the works of the Czech writer Karel Capek or the Polish Stanislaw Lem.
Vonnegut's World View
Vonnegut was acutely aware of his own failings and frailties. Yet he loved humanity with a religious intensity14 and wept for our pain. A key quotation comes from Eliott Rosewater, the half-insane alcoholic philanthropist of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater:
Godammit, you've got to be kind!
There is a resigned world-weariness about much of Vonnegut's writing - an acceptance of the futility of railing against the evils and injustices of life. To be 'anti-war' makes as much sense as being 'anti-earthquakes'. We are at the mercy of our biology: Vonnegut has written of the chemicals that control our brains, both in his novels and in relation to his own bouts of mental illness. Another key quote is from Malachi Constant in The Sirens of Titan:
I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all15.
Vonnegut's novels are full of random tragedy: the accidental shooting of a woman by a 12-year-old boy (Deadeye Dick), the execution of the kindly Major Danby for looting a teapot (Slaughterhouse 5), the accidental destruction of life on earth (Cat's Cradle).
So how did Vonnegut find his way through this darkness? His ideal form of religion would be modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous: we must support each other. This gritty, pragmatic humanism is a far cry from an airy-fairy faith in human goodness. In the novels Cat's Cradle and Slapstick, he explores the idea of extended families or clans to provide mutual care.
Vonnegut's humanism was all of a piece with his avowed socialism. Even amongst left-leaning, liberal Americans, 'socialism' has never been a popular word. Vonnegut cited as his inspiration Eugene V Debs16, leader of the American Socialist Party and five-time presidential candidate in the early twentieth century. He reminds us that we can be dissidents.
Vonnegut continued to be politically involved throughout his career. In 1970 he travelled to Biafra and wrote about the injustice of the war waged against it17. He was for a long time involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and spoke at the National Coalition Against Censorship briefing for the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography hearing. Unsurprisingly, he also wrote several anti-Bush magazine articles.
Vonnegut's Stylistic Elements
In addition to his use of science fiction, Vonnegut includes various other playful, stylistic flourishes within his work.
The most obvious thing to say about Vonnegut's books are that they are funny. Very funny. His humour is without the glibness of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Rather, it has an acerbic wryness occasionally enlightened by flashes of surreal invention. It may be difficult to imagine that novels featuring firebombing or suicide might be funny. But Vonnegut pulls it off. Even his Nazi-era novel, Mother Night, contains high comedy, particularly in its portrayal of three decrepit American fascists, including one African-American.
A second stylistic feature is his use of consciously repetitive devices. In Slaughterhouse 5, any death, whether of one or 100,000 people, is immediately followed by the mantra, 'So it goes'. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut peppers the text with doodles, sometimes of a scatological nature. In Slapstick, characters are given names corresponding to artificial extended families. In Galapagos, the name of any character about to die is preceded by an asterisk, so as not to introduce any unnecessary suspense.
A further Vonnegutian element is his use of secondary titles for many of his works, such as God Bless You, Mr Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine; Slaughterhouse 5: or, The Children's Crusade18; Breakfast of Champions: or Goodbye Blue Monday and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More.
Then there is the clear, authorial voice that rings through. In many cases, Vonnegut appears to be not only the narrator of the book, but also a 'meta-narrator' - telling the reader about the story he is telling. Certainly appreciation of his work is greatly enhanced by familiarity with his own vocal patterns, in the Hoosier accent that he has likened to 'The sound of a bandsaw cutting through tinplate', roughened by Pall Malls and whisky. The language in which this voice reads has a characteristic terseness. His words are simple, his sentences short, the chapter structure a rapid-fire staccato of short paragraphs.
Perhaps the most stylistically inventive of his novels is Breakfast of Champions. In addition to the aforementioned elements, plus its stereotypically multi-plotted, staccato style, Vonnegut pulls off the unprecedented feat of including himself within the novel as both a deus ex machina19 and as a member of the cast at the whim of the plot (the Vonnegut character is attacked by a guard dog, causing his testicles to ascend). All this takes place within a novel which starts, not with the main story, but as a discussion by Vonnegut of the circumstances in which he wrote the novel (a 'meta-narration').
The technique of meta-narration is used again with witty effect in Timequake. The novel's premise is that the world is stuck in a ten-year loop of time, such that people are condemned to repeat - consciously - their every action, without choice. In the foreword, Vonnegut claims that his publisher was dissatisfied with his original version, and he had had to start over. One presumes that this is a joke. He also reprises his meeting with Kilgore Trout.
It is probably fair to say that, while Vonnegut gained a deserved critical recognition, he was seldom regarded as being in the first tier of American literature. He has not yet been accorded the status of an Updike, Bellow or Roth. Nevertheless, he is a widely studied and read author who has had an important influence on others.
Vonnegut's foremost literary advocate is Martin Amis. In Amis's Money, the author appears as a character. Time's Arrow took its inspiration from a passage in Slaughterhouse 5 in which time is reversed. Bombers fly backwards over Dresden, sucking out fragments of metal, quenching the flames and restoring the shattered buildings. On arrival at home base, bombs are unloaded from aircraft and shipped back to America. Here they are disassembled and their components are melted down into minerals which are buried deep in the ground where they can do no harm. Time's Arrow sustains this flight of fancy over a novella's length and similarly uses the technique to highlight some brutalities. In one particularly chilling moment, Nazi guards use hammers and chisels to fill the teeth of Jewish corpses before reviving them, giving them new clothes and sending them back by train to good jobs and prosperous lives20.
Leading Scottish author Alasdair Gray also uses the author as deus ex machina in his classic work, Lanark: A Life in Four Books - and goes one stage further by acknowledging his debt to Vonnegut in a footnote. Gray's Poor Things also uses a Vonnegutian meta-narrative technique. Other leading authors who are on record as admirers include Jonathan Coe21 and Douglas Adams22.
After suffering brain injuries following a fall at his home in Manhattan, Kurt Vonnegut died on 11 April, 2007. He was 84 years old.
- Player Piano (1952)
- The Sirens of Titan (1959)
- Mother Night (1961)
- Cat's Cradle (1963)
- God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965)
- Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)
- Breakfast of Champions (1973)
- Slapstick (1976)
- Jailbird (1979)
- Deadeye Dick (1982)
- Galapagos (1985)
- Bluebeard (1987)
- Hocus Pocus (1990)
- Timequake (1997)
- A Man Without A Country (2006)
Collected Short Fiction
- Canary in a Cathouse (1961)23
- Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works (1968)
- Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999)
Collected Essays, etc
- Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: (Opinions) (1974)
- Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981)
- Nothing Is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays (1984)
- Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (1991)
- God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian (1999)
Film and Television
Films have been made of the following novels:
- Slaughterhouse 5 (1972)
- Mother Night (1996)
- Breakfast of Champions (1999)
Happy Birthday, Wanda June was written for television and appeared in 1970.
Various short stories have been adapted for television. The most widely known of these is Harrison Bergeron24, aired in 1996.