“I’ve always been able to live with what I did. How? Through that simple and widespread boon to modern mankind – schizophrenia.” – Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
THERE ARE a number of writers to whom I owe a considerable debt. They have amused, taught, challenged, excited, and comforted me – some of them almost from the time I learned to read. One day I hope to write about this group of friends and mentors.
I read nearly randomly and for no purpose except pleasure. I make no attempt to keep up with the latest bestsellers, fiction or nonfiction, though if a book is talked about enough I will probably read it. Walter Kerr in Decline of Pleasure said he had gotten to the point where he seldom read simply for pleasure – he always needed a purpose in reading a given book. I consider that, as does he, to be an unfortunate thing to befall a person.
This is a long-winded explanation of why it is entirely possible for me to have been so long ignorant of a writer I now believe to rank with the best – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Oh, I had seen his books around for years, but I had considered him to be a science fiction writer. This misconception was reinforced by a TV program a year or so ago that was a melange of several of his science fiction plots.
I don’t intend this to be literary criticism. I hate literary criticism. It has disappointed me all my life. Much like burlesque shows in my youth. I never quite knew what it was I expected to find in them, but whatever it was, it was never there. I finally came to understand that literary criticism is written by teachers of English as a necessity for job holding and is not meant to be read. Also, I have apparently outgrown (or out-aged) burlesque.
Last summer, for reading on an airplane, I bought a copy of Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan – obviously science fiction. I do read science fiction occasionally as I do whodunits, and for the same reasons. They are easy, innocuous and have orderly plots with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is more than you can say for many modern novels and short stories. The “slice-of-life” short stories I used to read in the New Yorker (1950’s) were a little frustrating because I could never tell when a story was finished except that I couldn’t find it on the next page, but at least they were about people who made sense to me. Usually, they were office-working suburbanites, more or less like me. Then came the novel that doesn’t seem to be about anything or anybody. I realize that the fault may be mine, that I may be out of touch, but that makes no difference to me.
Anyway, if one buys a book entitled Sirens of Titan by what he believes to be a science fiction writer, he can fairly expect it to be science fiction. But it isn’t. Not a bit of it. Science fiction has fairly well understood ground rules. This book doesn’t follow them.
Vonnegut has written some science fiction short stories, and good ones. He seems to both deprecate and admire science fiction. In Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, he excoriates science fiction writers in a magazine interview. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Elliot Rosewater addresses a science fiction writers’ convention and neatly praises and damns them. Of course, many of Vonnegut’s points are made through the use of his fictitious character, Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer.
In his introduction to Welcome to the Monkey House, which is a collection of pieces published over several years in various magazines, Vonnegut deprecates the stories and says the income from these stories enabled him to write his novels. In truth, the stories are of uneven quality, but they are spiked with his originality and show his usual facade of science fiction. Some of them are straight and slick, but none the less moving. I defy anyone to read the story “D.P.” originally published in the Ladies’ Home Journal and remain untouched.
The stories lack the audacity, the punch, the peculiar humor, and the sweep of his later novels. I suspect they show a developing writer as well as a sense of marketability. But everything a man of talent does is marked by his ability and the stories show glimpses of the forces and feelings behind his novels.
His novels also exhibit considerable development. I’m fairly sure they could be ordered chronologically simply on the basis of the writer’s increasing ability and, more than that, a sort of assurance that is manifest in Breakfast of Champions. To say it another way, in Breakfast of Champions the reader is aware that he is viewing a mature, skillfully executed work of art.
Note that I said viewing and not participating in a work of art. One never loses himself in a later Vonnegut novel, one never becomes enrapt in the story, one never identifies closely with any character, one never loves or hates a character. There is no doubt that this is by Vonnegut’s design. He deliberately discourages identification with a hero. Mainly, he does this by not having heroes, and he never has a villain in his novels. How odd it all is – and it progresses. That is, Player Piano is a conventional novel; Mother Night has a hero (or anti-hero); in Cat’s Cradle, some identification can be made with the author-hero; but in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, the reader is a spectator. In some way Vonnegut’s technique reminds me of Tristan Shandy where the reader coolly watches rather than becoming emotionally involved.
Ken Holtzman, an Oakland A’s pitcher, was quoted at World Series time as saying, “Of course, I read books. I’ve read all of Vonnegut.” Now and then a pitcher writes a book, The Long Season by Jim Brosnan and Ball Four by Jim Bouton, but it is extremely bad form for a ball player to admit to reading one. When players and managers were badmouthing Ball Four, they were always careful to point out that they hadn’t actually read the book and didn’t intend to. Are ball players changing? Or is Vonnegut a new kind of writer?
One thing sure, you don’t have to be an intellectual to read and enjoy Vonnegut. His writing, in Breakfast of Champions particularly, is dazzlingly simple. Hemingway and Rudolf Flesh are no match for him. He even illustrates with his own drawings any concept that might elude you as well as some that are not likely to. Understand that I speak admiringly and not disparagingly. He has written this novel in such language that one cannot blame any lack of understanding on obscurities of language.
The value of extremely simple language is the stripping away of the haze produced by the vulgar jargon. If you listen to people uttering “new initiatives,” “viable options,” “operationalizing,” etc., you begin to believe that language has no real meaning. As an antidote, read Vonnegut’s description of a handgun in Breakfast of Champions. Once you’ve read that the only use of a handgun is “to make holes in people,” you’re not likely to forget it, and you certainly cannot misunderstand the statement.
Vonnegut has a wonderful ear and his word creations are a delight. The best display of his ability to create language is Cat’s Cradle in which the Bokonon religion requires several new words. Some of these are karass, a group of people designated by God to accomplish one of his purposes; foma, a harmless lie – the belief in which makes life more bearable; granfalloon, a group designated by man to be cohesive or desirable in contrast to the real group, the karass. Examples of granfalloons are: The American Medical Association, Kiwanis, Hoosiers, Americans, the French, etc. Both karass and granfalloon seem to me to be marvelously appropriate for their meanings. I wish I knew their origins – corral, care, caress? And grand plus fallacy plus buffoon or loon as in lunacy. There is magic here. If you begin, “The PTA granfalloon is concerned with the following foma…,” you are well ahead of the game.
Much of my appreciation of Vonnegut stems from shared opinions and attitudes. He and I are of an age and of like backgrounds. The only other writers I have felt such an empathy with are Jessie Stuart and William Faulkner and these are not as close.
I have enough Kentucky mountain background to be at ease with Stuart. Though his mountain folk are more primitive than those I knew, the difference, from a flatlander’s point of view, is probably minuscule. And I have enough southern background to understand Faulkner’s views. *
This does not mean that I agree with all of Vonnegut’s opinions, but I do understand them, and I will say that I seldom take exception to them. Especially the opinions expressed in his books. His interviews now show he has not escaped the change that comes with fame and attention. But if I had to name one person who sees our society in much the same way that I do, it would have to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
One of Vonnegut’s recurring concerns is the familiar one – what’s it all about? In one of Kilgore Trout’s plots a customer in a suicide house (government sponsored to hold down the population) asks if he will see God, and when assured that he will, says he wants to ask God the question: “What in the hell are people for?” In another place is the story of creation of man: God made the world and he made mud. He wanted to show off his work so he made some of the mud sit up. This mud looked around and immediately asked, “What’s the purpose of all this?” When God asked if it had to have a purpose, he was assured by the mud that it must. A little miffed, God then suggested that the mud find out what the purpose was.
The problems addressed in his novels are the basic problems of contemporary society. In his early novel, Player Piano, it is the old familiar machine problem. Mother Night shows us the ambiguities in ourselves and in our society. Cat’s Cradle shows us an irrational society destroyed by technology. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater presents a major puzzle of our society – this problem as stated by Kilgore Trout is: “How to love people who have no use.”
The introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five plainly shows that Vonnegut’s experience in the fire bombing of Dresden was his catalyst as well as his choking point. We all know of massive examples of man’s inhumanity to man, but I’m willing to believe that actual participation in one forever prevents one from taking an optimistic view of our society. The Dresden bombing is clearly a common thread in his novels.
It may be that Slaughterhouse-Five has been something of a catharsis for Vonnegut. To me, although I can’t quite put my finger on it, the later novel, Breakfast of Champions, has a different tone than any previous work. There are indications that he has finished a cycle. For example, he has used many of the same characters in several novels and stories, changing them slightly to fit a new story. In Breakfast of Champions, he promises his characters that he will not bother them again but will leave them to live out their own lives. It will be interesting to see if he can give up Kilgore Trout.
Like all great writers, Vonnegut is an illuminator. For example, everyone knows that wars are fought by young men. From time to time, young men have pointed out that the men who declare war do not have to fight. In Cat’s Cradle, the American ambassador delivers a speech in which he says wars are fought by children. “Not that they don’t die like men,” he said. But this notion keeps percolating in Vonnegut and we find Slaughterhouse-Five subtitled “A Children’s Crusade.” It is here that the idea culminates in: “Wars are fought by babies,” says his friend’s wife. “By babies just like those upstairs.” Suddenly I know it’s true – wars are fought by babies. If you are my age or worse, just look closely at the participants in the annual Army-Navy football game. They are about to become the field leaders, second looies and the like. It is true, wars are fought by babies.
This is what I mean by illumination. This is what writing is all about. Once said, it is obvious, self-evident, unarguable, and one says, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
We are horrified now to read about the Children’s Crusade and view the society that produced it as barbaric. They were how old? Twelve or thirteen? So we wait five or six more years before we send them. Is it so different?
At least it is not unnatural. According to John E. Pfeiffer in The Emergence of Man, young (adolescent) baboons protect the troop because they stay at the outer fringes of the group and are first to encounter the enemy. The young baboons stay at the periphery because the old baboons do not permit them to approach the center of the troop. Old baboons will sacrifice the adolescent baboons if necessary.
Kurt Vonnegut is an innovator. Novels have been written for quite a while, and innovations in them are scarce. Just try to think of a gimmick, if you will, that has not already been used to the point of becoming a cliché. Vonnegut seems to be so rich in ideas that he can afford to squander them. Let us examine a few of his innovations.
(1.) No villains. Everyone in his books is doing the best he can, no one is intentionally evil, there are simply no villains. In Mother Night we have an underground Russian spy who is a lonely alcoholic and whose apparatus consists of FBI men who finally arrest him when he is called home to be liquidated. The hero, if any, of this novel is both an effective Nazi propagandist and an American agent, and “so it goes” as Vonnegut keeps repeating in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut claims he was told in anthropology courses at the University of Chicago that people are identical, that there are no bad people or good people. I’m sure others have written villainless novels, but all of Vonnegut’s are thus.
(2.) Science fiction plots to illustrate points. Vonnegut invented a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, who appears in several novels. Trout is a well published but unsuccessful writer whose many plots are casually tossed out to illustrate the ultimate results of trends and tendencies in our society. This is a standard science fiction technique. One gets the impression that Kilgore Trout is a Vonnegut alter ego.
(3.) Invents a character who materializes and dematerializes on schedule on Earth, Mars, Titan, and other places in the solar system. In Sirens of Titan, Niles Rumfoord and his dog got caught in a sort of space warp, a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and thereafter apparently existed as some sort of periodic wave throughout the solar system. This sounds like science fiction but the novel, overall, is not.
(4.) Time jumps in both directions. Now, flashbacks are a common literary device, but Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five has flash-forwards as well. In fact he simply comes “unstuck” in time and experiences future events and past events at random and uncontrollably.
(5.) No minor characters. In Breakfast of Champions, he declares that all characters are equal so he gives us complete details about each, possibly including some information we don’t really need. He claims that a lot of violence in America stems from authors disposing of minor characters by having them shot or by some other violence. Life imitating art, if you will.
(6.) Confrontation of author (as author) with his fictional characters. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut describes himself, as author, in the bar watching his characters, and he finally confronts Kilgore Trout. Trout is the only one to have enough imagination to suspect he might be someone’s character, and when he does comprehend that he is Vonnegut’s creation, he yells despairingly after the author, “Make me young, make me young.” As in many situations in Vonnegut’s stories there is a definite sense of ambiguity here since Trout is, I believe, an identity of Vonnegut’s (perhaps, Vonnegut as a failure). I do not recall any other work in which the author appears on the scene in his role as creator.
Vonnegut has invented two fictional religions both which have considerable logic on their side. The first, The Church of the Utterly Indifferent God, in Sirens of Titan, is not a very attractive religion, but one fears that its theology could be very sound since there is a good bit of observational evidence to support its creed. Much more attractive and more fully developed is Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle. It is religion shot through with paradoxes, its bible, The Books of Bokomon, declares in its foreword that everything in the book is a lie. If the statement includes the foreword we are immediately in a familiar, but unresolvable paradox. The last rites of Bokononsim as administered by an ex-Nazi doctor to the dying dictator of San Lorenzo is a good thumbnail example of Vonnegut’s skill and possibly of his philosophy. It is funny, ludicrous, human, reverent, and even, perhaps, true.
I have not talked much about the most wonderful feature of his novels – the humor. He is marvelously funny. It is not camp humor, not black humor, not hip humor. It is the humor that gives us the detachment to laugh when the situation is serious but ludicrous. It’s the honest-to-God sense of the ridiculous that distinguishes real humans from animals and semi-humans.
In Mother Night, the American agent tells Howard Campbell, Jr., that the U.S. will never confirm that Campbell was their spy. “They’ll never come a time,” he said, “when they’ll yell, ‘Olly, olly, ox-in-free.’”
I believe that Vonnegut believes that what we are all listening for is the never-to-be-heard cry, “Olly, olly, ox-in-free.” He could be right.
* Though to be fair, I should say that some southerners would not agree. Once while having lunch with a friend, John Strange, who was explaining that what appeared to be a reluctance to permit Negroes to register to vote in his Mississippi was merely administrative difficulties. I said, “John, you can tell that stuff to these Yankees and maybe they’ll believe it, but I’m a southerner myself, and I know it’s B.S.”
“Where you from?” demanded John.
“Kentucky,” I told him.
“Huh,” snorted John, “Kentucky’s not the South.”
Hand set in 10, 12, 14, 18, and 24-point Deepdene. Published by Jake Warner and 460 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.