Jhe books by Kurt Vonnegut, born 100 years ago this Friday, are funny, unwavering, tender, austere, imaginative and accessible – and just as relevant today as when he published his first novel 70 years ago. Start with one of his best books and you’ll quickly understand why he’s held in such rare affection by his fans: “Uncle Kurt,” as this year’s Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka calls him.
The opening words of Vonnegut’s most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) – “It all happened, more or less” – sound like a modern manifesto for autofiction. But it is this “more or less” playfulness that both acknowledges the truth of the source material – Vonnegut, as a prisoner of war in Germany, witnessed the February 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden and built this book around him – and the flights of fancy (crazy -tile structure, aliens, time travel) with which he decorated it.
The novel, Vonnegut’s fifth, represents a concentration of the author’s style which means that, while not the best of his works, it is certainly the most intensely Vonnegut-ish. The balance of irony and sentimentality that “Uncle Kurt” excelled at is exemplified in the book’s two most famous lines. Each character’s death is punctuated by the resigned – or stoic – sigh of “So it’s okay”, and the ironic epitaph that veteran Billy Pilgrim imagines for his tombstone – “All was well and nothing wrong” – is now often quoted with a straight face. (It is so.) When Slaughterhouse-Five was published, a reporter for that newspaper wrote that “Catch-22 [published eight years earlier] was a splendid, wild but abstract joke compared to the irony and compassion of Mr. Vonnegut’s.
Slaughterhouse-Five was not Vonnegut’s first attempt to put World War II into a novel. There’s a case to be made for the blackest of his black comedies, Mother Night (1961), to be considered his unsung masterpiece. It slipped under the radar upon publication as it went straight into paperback – Vonnegut needed the money – and it took time for his greatness to be recognized.
Mother Night takes the form of the confessions of an American spy and Nazi propagandist as he awaits trial in Israel. “Howard W Campbell, Jr – it’s your life!” Campbell’s tragedy and sin is his failure to realize that the lies he told on his shows, even if he didn’t mean them, brought relief to real Nazis. In punchy chapters of catchy dialogue and selections from Campbell’s letterbox (“Dear Howard, I was very surprised and disappointed to learn that you weren’t dead yet”), Vonnegut gives us a surprisingly brilliant and very legible of the conscious descent of a man in a world of evil. “We are what we say we are,” he writes in his introduction, “so we have to be careful what we say we are.”
As he rose to literary fame and his skepticism of the Vietnam War made him a countercultural figure, two things happened. First, Vonnegut’s books began to be censored and banned – and even burned, as was the case with Slaughterhouse-Five at Drake High School in North Dakota in 1973. Vonnegut wrote to the school board principal , in polite but uncompromising terms.
“If you bothered to read my books, to behave as educated people would, you would learn that they are not sexy and do not advocate savagery of any kind. They beg people to be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It’s true that some characters speak rudely [… t]watering words really don’t hurt kids much. They didn’t hurt us when we were young. It is the bad deeds and the lies that hurt us.
The other thing that happened was that Vonnegut leaned into the playfulness that was emerging in his writing, and the best example of that mid-period Vonnegut – serious subject matter, anecdotal fantasy and eccentric characters – is Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye Blue Monday! (1973). The book is also replete with another emerging Vonnegut trope – text-breaking cartoons: “To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here’s my picture of an asshole,” he wrote, at above a generously proportioned, felt asterisk. While working on Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut said in a letter to his editor, “It takes me so long to find out what my books are about, so I can write them.” And what was this one about? American society, and how it drives its inhabitants – like car dealer Dwayne Hoover – crazy.
A reality check: No longtime writer – Vonnegut wrote 14 novels plus many other books – is perpetually perfect, and many Vonnegut fans would agree that his novels from the 1980s and later are pale imitations of his previous work: at their weakest are disjointed, unstructured and repetitive. “I don’t understand how he gets the excitement to get in front of the typewriter and write this stuff,” said Vonnegut fan Douglas Adams. “It’s like going through the motions of your own stylistic tricks.” For me, Deadeye Dick (1982) and Hocus Pocus (1990) are the runts of the litter. But from the same period, Bluebeard (1987) and Galápagos (1985) are better, and fortunately Vonnegut’s last novel, Timequake (1997), was a strong comeback.
But Vonnegut’s brilliance was not limited to the novel: several collections of his stories were published, although one of his best works was Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). The stories may be “samples of works I sold to fund the writing of the novels”, but there’s nothing called here, and reading a handful will give you a rich dose of concentrate. of Vonnegut: the writer who “smiles and says it straight” (New York Times). Try Who Am I This Time?, about a quiet couple who can only communicate through the scripts they act out, or Vonnegut’s mini-masterpiece Harrison Bergeron, set when “the year is 2081 and that everyone is finally equal”. This is of course a dystopian horror story.
But time is running out, and if reading Vonnegut today is as important as I say, there has to be a headline first, right? Yes: if “masterpiece” means anything, it means Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s 1963 novel may be thin, but it taps into all that is best about his work: his sci-fi imagination (see also 1959’s The Sirens of Titan), his deep reserves of humanity, his ability to temper irony with sentimentality and his manner with a quick quip. Clearly inspired by Cold War fears – it was released the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis – it’s a living, deadly comedy, a pocket epic in which the world ends to the tune of the fake religion of Bokononism. Along the way, there are riffs on shortcomings outside of science, the uses of art, the value of others, and the importance of carrying on in the face of a world that can only make you ask, “My God – life! Who can understand it for even a minute?