The work of Kurt Vonnegut is, along with the writing of Mark Twain and the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, some of the most profound art ever created.
One reason I’m writing this: I started thinking about ol’ Kurt recently, when I realized that he’s one of a very few writers that instilled in me a love language. Not a love of reading; I already had that. But as I read Welcome to the Monkey House and Breakfast of Champions, I watched him break the rules over and over and I realized that he used language like Van Gogh used a brush to create light, like Mr. Clemens used his disdain for the human race. And all three of them used their tools in a way that seemed utterly disorganized until you started to pay attention.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.
That’s from the first page of Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse Five. In my younger, more literal days, I hated this book.
I probably first read it for a class, and nothing helps the enjoyment of something like being told you should find it profound or, worse, important. It was as depressing and as pointless as Ethan Frome. (We all hated that book too.) After years of hearing people rave about the book, I grudgingly re-read it. Perhaps I need to re-read Edith Wharton’s novel about snow, more snow, cold, and even more goddamn snow; because Vonnegut’s best-known book is a work of genius.
All the scenes I remembered, where Billy Pilgrim is trudging through the cold, wet forests of Europe during World War II—they’re still there, and still just as depressing and colorless. What I had forgotten were the moments of whimsy and batshit-insane absurdity that punctuate the gloom: Billy delivered to a cadre of British officers, putting on a play in their island of proper English culture which itself is inside their German POW compound. Billy getting married, telling his wife he loves her while knowing it will end badly—because he’s been there, at the end. Billy acting the part of an exhibit in an alien zoo, trying to get it up with an anonymous starlet while an audience watches.
Who hasn’t felt as if they were acting a part in their lives?
Last year, I reread this book while I was editing a the story of a Mengele twin. On a train ride home from New York, I saw the horrifying, real-life cattle-car scenes of Jews being taken to the camps, juxtaposed with poor Billy Pilgrim’s account of being transported to Dresden.
From The Sirens of Titan:
“She didn’t like my fortunetelling,” said Rumfoord. “She found it very upsetting, what little I told her about the future. She didn’t care to hear more.” He sat back in his wing chair, inhaled deeply. “I tell you, Mr. Constant,” he said genially, “it’s a thankless job, telling people it’s a hard, hard universe they’re in.”
Here’s another reason I’m writing this: I love the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and every so often I get to tell that to somebody who hasn’t read a single brilliant word he wrote. He was fascinated by people who hadn’t found their place in the world, who hated living, who were stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the wrong time.
Knowing the future, or at least claiming to, competed with fatalism and shaping the future in Mr. Vonnegut’s books. Knowing what’s coming never, ever brings any of his characters even a shred of happiness. Even the omnipotent narrator in Breakfast of Champions is somewhat incompetent.
I still haven’t read Mr. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I’m assured it’s a wonderful book, and also have been informed it’s the best thing he wrote.
If I’m lucky, I’ll like it before rereading it another twenty years down the road.