Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Generation

Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut proposed an alternative version of World War II glory, a writhing and brutal portrait of internal turmoil and loss and madness that manifested its horror in a seemingly charming and picaresque line: foot-soldier Billy Pilgrim had become “unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five belongs to the rarified antiwar prose of the post-war writing generation that includes Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, the brand of story-telling that went beyond the “war is hell – but damn, it’s a great story” method of pulp fiction and John Wayne. He wrote about inner damage in the guise of science fiction and fantasy; Vonnegut created a terrifying alternative universe created on the ruins of still-living souls who had witnessed first-hand the worst men can do to other men.

But damn, if it wasn’t accessible to a 14-year-old. The combination of humour, and sex, and sci-fi, and words put Slaughterhouse-Five on every adolescent reading list my generation; it didn’t have to be assigned – it was sought out.

When news Vonnegut’s death broke early this morning, I immediately remembered that period of discovery – of revelation – that reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the canon of Vonnegut novels brought on. Those precious, quiet moments alone with the words and the realization that freedom of thought was entirely real, and that some people explored that freedom to the fullest.

Lance Mannion said this morning that he’s working hard to “write something fitting about the man whose books fell into the wrong hands one day.” It’s an apt description: Vonnegut was a best-selling author whose work was “adult” for its day. It was part of the charm, part of the lure. But then we were smacked over the head with Dresden and a chapter of the “Last Good War” saga that we didn’t know.

Vonnegut was a minor character in his own books because he’d lived through what he wanted to write about; he also wanted the reader to know who was God in Dresden, on Tralfamador, and back in Troy, New York. He. Kurt Vonnegut. The author, deus ex machina. In Vonnegut’s universe, there is no free will because he controls all movement. Being unstuck in time is Vonnegut’s wink at the author’s own power, but it’s also a shot at religious order. As one of his Tralfamadorian zoo-keepers drolly lets on: “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe… Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The absurdity of life fascinated Vonnegut, but it sure shocked a generation of young readers. Vonnegut – coming as his fame did as the 60s came to their bloody end – is directly responsible for the seething uncertainty and cynicism that inhabits the readers of my generation. We doubt, we scoff, we see corruption everywhere. If we’re optimists (and I am) we’re cynical optimists. We enjoy absurdity.

Vonnegut’s own shock came from the war; its explosion set him on his path. He discovered death and took it on (this too, made its mark on my generation). As Brendan Tween wrote this morning:

Vonnegut never pitched Death as a villain in his work, but more as a relief or a last resort. His characters longed for it, loathed it and fought it, yet accepted it as a reasonable and sensible conclusion once all other avenues had failed.

The incident that changed Vonnegut’s life and sent him on his path is well-known, but worth recounting briefly (with help from Wikipedia). As an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was cut off from his battalion and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until captured by German troops and put to work in Dresden, as it was targeted by the Allies for descruction.

Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. “Utter destruction,” he recalled. “Carnage unfathomable.” The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial, Vonnegut explains. “But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.”

To the end, that vision of human apocalypse haunted Kurt Vonnegut. Last August, he applied that vision to the global environmental crisis in a ghostly Rolling Stone interview – but there was little humor (and no sign of the attractive Montana Wildhack):

What’s going to happen is, very soon, we’re going to run out of petroleum, and everything depends on petroleum. And there go the school buses. There go the fire engines. The food trucks will come to a halt. This is the end of the world. We’ve become far too dependent on hydrocarbons, and it’s going to suddenly dry up. You talk about the gluttonous Roaring Twenties. That was nothing. We’re crazy, going crazy, about petroleum. It’s a drug like crack cocaine. Of course, the lunatic fringe of Christianity is welcoming the end of the world as the rapture. So I’m Jeremiah. It’s going to have to stop. I’m sorry.”

Comments 6

  • Vonnegut as Jeremiah.
    Jeremiah was the prophet who told court prophets that all their rosy pictures were false, “there will be no peace.”
    He was also the one who told the Jews to accept the Babylonian captivity and to prosper there because in 70 years they would be allowed to come home.
    He also told the Jews who went to Egypt that they would disappear there, but he went with them, because he thought they’d need him.
    I needed Vonnegut when I was a teenager, when I thought the court prophets were liars and the road to Egypt looked more promising than Babylon.
    My favourite piece of Vonnegut writing is actually something I haven’t read in years. It’s from Palm Sunday, a book of sundry writings, it was sermon he gave to a Unitarian Church. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was witty, and wise and cranky.
    Maybe the optimistic cynicism I have comes from Vonnegut as you say, with just a little from Crabby Appleton too.
    Perhaps in the same way he freed Kilgour Trout from his own novels, Vonnegut has been freed.

  • Witty, wise and cranky – it’s interesting that Vonnegut had two sets of work: his fiction and his essays/speeches. Now, of course, I have to dive back in and follow another short-term obsession.

  • Cat’s Cradle’s always been my favorite. To me, it’s his funniest novel. His cynical eye for dark fatalism depresses me sometimes. The last book of his I read was Mother Night. In the end, the spy becomes the real thing. The moral dilema is never resolved because the ‘hero’ begins to doubt his innocence. But his guilt is based on a misunderstanding of facts — yet there is no turning back. Basically, death and judgment befall everyone, no matter which side you are really on. That’s kind of a bummer. There’s no revelation, no peace, no joy. It’s all a sad, hopeless mess. I guess I changed over the years too.

  • I read Breakfast of Champions when I was about 16. A very prudish 16. I don’t remember much about it except for the pictures of assholes and other bits of anatomy. I don’t remember it very well.

    I read Mother Night for a class on espionage and dissent that I took in college and really enjoyed it. I’ve always meant to read Slaughterhouse and will definitely soon.

    Two quotes from Mother Night that I scribbled into my quote book when I was 19.

    “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”

    “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

  • I grew up in a non-literary house, and I discovered books and authors in odd accidental ways. I would wander through the stacks in the library and pick up books whose titles or covers I liked. A few writers whom I discovered then are still favorites, like Kingsley Amis (I picked up “One Fat Englishman” and got hooked) or Henry de Montherlant (how could a 15-year-old not like a book called “Chaos and Night”). This was back in the 60s. I’m not sure how I discovered the pre-“Slaughterhouse-5” Vonnegut. I was an SF fan for a few adolescent years, and I think I saw his named mentioned by Judith Merril in one of her “Year’s Best” anthologies. But I picked “Cat’s Cradle” off the shelf, and that was it. They don’t make authors like him any more.

  • A nice example of Vonnegut’s sly wit, with the emphasis on the slyness: his novel Jailbird combines real and fictional characters, with an index in the back that mixes them indiscriminately. I looked up Geraldo Rivera, knowing that he was Vonnegut’s ex-son-in-law. He wasn’t there, technically speaking. Instead there was an entry for Jerry “Cha-Cha” Rivera, a very minor character. Jerry “Cha-Cha” Rivera is a small-time crook who is killed while attempting an armed robbery. In other words, he is a sad little dreamer who is both stupid and cruel. I always assumed that this was Vonnegut’s crafty way of giving his opinion of the man who had made his daughter miserable.