Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 5)
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
Vonnegut is an enormously popular American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His deceptively simple fantasies and science fiction are incisive commentaries on contemporary life; his slapstick comedy is black. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is more provocative as a straw in the wind than a work of literature. It has almost no narrative interest, almost no "solidity of specification," almost no moral complication, and almost none of the inside-dopesterism characteristic of books that sell very well; yet it has sold not merely well but best. What it does have is play, wit, structural unpredictability, some ingenious mimicry of American speech, and an absurdist vision continuous with Vonnegut's previous work, though here with a different tonal range. It seems to me possible that our literary sociology is changing in some ways that are not yet clear and that Vonnegut's rather unpretentious book, so astonishingly different from any previous bestseller, may mark the beginning of a different and wider public for new, unconventional fiction.
Vonnegut's principal strategy is to contrive the voice of a naïf, which in his case is the voice of a fifty-year-old naïf. "Everybody in America," the narrator tells us, "was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold onto it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn't get their hands on doodley-squat." Elsewhere the mention of a Colonel Sanders franchise evokes the following explanation. "A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this: [Vonnegut here inserts his own drawing of a chicken, apparently done with a felt-tip pen, in the style of a child's coloring book]. The idea was to kill it and pull out its feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs—and then chop it into pieces and fry the pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it, so it looked like this: [here a drawing of a bucket of fried chicken]." The two obvious risks of such a voice are that it will pall and weary the reader with its limitations of tone and, secondly, that the naive observations will finally seem to represent the mind of the author, which is to say that the book is apt to make Vonnegut himself appear simple-minded. On the other hand, the possibilities of the naive voice are considerable, and Vonnegut exploits them all: being naive, the narrator has no sense of structure or priority and thus can include anything, as indeed he does, moving in a few pages through matters of eschatology and teleology, cornball manners of the Midwest, irrelevant statistics, perverse sexuality, washroom graffiti, and automobile sales techniques. The satiric possibilities of the naive voice, moreover, are classic, and Vonnegut directs his innocent voice at American guile and idiocy with considerable effect. He explains, for example, with the same dull ingenuousness that he uses to explain the bucket of fried chicken, the function of the body bag in gathering together the fragments of a soldier killed in action. Ordinarily, however, the audience for naive narration is explicit and contained: Candide explains naively to Pangloss who explains naively to Cunegonde who explains naively to Candide while we readers overhear; Gulliver explains naively to the King of Brobdingnag while we, knowing more than either of them, listen, with some humiliation and much ironic amusement. Vonnegut's narrator, on the other hand, is explaining to nobody in particular, to the generalized reader, or perhaps to himself. And thus the naïveté seems especially bald and uncontrolled, without a plausible setting. (p. 302, 304)
[The] life of the book does not reside in the continuity of its central figures. The life of the book resides in its "bits," its gags, its lines, its long succession of comic-apocalyptic events, even its drawings. So it is that it seems pointless to criticize the book for being self-indulgent and messy; of course it is. It does not, however, seem pointless to criticize the book for its triviality. For, touching again and again on the curious and desperate backwaters of American culture, the book nevertheless dissipates much of its force with schoolboy bathroom jokes, penis measurements, and a good portion of foolishness that seems neither buoyant enough nor clever enough to justify its existence. (p. 304)
Philip Stevick, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974.
Vonnegut's success can be attributed largely to the skill with which he blends humorous fiction and a popular moralistic vision.
On the surface, it would appear that Vonnegut's rhetoric is nihilistic and that his humor merely punctuates the "history of human stupidity" which must inevitably end in The Grand Ah-whoom. The bombing of Dresden informs his authorial memory which in turn matches the paranoia of his audience. His perfectly timed grim humor is an artistic gesture of defiance but cannot by itself transcend the apocalyptic vision which underlies all his subjects. How, then, can Vonnegut be called a moralist?
Critical reading reveals that he does not always use grim humor nihilistically…. Vonnegut, like Twain, often deploys that humor as a weapon. In addition, like Dickens, he makes sentimental appeals to his audience. Jerome Klinkowitz, who has taken the trouble to dig out from Collier's and Galaxy Science Fiction Vonnegut's earliest short stories, shows [in The Vonnegut Statement; see excerpts in CLC-4] that he has spoken continuously for a return to a plain, middle-class, "fundamental American decency." What does America need and want? Vonnegut himself says that Americans are homesick for Mommy and Daddy. He aims his stories at the generals and senators who run things but is sure that they do not read them. He recognizes instead an audience which includes those who will someday be the generals and senators, and he works deliberately to "poison their minds with humanity." The humane values his fiction declares are common and simple: pacificism, family responsibility, love of the land, freedom from "the unbridled intellect," and being kind to one's neighbors. It should be no surprise that Vonnegut is middle-aged, has raised children, tries to pay his bills on time. The cult-hero of "the radical young" is none other than good old Dad from Indiana!…
[He is] a true rarity among modern American novelists—a moralist deploying traditional satire, iconoclastic grim humor, and a lucid view of what is wrong with man. (p. 243)
Richard Boyd Hauck, in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1974.
Vonnegut's undercutting of pleasant and humorous space fantasy [in Slaughterhouse-Five] by horrible earth-reality is typical of black comedy's operant tensions. The book's repeated dictum, "Concentrate on the good times," is its only offer of solace. Slaughterhouse-Five is slightly different from many black comic novels in that Vonnegut presents his hero as dominated by the reality of his existence, analogous, perhaps, to an absurdist character's status. When one remembers that in the opening chapter, the narrative "I" (should one say Vonnegut?) promises that his novel will contain no roles for John Wayne, a reason for Billy Pilgrim's nature is more easily discerned. Value in Slaughterhouse-Five is developed subjectively, "Concentrate on the good times." Men perpetrate evils on other men. One may not be able to change the state of things, but one need not add to it. (pp. 204-05)
John Boni, "Analogous Form: Black Comedy and Some Jacobean Plays," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Summer, 1974, pp. 201-15.
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons is … a collection of essays, reviews, speeches, etc. Only a writer with Vonnegut's power base could get a book of occasional writings published today, let alone get away with giving it such a title. Simply the sound of the apparently nonsensical words is enough to kindle recognition in those who have been initiated into Vonnegut's universe, and by the most cautious estimate the number of reader-initiates must be in the hundreds of thousands. The very definite meaning of these not-so-secret words is stored in the memories of probably almost as many people, and is fairly often retrievable and can be recited in paraphrase—the novel (Cat's Cradle) in which Vonnegut invented the words and originally set forth their meanings in 1963 has gone through thirty-two printings in the last four years. But Cat's Cradle is not the only book in which Vonnegut has made up words; in this practice, as in other ways, his work is of a piece, and once the reason is understood why any of his writing should have become immensely popular, it is understandable why all of his books—almost impossible to find in bookstores when first published—are now continuously in print. The prevalence of Vonnegut cannot be overstated. Another of his novels (Slaughterhouse-Five) has been translated into fifteen languages, and another (Breakfast of Champions) recently spent a year on the best-seller list, at the top of it much of that time. (p. 40)
Vonnegut is the champion—actually in a class by himself. The sale of his books and the love accorded them and their creator are such as are ordinarily reserved for the reading matter that caters best to a larger public's appetite for violence, inside dope, and sentimentality, and those who produce it (examples are unnecessary). (pp. 40-1)
Considering the ability of his books to hold the attention of large numbers of people in a society supplied with many distractions more vivid than books, it is not surprising that Vonnegut's standing with literary critics should be unsettled. Some seem to think he is suspect because his work enjoys a success that is anomalous for "serious" writing; others, having skimmed or read his books, say more or less that they are not worth a critic's time. Vonnegut is a "sententious old salt in ontological drag," the late Charles Thomas Samuels wrote [see CLC-2], and his is "a bogus talent…. [He] can tell us nothing worth knowing except what his rise itself indicates: ours is an age in which adolescent ridicule can become a mode of upward mobility."… But as Benjamin DeMott sees it, "the kids' lighting on Kurt Vonnegut is an undeservedly good break for the age" [see CLC-2], and, in Leslie Fiedler's opinion, the Vonnegut novels do belong "to what we know again to be the mainstream of fiction," by which Fiedler does not mean what he calls "High Art," but rather "American Pop … the quest of the absolute wilderness." Graham Greene is less sly, more explicit: Vonnegut is "one of the best living American writers."
Vonnegut's novels are full of stories—no plotless novels in the hyper-modern manner could have become so popular. They are also full of characters, surprises, episodes, suicides, apocalypses, science-fiction fantasies, morals drawn and underlined. And certain persistent motifs run through all of them. The Vonnegut hero is typically an American who has either been born or worked his way into what society considers a privileged position. But he is more than dissatisfied—he is ashamed, and tries to redeem himself by dropping out and associating with those believed less privileged, by helping the unwashed, the insulted, or merely exploited, the little people worn down by industrial and scientific consequences. Sometimes this saintly program is an obsession, an end in itself (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), sometimes a nagging temptation along the way of a quest or odyssey (Player Piano; The Sirens of Titan; Cat's Cradle). One way or another, it continually seems that it might be the right thing if the main character devoted what energy and ingenuity he had to it, in spite of the fact that he realizes such a program cannot change anything for the better, that the unfortunate are no more lovable or deserving than the intelligent, the high, and the mighty, and that in any event fate has an absurd and painful end in store for all.
To note this recurring theme is misleading, if it suggests that Vonnegut creates failed saints to study and dissect them, like a psychologist. With several exceptions, the characters, even the presumptive heroes, who appear and reappear in his novels are not deep enough and they do not stay in one place long enough to be studied as in a psychological novel. Mostly, Vonnegut's figures are mechanical contrivances bathed in a stroboscopic glare—fleshless robots galvanized by his will, moving jerkily toward the next joke, moral, or plot-advancing surprise.
Another thread: In all his novels, and even when he uses the whole universe for scenery, Vonnegut has originated this repertory of characters in upstate New York, Rhode Island-Cape Cod, and Indiana. In The Vonnegut Statement, a Festschrift compiled by some of his academic admirers in the Middle West, these locales are compared to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. As Vonnegut sketches them, the places are meant to seem sadly comic, haunted by American ghosts: of the coastal Indians and whalers, the Iroquois tribes and Erie canalmen, the pioneers. Technology and salesmanship have stripped and raped the land and divested the people of pride, leaving them ridiculous—mechanical men and women whom it is a duty to love. In his speeches, Vonnegut has explicitly blamed all this degeneration and suffering on American scientists and technologists, the inspired tinkerers, the sons of Edison in the employ of the Rockefellers and Rosewaters and the government…. [Only] late, in Breakfast of Champions, is a good word said for any product of modern technology and it turns out to be tranquilizers, which the narrator swallows to restore his chemical balance.
It is risking nothing to take a quick guess that some of these ideas about America—let them be called political instead of philosophical, though they are connected to no party or program—eventually helped Vonnegut's books win an appreciative audience among college-age readers and, later, their elders: it was a matter of waiting for the Zeitgeist to catch up. His politics—implied, inferred—are a factor in his appeal, and need to be examined. But while they may have become agreeable to an even larger audience, it is probably the style that they, and the story line, are presented in which first pleased, delighted, seduced. Vonnegut's is a brief, repetitious style, rhetorically mock-naive, relying for effect on the regular delivery of a quantity of some kind of satisfaction every page or so. It arrives in the shape of a surprise, a moral, a giggle, a laugh. After what now looks like a false start in Player Piano, Vonnegut fastened on the form that works best with such a style: a series of self-contained, sometimes arbitrarily divided, "chapters" of no more than five hundred words, often as few as fifty. "My books are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips," he says…, "and each chip is a joke." Whether he is speaking here in all honesty, or out of false modesty (he evidently thinks of himself as more than a comedian, and harbors exalted ideas of the role of writers), as a description of his method it is not bad.
Vonnegut's novels are constructed in a way that can also be likened to the structure of an old-fashioned cartoon booklet with figures painted in primary colors which is flipped with the thumb. Cat's Cradle, for example, has 121 "chapters", headed with ironical inscriptions like title-cards, contained in a grand total of 191 pages. The divisions between each "chapter" function like the frames between cartoons, so that read over quickly (as Vonnegut's novels are meant to be read on first encountering them, before going back to search out, talmudically, allegories, symbols, and designs), they blur into a semblance of motion. The effect is cinematic, as if a basic pattern, and resource, of the movies had been appropriated to a book without pictures. (pp. 41-2)
[Player Piano] is a recognizable literary project in the approved manner, down to the basic device of casting a misfit in the anti-utopia. "I cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World," Vonnegut [has said]. Although the perfectly bad society that irks the hero is not coercive or totalitarian, but rather a benevolent welfare state where corporations look out for what they consider the public interest and bright young men in crewcuts do not get too drunk, Player Piano is another cautionary fantasy extrapolating from what is actual, in the tradition of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. Sometimes it also reads like Babbitt. It partakes in a gently pessimistic way of anger at what the boosters of mass production and the assembly line are doing to bodies and souls, and fear of what they may do still worse….
[His] stories, which Vonnegut says he wrote to buy time, and which have been collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, adhere to formula while mildly worrying the strain of disaffection evident in Player Piano. Their heroes are eccentric villagers, precocious dropouts, average U.S. citizens taking advantage of a windfall to improve their model train sets or HAM radio apparatus. In the meantime, Player Piano was issued in paperback, renamed Utopia 14. It took Vonnegut seven years to write the first of a couple of books (The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle) that, with the help of the bosomy covers their publishers wrapped them in, assured his consignment to the demeaning science-fiction drawer. These novels made Vonnegut's underground reputation; in them he found his form and oracular voice.
The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat's Cradle (1963), unlike Player Piano, are fairly original in conception, quite consistent in tone. They are also highly contrived and as didactic as sermons. (p. 42)
This was one of Vonnegut's achievements, that he could make a certain audience read what are essentially books of ideas, using multiple plots, self-consciously intricate designs, and flashy characters, and intruding himself continually, without breaking the spell. A load of moralistic message is what puts Sirens and Cat's Cradle into the category of science fiction—more precisely, into that subcategory of science fiction, fantasy, that depends, for credibility, not on detailed descriptions of possible machines or experiments with nature, but on a seamless web of dreaming about a universe that can never be, populated by impossible beings, humanoids embodying urges and ideas.
It is more the stuff of teleology than ontology; paperback readers who do not know the meanings of these words can appreciate that the dreamlike quests of Vonnegut's heroes in fantastic worlds and universes are about finding purpose here, in this world. And purpose there is, finally. The mocking voice, seemingly parodying itself, denying any aim in life, demands not to be believed, yet always taken seriously—this is the unspoken understanding between writer and reader in Vonnegut's books.
Preachy as it is, the voice never talks down, nor does it depress. It is breezy, charming, confidential, fully clued in to the popularity of sticking gun turrets on model aircraft carriers with Duco cement and other pre-pubescent American joys; it shares rather than imparts dark-sounding truths, funny jokes. An American "kid" who had bought Sirens or Cat's Cradle in a bus station (both novels were published in paperback, went unreviewed) could wish when done reading that the author was a terrific friend of his, whom he could call up on the phone whenever he felt like it. In fact, during the years when rare copies of Sirens were being being sold for up to fifty dollars, many of Vonnegut's young enthusiastic readers did that….
An anti-scientific bias is also less unusual, more popular now than fifteen years ago. "You scientists think too much," a Miss Pefko says in Cat's Cradle, which ends with the end of the world. A marked animus against scientists, and thinking, and a propensity to toy with apocalypse, characterize all of Vonnegut's books. He has another preoccupation. Except in two books, it is never more than continually alluded to. The Martian soldiers in The Sirens of Titan "wore knee spikes, and glossy black uniforms…. Their insignia was a skull and crossbones." Von Koenigswald, saintly jungle doctor of Cat's Cradle, has "the terrible deficit of Auschwitz in his kindliness account."
World War II, the Nazis, the war's long-lasting effect on individual Americans and America, are themes that loom large for Vonnegut for autobiographical and other reasons. He gets around to facing them directly in Mother Night (1961) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
At first, it seems that Mother Night is intended as the study of an insane man, in the form of that well-known fictional conceit, the self-portrait or confession. "I've always been able to live with what I did," writes Howard W. Campbell, an American double agent awaiting trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. "How? Through that simple and widespread boon to modern mankind—schizophrenia." To try and create a character who will bear scrutiny would seem to be a departure for Vonnegut…. This is a very ambitious project—locating a publicly harmful madman within modern history, undercutting revulsion for him by showing his all-too-human, even sympathetic sides, never losing sight of his diseased soul under the welter of well-known documentary facts that needn't be mentioned but are, and always, "in his own words."
The prime prerequisite in a confessional novel has always been that the novelist get inside his creature, becoming invisible. Nabokov did this with Humbert Humbert, also a disturbed man in jail, Salinger with Holden Caulfield, Roth (almost) with Alexander Portnoy. However, Howard Campbell's words are not all his own; many of them, and his ideas and sentiments as well, are Vonnegut's. Instead of strategically subsuming his intentions in Campbell's craziness, Vonnegut mainly uses him as a mouthpiece, so that Mother Night quickly turns into an exercise in ventriloquism. Often the voice does not even trouble to disguise itself, and sounds just like … Vonnegut's. (p. 43)
If Mother Night were intended as a psychological novel, the flat characterization of Campbell could be blamed for the book's failure to move beyond the level of a slapstick, melodramatic spy story. But the main intention is, again, moralistic, and the book is a vehicle for messages, attached this time to events and personalities in the unimagined world, in a contemporary history that is already legendary for younger readers. The message is to the effect that reality and men are such masses of contradiction, that, among other things, it is useless saying who is finally villainous or heroic, though villainy and evil are obvious. As for what looks like unmitigated villainy, the best one can do, looking back, is provoke laughter at it….
Günter Grass wrote raucously in The Tin Drum without in the least depriving Nazism of an aura of important, brutal force, or getting smeared by nearness with sentimentality. Vonnegut makes the Nazis, and by implication, evil itself, seem absurd, ridiculous, and inevitable. To counter it, he enlists laughter, but not only that….
While Mother Night is grotesque, like mummery on a stage, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's first hardback best-seller, has a maudlin feel about it. Both books present the spectacle of a writer facing the world, trying to write saving myths about it using documentary material.
That this is what Vonnegut was about in Slaughterhouse-Five can easily be inferred. The story—told by a narrator who is a writer established on Cape Cod—concerns a harmless optometrist, Billy Pilgrim who, as a prisoner of the Germans in World War II, lived through the American bombing of Dresden and is obsessed to the point of madness with the memory. Coming "unstuck," Billy lives simultaneously on earth and on the planet Tralfamadore where he learns a new religion of stoicism. The kinship of Billy Pilgrim with his namesake in Bunyan, not to mention Christ and Everyman, is obvious. The style, "in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of the planet Tralfamadore," attempts to get at something by accretion of extremely unconnected bits in time and space, and the bombing of Dresden actually disappears in the shadows thrown by placard-like announcements from the narrator: "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee."…
Breakfast of Champions, as seemingly miscellaneous as Slaughterhouse-Five, is the summation of the discoveries Vonnegut has made in writing, the whole held together by the crude drawings he supplies to illustrate it. It is like a children's encyclopedic picture album with detours and definitions, naming the animals, presuming to treat as if for the first time of pornography, suicide, racism, and madness in Middle America, without neglecting the plot, or despairing of methods of salvation proposed in earlier novels. The drawings are the logical goal of Vonnegut's writing over the years. They supplement the words, and begin substituting for them. They are meant, in their crude friskiness, to increase the horror by playing against it, as a comedian in silent films might deadpan against a hilarious or hazardous situation. The effect is not necessarily the one intended. They also mean to charm, to draw forth love and mercy, and there can be no doubt that for some reader-viewers they succeed. (p. 44)
[It] is not enough to say that Hoenikker, the atomic scientist in Cat's Cradle, was a cliché ten years ago. It is necessary to add that this cliché speaks with increasing force to a generation of students, and their parents who take after them, because of what they read in the papers and breathe in the air. "I was in Dresden," Vonnegut says, "when America dropped scientific truth on it."… Although the pacifism Vonnegut preaches is couched in absolute terms, and his imaginary ideal American hero is a man who absolutely refuses to kill or be a party to killing, Vonnegut does not fail to say in speeches now that during his war the enemy deserved to be crushed by any means—so long as innocent, defenseless people (for example, the Dresdeners) were not incinerated. Vonnegut is not unaware of the tortured relation of guilt and innocence, and of the practical difficulty, probably the impossibility once the logic of total war is rolling, of sparing civilians. Indeed, he is ever ready to indicate moral dilemmas and paradoxes, in the best manner of innocence lost, while never really altering or complicating the thrust of his simple, absolute preachment.
The preacher is a sinner, too, of course; he does not deny it. In denying his own virtue Vonnegut can go to such extremes of language and hypothetical example that one can either be disarmed by his honesty, or begin suspecting that this writer not only has the power to do harm, but actually does it—by the crude, unreal, and actually soothing pictures of human behavior that he draws. "If I'd been born in Germany," he says in the preface to Mother Night, "I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and Gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snow-banks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes." (p. 45)
Villains and heroes do not exist in such accounts, needless to say, but neither do any humans, if humans think, decide, act, regret. Yet Vonnegut's fictions, with their flat characters who are put through their paces to make the author's humanistic point ("only humans are sacred"), most probably do not leave Vonnegut's devotees feeling empty or sad.
Vonnegut is not an apologist for evil, nor does he mean to sound neutral; he is sure it exists, and that he knows what it is—he could not be so popular if he did not. Of World War II he says in Wampeters, Foma & Granfallons, "We had fought something which was totally obscene." That is only the beginning, however, for "this was very bad for us." The war against Hitler gave Americans a long-lasting sense of righteousness and of a global mission finally expressing itself, he says, in what Lieutenant Calley did at Mylai. If the after-effects of Vonnegut's generation's war were bad for America, they were and continue to be worse for people in the rest of the world, because of the power America acquired to harm with its good intentions. In Vonnegut's books, greed and narrowmindedness go with self-righteousness and power. The world is on the road of war, pollution, and starvation, of final extinction around the corner, and so far as humans can be, his generation of Americans is responsible for this.
During the last decade or so such ideas have become common currency in this country, and surely would have been if Vonnegut had not contributed his share. Obviously it takes more to attract the young man than to blame the world's troubles on their parents. In fact, it would be bizarre if reading or listening to Vonnegut set a young person against his elders, or reinforced a previous hatred or contempt. Vonnegut's anger at his generation is mild, as his pessimism concerning the human prospect is gentle, and presumably all-inclusive: though he sympathizes with the young founders of backwoods communes, who try to adapt Bokononism (the religion of fatalism practiced in Tralfamadore) to their separate realities, he has little or no hope of their success. It is either too late for that, or it is written somewhere, in the book of Fate, that these experiments, too, are doomed. (pp. 45-6)
Vonnegut says in his new book that one of the reasons he no longer gives so many speeches is that "a recent refugee from Middle Europe" interrupted him once with the question, "You are a leader of American young people—What right do you have to teach them to be so cynical and pessimistic?"
But one can only understand the anger of Vonnegut's Czech or Polish questioner if one is convinced of many things—that the Vonnegut phenomenon is a cultural-political test case, that books really are bisected into "High Art" and "Pop," that taste is debased, that books are important. Most of all, one would have to believe, as Vonnegut says he does, that good or bad ideas in books have the power to do good or to harm. (p. 46)
Edward Grossman, "Vonnegut & His Audience" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, July, 1974, pp. 40-6.
I would like to examine … the relationship between Vonnegut's fiction, which essentially defies problem solving, and the reader's conventional expectation of finding meaning, if not solutions, in the texts of Vonnegut's fiction. My suggestion is that the conclusions to Vonnegut's novels develop out of, and preserve, a complex awareness of the interplay between imagination and death; which is to say that Vonnegut, unlike any contemporary American author I am aware of, has it both ways for perfectly legitimate reasons. A favorite question, variations of which appear explicitly in every one of Vonnegut's novels, is "What are people for?" Each one of the conclusions I have cited [Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Fire, and Breakfast of Champions] captures or arrests this question within the paradoxical framework of an imaginative assertion poised against the presence of death. Such a device preserves our sense that individuals are free to "do their own thing"—that people can have at least the illusion of growth imaginatively and sometimes practically—but at the same time their "own thing" is continually set against a resistant pattern which we call human history. There exists a continual contest in Vonnegut's work between the inner space of imagination and the outer space of history. To put it another way: people, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., are free to self-actualize but they must never expect such self-actualization to alter, fundamentally, the course of human history. As a consequence, what we see in Vonnegut's fiction is a continuum of imagined alternatives—a spectrum of people self-actualizing—which at the same time preserves our sense, to use Vonnegut's phrase, that "the fix is on" ["In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself," Harper's Magazine, November, 1972]. (pp. 165-66)
What we see repeatedly in Vonnegut's fiction is individual action reduced to sham theatricality—to gestures without ultimate significance but desperately laden with personal meaning. The actions are imagined attempts at meaning, but they will in no way alter the forces of human history. Individuals try to evolve toward significance and value, but history continually intrudes, denudes, and reduces human aspiration to nothing more than static posturing. (p. 168)
Vonnegut's humor, which is doubtless deserving of an essay in itself, strikes me as being only part of, and not an antidote to, the all-encompassing problem of human imagination pitted against the forces of historical extinction. Vonnegut's humor represents a perceptual slant that makes destruction a bit more tolerable; it is a mode of consciousness which permits the reader to accept his apparent condition with some detachment, if not with good cheer. But Vonnegut's humor in no way alters (indeed, it highlights) the apparent meaning of his fiction, which is that, individually, we try to imagine a meaning for ourselves in an inner space that, historically, is continually violated. (p. 170)
From Player Piano to Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's fiction depends, in a variety of ways, on an interplay between death and the imagination. The confrontation between these two forces is rarely weighted exclusively toward one pole or the other, the idea being that the exercise of imagination in the face of death constituted what social scientists call the "human condition." In Breakfast of Champions, however, it appears that this dialectic has been replaced by an obsessive split between Vonnegut's nostalgic lament for a lost past and his bitter denunciation of a coercive present. Where Vonnegut formerly expressed a fear that men were being displaced by machines, now he is fearful that men have become machines. (p. 171)
[The] chief "character" of [Breakfast of Champions] is clearly Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He is the master of ceremonies, or better yet, the master mortician. Vonnegut is out to kill his former fiction—to clear his head, he says, "of all the junk in there." It is significant that the book is written in primer prose, for Breakfast of Champions is a kind of children's book (complete with drawings) in which Vonnegut tries to sort out innocence and experience. He himself must appear front and center, for the book, finally, is about Vonnegut's sense of awareness. Thus we watch Vonnegut almost ritually stalk his own biographical past while he also pursues his former characters down the seamy streets of Midland City; all this is done to establish that what he once created he now wishes to destroy. Destruction, of course, is often a prelude to regeneration, but before Vonnegut will be able to regenerate his fiction, to his own satisfaction, it appears that he will have to sort out his own past. In a sense, then, this book does not simply frustrate the reader's customary pursuit of meaning: it records Vonnegut's own frustrated pursuit of meaning in his own fiction. The reader of Breakfast of Champions is thus being asked to participate in, or at least observe, Vonnegut's own self-analysis. (p. 172)
[The] question Vonnegut continually asks of himself in this book is whether he can create art out of his American experience or whether America has replaced art—his art—with advertising. (p. 173)
If my reading of Breakfast of Champions is at all plausible, it then follows that the reader's expectation of meaning takes an especially curious turn in Vonnegut's latest book. There is a sense in which the reader's frustrated pursuit of meaning now converges with Vonnegut's—not simply his characters'—sense of frustration. For reader and author alike Breakfast of Champions is at once a dead-end and a possible prelude to liberation…. It is [the] very willingness to confront tragedy—the tragedy of America together with Vonnegut's sensitivity to tragedy—that makes Breakfast of Champions such a moving, tortured, and honest book. What Breakfast of Champions does, even as Vonnegut abandons his prior characters, is to reconfirm, in a highly personal way, the basis of his fiction: namely, that imagination and death are inextricably bound together, and that only as they are fully contemplated in terms of one another can Vonnegut's art and his reader's response remain humane. (pp. 173-74)
Robert W. Uphaus, "Expected Meaning in Vonnegut's Dead-End Fiction," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1975), Winter, 1975, pp. 164-74.
I enjoyed [Venus on the Half-Shell, allegedly written by Kilgore Trout, a Vonnegut character]. The story rolls right along from one escapade to another, and the philosophy is so thin and silly it never gets in the way. At one point, having received something less than a satisfactory answer to his query from a cannibalistic wise man, Wagstaff explodes: "You have the same philosophy as a college sophomore's!" Trout knows his audience, anyway.
As I read the book, a great many words beginning with "r" sprang into my mind. These were the words: ribald, risque, revolutionary, revolting, raunchy, rowdy, raucous, randy, Rabelaisian…
If it had started with an "r" I might also have thought "Voltairean," for there is a certain Candide quality to the work. The ineffectual, not especially intelligent hero wanders from one allegorical, satirical situation into another. But Trout is no Voltaire, and there is nothing so profound it provokes serious thought; nothing you can sink your teeth into. It's more like cotton Candide.
After all it is the originality of a satirist's vision, rather than the object of his satire that makes his work endure; his powers of invention rather than his philosophical perspective that makes him memorable. We remember Candide and Pangloss, not the ideas of Leibniz they were meant to parody. Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and the Yahoos have become part of the language, though their relationship to 18th-century politics may be utterly lost on us.
Trout recognizes this. His philosophy is only a flimsy pretext for adventure; the Space Wanderer's question-and-answer only a device to keep him moving around from planet to planet. Vonnegut, on the other hand, seems to take himself seriously. He is best when he is like Trout, inventive and right on the edge of silliness, when his fantasy takes over and he writes of Tralfamadore and the chronosynclastic infundibulum. When he writes of war and death and Dresden he is occasionally profound, but more often embarrassing.
Vonnegut once claimed that "Kilgore Trout's unpopularity was deserved. His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good." And in the synopses he gave, he seemed to back up that statement. But Venus on the Half-Shell does not. Trout's prose is at least as good as Vonnegut's. It is strange ("clouds as black as rotten spots on a banana … the horizon had been as unbroken as a fake genealogy"), but it is lively and inventive and goes by faster than a holiday weekend. Some of the incidents—obsessed as they are with sex and excrement—are a little hard to stomach, but the next reissue of Trout, perhaps Oh Say Can You Smell? or 2BR02B is something I'm definitely looking forward to.
Thanks, Kurt. (p. 4)
Chris Dickey, "Fishing for Trout," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 2, 1975, pp. 1, 4.
There is a certain kind of American writing that resembles the cement industry in Sri Lanka. On the hungry island that was once known as Serendip coral reefs are blasted off the coast and the coral is burned in kilns to make lime. But then the reefless places let in the heavy surf and this causes erosion. Lime is an essential ingredient in cement, so the reefs are replaced with a by-product of the coral—concrete. It is a joke industry, self-perpetuating and finally self-consuming. 'So it goes,' as Kurt Vonnegut says, and well he might. After all, Slaughterhouse-Five was partly a novel about a man writing a novel called Slaughterhouse-Five ('"Listen," I said, "I'm writing this book about Dresden…."'). You can't get any more self-perpetuating than that, and as Mr Vonnegut's experience has shown, this kind of candour goes down well with the college crowd. Art looks like an intimidating gimmick to the fairly ignorant…. It is an enterprise in repetition, another joke industry. At the high point of his fame the celebrated American writer, who has nothing to say, says, 'I have nothing to say' and makes a fortune on the lecture circuit repeating it.
It is also the making of modesty into a conceit so unique it borders on arrogance. Mr Vonnegut's modesty is breath-taking. (p. 452)
The impression one is left with [after reading Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons] is of a writer who wishes to appear in a state of undress in order to be thought innocent, who sees a kind of eloquence in being inarticulate. The subtitle of his collection is 'Opinions', and yet even he must see that he is the opposite of opinionated: a wide-eyed boy of 51, astonished and a little embarrassed by his success. (p. 453)
Paul Theroux, "Joke Industry," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 4, 1975, pp. 452-53.