Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
An American novelist and fantasy writer, Vonnegut is now one of the most celebrated exponents of American popular culture. Slaughterhouse-Five is the best known of his witty and intelligent novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Mr. Vonnegut has been called by Graham Greene, no less, "one of the best living American writers." But the Vonnegut books have been mostly caviar to the general. He has been a writer's writer, serious, technically accomplished, uninterested in accommodating himself to the book trade or the great thundering herd. He has not had, accordingly, one "big book," though he is a better writer—more intelligent, more disciplined—than some people who have…. Mr. Vonnegut is what used to be called a banjo hitter. He has kept rapping out sharp singles while the sluggers lunged and panted and wrote army novels and drove home the Cadillacs. But there have been some signs latterly of a boom in Vonnegut stock, with his Mother Night particularly and Cat's Cradle being taken up a good deal by young people in the colleges. What appeals to them, I suspect, is the combination of Mr. Vonnegut's gentleness and his stylish sense of the ridiculous in these our times. He may be a growth issue.
Warren Coffey, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 6, 1969, pp. 347-48.
[With] Cat's Cradle [Vonnegut] began to get some attention. It came from varied sources: Conrad Aiken, Graham Greene, Marc Connolly and Jules Feiffer, to name a few. Greene called him one of the best living American writers. That sort of comment is guaranteed to make you an "in" writer. He was compared to Jonathan Swift.
That is not to say that he has been greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by all critics. Reviews of … Slaughterhouse-Five … have dragged out the old complaints: Vonnegut is too cute, Vonnegut is precious, Vonnegut is silly.
We live in an age of great seriousness. We are accustomed to getting our art in heavy, pretentious doses. Anything funny is suspect, and anything simple is doubly suspect. Here we come to the second difficulty with Kurt Vonnegut. His style is effortless, naive, almost childlike. There are no big words and no complicated sentences. It is an extraordinarily difficult style, but that fact is lost on anyone who has never tried to write that way.
A funny, simple writer is in trouble nowadays. And Vonnegut doesn't make it any easier for you. He is cheerfully, exuberantly schizophrenic….
He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches. But Vonnegut, armed with his schizophrenia, takes an absurd, distorted, wildly funny framework which is ultimately anaesthetic. In doing so, his science-fiction heritage is clear, but his purposes are very different: he is nearly always talking about the past, not the future. And as he proceeds, from his anaesthetic framework, to clean the shit off, we are able to cheer him on—at least for a while. But eventually we stop cheering, and stop laughing.
It is a classic sequence of reactions to any Vonnegut book. One begins smugly, enjoying the sharp wit of a compatriot as he carves up Common Foes. But the sharp wit does not stop, and sooner or later it is directed against the Wrong Targets. Finally it is directed against oneself. It is this switch in midstream, this change in affiliation, which is so disturbing. He becomes an offensive writer, because he will not choose sides, ascribing blame and penalty, identifying good guys and bad.
Michael Crichton, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (originally titled "Sci-Fi and Vonnegut"; copyright © 1969 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 100-07.
The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut's second novel, illustrates better than any of his other works precisely the manner in which Vonnegut uses science fiction, and is also of central importance to the study of Vonnegut's later novels, providing as it does a number of motives and themes that recur in these novels. Appearing more than seven years after Player Piano (by far the longest time lapse between any two Vonnegut novels), The Sirens of Titan was followed at intervals of roughly two years by the series of works that have established Vonnegut's present reputation: Mother Night in 1961, Cat's Cradle in 1963, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in 1965, the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House in 1967, and Slaughterhouse-5 in 1969. Still, Sirens is often regarded along with Player Piano as something apart from these later novels, as a product of Vonnegut's "science-fiction period." But I think … that Sirens is thematically and stylistically as well as chronologically more closely related to these later works than to Player Piano, and that in fact it is the seminal work in Vonnegut's development as a writer….
[If] the science fiction metaphor offers Vonnegut his greatest freedom in demonstrating his negative vision, it also offers the reader the greatest anesthetic against this vision. In a context of fantasy, the idea of haphazard forces governing human life seems less frightening than when grounded in an identifiable historical context; hence, for many readers, Sirens will have substantially less impact than Mother Night or Slaughterhouse-5. Still, it is not possible to read Sirens as mere escapist fiction, for we are constantly drawn back to the individual human element and the harsh realities of meaningless cruelty and death, whether on Mars, Titan, Mercury, or earth. Vonnegut suggests that these realities will follow man wherever he goes, whatever he does, not because of a failure in man's vision of himself (though this is certainly involved), but because, fortunately or unfortunately, they are a part of what makes him human.
G. K. Wolfe, "Vonnegut and the Metaphor of Science Fiction: The Sirens of Titan," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1972, pp. 964-69.
In some ways, Player Piano proves the most difficult of Vonnegut's novels to assess. It seems the least settled, the least consistent to a form or mold. Initially it may strike us as another socio-moral analysis of the present through the future in the tradition of The Time Machine, Brave New World or 1984. But then the resemblance shows shifts in the direction of the more immediate kinds of social criticism, like Babbit, Main Street or even The Grapes of Wrath. Furthermore, comic episodes become frequent, sometimes roughly in the social-satiric vein of Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh, sometimes as pure slapstick, sometimes almost of the comic strip guffaw-inducing variety. These references to other works and writers should not be taken to imply that Vonnegut is highly derivative, but simply to suggest the mixture present in the novel. Player Piano makes a great many points about human behavior in general, about the unpredictable quirks of life itself, about society and its institutions. But perhaps Vonnegut is a little too intent on making all of these points. Be that the cause or not, the book remains somewhat unsettled and fragmented, never quite cohering into a consistent, sustained form.
The novel seems curiously mixed in other ways. Much of its social criticism is well aimed, and probably likely to win more friends while giving less offense in 1972 than it did in 1952, when faith in technology, science and the capitalistic system ran higher. The attacks on social ills obviously grow out of a deep compassion, and we sense the gentleness of this writer who so often portrays violence. On the other hand, the targets of the satire are frequently easy ones, some of them struck many times before, and the gentleness occasionally gives rise to rather awkward sentimentality. The "booster" businessman, the materialistic suburban wife, the adolescent lodge member, the too-eager junior executive, the army, the shamateur college athletic program, have all been thoroughly picked over before. The excessive sentimentality emerges where Vonnegut overloads a situation to emphasize its pathos….
Sentimentality, in right proportion or excess, emerges naturally in a novel which places so much emphasis on nostalgia. Here again one senses an ambivalence of feeling, but in this context Vonnegut uses both sentimentalism and ambivalence effectively…. In fact, Vonnegut appears equally insistent in showing the limitations of both nostalgia and an avid faith in progress or futurity. The shortcomings of an unqualified belief in change for its own sake, constant technological development and a materially realized Utopia are made obvious throughout. The dangers implicit in nostalgia reveal themselves with more subtlety….
Stylistically, the novel again is mixed. It possesses the characteristic rapidity of Vonnegut's prose, induced in large part by the brevity of everything—sentences, paragraphs, chapters, even the book itself. The characterizations establish themselves quickly, often by fitting into familiar stereotypes. While there is an element of suspense to the central story, actions occur in rapid succession and with plenty of gusto. The episodic nature of the novel sometimes works against the rapid pace…. The language of the book sometimes disappoints. It includes some journalistic, near-trite imagery …, and some old-fashioned dialogue, too obviously contrived so as to stereotype the speakers…. Player Piano, for all its warnings and weariness and nostalgia, remains a funny book. But the mixture of pain and humor results in the kind of comedy which arises when people seek to make light of frightening situations, so that here, too, the novel sustains its peculiar tension. (pp. 51-5)
While the events portrayed in The Sirens of Titan are scattered around the universe, reflecting the protagonist's aimless but directed wanderings, the narrative development of the story remains straightforward. There are far fewer digressions, subplots and simultaneous developments to keep track of than in Player Piano, a fact which helps to make the second novel smoother reading…. The Sirens of Titan, for all its wanderings, futurity, and concern with larger, abstract questions, transmits a greater sense of direction and concreteness. Rather surprising, too, is the fact that this novel with its science fiction orientation, with its robots and near-robot humans, and with its several central characters who are intentionally presented as being rather cold-hearted, generates more human warmth than Player Piano which is directly concerned with the agonies of exploring and following conscience, emotion and love. Three possible explanations for this phenomenon present themselves: first, Vonnegut's skill has grown in the intervening seven years; second, the science fiction mode affords the author more detachment, and he is less didactic in this work; third, the positive forces, particularly love, carry more weight. (pp. 65-6)
The pessimistic view of man's behavior, of his place in the Universe, implied in so much of his fiction, suggests that Vonnegut may himself feel hard put to come up with answers. Indeed, in interviews he practically confesses as much, along with admitting to the attraction of withdrawal which also appears in his work. Yet some answers are suggested, if only by reverse implication in showing what are judged as immoral, inadequate, or simply wrong behavior and attitudes. And The Sirens of Titan provides more direct answers than most of his other novels. It shows, for example, the importance of our facing the ramifications of that existential view of his condition which contemporary man has so widely accepted. It asserts that while an indifferent universe may confirm no purpose in our existence, we can give meaning to life by the way we lead it. This entails giving up the search for a rationale in the incomprehensible workings of the Universe, the hunt for some answer from above, and turning to ourselves to provide meaning…. Finally, The Sirens of Titan emphasizes the need to recognize the apparently indifferent, frequently adverse Universe as the shared environment of all men, and to perceive that this makes concern, compassion, and love imperatives. (pp. 85-6)
For most of those whom it touched directly, World War II has remained the most memorable experience of their lives. This appears to be true of Vonnegut, and in particular the horrifying and puzzling experience of being under the raid on Dresden seems to haunt him. He alludes to it repeatedly in his fiction, as if compelled to somehow come to terms with it if not erase it. Mother Night does not deal directly with the bombing of Dresden—the raid has no part in the plot—but that, in a sense, is what the book is about. For the novel exposes and probes time and again the puzzles and paradoxes which lurk behind the horrors of war. In the "Introduction," and later in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut asks "Why Dresden?" How did the champions of justice and the vanquishers of tyranny come to wreak such hideous slaughter upon the hapless and militarily irrelevant city? That question invites a whole series of related queries about roles and identities and essences. Questions of who were villains and who heroes, of when heroes were villainous and villains heroic, of vice in the defense of virtue and virtue as the mask of vice, even of what was vice and what virtue….
In Mother Night, Vonnegut uses the circumstances of the war to make graphic the existential assumptions and to intensify acutely the existential questions of The Sirens of Titan. Do actions have meaning in an absurd world? How can those actions be judged? How do people find purpose? Can they retain a will to live, even, and how? Why do some lose that will and go submissively to their deaths? In a world so apparently devoid of truths, with such truths as there are generally paradoxical, what hope does man have of obeying Polonius' first commandment, "to thine own self be true"? (pp. 93-4)
The fact that the comedy works so well in a story full of human anguish, rarely becoming strident in its biting irony and preserving its poise in the satire, is one of the qualities which distinguish Mother Night…. Another respect in which this novel compares well with the previous two is in its greater unity. To begin with, it has more unity of time and place…. It is also less episodic, the flashbacks and time-shifts operating within the three-tier time structure, giving little sense of fragmentation, or wandering. The framing of the story with an "Editor's Note" and "Introduction" also provides focus, as do the morals Vonnegut posits there. By and large, the novel holds that focus, keeping as its principle subjects betrayal of self, war (as a manifestation of the absurd), and love. Finally, the steady development of the central character through first-person narration adds to the unity and direction. Many of the qualities which contribute to the merit of Mother Night are the very ones which also make it perhaps Vonnegut's most traditional novel in form. Paradoxically, perhaps, that also accounts for the relative weaknesses of the book. For Mother Night lacks some of the excitement and verve of The Sirens of Titan, for example, and it is sometimes less likely to carry its reader along than that earlier, more wandering fantasy. (p. 114)
If one had to select the novel which best exemplifies the methods and techniques of Kurt Vonnegut, there would be plenty of good reasons for choosing Cat's Cradle (1963). No doubt some readers would argue that what Vonnegut actually does in this novel is to parody himself. There are plenty of good reasons for supporting that position, too. What one can safely say at the outset, however, is that Cat's Cradle illustrates almost every device, technique, attitude and subject we encounter in Vonnegut, and is filled with particulars which echo other novels. At the same time, compared with the two preceding novels, it seems thinner in plot, more superficial and fragmentary in characterization, weaker in its ability to evoke emotion or concern, and consequently less substantial. That is at least partially explained by the nature of the book. Call it an anti-novel, surrealistic, fantasy, one big "put on," or whatever: the one thing it should not be called is a representational novel. For in Cat's Cradle, the paradoxes of artist and deceiver, truth and lie, reality and pretense, as propounded in Mother Night, are projected into a sustained game. (pp. 119-20)
[The] ending [of Cat's Cradle] reminds us again that we are in a fiction, that this is all a literary game. We do not actually know the ending, in the sense that we expect to as we close a representational novel. We only know what Bokonon suggests he would do, and that Bokonon always lies and says that no one should take his advice!…
Within the dimensions of its chosen form, Cat's Cradle seems remarkably consistent and to work well. It might be the most popular of Vonnegut's novels among the young—such impressions are difficult to verify—and if it were that would not be hard to understand. To "the counter-culture" it should appeal as a book which counters almost every aspect of the culture of our society. To a generation which delights in the "put on," parody and artifice, often as the most meaningful expressions of deeply held convictions in a world which they see as prone to distortion, Cat's Cradle's play with language, symbol and artifice should find accord. On the other hand, the novel somehow lacks the substance of the two which precede it. Compared with them, the plot remains thin, the characterizations are more superficial and often fragmentary, and the reader's involvement with characters, moral issues and human emotions is consequently shallower. The first person narration, which in Mother Night serves to further our involvement, fails to bring us appreciably closer to its speaker or the other characters…. [The book] remains essentially an entertainment. To make such judgment might be to take the novel too solemnly, or to discount its form—even its intentions. Conversely, it might be the fairest way to take those things into account, a way to give honest recognition to the merits and shortcomings of Cat's Cradle, and the possibilities and limitations of this form of novel. (pp. 144-45)
Although this novel declares its subject and central character to be money, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) concerns itself with a great deal more than that. Most obviously, the focus on money leads into considerations of the society that it makes run, into commentaries on class, social values, public morality, art, economics and politics. The next step is to probe the influences of money and the society on the lives of individuals; the psychological and moral consequences of both having and not having money. For money is not simply the root of all evil in the world of this novel. More importantly, it is the root of all neurosis. And neuroses abound to the extent that hardly a single character either is not or has not been afflicted psychologically in some way. Graffiti, the expression of troubled souls, comes close to being to this novel what the calypsos and poems of Bokonon are to Cat's Cradle. It is a world in which madness commonly passes as the standard for sanity, and where sanity appears neurotic. In effect, the novel comes almost as close to re-posing the question of "Hamlet's Madness" as it playfully suggests, as well as recasting the "To be or not to be" quandary in a contemporary rotten state. The nature of love, also a thematic problem in Hamlet and a subject Vonnegut constantly returns to, reemerges as a major consideration in this work. But God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is no tragedy. Tragic events and tragic circumstances provide the element of pain that we expect of this dark humorist, but the novel stands as solid comedy and one of Vonnegut's funniest books. (pp. 146-47)
In Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Vonnegut comes at last to a direct confrontation with his Dresden experience. He also brings together many of the other things he has talked about in his first five novels. The numerous recapitulations of previous themes, resurrections of characters who have appeared before, and recollections of earlier mentioned incidents in this novel are not just self-parody as they might be in Cat's Cradle, nor are they simply the development of a kind of extended in-joke as they might be in the intervening novels. Rather, they represent an attempt at integration, an effort to bring together all that Vonnegut has been saying about the human condition and contemporary American society, and to relate those broad commentaries to the central traumatic, revelatory and symbolic moment of the destruction of Dresden. The event itself, of course, is not the problem. The difficulty lies in trying to say all that the fire-raid means, to one man, to each individual man, to all men collectively. Vonnegut also says the book is a failure. We may not agree; or, if we do, we will probably want to give more credit to the attempt than the author gives himself. The only real failure is that the novel had to be written at all. Whatever its weaknesses (like characterization, a weakness Vonnegut freely admits), the book's achievements are considerable—and more numerous than a first glance suggests. Slaughterhouse-Five goes beyond being a therapeutically autobiographical novel, or simply an antiwar novel, the two categories into which it could be almost easily fitted. It is both these things and more—an attempt, in effect, to create a contemporary legend. (pp. 172-73)
In the first chapter, Vonnegut calls Slaughterhouse-Five a failure. We can understand why he might think so, since it is so evidently an attempt to capture the full measure of such a personally significant event and perhaps even a great deal of what he believes about life in general. Few men are likely to finish such an effort feeling they have said it all or said it right. He might also feel that technically the novel has inadequacies. It does…. Yet overall Slaughterhouse-Five remains a remarkably successful novel, and in some ways Vonnegut's best. It shows less of the warm humanity which we come to feel is part of Vonnegut's vision of life than we might hope for and than we find in The Sirens of Titan. It also finds less to affirm, too. But Slaughterhouse-Five is an enormously truthful book, and truth in this case leaves little room for faith or assurance that is the least bit forced. The novel flirts with the dangers of being episodic, disjointed, too diverse, and even too brief, for its content. In this respect it is a daring novel, but that artistic recklessness pays off. The structure does hold, and succeeds in pulling together not just its own components but ideas and themes from previous novels. And all without turning the book into a compendium. The compression gives a story which could become turgid vitality, yet at the same time intensifies its poignancy. Moreover, the novel neither falters from, nor sensationalizes the horrors it depicts, and tenaciously avoids pedantic or moralistic commentary; no small achievement given the subject matter and the author's personal closeness to it. (pp. 202-03)
Vonnegut places considerable emphasis on the fact that we know very little about a great deal. To see his novels as explaining or answering large philosophical questions would be to do them a disservice. Or, to put it another way, his explanation might be that there is much that we do not, and perhaps cannot know, and that to embrace formulae which seem to offer answers is dangerous. The novels voice numerous reminders of this warning. While they repeatedly raise questions about the nature of universal controlling forces and the meaning of life, they persistently show that although some apparent characteristics are discernible, we have no final answers…. Just as it would be wrong to see Vonnegut's science fiction as a prediction of the future rather than a hyperbolic description of the present, so it would be wrong to approach Vonnegut as a philosopher with final answers to the meaning and nature of our world. In fact, his greatest service in terms of workaday philosophy may be his insistence on facing the anxieties of the inexplicable and the incongruous….
[The] world according to Vonnegut appears absurd, and life within it generally seems ultimately meaningless. Space and time travel, war, and madness become the appropriate vehicles for describing such a condition. By viewing contemporary life on Earth from a distant time or planet, or in the context of wide ranges of time and space, or through the eyes of an alien observer, Vonnegut can create at least the impression of a detached perspective on the human lot. Given the fact that human beings tend not to view their affairs with such remove, and that the outsider's perspective actually may be rather idiosyncratic, the resultant portrayal is likely to abound in preposterousness, incongruity, and irrationality. War provides the ultimate measure of man's folly, his inhumanity, his inability to match means and ends, and his incapacity to maintain an ordered control over his destiny…. Madness, neurosis and eccentricity characterize, with greater and lesser exaggeration, both the irrationality of such human social behavior and how society tends to view deviant but perhaps more rational and moral individual acts. They also serve to indicate the human consequences of living in a universe and a society which men find so cryptic, purposeless and frequently adverse. Physical maladies often join with the emotional ones to emphasize the stresses such a world places on its inhabitants. (pp. 204-07)
[The] lack of real villains and heroes seems an almost inevitable consequence of the vision of the world Vonnegut creates. It is hard to conceive of men achieving true heroic or villainous stature in a world where they are so nearly pawns, so little in control of their destinies and where their actions are so often subject to chance or merely "the way the moment is structured." There exists no place for "tragic flaw" in such a world, and there are no Lear-like heroic ragings against the blind indifference of this universe. That is not to say that Vonnegut's protagonists are incapable of heroism, nor that some of them, in their endurance, resistance and sacrifice may approach heroic stature as closely as the contemporary protagonist can. Nevertheless, they work their cathartic effect on us not by heroic stature, but by their ordinariness. (p. 209)
As has been observed by reviewers, Player Piano resembles the work of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, at least to the extent that it indicates earnest moral intent in its satire of current social trends through their hyperbolic projection into the future. That serious intent appears to provide one of Vonnegut's starting points; another is the autobiographical element in the novel. Then other characteristics begin to emerge—nostalgia, science fiction for its own sake, and the non-satiric brands of humor. In the subsequent novels, these elements assume increasing importance. The novels continue to qualify as moral fables…. With The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut's use of science fiction achieves full scope, and from that point on, fantasy and his peculiar comic bent become the characteristics which dominate his work. To oversimplify grossly, Vonnegut might be seen as starting out along the course of traditional "serious" novelists, but inevitably going off in the direction of those other forms which are usually associated with "light" or popular fiction. Science fiction marks the point of departure, but then actually recedes somewhat in later work, replaced largely by travels of the mind, bendings of and deviations from reality which are sometimes surrealistic, sometimes simply in the realm of pure fantasy…. The "serious intent" is never in question, even in Cat's Cradle, and by the time we get back to Slaughterhouse-Five we again sense the serious novelist at work in the midst of forms often associated with drugstore paperbacks: but by now the combination looks rather different. In Player Piano the popular fiction techniques seem to crowd in upon the "serious" novelist, almost to threaten his intent. We have the sense of a writer who cannot quite make it in the terms he has chosen, or whose natural impulses lie in directions other than the form he has chosen: in short, whose style and intent threaten to part company. In Slaughterhouse-Five those techniques are controlled and worked through effectively, serving the novelist's serious intent and bringing him at last to grips with the central symbol of his experience and message, the bombing of Dresden. (pp. 211-12)
[His] style [draws] from the techniques of forms other than the classical novel. It resembles the television drama in its swift pace, its darting topicality, its frequent use of stock effects. Like the cartoon strip, Vonnegut's fiction uses recurring characters and locales, placing an emphasis on action in a fast moving sequence of static scenes. The science fiction element provides its traditional outsider's perspective of current social norms…. Yet behind all these techniques which give Vonnegut the stamp of modernity lie many of the assumptions traditionally associated with the best and most representative American novels. Leslie Fiedler speaks of Vonnegut's recourse to "the first and most authentic variety of American Pop," the "quest of the absolute wilderness …" as found in the Western. Certainly Vonnegut's protagonists, in common with their most illustrious forebears, "light out for the territory," become involved in highly symbolic journeys, confronting the wilderness of the new frontier of space. Like the Hucks and Ishmaels and Nicks before them, Vonnegut's heroes encounter existence in the broadest terms….
Vonnegut's humor stands firmly in the American tradition, too, even though much of it is contemporary social satire particularly fitted to the tenor of the times…. American humor tends to be short on … assurance, implying if not hopelessness then a great deal of pessimism. From Twain to Faulkner to Malamud, the comic stance is one of watching human folly not with the lively involved delight which has marked British comedy from Chaucer to Cary, but with an amused ironic detachment. (pp. 215-16)
Vonnegut can be viewed as putting the traditional American novel in contemporary dress. How successfully he does so remains the crucial question. His detractors evidently feel the contemporary techniques are slick and superficial, the substance a thin caricature of the tradition. Others find the techniques revitalize old forms and make possible a return to traditions lost or observed earlier in the century. Although the wide readership Vonnegut has enjoyed in recent years demonstrates the appeal of his technique to contemporary audiences, obviously that contemporaneity could prove a limitation in the long run. Vonnegut's fiction could become something of a period piece…. On the other hand, the basic questions Vonnegut's novels explore are timeless, even if the form in which they are pursued remains closely tied to a period. The breadth of Vonnegut's readership may indicate that his appeal need be no more tied to one era than to one generation. It could be that as his appeal to youth as a peculiarly contemporary and relevant writer fades, his stature with older generations as a "serious" writer will grow; in fact, the indications are strong that this process has already begun. Clearly, Vonnegut is peculiarly in tune with the mood of America in recent years, and has found a style which effectively expresses that mood. He could well emerge as one of the most representative and expressive American writers of the 'sixties. As such his reputation may continue to grow in the 'seventies. (pp. 217-18)
Peter J. Reed, in his Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
With the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., stepped to the front rank of contemporary American novelists. Acclaim for the novel, coming after nearly two decades of obscurity for Vonnegut, was something of a surprise….
Vonnegut's latest novel summarizes his thoughts on war which until now have been scattered throughout his previous fiction—the other novels seem a build-up to the climax of Slaughterhouse-Five. War has always been a significant subject for him, but until Slaughterhouse-Five he has never revealed his personal anguish. Mother Night and Cat's Cradle, of course, focus on war. Even his novels which do not treat war as the primary subject nevertheless comment on its effects. In The Sirens of Titan (1959), for example, Vonnegut satirizes the Martians and their military regimentation as they plan their unsuccessful attack on earth. And in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Eliot Rosewater suffers from the memory of a World War II episode during which he mistakenly kills a German boy. But in all of these novels the humorous antics and the sheer delight of the science fiction fantasies ease the shock which the descriptions of war produce….
Significantly, Slaughterhouse-Five, although funny, is not as wildly humorous as his previous fiction. The lack of outrageous comedy is not a flaw but rather a comment upon how deeply Vonnegut feels about the bombing of Dresden….
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut negates the possibility of abstracting war when he focuses on one particular historically verifiable atrocity and lets us know that he literally experienced the event. His close relationship to the subject contributes to the noticeable seriousness of his novel. Brooding on the Dresden nightmare for twenty-three years, he cannot help but treat the subject somberly. Slaughterhouse-Five's success seems to come primarily from Vonnegut's personal involvement in the atrocity, and the result is a novel of definitely darker tone which is not totally a produce of his comic imagination….
Vonnegut makes a considerable effort to fictionalize isolated incidents which can be certified as factual and to establish his painful, personal involvement in an atrocity of such magnitude that it numbed his ability to write about it for twenty-three years. Because he is writing a novel, rather than a documented history, which underscores his pain and fear, he deliberately omits discussion of the complex motives and details leading to the Dresden raid. To his credit, he controls his outrage and refuses to use the novel to specify blame. He is interested not in realistic detail but in effect, yet the historicalness of the novel's subject poses problems for readers who are unaware of the raid's complexity….
Vonnegut took twenty-three years to ponder his survival of Dresden, writing pure science fiction, like The Sirens of Titan, before he could liberate himself from the guilt of survival by expressing the experience in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one sense the novel is the result of his effort to reinvent himself and his universe. His extraordinary closeness to the subject matter and the theme accounts for the restrained and serious tone, in turn revealing how the experience damaged his spirit. His attempt to establish the historical validity of the subject matter poses the problem of narrative distance, but it also gives the novel a foundation in fact which his earlier war fiction lacks. The apocalyptic imagination, so funny as to seem unreal in Mother Night and Cat's Cradle, reinforces the reality of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut's juggling of Billy Pilgrim's imaginary adventures with a dispassionate account of his personal experiences at Dresden is a way of balancing his efforts to maintain an objective view of the atrocity and his need to convey his closeness to it. Successfully handling a complex technique, Vonnegut creates in Slaughterhouse-Five a novel that clearly surpasses his earlier work.
Donald J. Greiner, "Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fiction of Atrocity," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 38-51.
Vonnegut's use of the Hamlet story [in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater] should remind us of his technique in Cat's Cradle and Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The former begins by invoking the ghost of Melville's Ishmael with the serio-comic command: "Call me Jonah," and the novel itself can be seen as a cosmic Moby-Dick with the earth finally enveloped in whiteness and Jonah surviving in a grave-like dungeon. Even more apparent is the ironic relationship of Happy Birthday, Wanda June (originally called Penelope) to The Odyssey. Harold Ryan's adventures closely parallel the wanderings of Odysseus, and when Harold returns home, he too finds his wife Penelope surrounded by suitors. Vonnegut uses the parallels to underscore the differences between his bragging, insensitive modern hero and the mythic Greek. In developing Eliot Rosewater as a twentieth-century Hamlet, Vonnegut follows a somewhat similar procedure….
Unfortunately for Eliot, he lives in a far different world from his Renaissance prototype. Shakespeare's Hamlet has a vast metaphysical backdrop for his soul-searching; for him, Good and Evil are existential qualities and are fairly well defined. Claudius has seduced Gertrude, murdered Hamlet's father, and plans finally to murder Hamlet. He is no doubt evil; he even acknowledges it when he attempts to pray and fails. On the other hand, Hamlet is an essentially good man who learns to accept his divinely appointed task: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends." In Shakespeare's play these mighty opposites of Good and Evil must fight to destruction. In Vonnegut's fictional world, however, without supernatural dimension, the pure opposition of moral entities breaks down almost completely. The Renaissance absolutes are no longer morally applicable, and Eliot, with his sense of Hamlet-like mission, wanders in a world which will not admit strict moral dichotomies and will not sanction the kind of violent and direct revenge taken by the Danish prince. Eliot is not directed by an omniscient spirit—"I don't hear voices" (31)—and his Elsinore is, in terms of Shakespeare's play and its orderly Weltanschauung, the "wrong one." The world has changed, and so has the mission….
Unlike Hamlet's mission, Eliot's has not been an embassy of death, but a mission of life and love….
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater does not end with the promise of a new economic order—nor the spiritual redemption of America. In its own way, it ends as bleakly as Vonnegut's other novels—and much more bleakly than Hamlet, where, although the protagonist is dead, the evil infecting the state has been extirpated.
William L. Godshalk, "Vonnegut and Shakespeare: Rosewater at Elsinore," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 37-48.
The poster appears in practically every bookstore window: "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.," with a picture of the man himself, looking (as an early reviewer put it) like a corduroy-covered bat-wing chair, peering across the list of books he has written. Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and his eight other titles are stacked inside, for another million readers to buy this year and almost certainly for many years to come. There is no other living American novelist one could imagine on such a poster—not Saul Bellow, nor at the other extreme Harold Robbins. Yet the posters remain, and can be found in head shops, pizzarias, and college bars, stamping those places as the dusty portraits of William Butler Yeats define an Irish pub.
College sales have undoubtedly been the factor which pushed Vonnegut over the top, making him not only one of the largest sellers, but probably the most talked-about American novelist since Ernest Hemingway. But Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., marked like a painted bird with his self-pro-claimed attention-getting name, has been around for two decades, doing stories for The Saturday Evening Post and letting three of his books see first light as shoddy drugstore paperbacks, while waiting for America to discover him as its great public writer. The country is having its field day now, as the resurrected Post digs up Vonnegut's 1950 nostalgia pieces for each quarterly issue, and old paperback bins are riffled for copies of those queer editions: Utopia-14, Canary in a Cat House, and the totally disreputable first edition of Sirens of Titan with its garish advertisements and sexy come-on cover….
Vonnegut's great youth following may seem to have run off after a prophet, but there has been precious little gurumaking of the man, certainly less than for Salinger and his Zen wisdom a decade ago, and nothing resembling the cult surrounding Tolkien. Rather there is a great correspondence between what Vonnegut says when he appears at colleges and what he wrote for the same students' parents in the days of The Saturday Evening Post. "We're not too young for love," a teenage runaway admits to her boyfriend in an early story. "Just too young for about everything else there is that goes with love." Vonnegut was saying the same thing a decade later, in his Bennington commencement speech …, that young people should not accept responsibility for reforming the world. In practical terms, that is an impossible duty to bear, for any human being. The answer lies rather in our attitudes, our philosophies—in short, what comes from our imagination. Vonnegut's beliefs in human decency are perhaps the most consistent thing about his writing, whether it be the occasional stories in the Post, where basically good and simple people—storm-window salesmen, small town businessmen—triumph over far more imposing people and ideas, or in the novels, where with much more artistic apparatus he sets about redefining our Universe, which is, as he establishes, nothing more than a dominant state of mind.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the triumph of imagination, a product of twenty years of prototypes where at last the author has found a way to emphasize the good times and forget about the bad. Science fiction time-travel is his metaphor, but behind this device stands man's greatest power, what separates him from other living creatures—the ability to imagine that anything, even he himself, is different from what is. Turn things around, make them different. Overcome the trouble, in one's mind to start with, but, when you have the technology, that way too. The horrors of war, our complex machines of destruction: why not reinvent them as they would be reinvented when we take a war movie and run it backwards…. With such a theme, and the innovative techniques to express it, Vonnegut took his place with the other American fictionists come to prominence during the late 1960's: Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, Ronald Sukenick, and Jerzy Kosinski, to name just a few, who in each of their novels carefully examined conventional reality to show how appallingly unreal it is before offering a personal fantasy closer to the truth of experience, more relevant to our needs and hence more real….
The literary career of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is one exceedingly rich. He is at once common and exotic, quotidian, and elite, and by his ability to comprehend and express such extremes, has become our great public writer. Spanning the length of America's mid-century development and reaching the far limits of audiences, forms, and topics, Vonnegut has melded the disparate elements of what we have been into a coherent picture of what we are now.
Jerome Klinkowitz, "The Literary Career of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 57-67.
[Vonnegut's] seventh novel [Breakfast of Champions], which he refers to as his 50th birthday present to himself, is Vonnegut's own parody of Vonnegut. The absurd, insignificant detail he has used to highlight his earlier novels becomes the major fictional technique of this work, as Vonnegut deliberately overemphasizes his view of man's obscenely inflated opinion of himself. Science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, a minor figure in previous novels, is the major character in this one. Trout's market for his futuristic writings is a hardcore pornography publisher, World Classics Library, which uses his texts to provide the socially-redeeming excuse for completely unrelated graphic illustrations. Within the covers of one of these volumes, Now It Can Be Told, Trout presents a story which causes Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover to go mad. In the story, the one free man in the universe is surrounded by human robots created for the pleasure of the Creator of the universe, who wants to see how the only man with free will chooses to act towards them….
"I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come[," says Vonnegut]. To accomplish this, he says, he is freeing his literary slaves, the characters who have served him in earlier works…. A must for Vonnegut aficionados, Breakfast of Champions will be a bewildering first reading for those unfamiliar with the iconoclastic views of this country's best unreconstructed sf writer.
Robbin Ahrold, in Library Journal (published by R. R. Bowker, Co., a Xerox company; copyright © 1973, Xerox Corporation), April 15, 1973, p. 1311.
Kurt Vonnegut,… with his new novel, his best so far, has become for me a hero of modernist culture. Breakfast of Champions is a minutely ordered representation of cosmic chaos. It endorses the only values that can be endorsed, given the chaos, and it endorses them the only way they can be endorsed (given the chaos), and that is ironically, but they are endorsed just the same. They are endorsed by a plot in the course of which the novel's characters restore its author's health. What they believe and what they do serve equally to reveal the source of his distress and the grounds for health. They are calculated to serve us in the same way, but they will do so only if we will submit ourselves to their reality, as does their author, who is not entirely Kurt Vonnegut….
[The] awareness of this novel of itself as a novel is part of its assertion of the human against the mindless and mechanical chaos of reality that the novel represents. Another constituent of that assertion is the how of the representation, the aesthetic rendering, which stands against the what that is represented. The relations of part to part and part to whole are Byzantine and beautiful. Every part of the representation … is linked to every other part to form an ordered world of fiction, one in opposition to a real world without end that has been whirled without aim. "It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done."
Given the fidelity with which this fictional order represents real chaos, all I can say to any fellow bands of light about to read this novel, people about to go Trout fishing in America, is what one character in Breakfast of Champions says to another: "Welcome to the real world, Brother."
George Stade, in Harper's (copyright © 1973 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), May, 1973, pp. 87-90.
Vonnegut has dramatized in his prose and in his personality a system of values that expresses the dominant faiths of a generation: antimaterialism, the existence of multiple realities, disbelief in history and religion, a disposition to see oneself as victim, despair about the human condition laced with uplifting moral injunctions. And what other writer of the moment has done so?… The values he represents may be, for the most part, antiheroic, but Vonnegut has become a hero.
It is only in 1969 that Vonnegut can be said to have entered his ascendancy, with the widespread ecstatic reception of Slaughterhouse-Five, his surreal re-creation of the bombing of Dresden. Among the elements of the Vonnegut legend is the long time he served in obscurity, his vision too far ahead of the time. This is somewhat overstated. Although the first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952, it was not the sort of book of which cults are made. A satire of a company town of the future, its moral was painfully obvious, and it lacked the playfulness of the later books. Vonnegut didn't write another for seven years.
The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Mother Night (1961) were for a time the "undiscovered" books, both first published in paperback. But soon after Cat's Cradle (1963), his reputation began to build on campus….
Now we have Breakfast of Champions…. The various themes and mannerisms that have animated the earlier novels are seen here in a grotesque, cartoon version of themselves. A kind of minimalism has always characterized Vonnegut's prose, and it is the first thing you notice in Breakfast of Champions. The stuff of the books is often phantasmagoric: time-warps, intergalactic travel, not to mention earthbound atrocities and follies. But the style is offhand, aphoristic, intimate, spare. It always works to say: things are simpler than people want to let on. Breakfast of Champions advances this mode to the extent that Vonnegut is writing much of the time in the sensibility of an autistic grown-up….
[It] is hard to be for what Vonnegut is against, including, as it does, slavery, jingoism, racism, commercial greed, ecological disaster. He thinks that the names of American cars and corporations are foolish to the point of obscenity. Holiday Inns are droll places indeed. The American Indian has been given a bad deal. I'd agree. Vonnegut brings a remarkable air of discovery to these themes, the pretense that no one has quite seen before the stark outlines of our hypocrisy. It is a part of his appeal for his readers that I never understood: the banality, the nearly Kiwanian subtlety of his social criticisms—they are boosterism in reverse….
If you say that [his] wit is easy sophomoric cynicism, though, you have to allow that now Vonnegut says so too….
In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut's theology takes on a somewhat deeper note of despair than it has shown before, though for some time it has been one of his devices to make sport of conventional religions. We are all both helpless and absurd. There is no Angry God or Loving God; God is indifferent, or perhaps confused. Things happen, in the famous line from Slaughterhouse-Five, "if the accident will." In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut creates the antireligion Bokononism….
And yet, for all their flirtations with meaninglessness, Vonnegut's novels are never without a moment of affirmation. In his bleak universe, men, like orphans, are to huddle together valuing each other's warmth. Only one thing is sacred to the Bokononist: "Man…. That's all. Just man." I have always found that line very hard going. There is so much piety in this godlessness. Vonnegut's morality is vague, so undemanding, a dreamily humanist nihilism….
Vonnegut has always disdained daily life. You will find no explication of emotional nuance in the novels, no renderings of social detail…. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut deplores books that "make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end."…
Vonnegut's elaborately wrought simplicity has a tradition behind it, the vernacular tradition. Mark Twain, whose spirit Vonnegut would honor, is his ancestor in form, too. The vernacular form, as Henry Nash Smith and others have described it, depends on a tension between the voice of the storyteller and the intelligence of the author….
There are rare moments in Vonnegut when it is all worthwhile. They almost without exception have to do with the event he pretends not to have been able to confront, the Dresden bombing: the introduction to Mother Night, and those sections of Slaughterhouse-Five where the writer (in the novelist Harold Brodkey's recent phrase) is full of "the authority of being on one's knees in front of the event." But when Vonnegut applies this same mode elsewhere, to, say, a generalized sense of the human condition, his voice abruptly becomes inadequate, narcissistic, coy….
In its frivolousness and pretension, [Breakfast of Champions] becomes an insult to Vonnegut's loyal readers; perhaps, in some buried way, a calculated insult. The dislike that he appears to feel for himself and for so much of the substance of life must surely extend to the audience that has overpraised him and that has such a bottomless appetite for his gratuitous, tic-like irony….
In his work now, Vonnegut seems not the universal victim but a quite particular victim, prisoner of his own style. It's a difficulty that he has described himself, in his well-known line from Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut's fully persuasive pose is that of a man who has come to hate the sound of his own voice and continues to talk.
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1973, pp. 105-09.
Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s latest novel, is the author's 50th birthday present to his swollen ego. It is written in short whimsical paragraphs and sentences that define the human condition in no uncertain terms. But behind his humorous and gently satirical narrative is a sinister note of urgency, even calamity….
From its pop cartoons that adorn most pages to its blithe Radiclib (or "Radiglib," a word coined by one of those big, black, useless machines), the book is Lit-Pop politics, as if Richard Brautigan were feyly fictionalizing Tom Hayden and wife Jane. From capitalism, imperialism, racism, ecology, overpopulation and Fem Lib to hand-guns and Holiday Inns, Vonnegut doesn't miss touching a base….
I recalled one of the favorite Vonnegut images in these fast-fizzing Tablets of the Left: the planes that bombed Dresden doing a film reverse; planes sucked back to their bases, bombs off-loaded and dismantled, their basic ingredients returning to their sources and finally back into the ground. It was the wonderful image of a great yearning … and a lovely theory. It had much to do with the history of transcendence, of stubborn hope, of utopian fantasy. But it had little to do with the history of history. Neither does this book, unless it is read as a wonderful compilation of the nostalgic history of the countercultural '60s, which occurred mainly on campus and in the media. It seems somehow sad that this book will be so highly praised; Vonnegut has a better head and tougher enemies to fight than he has taken on here. Clichés can't fight back; disappointedly, I think he knows that.
S. K. Oberbeck, "… And None in Midland City," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 13, 1973, pp. 2-3.
"Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday!" details the final collapse of Dwayne Hoover, a rich Pontiac dealer who goes mad in late middle-age, some time after his wife has committed suicide by eating Drano. Crazed by a combination of "bad chemicals and bad ideas," Hoover sees 11 moons in the sky, shoots up his bathroom instead of himself, and finds that asphalt turns to rubber beneath his feet. This formerly benign man turns against his employes, his girlfriend and every random stranger. Finally, he reads a novel which makes him believe that everyone else on earth is a fully programmed robot, and that he alone has free will. He goes completely berserk in a cocktail bar and wounds a number of people who happen to be present, including his own son.
In this novel Vonnegut is treating himself to a giant brain-flush, clearing his head by throwing out acquired ideas, and also liberating some of the characters from his previous books. Thus, he has celebrated his 50th birthday in the same spirit that made Tolstoy release his serfs and Thomas Jefferson free his slaves. Once again, we're back on the people-grid: major and minor personae from other novels resurface in this one, their lives ridiculously entangled, and future students may classify them as karass-hoppers….
Throughout Vonnegut's books, our society sounds quite similar to the hospital in "Breakfast," where "persons were recovering or failing to recover from injuries of all kinds." However, as the protagonist of "Mother Night" observes, hating America "would be as silly as loving it." Meanwhile, there are a few comforts in the Vonnegut universe: sex, occasional travel to other planets, booze (even though it's really "yeast excrement"), the love of a good dog…. But due to the ease with which Vonnegut can pitch his people into situations that are "complex, tragic and laughable," he is still our funniest pessimist, a magician of misery and farce….
An admiring review must contain two objections. First, it's disturbing that Vonnegut calls himself "Philboyd Studge" without paying any tribute to Saki. ("Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped," is one of Saki's most famous tales; it concerns the advertising of a new breakfast food.) Second, there's a distressing repetition of "doodley-squat"—a term so winsome that most of us would welcome a lifetime without it. Otherwise, this explosive meditation ranks with Vonnegut's best. We know that meditations aren't supposed to explode. But this one does.
Nora Sayre, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 3-4.
Vonnegut's characters cry out at the passing of time. "Where have all the years gone?" a man asks himself in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). An old woman in the same book struggles to articulate a last, desperate question: "How did I get so old?" Above all, people in Vonnegut's fiction crack up, slip quietly into a dim, calm, hideously ordinary anguish and madness, into the zone of modest, manageable insanity which is Vonnegut's special domain….
Yet Vonnegut is famous, apparently, not for his visions of middle-class despair but for his rosy mythologies. Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five give us other, cheerier visions too: joyous lies, new dreams. The novels themselves are not sticky nets of human futility but means of escaping from such nets. Cat's Cradle is built around a jaunty, hip, fatalistic gospel delivered mainly in calypsoes, and based on the principle that everything that happens has to happen; that a conflict between good and evil, if properly, skeptically staged, is a fine, constructive fiction. It keeps people busy, takes their minds off their moral and economic misery. Slaughterhouse-Five tells us time is an eternal present tense, so that no one dies, but merely seems to be in bad shape at the moment of death….
Clearly Vonnegut intends some kind of dialectic here between a despair which is intolerable and a set of mythologies, born of that despair, which are untenable, silly, even inhuman. Equally clearly the dialectic never really gets off the ground in Vonnegut's most famous novels. The despair and the mythologies simply face each other, too far apart for interaction, and the reader takes his pick. Since the despair tends to be understated and the mythologies are scored for full, whimsical orchestra, the reader usually picks the mythologies, and the number of people who think the inanities illustrated in the previous paragraph are some kind of wisdom is larger than I care to think about….
The Sirens of Titan, in spite of disclaimers from Vonnegut and his more serious-minded fans, is a science fiction novel, and a remarkably good one. Utopias in science fiction are always wreathed in ironies, and Vonnegut's gradual retreat from the genre, his purely whimsical application of occasional science fiction props and tricks, goes a long way toward explaining the failed ironies of Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five.
Two years after publishing The Sirens of Titan, in any case, borrowing from two other genres (the spy story and war memoirs), Vonnegut wrote a small masterpiece, where all his ironies were intact, enriched even, and where the dialectic between despair and its mythologies was dazzling, very funny, and very disturbing. The book was called Mother Night, and the name of the principal mythology was schizophrenia, a "simple and widespread boon to modern mankind."…
What is impressive about Mother Night is its extraordinary tone which allows Vonnegut to be very funny without being crass or unfeeling. The casualness, the faint, brittle toughness fools no one….
[Mother Night] is not an attempt to defeat an enemy by ridicule, but an attempt to contemplate horror by means of laughter, because laughter, od all our inappropriate responses to total, terminal horror, seems the least inappropriate, the least inhuman….
[Vonnegut] has been looking, since Mother Night, for that tone he found once and can't find again, which sounds heartless but which signals profound feeling. "So it goes," the refrain of Slaughterhouse-Five which greets all deaths in the book, is a feeble approximation, either unfeeling or sarcastic but never both together….
Some of the gags in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut's new novel, are so lamentable that they amount almost to a metaphysical proposition, a late form of Vonnegut statement: life has degenerated to a level beneath that of a lousy joke. We read of a truck in agony, for example, because along its side are written the letters HERTZ. The title itself suggests a ritual irrelevance of language even more dramatic than that evoked by the jerky refrains of earlier Vonnegut novels ("Hi-ho," "So it goes," "And so on"). It refers to a cereal but is said by a waitress in the book every time she serves a martini….
But on further thinking I find I admire Vonnegut for going ahead. A writer's business is writing, after all, and maybe even terrible jokes do some good; or maybe some of the jokes are not as bad as all that. And indeed, after what seems an interminable length of reading time, this book does pay off, winds up in a mild blaze of wit.
Michael Wood, "Dancing in the Dark," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 31, 1973, pp. 23-5.
Kurt Vonnegut has traveled beyond the limits of the universe and come back to tell what he has seen, to assume once more the role of Creator [in Breakfast of Champions], and to answer the question, What is the purpose of life? Rifling his earlier works for common characters, themes, obsessions, and his unfailing and irreverent chuckle, Vonnegut creates in his latest novel another Pop fantasy of wry, whimsical imaginings and sprightly casual satires. Enamored of images of goodness, brotherhood, and hope, yet full of the dimmest cynical suspicions, Vonnegut reveals a sentimental and ironic view of a world beyond alienation. We listen as Vonnegut grapples with his current pet demons: "Everyone on earth is a robot"; "ideas or the lack of them can cause disease"; "bad chemicals and bad ideas are the Yin and Yang of madness."
Vonnegut cloaks his thoughts in a humorous, ironic parody of the paraphernalia of the middle class, in a two dimensional plot, and in the sharp images of his characters….
We have witnessed Vonnegut's reinvention of himself and his universe in an attempt, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, to be reborn. In tone and effect this is essentially an autobiographical work; Vonnegut's vision of a cataclysmic ending of the universe at the hand of man is here turned inward and becomes a preview of Vonnegut's own self-destruction, an unabashed confessional of his prevailing fears and obsessions: death and loneliness, sex and execution, schizophrenia and suicide. We travel backwards in time as he searches for his mother and father but finds instead a legacy of suicide and the wish to be made young again. And all the while, Vonnegut is gazing into the future, composing epithets for his tombstone: "Somebody (Sometime to Sometime) He tried."
Susan Heath, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 19, 1973, p. 42.
Kurt Vonnegut works very hard to be naive. We're all just simple folk here, writing funny books. It's a good fiction but shouldn't fool anyone.
The philosopher Henri Bergson stated as a "law" of the comic that "the attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine." Compare Vonnegut's premise in the preface to Breakfast of Champions that "human beings are robots, are machines," a premise too simple to accept as the actual belief of a well-known fifty-year-old author but certainly not too simple to sustain a humorous novel….
Vonnegut calmly confesses that "it is a big temptation to me, when I create a character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day." Thus evil can be trivialized and reduced to comic proportions: "The people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions." If shrugging off the Holocaust as bad chemicals seems an ultimate banality, in Vonnegut's defense it must be pointed out that the whole movement of Breakfast of Champions is away from this attitude; the mechanical-man idea is exploited, undermined, and dismissed as dangerous. Good-bye, B. F. Skinner….
Now obviously Vonnegut will continue writing novels; he is always giving up novels that manage to get published anyway. He supposedly was unable to write about his experience during the fire-bombing of Dresden, yet a novel appeared named Slaughterhouse-Five. Then he was no longer interested in narrative fiction; he used to give readings from Breakfast of Champions as a work he would not finish. Yet here it is; apparently he was working on it all the time. Now Vonnegut tries to establish that every book he publishes is a kind of miracle of insistent language pouring out of its unwilling container….
Vonnegut does his best to be our contemporary Mark Twain, and since nobody else seems to want the title we can give it to him without prejudice.
Both men are defiantly middle-class, pessimistic, unpretentious; Vonnegut thought Slaughterhouse-Five "would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money." Vonnegut matches his Indiana against Twain's Missouri, and both continually insult this heritage while insisting it is the only real heritage we have…. Both men are clowns who want to shock their mothers and be thrown out of Sunday School; they are lovable bad little boys who aspire to be holy fools. No wonder the kids like Vonnegut….
Vonnegut's simplicity is a mask, and modern criticism loves to strip off masks, leaving its subjects blinking with bewilderment at the powerful light of day. Vonnegut is as full of moving complexity as any other subject a critic could choose….
[In] Vonnegut's novels speculative science is at the mercy of personal whimsy. Writing a bastard blend of science fiction and comic realism like Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Puddin'head Wilson, Vonnegut is our only living anti-intellectual novelist of ideas.
Charles Nicol, "The Ideas of an Anti-Intellectual," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 28, 1973, pp. 1064-65.
Reviewing Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in an sf column seems a bit daft, and anyone interested in science fiction will probably already know that his new book, Breakfast of Champions, is available.
Asking someone to review Vonnegut's book is like asking a drama critic to review Billy Smart's Circus. It's pointless. How pointless can be seen by the often unfavourable reviews it has received already. No one seemed to know quite what to make of it as it falls into no neat dove-hole: Ring Master of the book is Kilgore Trout, Mr. Vonnegut's alter-ego, and the circus is America and its animals are that continent's people. Vonnegut is the prime example of the ultra-serious writer driven to humour by the absurdity of those he writes about. He is akin to Lenny Bruce and to Swift, but not having bitterness, writes with compassion rather than cynicism. The book is a rag-bag, an odd mixture of pictures, cartoon writings, madness and laments for a planet too childish to survive its own tantrums. A humane book, a lovely book, a black fairy tale full of light.
Brian Patten, in Books and Bookmen, November, 1973, p. 104.
[Breakfast of Champions] is one "experimental," "innovative" fiction that is beyond the reach of very few. One gets the feeling that books by Barth, or Borges or Nabokov are all elitist fiction unavailable to a popular, mass audience. One gets the feeling, too, that experimental novels must be difficult. Breakfast of Champions suggests that some authors can communicate with large audiences even through disjunctive or unconventional forms. Vonnegut's novel has little conventional plot, its unit is the brief paragraph and the cartoon drawing (by the author), and its characters are as flat as those figures in the cartoon creations, and yet the basic, affirmative humanism of Vonnegut (who is drawn into his work as a character, too) remains always clear, especially when he sets free his characters to live on their own outside his imagination. His method is that of the joke, he has said, and the biggest joke of all seems to be on those outré experimentalists who claim so much smaller an audience than he does.
James M. Mellard, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 7, 1973, pp. 272-73.
Kurt Vonnegut's books are haunted by the fact that he was an American prisoner of war in Dresden when the city, in the worst single episode of bombing during the war, was fire-bombed by the American air force. Vonnegut was saved because Allied prisoners were kept in a powerfully built slaughterhouse. Everything Vonnegut has written about his experience is "true" with the same preposterous irony; after the bombing was over, one of the Americans was tried and shot for "stealing" a teapot from the rubble. All this has given Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade an impishly sentimental humor based on the sheer helplessness, the total ineffectuality, of anyone caught up in such a massacre. Vonnegut's introduction to the novel gives his credentials for writing it; he was there….
[Vonnegut] is at his best not in Slaughterhouse-Five (really a satire on the Great American Novel) but in spoofs of the American scene like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. There his natural, solid bitterness at the souring of so many American hopes takes on the wildly comic use of inappropriateness, his best weapon. Vonnegut knows how to embarrass and to dislodge the "order" of things….
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut seems, all too understandably, subdued by his material and plays it dumb. He is funnier when he is ruthless. The book is short, loose and somehow purposefully helpless. But Vonnegut's total horror of war has endeared him to the young, who find it hard to believe that even World War II had a purpose, and who see themselves as belonging to the universe at large rather than to the country which sends them to fight in Asia. Thus Vonnegut, who has no politics, has given a fixed idea to the audience for whom he writes. It is the idea of human vulnerability: we are still too innocent in the face of war to offer any political explanation or protest. Vonnegut's horselaugh of self-deprecation finally becomes his picture of the damned human race. Thus all evil is eliminated from the war which Hitler started but which, as Vonnegut says over and again, certainly made everyone "very tough." By now we are morally perishing of so much toughness; our innocence is proved by opting out of the system. We think longingly of E. E. Cummings's "There's a hell of a better universe next door, let's go."
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (© 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 86-90.
No novelist in the sixties is more aware of the necessity of exorcising our dreams of death than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and no novelist is more avid in his use of the fable form as an exorcising comfort and a loving gentle prod. The dark, tough, apocalpytic quality of Vonnegut's vision results from his hard-minded recognition that we do commit sins against ourselves which need to be exorcised. But he dresses that perception in the fable's soft fabric, moral fibers and all, because he sees love as the proper instrument of exorcism, and the fable as the proper form for the expression of the artist's love. "'All these years,'" exclaims one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, a sometime science-fiction fabulist, savior, and surrogate for Vonnegut, "'All these years,' he says, 'I've been opening the window and making love to the world.'" Vonnegut's fables have morals and they expose sins—the morals usually are simple admonishments to love, and the sins are one variety of pride or another. The universe he pictures is indifferent to man and man spends his time trying to twist that indifference into order and meaning. The fable is an appropriate form for Vonnegut because it requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief in order for us to go on reading, and Vonnegut believes we need that same kind of suspension in order to go on living in a world dominated by science, slaughter, and an infinite number of irresponsible everyday atrocities. Like Pynchon, he finds we have exhausted our values and can go on living only through the acceptance of illusions. We need illusions not to escape life but to deal with it, and what better form for the author's gift of an illusion than the fable….
The final dark implication, which Vonnegut shares with a great many other writers, is that we too are headed for cataclysm unless we find something to live by. Vonnegut does offer two possibilities—we can learn to love each other, or we can each create our own illusion, some mythology that will help us learn to live together. Neither possibility makes life meaningful, but both do offer a way to stay alive, and maybe even have some fun.
The particular power of Vonnegut's work—especially in the four books which develop his distinctive voice [Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, and Slaughterhouse-Five], all published in the sixties—is in the deceptively simple way he deals with the extraordinary nature of contemporary fact. Vonnegut is a master at getting inside a cliché and tilting it enough off center to reveal both the horror and the mystery that lies beneath the surface of the most placidly dull and ordinary human response….
Man, according to Vonnegut, makes a waste land of his life by looking for some meaningful absolute purpose instead of simply living. Although Vonnegut's tone, spirit, and overall response to man are very different from Jonathan Swift's, his idea of the universe and man's role in it is somewhat Swiftian, for he pictures us as modern Lilliputians, claiming big things for ourselves in a universe too immense to be anything but indifferent. His answer to the question of what power has gained control over our lives varies from book to book; on the whole, men are "the listless playthings of enormous forces." We might, perhaps, be controlled by strange creatures that look like "plumber's friends," from the planet Tralfamadore, who have used us to transmit messages to one of their space travelers stranded on the planet Titan with an ailing spaceship. This would mean our history has been entirely controlled by these creatures who are rushing a spare part to their stranded man…. While we scheme in our puny way about our grand purposes, we are really only instruments for the delivery of a spare part to a space traveler who is on his way to another galaxy to deliver a message which says only: "Greetings." The point, as it always is when Vonnegut takes us to another planet, is to give us some perspective on man's pride, so that we can quit worrying about how we fit into cosmic purpose and start worrying about how we can be kind to each other. (If there is any doubt that Vonnegut is a fabulist in the mainstream of the sixties and not a science fiction writer, his own definition of science fiction should end that doubt, for he sees its fantasies as revealing "an impossibly hospitable world"—no one could say the same of Vonnegut's world.)
Other forces that have gained control over us (besides the possibility of Tralfamadorians) are: money—God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; our own nearsightedness—Cat's Cradle; and Governments—Mother Night. In his … novel, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade, Vonnegut blurs all these forces into a single sense of timeless determinism that resembles the Greek concept of Fate. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, is a traveler in time and learns (from the Tralfamadorians again) that time is a continuum, not a series of separate moments. Thus, his life and death have existed always and will exist always. Because he can be a traveler in time, he can visit any moment in his life; he can glimpse the whole thing like a chain of mountains; he can pick his favorite moments and look at them, for they have always been there and always will be there. Ultimately, this is not so delightful as it sounds—as Billy discovers, man's moments are usually pretty lousy…. Vonnegut does not attempt to really explain the question of fate as some conjunction of external and internal forces or some mysterious conspiracy, as Pynchon and Hawkes do; he is closer to the Greeks because he frowns on the question itself as something irrelevant to the human sphere, an unknowable and ultimately unprofitable question to dwell on. But Vonnegut's rationale for such a concept of fate is different from the Greek: we need not ask about the powers that rule and the meaning of life because life is meaningless; we should not ask because the question misplaces emphasis and makes us wonder about Meaning—it makes us take part in "Children's Crusades" to prove one theory of meaning better than any other, and generally wreak havoc on one another. Once we discard all notions that life is meaningful or purposeful, we can turn to each other and recognize as Bokonon does that purposeful or not the only thing sacred is man….
Because of our pride and bad illusions—which are the dragons in Vonnegut's fables—the quality of human life as he presents it is horrendous…. When the Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five to live the way they do and ignore life's ugly moments, Vonnegut juxtaposes this advice with some of Billy's childhood moments: a trip to the Grand Canyon and one to Carlsbad Caverns—both are moments filled with fear, terror, and flirtation with death. The world he lives in does not offer Billy too many marvelous moments at all; the tone is set by World War II, by prison camps and prison trains, by incredible hatred between men—allies and enemies both—and finally by the outrageous fire-bomb destruction of Dresden. This is the moment that Vonnegut himself keeps coming back to, a moment he actually witnessed as a prisoner of war; it is the personal basis of the apocalyptic darkness in his vision, for if man is capable of a senseless and absolutely gratuitous slaughter like Dresden, then he is capable of total world destruction. At the end of Cat's Cradle the world is virtually destroyed by a doomsday invention called ice-nine—the weapon of destruction is unimportant; Vonnegut's concern is not that we have finally equipped ourselves with weapons big enough to make a world wide Dresden, but that we are capable of the kind of inhumanity that leads to moments like Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and so on. These are the moments that define Vonnegut's world and appear constantly throughout his work, making his fables [a] mixture of fact and fiction….
Raymond M. Olderman, "Out of the Waste Land and into the Fire: Cataclysm or the Cosmic Cool," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 189-219.