Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–2007
An American novelist and fantasy writer, Vonnegut is the author of Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. He is also well known for his humorously pessimistic commentary on contemporary American life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Vonnegut belongs with the desperate humorists, of whom Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, is the best known. Donald Barthelme, Bruce J. Friedman, and Richard Stern are of that company. John Hawkes can also be funny in the same way, though he has other virtues that are more important. Vonnegut's particular asset is the wildness of his imagination: there is nothing so ridiculous that he cannot make use of it. And, though one doesn't have to regard him as an infallible prophet, he has put his finger on an essential problem of our times.
Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 3, 1965; used with permission), April 3, 1965.
Kurt Vonnegut speaks with the voice of the "silent generation," and his quiet words explain the quiescence of his contemporaries. This is especially true of his sixth novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five," in which he looks back—or tries to look back—at his wartime experience. In the first chapter he tells us how for over 20 years he has been trying to re-create a single event, the bombing of Dresden by American and British pilots. Vonnegut had an unusual perspective on that event. Safe, as a prisoner of war in a deep cellar under the stockyards, he emerged to find 135,000 German civilians smoldering around him. Dresden had been an open city. We closed it. We. We Anglo-Saxons, as the present ruler of France likes to term us….
The connection between that Biblical act of God and the destruction of Dresden is not accidental. Vonnegut's book is subtitled "The Children's Crusade." The point is a simple one, but it should serve to illustrate just where the gap opens between the "silent generation" and the present group of childish crusaders who are so vocal in preparing for a Holy Revolution. The cruelest deeds are done in the best causes. It is as simple as that. The best writers of our time have been telling us with all their imaginative power that our problems are not in our institutions but in ourselves….
It may seem as if I have drifted away from considering Vonnegut's book. But I haven't. This is what his book keeps whispering in its quietest voice: Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them.
Far from being a "failure," "Slaughterhouse-Five" is an extraordinary success. It is a book we need to read, and to reread. It has the same virtues as Vonnegut's best previous work. It is funny, compassionate and wise. The humor in Vonnegut's fiction is what enables us to contemplate the horror that he finds in contemporary existence. It does not disguise the awful things perceived; it merely strengthens and comforts us to the point where such perception is bearable. Comedy can look into depths which tragedy dares not acknowledge. The comic is the only mode which can allow itself to contemplate absurdity. That is why so many of our best writers are, like Vonnegut, what Hugh Kenner would call "Stoic Comedians."…
Serious critics have shown some reluctance to acknowledge that Vonnegut is among the best writers of his generation. He is, I suspect, both too funny and too intelligent for many, who confuse muddled earnestness with profundity. Vonnegut is not confused. He sees all too clearly. That also is the problem of the central character of "Slaughterhouse-Five," Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from Ilium, N. Y. Billy sees into the fourth dimension and travels, or says he does, to the planet Tralfamadore, in a distant galaxy. Only Billy's time-warped perspective could do justice to the cosmic absurdity of his life, which is Vonnegut's life and our lives. Billy's wartime capture and imprisonment, his ordinary middle-class life in America, and his visionary space-time traveling are reference points by which we can begin to recognize where we are.
The truth of Vonnegut's vision requires its fiction. That is what justifies his activity as a novelist and all imaginative writing, ancient and modern. Art, as Picasso has said, is a lie that makes us realize the truth. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a true artist.
Robert Scholes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1969, pp. 1, 23.
[Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade] is a work of transparent simplicity, a modern allegory whose hero, Billy Pilgrim, shuttles between earth and its timeless surrogate, Tralfamadore. In these journeys, Billy, who is both Vonnegut and a modern Everyman, seeks an answer to the inevitable questions about suffering. In addition, he ponders the incredible violence of war, its insanity and blind cruelty, and probes the proud flesh of an American society that—an even greater horror to Vonnegut—has managed to ignore the moral responsibility for Dresden as well as the ethical implications of the senseless attack. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim see both worlds—and which is real and which is fictional?—in innocent terms, but in the same shades as Picasso's "Guernica"—"deathing" color….
Vonnegut's novel achieves stature precisely because it is a science-fiction novel. For it is only through science fiction that Vonnegut can bring himself and his readers to face or understand both the terrifying and the incomprehensible fact of the Dresden holocaust….
Humanity, then, is no longer enough to explain inhumanity. Man's inhumanity can be understood only tangentially, through the science fiction devices of flying saucers, alternate universes, probability worlds or time travel. As a consequence of Vonnegut's invention of the plunger-shaped cyanide-breathing, non-human, science-fictional Tralfamadorians, the novel itself becomes its own statement of hope. Only the Tralfamadorian notion of time, where life becomes death becomes life, permits Vonnegut to say: "So it goes." In the end the apparently stoic, almost hopelessly pessimistic texture of the novel is transformed by the objective correlative of science fiction into affirmation: the song of a bird can conquer death.
Willis E. McNelly, "Science Fiction-The Modern Mythology," in America (© America Press, 1970; all rights reserved), September 5, 1970, pp. 125-27.
Almost every time an American novelist writes a play he shows up most of our thumb-tongued playwrights, who lack the melody of mind, the wit, dash and accuracy of Saul Bellow and Bruce Jay Friedman. And the same thing must be said of the writing in "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," the first play by novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to be produced. Vonnegut's dialogue is not only fast and funny, with a palpable taste and crackle, but it also means something. And his comic sense is a superior one; "Wanda June" has as many laughs as anything by Neil Simon.
But of course there is more to plays than writing, and here, just as with Bellow and Friedman, Vonnegut has far to go. "Wanda June" means to be a play of ideas, with characters who embody social vectors and moral assumptions. Vonnegut wants to attack those dreadful fake heroes whose crushing handshakes imply moral impotence, who believe in violence and the false rituals of machismo. But Vonnegut is no Shaw; there is a lot of uncarbonated Saroyan in his punch, a lot of good old American media-vaudeville willing to settle for the kind of message-entertainment that ultimately befogs the moral atmosphere with an aerosol cloud of speciously sweet righteousness.
Jack Kroll, "No More Heroes," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1970; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1970, p. 123.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., idol of the campus, has written his first play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and it is a disaster, full of callow wit, rheumatic invention, and dormitory profundity….
This lengthy, meandering play has a few funny lines, a lot of lame fantasy, and some hamhanded juxtaposition of ideas about violence and non-violence. The height of its imagination is exemplified by a scene in Heaven between a golden-haired little girl and a Nazi Gauleiter in which they discuss the way Jesus plays shuffleboard. The general tone is the facile sagacity that pervades the few Vonnegut novels I've read.
Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), November 7, 1970, pp. 20, 33.
[Vonnegut's] novels have something of Swift in them—not merely in the canny pokes he takes at human weakness and the status quo, but a kind of fantasy that allows him, as it allowed Swift, to isolate the objects of his attack and praise. What Vonnegut praises … is the human being—at least the human being as Vonnegut defines the phrase. The human being is most human—and most praiseworthy—when he lives wholeheartedly in his natural condition, working in the open, doing joyfully and spontaneously for his own support, loving other life, and being loved. Human worth—and hence significance—resides in the being of the human. The self is its own reason for being; its being is its own guarantee of its value. The more conscious one is of his being, the more individual he is and the firmer is his guarantee.
For Vonnegut, one of the defining characteristics of authentic human life is physical labor…. The significance or worth of such Thoreauvian values is not in the end of labor—profit—but in the act of labor itself, which is a confirmation of the individual experience….
The act of loving also confers high value, both upon the lover and the loved. Such love is the basis of Vonnegut's conception of morality, and it rises from the metaphysical assumption … that there can be no individual identity or satisfaction without ties with others, without a relationship with other actual entities. In relativity, for example, there can be no motion—or entity—without other bodies. For Vonnegut, as for Fromm and Jaspers and others, love is the foundation of satisfaction….
Love and work are … the bases of human satisfaction; they are what the human being is uniquely capable of. His moral relationship to others—to society—is founded upon those attributes. They are virtues because they intensify the reality of the highest good—the individual. Yet, noble as man might be—and sometimes is—through love and work, he has his other side, his "lack."… Human satisfaction must always fall short of its conception, and Vonnegut consistently undercuts the admirableness of human values and actions, introducing into his picture of experience moderation and ambiguity. It is not this inherent "lack," however, that Vonnegut attacks with his bitterest satire. It is the institutions that men have built which turn men aside from their proper activities to pursue the dehumanizing goals of empty material wealth and technological success. It is also the ignorance and the hatefulness of men that Vonnegut attacks, and he deals with these characteristics in their social aspect, for they are evil mainly as they thwart the valuable satisfactions of others. What excites his ire also is the impediments men set in their own way toward their own satisfaction and meaning, which exist only in the individual. What inhibits the full play of the individual must be attacked and pulled down….
Man for Vonnegut is a complex combination of nobility and meanness, knowledge and ignorance, grandeur and ignominy…. Thus, for all its tone of despair, Cat's Cradle is probably Vonnegut's most "mature" book…. It expresses man's tremendous need to make myths in explanation of his condition, and it shows as that need's companion the inescapable recognition that our explanations are only myths. This is the definition and the frustration of being human….
In his latest novel, Slaughterhouse-Five; or the Children's Crusade, Vonnegut identifies the main source of his pessimistic side—the unnecessary demolishment of Dresden by the U.S. Air Force just before the end of World War II, when the Germans had been defeated and all need of bombing any city has disappeared. That incident becomes, for Vonnegut, the example of the horror of war, the epitome of man's inhumanity to man, and the terrible pain with which life confronts the human being. The condition it exemplifies leads men to make myths that declare meaning and purpose. It is that condition with which Vonnegut deals in all his other novels. Indeed, Slaughterhouse-Five echoes Vonnegut's previous work like a kind of summary…. The trouble with Slaughterhouse-Five is that in its character as a summary novel it embodies most of the weaknesses of its predecessors and few of their strengths. Its basic weakness is a confusion of attitude, a failure to make clear the author's position. I have suggested that Vonnegut cites human stupidity and the human condition as the two chief obstacles to the achievement of the highest good. The human condition makes it impossible by definition to arrive at any completely satisfactory fulfillment…. Human stupidity leads men to kill and cheat and steal, impinging upon the freedom of men to work out their own novel ends….
In the end, Vonnegut's morality is most clearly stated in his first five novels. In his last novel, his picture of the human being as something simultaneously ignominious and noble becomes lost somewhere between the horns of the dilemma…. [The] formulation of a firm moral position … is dissipated in superficial attacks on profound problems.
Jerry H. Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 303-05, 319-24.
Vonnegut's best literary self is neither dogmatic nor sermonical, nor … simplistic…. It seldom appears, this best self, in comic-strip send-ups of greed like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Neither do you meet it in the sci-fi, futuristic, or cataclysmic corridors of Slaughterhouse-Five or The Sirens of Titan or Cat's Cradle. The strongest writing in this oeuvre is found in the least fanciful, most tightly made tales—Player Piano and Mother Night. And again and again in both books the comedy cuts cleanest when the subject in view is that of classical satire—namely, self-delusion….
At his best, powered by the pressure of his own astonishment at the spectacle of the moral gymnastics of contemporary compartmentalized man, the creature who invariably "serves evil too openly and good too secretly," Vonnegut is a potent satirist, with a fine eye for the self-deceit built into mod vocabularies of altruism.
But at certain moments in the history of letters the nature of a writer's best or worst self in literary terms matters less than the function the man performs for his primary audience. The present is one of those times—and the function performed by Vonnegut isn't negligible. It is, as indicated, that of articulating the blackest suspicions of a skeptical, cynical generation without running on into orgies of hate or ironical partisanship of evil. Vonnegut's fictional world is often formally incoherent, a mix of jokebook turns, fantasies, cartoon and sermonical bits, Luddite posturings, outcries against cruelty and greed. Lax, rambling, muzzy, sad-eyed, Beatle-toned, sticky at intervals, the writer can be damned as soft at his center, self-advertising in his proclaimed vulnerability to pain and suffering, deeply unfascinated by anything difficult….
But viciousness has no dominion over him, and this makes the considerable difference. The author of Mother Night may dream of black comedy, but kindness keeps breaking in—there and everywhere else. The man of despair hums on about the profound wretchedness of men and things, but always he's challenged by the inventor inside him, a fabulist in love with images of goodness, generosity, hope, and forever on the verge of declaiming, flat out, with no embarrassment whatever, that, dammit, men and things ought to be—could be—infinitely better than they are. The results, viewed "esthetically," aren't uniformly exhilarating: both art and intellect vanish periodically; bull-session simplisms often mound up and drift.
But, to repeat, the work as a whole does serve a function. Its unbrutal laughter is a surcease from high-fashion meanness and knowingness, a patch of dry land on which, by pumping a little more breath into "silly," "innocent" faith in love, moral aspiration can avoid killing itself off prematurely. Say it out straight: on balance, the kids' lighting on Kurt Vonnegut is an undeservedly good break for the age.
Benjamin DeMott, "Vonnegut's Otherworld by Laughter," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 1, 1971; used with permission), May 1, 1971, pp. 29-32, 38.
Reading Vonnegut is addictive. His three latest novels Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and Slaughterhouse Five (1969) have style, humor and zest so sharp, so clean that the reader takes them in series. There may be a slight hangover: has Vonnegut been too cute, too clever, too pretty? But then the reader painfully remembers the issues, the content of Vonnegut's wild tales (war, peace, cosmic absurdity, technology, man's inhumanity to man) and he realizes that there is more substance to Vonnegut than black humor….
[One] begins to speak of Vonnegut's works in terms of style, and, especially, in view of science fiction as a genre…. Vonnegut at times adds fantasy to his stories, whereas pure sci-fi permits only what is possible within a given scientific hypothesis. Vonnegut adds humor, a wild black humor, while most sci-fi is serious to the point of boredom. Vonnegut, generally, adds a distinctive sense and literary class. And, finally, Vonnegut seems preoccupied with genuine human questions, about war, peace, technology, human happiness. He is even bitterly anti-machine, anti-technology, anti-science. Surely, he is no longer an ordinary science fiction hack…. Underlying these issues lie two much more basic questions. The first question is: what is man? The second question absorbs the first: is there some grand design of the universe which encompasses man and man's history? Vonnegut is preoccupied with these two major themes, man and fate….
Vonnegut's father once complained that his stories had no villains. Not even the great book about the firebombing of Dresden could uncover a villain. But then, Vonnegut has no heroes either. All men are comic, pathetic pieces, juggled about by some inexplicable fate, like puppets….
Vonnegut revels in the shallow absurdities of life. If no human villain can be discovered, then Vonnegut seems tempted to say that perhaps God is the villain….
But Vonnegut seldom addresses the question of God directly. Through his style, his humor, and especially through the form of science (and religious) fiction Vonnegut is able to sidestep every direct confrontation with the question of God. The question, however, seems to haunt him at every turn.
If life were only hopelessly and idiotically absurd, then the whole question could be dismissed. But two circumstances will not allow the question to be dismissed. A certain design, a certain pattern is strangely discernible in events. Cat's Cradle opens with a discussion about such a plan. And, secondly, man has an inquisitive nature which seeks to know the reasons for things….
But what in hell are people for? To answer this question one must forever put aside the restricted mechanistic meanings of purpose. With man, one enters a personal universe where there is consciousness of Self, where there is freedom and where there is a whole new world of values such as love, honor, justice, beauty, joy, happiness. The goals here are no longer those of natural necessity or mechanistic design. The purpose of people is to love, to be happy….
It has been said that Vonnegut has neither villains nor heroes. He writes parables rather than stories about real people. Perhaps this, then, lies at the base of his difficulty in trying to understand man and God. Vonnegut employs only a scientific, mechanistic meaning for purpose and fails to find a reasonable purpose in either the universe or in man….
Vonnegut is correct when he wants man to have the freedom to be undependable, inefficient, unpredictable and nondurable. Vonnegut is correct to rail against science's mechanization of man. Now let Vonnegut tell a human story in which people fall in love and have a nonmechanized history (not even manipulated by the Tralfamadorians).
Ernest W. Ranly, "What Are People For?," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 7, 1971, pp. 207-11.
[Though] we can't yet know what Vonnegut has done for his youthful constituency, his books, at this very moment, tell us what he has done for literature.
First, he absorbed what preceded him. Like most advanced novelists in the modern period, Vonnegut deemphasizes plot and character while working for effects of emotional contradiction and intellectual ambiguity. He borrows the debased formulas of science fiction and comic books as a serious travesty of our present condition, whose silliness is also represented by one-dimensional grotesques impersonating people. Random structure facilitates digressions, which also preclude the emotional satisfactions of climax, denouement and uniformity of tone. As in his forebears, such technical features express a conviction: the world is incoherent and therefore can't be imitated through closed or univocal forms. Nothing so declares the modernity of Vonnegut as the shortness of his books, chapters and sentences. Jabs to the intellectual and emotional solar plexus are intended; if we judge by his admirers, the intention is achieved.
But Vonnegut's predecessors believed that life's sound and fury indicated an idiot creation; Vonnegut only seems to believe this. His work can therefore accommodate the opposite tradition of parable, where scrutability—indeed, certainty—is assumed. So far from being a skeptical modern, Vonnegut is a sententious old salt in ontological drag. When stripped, his books show the homeliness beneath the gewgaws….
Vonnegut's metaphysical skepticism cuts no deeper than the jingle to which it is so easily reduced in Cat's Cradle;
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder; "Why, why, why?"
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Inadvertently, Vonnegut proves his own ironic thesis, for his books are littered with the stale fruits of received wisdom: machines are bad, but farming is good; rich people don't deserve their wealth, which the poor could have if they knew the right tricks; life passes human understanding but not our powers of enjoyment; war is bad for people, who'd do better to love each other.
Beneath Vonnegut's agnostic surface lurks a sententiousness that cracks through as aphorism, but the aphorisms emerge sounding battered from the effort. Like all bogus talents, Vonnegut's exposes itself by its own devices….
There is another problem with Vonnegut's fantasy. Because he wants to do more than purvey fanciful entertainment, Vonnegut sticks close to the possible, but when—as frequently happens—he fails, satire is reduced to the futile mockery of invented targets….
Like any writer who pleases a large audience, Vonnegut has his virtues: gimmicks that work, bright observations, some good jokes…. Vonnegut appeals because he has wed the styles of modern skepticism and later "cool" to a mitigating earnestness. That he is beloved by youngsters isn't difficult to understand. His own spiritual age is late adolescence: the time when a flip manner often disguises priggishness, when skepticism is just a hedge against vulnerability, when prejudice disdains the search for proof and inexperience limits one's power to imagine, when confidence in one's special distinction reveals itself in the very fervor with which it is denied and the herding instinct asserts a need for independence. That Vonnegut is beloved by critics (and presumably adult readers) is more disconcerting. For them, he provides an easy bridge from an age of skepticism and baffled hope to one of faith in any nostrum that bears the certifications of novelty and youth. Moreover, he provides this bridge without requiring his adult readers to change the style—the trappings of modernism—as well as the content of their belief. Vonnegut lets us have things both ways. He is important not in his effect but as a symptom. 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.
Charles Thomas Samuels, "Age of Vonnegut," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), June 12, 1971, pp. 30-2.
Labels can be so confusing, not to mention downright misleading; and an excellent case in point is the current critical haste to designate Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., as a "black humorist" and the consequent determination apparently to keep him in that category…. Vonnegut has recently objected to the designation [and an] overview of his published novels, based upon a closer reading of them, would seem to support his demur….
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is, in my estimation, Kurt Vonnegut's finest novel to date; I base this appraisal principally on what I consider to be the artistic integration of materials, and not simply on my judgment that it is his most positive and humane work…. We may not be able, Vonnegut is saying, to undo the harm that has been done, but we can certainly love, simply because they are people, those who have been made useless by our past stupidity and greed, our previous crimes against our brothers. And if that seems insane, then the better the world for such folly….
In each of his novels Vonnegut offers us some alternative, however slim, to the path of disaster that we seem consistently to prefer. There is hope, though, only if man respects the limits for truly humane contributions to his fellow man.
John R. May, "Vonnegut's Humor and the Limits of Hope," in Twentieth Century Literature, January, 1972, pp. 25-36.
Kurt Vonnegut identifies himself directly as a survivor of holocaust and brings a special kind of bite to the literature of mockery. His two great external themes are Dresden and Hiroshima. His more general themes are man's death-dealing stupidities, and beyond those (as he puts it in his introduction to Slaughterhouse Five), "plain old death." "Duty dance," part of the sub-subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five, is an accurate description of Vonnegut's imaginative enterprise….
Slaughterhouse Five is less about Dresden per se than it is about a state of mind evoked in Vonnegut by the destruction of Dresden. Vonnegut is therefore talking about war and holocaust, and about man's tendency to accelerate the arrival and demean the process of "plain old death." The novel is a survivor's effort to make sense—or anti-sense—of a world dominated by every variety of holocaust and every variety of numbing.
The key to the "telegraphic schizophrenic"—that is, the condensed—mad style and content of this book is the recurrent phrase, "So it goes." This is the Tralfamadorian shrug-commentary on all deaths, since the inhabitants of that planet believe that "when a person dies he only appears to die." Vonnegut uses the phrase all through the book with a combination of gaiety and terror, as a form of mocking witness to man's unfeeling murders, to his equally unfeeling survival of those murders, and to precisely the resignation that the phrase suggests….
Slaughterhouse Five, is about feeling and not feeling, about remembering and not remembering, about looking and not looking back, about dying and not dying, about living and not living.
Robert Jay Lifton, "Survivor As Creator," in American Poetry Review (reprinted by permission of International Famous Agency; copyright © 1973 by Robert Jay Lifton), January-February, 1973, pp. 40-2.
To reinforce the credibility, the 'reality'—it will of course be eventually discredited—of his fictions Vonnegut relies heavily upon that traditional prop of the fantasist, the work within the work. His invented works appear in a variety of guises—memos, psychiatric reports, quotes from books of reference, summaries of novels, letters and, singularly, 'The Books of Bokonon' in Cat's Cradle which is, perhaps, Vonnegut's most accomplished novel. Employing another fantastic device—mingling the purportedly 'real' and 'fictional'—he constructs what may be a parable about creation and destruction and what is certainly a multifaceted and amazingly inventive commentary on what used to be called human folly….
Doubtless it is his preoccupation with near religious matters combined with the presumption that he actually believes in what he writes that has gained him such popularity with 'the campus generation'. His best selling novel seems to me to be his least demanding; The Sirens of Titan is an interplanetary escapist romp (his other novels are about escapism) used as a vehicle for a rather simplistic message of universal and, apparently, indiscriminating love. A good living, selfish and callous multimillionaire layabout is transformed into an agent for good by a series of adventures arranged for him by a man who is stuck in a timeless void. It is a sort of Siddhartha-into-Buddha tale told with a pious meaningfulness which tends to alienate the (this) reader.
Vonnegut's most recent novel, Slaughterhouse Five (of which the film is a quite competent adaptation) also bears trappings of 'relevance'—this is probably the reason why numerous critics have acclaimed it as his masterpiece—and includes sequences which seem impossible in the everyday world…. It is not constructed with the tautness of Cat's Cradle or Mother Night, nor is it so flashily written. (At his best Vonnegut indulges in an apparently lazy, but really very worked and self conscious sort of fine writing. It may look like he's a street punk, but he's a street punk who got himself an education.) The author pops up as a grim and stoic master of ceremonies introducing scenes from his nightmarish wartime experience during the fire bombing of Dresden, slices of sheer fantasy and a commentary on the problems of autobiographical writing—which this undoubtedly is, though the stepping stones, the points in life to which he constantly refers are his previous novels. It is an incestuous book which reads as a corollary to his whole oeuvre, and owes a certain amount to the "New Journalism' and, surprisingly, to Genet. (There's not a seamy seaman in sight, but Vonnegut's 'distancing' himself from his material, from his past work and life does recall the Frenchman.)…
In time Slaughterhouse Five may be seen to have been the model for a whole new school of didactic writing. At the moment it seems a shadow of its author's other works, though that's no small achievement. With this novel Vonnegut may have reached a point where he felt that the vistas he depicted and his manner of presenting them were becoming repetitive and too recognisable. Robbe-Grillet has written that there is nothing more fantastic than detailed minutiae; Vonnegut has sought to give the lie to this view. It is as if he were a painter of a hallucinatory scene employing a near photographic style who chooses to depict the key figure in his composition in a manner belonging to a completely unrelated convention, that of, say, the nuthouse primitive or the truelife romance illustrator. In Slaughterhouse Five the tendency towards self cancellation, apparent in all his novels, is given full rein which may, of course, be just another way of holding up a mirror to the world.
Jonathan Meades, "Kurt Vonnegut, Fantasist," in Books and Bookmen, February, 1973, pp. 34-7.
Vonnegut is moral in an old-fashioned way. He does take the full weight of responsibility, while more and more people are shrugging off the we should have and we ought to have and we can if we want and coming to see history as a puppet show and our—humanity's—slide into chaos as beyond our prevention, our will, our choice. The strength of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., this deliberate and self-conscious heir, derives from his refusal to succumb to this new and general feeling of helplessness….
Precisely because in all his work he has made nonsense of the little categories, the unnatural divisions into "real" literature and the rest, because he is comic and sad at once, because his painful seriousness is never solemn, Vonnegut is unique among us; and these same qualities account for the way a few academics still try to patronize him: they cling to the categories. Of course they do: they invented them. But so it has ever gone.
Ordinary people, with whole imaginations, reading the newspapers, the comic strips and Jane Austen or watching the world reel by on television, keep an eye out for Ice 9 while hoping that we are indeed recognizing the members of our karasses when they come near, try to make sure that we don't pay more than what is due to the false karasses, and dare to believe that while there is life, there is still life—such readers know that Vonnegut is one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we know best.
Doris Lessing, "Vonnegut's Responsibility," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1973, p. 35.