Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
An American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, Vonnegut satirizes American contemporary life through the use of fantasy, black humor, and the absurd. Although many of his books have been best sellers, Vonnegut is probably best known for Slaughterhouse-Five. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Today, many of the best writers are … writing about art, primarily. Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's major achievement, is essentially different from Nabokov's Pale Fire or Borges's ficciones, however, because it insists on both the world of fiction or fantasy (Tralfamadore) and the world of brutal fact (Dresden). Vonnegut's novel urges the primacy of the imagination in the very act of facing one of history's most infamous "massacres," the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, the source of its great originality.
The poignancy and force of Slaughterhouse-Five derive largely from an attitude about art and life that Vonnegut apparently shares with Louis-Ferdinand Celine, whom he quotes in the first chapter as saying two things: "No art is possible without a dance with death" and "the truth is death." Taking his cue from Celine, Vonnegut calls his novel A DUTY-DANCE WITH DEATH on the title page. Ultimately, however, Slaughterhouse-Five goes beyond the fatalism implied in Celine's statements by stressing survival through the use of the imagination…. The ability to go on, to escape fixity by motion in time is precisely what Slaughterhouse-Five is about, and its success comes from being able to effect a regeneration in reader as well as writer.
In keeping with the theme of regeneration, the form of the novel avoids the climax and denouement typical of linear narration, as indicated by Vonnegut's rejection of the gridlike outline of the story he proposes in the first chapter…. Essentially, Vonnegut avoids framing his story in linear narration, choosing a circular structure. Such a view of the art of the novel has much to do with the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, the author's alter ego, Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who provides corrective lenses for Earthlings. For Pilgrim, who learns of a new view of life as he becomes "unstuck in time," the lenses are corrective metaphorically as well as physically. Quite early in the exploration of Billy's life the reader learns that "frames are where the money is" …, a statement which has its metaphorical equivalent, too, and helps to explain why Vonnegut chose a non-linear structure for his novel. Historical events like the bombing of Dresden are usually "read" in the framework of moral and historical interpretation. (pp. 55-6)
The cyclical nature is inextricably bound up with the large themes of Slaughterhouse-Five, time, death, and renewal…. The most important function of "so it goes" [the recurrent phrase in the novel] …, is its imparting a cyclical quality to the novel, both in form and content. Paradoxically, the expression of fatalism serves as a source of renewal, a situation typical of Vonnegut's works, for it enables the novel to go on despite—even because of—the proliferation of deaths. Once again we come upon a paradox: death keeps life in motion, even the life of the novel, but the movement is essentially unaided in Vonnegut's silent universe. As he emphasizes in The Sirens of Titan, beyond man's interior universe is only the emptiness of space eternal. In a world where life must renew itself arbitrarily, the mental construct becomes tremendously important. The phrase "so it goes" is a sign of the human will to survive, and it recurs throughout the novel as an important aid to going on.
Vonnegut's fiction deals heavily with survival by the arbitrary imposition of meaning on meaningless reality, as demonstrated most forcefully in Cat's Cradle. Tralfamadore is another mental construct, like Bokononism, that goes beyond the question of true of false. As Eliot Rosewater says in Slaughterhouse-Five to the psychiatrists: "I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living"…. The statement is certainly a clue to the meaning of Tralfamadore, since it comes right after the statement that Rosewater and Billy had found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war: "So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help." Vonnegut lets us know that an act of re-invention is going on within the novel, just as the novel is Vonnegut's own re-creation of his past and even of his other novels. Mental constructs like Bokononism and Tralfamadore, both re-inventive fictions, are models of Vonnegut's own fiction, throughout which one can see the pattern of meaninglessness/re-invention.
That Tralfamadore is ultimately a "supreme fiction," a product of the imagination, and that Vonnegut emphasizes using the imagination as a method of survival are obvious from his preoccupation with the value of works of art, especially in the novels from Cat's Cradle on. (pp. 58-60)
What makes self-renewal possible in Slaughterhouse-Five is the human imagination, which is what the novel finally celebrates…. The imagination … beholds the immaterial core of every living thing, the "unwavering band of light" that the minimalist artist in [Breakfast of Champions] paints. (p. 66)
In using the idea of regeneration to integrate both theme and form, Vonnegut has written in Slaughterhouse-Five his best and even most hopeful novel to date. (p. 67)
Wayne D. McGinnis, "The Arbitrary Cycle of 'Slaughterhouse-Five': A Relation of Form to Theme," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 55-68.
In Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. satirizes Ernest Hemingway in the character of Harold Ryan, a big-game hunter and professional soldier who returns after being lost in the Amazon rain forest for eight years. The interesting thing—apart from Vonnegut's doing to Hemingway what Hemingway did to Sherwood Anderson—is that Vonnegut attacks not Hemingway the writer or what he has to say in his writing, but rather Hemingway the machismoman, "the slayer of nearly extinct animals which meant him no harm." Harold Ryan is a rather silly, swaggering bully; but beneath these qualities his real importance is dual: he seems out-dated and irrelevant; and he is very dangerous.
In one sense, of course, Vonnegut's attack on the older man is subtly unfair: he satirizes Hemingway from a sensitivity to the ecological crisis dimly felt in Hemingway's youth and young manhood and from a distaste for the masculine ethos largely foreign to Hemingway's background; nor is Hemingway the only or necessarily the best reflector of the behavior and qualities Vonnegut derides. Still, it is not the behavior and qualities in themselves that primarily disturb Vonnegut so much as their anachronistic irrelevancy and contemporary danger; and it would be difficult to imagine anyone—with the possible exception of John Wayne—more dramatically effective than Hemingway the man to embody these echoes of a younger age.
But Harold Ryan also establishes a connection between Hemingway and Vonnegut as writers which becomes increasingly revealing the further it is pursued. (pp. 173-74)
Hemingway and Vonnegut are middle-Western Americans taken by events in their youth into the wider world. Both undergo in a world war a profoundly traumatic experience which becomes the center of their thought and art. Both reflect the new sense of reality which came to dominance in human consciousness in the middle and end of the nineteenth century. Both have similar views of the human condition and explore in their writing the problems of living in it. Both are centrally concerned with the problems of illusion and truth and with the relationship between them. And both stress love and human relationship as meaningful answers to the human condition.
Despite these extensive similarities—and often, indeed, within them—vast and far more significant differences separate Hemingway and Vonnegut, both as men and as writers…. Hemingway's vision of man shines from afar and above the collapsing structures of a dying age; it serves as a reminder—perhaps even a faintly embarrassing reminder—of still another lost, lamented Eden. Vonnegut, whatever the value he may ultimately be accorded, stands outside the Garden, among the ruins, beside us all. Of Hemingway, it once was said that he shows us the truth of our world and teaches us how to live in it; of Vonnegut, it can be said that he shows us a world absurd and frightful beyond knowing and teaches us how nearly impossible it is to live in it; and it is Vonnegut's, not Hemingway's, vision which is characteristic of our time. (pp. 174-75)
For Vonnegut, as for Hemingway, reality has no supernatural or divine or metaphysical or transcendent or absolute dimension; but, unlike Hemingway, he satirizes man's efforts to find one in religions and philosophies. The universe, Vonnegut believes, is "composed of one-trillionth part matter to one decillion parts black velvet futility," and Vonnegut considers it silly and arrogant for man to feel that "something up there likes me." In The Sirens of Titan, Winston Niles Rumfoord creates a new religion—The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent—precisely so that man will no longer be able to praise or blame "something up there" for what happens to him down here…. Referring to "'a parable about people who do things that they think God Almighty wants done,'" Rumfoord says that "'you would do well, for background on this parable, to read everything that you can lay your hands on about the Spanish Inquisition'."… In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut creates another new religion, Bokononism, which derides the notion of purpose in the universe and which helps men by providing "harmless untruths" to make them "brave and kind and healthy and happy."…
In an empty universe, a universe with no correspondence whatever to man's mind or emotions, reality for Vonnegut as it is for Hemingway is entirely secular, human, and internal. But there is in Vonnegut nothing of Hemingway's rich awareness of the external world as objective reality including man and shaping his consciousness: for Vonnegut, reality is entirely within man, in the mysterious processes of belief and behavior…. Moreover, Vonnegut argues in Mother Night that the reality within man is no essential self, no independent soul unconditioned and untouched by his behavior. "We are what we pretend to be," says Vonnegut, "so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." We are, that is, what we do, not what we say; what we do at any particular time establishes the reality of what we are. For Vonnegut, existence does not precede essence as it largely does for Hemingway; for Vonnegut, existence denies essence. In Cat's Cradle, Bokononists who are about to commit suicide always say, "'Now I will destroy the whole world'."… [Vonnegut] erases the distinction between fact and fiction and implies that "real" people are as much a product of their own imaginations as fictional characters are the product of the writer's imagination. (pp. 178-79)
No less than Hemingway, Vonnegut sees the human condition in terms of the basic realities of suffering, violence, and death. Revolution and war, suicide and death are everywhere in Vonnegut's writing, not only as general subjects and allusions but also in particular and graphic scenes. Revolution and war are central in all but one of his novels, and the destruction of Dresden appears in Mother Night and in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and is the motivating event in Slaughterhouse-Five. (p. 180)
Still, for all these similarities in their views of the human condition, Hemingway and Vonnegut differ drastically and in significant ways. If he sees man trapped in the void of nada, the older writer nevertheless retains a sturdy and essentially nineteenth-century conviction that man can find or create patterns of meaning and order and value. Not so with Vonnegut: for him the empty and meaningless universe is both source and measure of the repetitive, vaguely fatalistic, and utterly futile state of man. (p. 181)
For Vonnegut, man can do little to improve or change his condition; he can neither find nor create meaning or purpose, order or beauty. He has no capacity for knowing either himself or his world, and he succeeds best at making himself ridiculous and at making life unliveable. One of Vonnegut's major themes is his continuing indictment of man for serving "evil too openly and good too secretly," for doing evil in the name of good. In Vonnegut's view, man is insane and impossible; and man's only remedy is to seek illusions and relationships which can help him endure a human condition he can neither change nor bear.
Hemingway's essentially nineteenth-century positivism, his conviction that man can find meaning and value in his experience of life, turns to mockery in Vonnegut. "'History!'" writes Bokonon. "'Read it and weep!'"… The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon has a long title: "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"; and it contains but one word: "Nothing."… Similarly, Vonnegut ridicules experience throughout his works in highlighting the absurdity and failure of man's traditional ways of coping with the problems of life. Traditional religion, science and technology, wealth and philanthropy—none has really improved man's lot; and most have simply made it worse. (p. 185)
[If] Hemingway would strip away all illusion to confront directly the unsparing truth, Vonnegut turns away from that truth in horror and disgust and tries to mask it in new illusion. But such illusions contain their own irresolvable tensions: the real key to Vonnegut's thought and art is "the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it."… Throughout Vonnegut's writing, the necessity of lying about reality in new illusions also underscores the reality they seek to mask. (pp. 186-87)
Cat's Cradle has two epigraphs: "Nothing in this book is true" and a quotation from The Books of Bokonon: "Live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." Bokononism is, of course, itself a system of such foma created by Bokonon to help the people of San Lorenzo endure in their miserable conditions. (p. 187)
Superficially, [Vonnegut] seems to see in love and sex and in warm human relationships ways for man to endure the human condition with some meaning….
Still, Vonnegut writes of sex with some curious ambivalences. He never describes lovemaking directly, and there is rarely in Vonnegut and then only by way of generalized statement any view of sex as the intense and meaningful experience it is for Hemingway….
Vonnegut seems to value love most when it is non-exclusive and uncritical. (p. 188)
Except for Howard Campbell's memories of his wife [in Mother Night] there are simply no mutual and passionate loves and marriages in all of Vonnegut and almost no real friendships. In The Sirens of Titan, Unk and Beatrice fall in love—but only after a lifetime of wandering around the solar system and ending up alone on a moon of Saturn. "'It took us that long,'" Unk explains, "'to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved'."… But no one else in Vonnegut's world, especially on earth, seems able to find and keep such love.
So too with friendship…. For Vonnegut, life on earth is a ridiculous ordeal men must struggle through blind, a little crazy, and mostly alone. (p. 189)
[The] despairing humor of Vonnegut's writing evokes an essentially comic vision of man. To Vonnegut, the human condition has become absurd and terrifying beyond anything in Hemingway; for man himself has become the most absurd and terrifying thing in it. "'All people are insane,'" Vonnegut believes. "'They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.'" Man is locked into a condition he can neither tolerate nor change, a condition in which he is not only both destroyed and defeated but in which he destroys and defeats himself for childish reasons and to silly ends. Only with the irony, wit, and detachment of a comic vision and with the escape into new fairy-tales can man endure the world and himself in our time. Vonnegut owes much to the existentialists in all this, and his vision is clearly late twentieth-century; but for all its relevance and effectiveness, it is a diminished vision of man and of his possibilities and a lesser art. (p. 191)
Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1975, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1975.
Middle-class moonscape is an apt description of the America evoked in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, where outraged social criticism, sentimental moralism and science-fiction fantasy form a piquant if not altogether credible ménage à trois. The case of Vonnegut is an instructive one because the comic-strip clarity of his novels lucidly illustrates a conception of history largely shared by Pynchon and Barth, though perhaps partly camouflaged through the complicated elaboration of design in their more ambitious work. Vonnegut has obviously been the most widely read of the new novelists because his stylistic, structural, and psychological simplicity, coupled with a genuine verve of narrative inventiveness, makes him the most easily accessible of these writers. I would attribute at least some of his popularity, however, to the need of many readers over the past decade for a novelist who could write away history while seeming to write about it….
[Vonnegut's conclusions] are worth summarizing because they embody, at the lower limits of complexity, attitudes of a whole literary generation.
Most pressingly, the novels articulate an uncompromising cynicism about politics, about all forms of nationalism, all collective endeavor, about the potential for destructive evil in even the most seemingly innocent and private of men. As a character in Cat's Cradle (1963) is made to say, "Man is vile, and makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing." The individual, especially if he is in any way an artist, is bound to be misrepresented, violated, viciously exploited, by the sinister powers that govern collective existence. (One might recall that Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow makes paranoia a central formal theme, repeatedly invoking a ubiquitous Them—the capital T is the author's—out to get the hapless individual.) Characteristically,… the novelist can only adopt a series of strategies of self-protective flippancy and cheerfully apocalyptic pessimism, converting the novel into an extended evasive action taken against Them, the powers that would rape—or as we unfortunately say in America these days, "co-opt"—the artist or any individual trying to guard his own fragile and private truth.
It will be observed that there is a Manichean split here between the unalterable forces of boundless evil and the residual nostalgia for goodness, truth, and love in some individuals (hence the sentimentality beneath the cynicism in Vonnegut). Such dualism in itself implies an avoidance of real history, which presents itself as a highly variegated set of mixed moral phenomena, not as a simple split between good individuals and evil collectivities. What is still more revealing, however, in regard to the dehistoricization of history in Vonnegut is the absolute equality he requires of horrors perpetrated on all sides. Man, at least in his political guise, is equally vile everywhere, whether he is a Nazi, an American, or a Soviet Russian, and so Dresden and Hiroshima are, quite without qualification, the exact equivalent of Auschwitz and Dachau. Taking the symmetricization of history even one step further, Vonnegut implies that all these loci of horror mean no more or less on the moral scale than the thoughtlessness with which an absent-minded scientist (in Cat's Cradle) idly invents a doomsday weapon that subsequently destroys all life on earth. (p. 46)
Robert Alter (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1975.
"Slapstick" opens with a typical Vonnegut cynicism about America having become a place of interchangeable parts, so that Indianapolis, which "once had a way of speaking all its own," now is "just another someplace where automobiles live." I can't speak about Indianapolis, but one thing I resist in Vonnegut's books is that they seem formulaic, made of interchangeable parts, though this is one quality which may endear him to others. Once Vonnegut finds what he takes to be a successful character, motif or phrase he can't bear to give it up, and so he carries it around from novel to novel. Thus Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Vonnegut's fellow Hoosier humorist Kim Hubbard, having done a stint in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," all unblushingly reappear to fill up a few pages of "Slaughterhouse-Five" and Trout then takes over "Breakfast of Champions." "Slapstick" picks up a clever lawyer from "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." Vonnegut had so much fun sprinkling "So it goes" all over "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "And so on" throughout "Breakfast of Champions" that he couldn't bear to leave "Slapstick" innocent of such confetti. Well, as Eliot Rosewater once said in an idle moment, "Hippety Hop." But Vonnegut, older now, and more wan, contracts that to "Hi ho" for "Slapstick" and leaves very few pages uncluttered by the phrase….
The story in "Slapstick" is part "Cat's Cradle," part "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," part Kilgore Trout, part Thomas Pynchon…. (p. 3)
[Vonnegut] bears about the same relation to the great imperialist, Pynchon, as Mrs. Henry Wood bears to Dickens. Where Pynchon's mania leads him into huge soaring flights of paranoic fantasy he calls the history of our century, Vonnegut's easy, sentimental cynicism leads him into endless parading of the dumb notion that life isn't much good in America because we're all stupid, unloving or both. It takes stamina, determination and crazy intelligence to read Pynchon's two enormous novels; it takes nothing more than a few idle hours to turn the pages of "Slapstick" or any of the others. Pynchon is responsible to the integrity of his terrible paranoia; Vonnegut is responsible to nothing except the ease of his cynicism….
"Hi Ho," thus, is not just a bored grunt that disclaims all responsibility for having to look at something; it is a gesture of contempt for all writers who are willing to be responsible for their creations; for all readers who long to read real books; for anyone whose idea of America is more complicated than Vonnegut's country of interchangeable parts full of poor people with uninteresting lives. (p. 20)
If my sense of Vonnegut is at all accurate, how can one explain the serious attention he has been given? My hunch is that the mistake is a generic one; people like him because they enjoy the kind of novel he writes. When "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" was published a little more than ten years ago, the imperial novel was just beginning: "Crazy in Berlin," "V.," "Catch-22," Vonnegut's own "Cat's Cradle." It may have seemed then that Vonnegut was as good, or might become as good as any of the others, but where Thomas Berger went on to finish his interesting trilogy, where Pynchon and Joseph Heller took seven and twelve years trying to get "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Something Happened" right, Vonnegut just became formulaic…. Books that are self-confessed verbal constructions simply need more earnest and witty inventing than Vonnegut has shown himself capable of. (p. 22)
Roger Sale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1976.
Much has been written about the reasons for Vonnegut's appeal to the first television generation. The time-tripping, the McLuhanite non-"linearity," the pacifism, the jokes, the sci-fi inventiveness, the quick sympathy for life's losers and has-beens—these have all been repeatedly cited and have evoked little disagreement. But there is a more interesting question. Why has Vonnegut encountered such strong and continued resistance from so many literate members of his own generation, which may be extended to include serious readers from thirty to seventy?… After all, the elements that endear Vonnegut to his cult are not in themselves antipathetic to older readers who cherish Catch 22, love the Beatles, and feel themselves magnetized by the phallic hardware of Gravity's Rainbow.
An examination of Slapstick cannot by itself provide a satisfactory answer, for the novel is too obviously vulnerable. A few things may be said in its favor. I found the autobiographical opening interesting and even touching in its account of Vonnegut's relationship to his scientist brother, his dead sister, and his roots in Indianapolis….
Vonnegut can always be counted on to empathize with the plight of the rejected child confronted by unapprehending or frightening parents. In this case the twins are repulsively ugly neanderthaloid monsters, while the parents are sweet, well-meaning multi-millionaires who—shamed by their hideous offspring—allow themselves to be convinced that the babies are idiots destined to die before they reach fourteen. The parents' solution is to isolate the twins on a vast gothic estate in Vermont, where their animal needs are supplied by a staff of servants and supervised by the daily visits of a doctor. Far from being idiots, the twins, especially when they put their heads together, are brilliant. Undetected, they lead a rhapsodically happy life until, on the eve of their fifteenth birthday, they decide to throw off the disguise of their idiocy—only to encounter not merely their parents' guilt over the past but their terror at the prospect of trying to force themselves to love such monsters—now intelligent monsters—in the future. In his zany allegory of the twins' symbiotic passion (more intellectual than physical) and the shattering of their idyll by parental forces, Vonnegut has been able to suggest—however briefly and incompletely—the unconsolable suffering of gifted but unloved children.
But the rest of the novel—most of it—is a sorry performance, full of the kind of bored doodling that made its predecessor, Breakfast of Champions, so annoying and self-defeating a work. Most of Vonnegut's conceits are mere throwaways, hardly mentioned before discarded. Except in the story of the twins, Vonnegut's often voiced concern for the freakish and the lonely seems, as it so often does in his work, merely perfunctory—as if he had decided to doodle a weeping rather than a smiling face. Running on the slogan "Lonesome No More," [one of the twins, Wilbur] Swain wins the presidency at a time when the United States is falling to pieces. He succeeds, however, in implementing his program for ending loneliness, which involves the division of the American population into ten thousand artificial extended families, each with a distinctive middle name: Daffodil, Razorclam, Muskellunge, Helium, etc., etc.… There is more of this sappiness, lots more. Vonnegut seems to be saying, "Here's a bright idea. Maybe you'll think it's cute. Maybe you'll think it has something in it. But if you don't—hi ho." It is this persistent refusal to take responsibility for either his inventions or his feelings that finally renders this book so inconsequential.
But if Slapstick is mostly a throwaway and Breakfast of Champions a dispirited failure ("I feel lousy about it," Vonnegut writes in the preface, adding with disarming intent, "but I always feel lousy about my books"), what do these works share with the novels that brought Vonnegut to superstardom in the late 1960s? Do they represent a radical falling-off? Or are they essentially more of the same but in a depleted vein? I believe the latter to be the case and suggest that Vonnegut's clownish irresponsibility toward his own creations—while it may ingratiate him to his fans—is a major source of that resistance mentioned at the beginning of this review.
The phrase "bright idea" points to a constant in Vonnegut's work since its beginnings—his remarkable inventiveness. He is the Henry Ford or Thomas A. Edison among recent novelists….
At his best, Vonnegut is inventive in ways that extend beyond gadgetry. Mother Night is an imaginative variation on the Eichmann case in which the narrator, Howard J. Campbell, Jr., is an American who has contributed to the Holocaust by broadcasting vicious anti-Semitic propaganda from Germany during the war while at the same time transmitting secret information to the Allies. The idea is original and "bright," rich with paradox and fictional possibilities, and the zigzag of events leading to Campbell's voluntary surrender to the Israelis is full of surprises. You never know who—or what—is going to pop up next. The rapid succession of short chapters, short paragraphs, and short simple sentences that increasingly characterize the novels beginning with Mother Night is the stylistic equivalent to Vonnegut's restless improvisation.
But a consequence of all this invention is to defuse the potential impact of the novel. I am not speaking of the juxtaposition of the funny and the horrible—"black" humorists from Waugh to Heller have shown what can be achieved in that mode—but rather of an adolescent fooling-around, a compulsive trivialization of emotionally appropriate responses. (p. 29)
Vonnegut's novels contain a gallery of boosters, inventors, organization men, grotesques, and failures who are the direct—though caricatured—descendants of the inhabitants of Zenith, Gopher Prairie, and Winesburg, Ohio…. Vonnegut draws his characters with a thick black outline and colors them crudely. Too often the cartoons are hardly more than clichés of the American scene, as is the case with H. Lowe Crosby, the right-wing manufacturer of bicycles in Cat's Cradle, or with the Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions. The problem is not with two-dimensional characters as such—a novelist is perfectly within his rights to eschew psychological depth or rounding—but with the fact that Vonnegut is too restless or uncaring to endow even a protagonist-victim like Billy Pilgrim or a recurrent figure like the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout with that loving particularity that might make them as memorable as Mr. Pecksniff or even George F. Babbitt. Most of Vonnegut's characters are as forgettable as last Sunday's funny papers.
Vonnegut's admirers find him funny, sad, and ironic. I suspect that most of the unconverted—among whom I obviously include myself—find him prankish, often silly, sentimental, and (as is often the case with bleeding hearts) more than a little cruel. They find him too thin, too lacking in depth to merit much consideration as a serious or comic literary artist. His humor too often calls attention to itself with an excess of elbow-nudging and guffaws. His most poignant feelings seem to center upon the traumas of parent-child relationships, but the situations derived from them are seldom developed, with the result that his work is full of gobbets of raw, unassimilated pain; a fairly extended treatment like the story of the twins in Slapstick is exceptional. Usually Vonnegut is content to exclaim over the plight of the dumb, the downtrodden, the berserk, and the deformed, the plight of all the lonely people—the myriad Eleanor Rigbys—who populate the books. Or else he is culling choice examples of man's fiendishness to man, such as Heliogabalus's Bull, the Iron Maiden, the torturing of aged women accused of witchcraft or the victims of the Inquisition—all recounted with exquisite detail.
I find it hard to resist the impression that Vonnegut's work is permeated by a sense of futility and self-contempt. The incessant fooling around, the half-baked quality of his extraterrestial fantasies, the dismissive attitude toward his characters and his own best ideas, the bratty-child repetition of tags like "Hi ho" and "So it goes" and of such analisms as "doodley-squat," the references within his novels to his boozing and heavy smoking, the description of himself as an old fart—these suggest to me an underlying depression so pervasive that the very feat of writing is like a soft-shoe dance upon the lid of his own coffin. (pp. 29-30)
Robert Towers, "So It Went," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), November 25, 1976, pp. 29-30.
"So it goes" used to be Vonnegut's standard response to the world, a patented Kurt dismissal of painful absurdities. It had some ironic resonance. But his new all-purpose comment, "Hi ho," is simply deadpan idiocy:
It is a thing I often say these days:
"Hi ho." It is a kind of senile hiccup.
I have lived too long.
That's what Slapstick's hundred-year-old narrator says, but Vonnegut continually mumbles "Hi ho" in his proper person in a long Prologue. (p. 1300)
We find out in the Prologue that Vonnegut has daydreamed the whole novel while flying to Indianapolis for his uncle's funeral, and that it is all meaningful. Unfortunately, the meaning is personal rather than universal; Vonnegut's first sentence is, "This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography." And we are then supposed to extrapolate from a few family reminiscences to the action of the novel and marvel at something or other. Vonnegut's sister Alice had been embarrassingly tall, and had died of cancer at 41; she had described her impending death as "soap opera" and "slapstick"—obviously a Vonnegut through and through. So Slapstick is "really" about Kurt and Alice; "it depicts myself and my beautiful sister as monsters, and so on." Alice's husband died in a grotesque accident two days before she did; he was a passenger on "the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge." Consequently Slapstick is "grotesque, situational poetry"; it is supposedly about "what life feels like" to Vonnegut. But Hi ho?…
Kurt Vonnegut is proud of his extensive family. Too proud. Apparently the notion of giving everyone an extended family was supposed to be earthshakingly delightful, the hopeful vision of Slapstick, but it doesn't work…. [It] is so silly that Vonnegut had already ridiculed it in a much better novel, Cat's Cradle. There, Hazel Crosby wanted all Hoosiers to call her Mom. She wanted an arbitrary extended family. Vonnegut ridiculed the notion. He called it a granfalloon. I'm afraid Slapstick is a great granfalloon, and as Bokonon said, "If you wish to study a granfalloon,/Just remove the skin of a toy balloon."
What's gone wrong? Simply, as Vonnegut rather circumspectly admits, he has lost the inspiration of the Muse. His sister "was the person I had always written for." He felt her "presence" for a number of years after she died, "but then she began to fade away, perhaps because she had more important business elsewhere." Now Vonnegut is without his own "audience of one," and it shows. This grotesque tribute to their growing up together hasn't brought back his sister's presence, and Slapstick is dedicated not to her, but to Laurel and Hardy. It doesn't live up to their memory, or Vonnegut's either. (p. 1302)
Charles Nicol, "Kiss Me, I'm Senile," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 26, 1976, pp. 1300, 1302.
Breakfast of Champions can only be understood as a novel about "facile fatalism." Like Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), it is a novel in which Kurt Vonnegut is his own protagonist, but the "Vonnegut" of this book is rather less appealing than in the earlier novel—so much so that his facile fatalism and banal social criticisms have tended to alienate his readers altogether. The effect is largely deliberate: Breakfast of Champions is "a moving, tortured, and honest book," because in it Vonnegut turns an extremely cold eye on his own artistic practices and philosophical assumptions. In a rather zany way, it is a Bildungsroman about a fifty-year-old artless artist and facile philosopher. It is also a novel about the regeneration of this sorry figure. Far from being the dispirited effort its reviewers have taken it to be, Breakfast of Champions is an artistic act of faith. (p. 99)
Most crucially, Breakfast of Champions is not a traditional novel of character. Vonnegut remarks in Slaughterhouse-Five that "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces." The characters in Breakfast of Champions are "stick figures" for much the same reason, since the novel also examines the apparent "sickness" and "listlessness" of contemporary man. The novel's thematic structure requires that Vonnegut's characters seem wooden or mechanical, for they are exemplary figures in a moral fable. As a number of critics have suggested, all of Vonnegut's novels are fables….
Still, the novelist of ideas must somehow interest us in the fictional debate which informs the work. In Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut focuses on his own attempt to comprehend the problems of his characters. Vonnegut has said that these two novels were once "one book," and nothing points up the family resemblance so well as Vonnegut's use of himself as a persona in each novel. (p. 100)
[Breakfast of Champions] involves two characters who embody different aspects of [Vonnegut's] own personality. Dwayne Hoover represents his Midwestern, middle-class background, while Kilgore Trout is a somewhat comic embodiment of his artistic and philosophical career. Like his creator, Trout has become a devout pessimist in his old age: "But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how things really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was"…. Vonnegut contrives to bring Trout to Midland City, Hoover's home town, to confront the folk with this bracing "truth" and contrives to have Dwayne Hoover suffer the experience of receiving this "truth." Vonnegut seems to want to rub middle America's nose in the sheer ugliness of life. (p. 103)
The Kurt Vonnegut we meet early in Breakfast of Champions may be a pessimist, but even he must concede that it will take more than chemicals to unhinge his "hero," Dwayne Hoover: "Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas, too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction"…. Kilgore Trout, of course, will provide the bad ideas through one of his own books. Trout's attitude toward ideas is contradicted by his misanthropy. As a young man Trout has understood that if bad ideas can destroy us, humane ideas can give us health. He has known that "the purpose of life" is to be "the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe"…. Implicit here is the notion that we can exercise conscience. At the time of the novel, Trout has turned away from such implications, yet he will return to them, for in 1981 he will say that we are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane. What happens to cure Trout of his misanthropy?
What happens is that both Trout and Vonnegut encounter a wrang-wrang. According to Bokonon, the prophet of Cat's Cradle (1963), a wrang-wrang is "a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity." The narrator of Cat's Cradle meets such a figure in Sherman Krebbs, a nihilistic poet. The narrator lends his apartment to Krebbs for a brief period of time. He returns to find the apartment "wrecked by a nihilistic debauch"…. The narrator comments: "Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebb's mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy"…. In Breakfast of Champions, Dwayne Hoover is Trout's and Vonnegut's wrang-wrang. (pp. 104-05)
Hoover is in the same position as Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater in Slaughterhouse-Five. In the aftermath of Dresden, Pilgrim and Rosewater find themselves dealing with "similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless…. So they were trying to re-invent themselves"…. (p. 105)
Hoover reasons that if all other men are "unfeeling machines" …, he can do whatever he wants to them. At the end of the novel he acts on his belief, beating up everyone around him until he has sent eleven people to the hospital, Trout among them. He acts with no sense of shame, for he has been "liberated" from such feelings: "I used to think the electric chair was a shame,… I used to think war was a shame—and automobile accidents and cancer." But now he does not think anything is a shame: "Why should I care what happens to machines?"….
Dwayne Hoover's thematic function is to point up the disastrous consequences of adopting a deterministic view of man. Dramatically, his function is to reveal these consequences to Trout and Vonnegut. Following his trip to Midland City, Trout rejects his belief that "there was only one way for the Earth to be." He returns to his former task of alerting mankind to its inhumane practices in the belief that man's capacity to believe anything can be his salvation as well as his cross…. Trout has become a true "doctor"—one who would restore us to health through good ideas. (p. 106)
Vonnegut's dark "suspicion" about man's nature, expressed at the beginning of the novel, must be identified with the "bad ideas" Dwayne Hoover learns from Kilgore Trout. At the end of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut rejects both the suspicion and the ideas, just as Trout will do in the last years of his life.
In the novel's final pages, the newly-rescued Vonnegut bestows a final gift upon his most famous creation. Vonnegut arranges a final meeting where he tells Trout that he is going to follow Jefferson's and Tolstoi's example and set all his literary characters at liberty. From now on, Trout is free…. Earlier, Trout has offered freedom to his parakeet, but the bird has flown back into his cage…. That man will reject the possibilities inherent in his freedom is always a danger. What Vonnegut is telling us on every page is that man has been doing just that from the beginning of time. He is also telling us, in the fable he contrives, that only by asserting our freedom can we possibly adapt to the requirements of chaos. (pp. 107-08)
Vonnegut contrives this fable because throughout Breakfast of Champions he insists on his role as master puppeteer…. Vonnegut allows no pretense about the status of his fictional creations; toward the end, Vonnegut even seats himself at the same bar with his characters. While sipping his favorite drink, he proceeds to explain why he has decided to have these characters act as they do—such a Nabokovian device is, of course, anticipated in Slaughterhouse-Five. The insistence on the artificiality of his dramatis personae emphasizes that Breakfast of Champions really has only one "character."… Breakfast of Champions is about its author's triumph over a great temptation. Saint Anthony's temptation was of the flesh, and Vonnegut's is of the spirit; we should know by now that the spirit both kills and dies. At the end of the novel, Vonnegut's spirit refuses to die: "I am better now. Word of honor: I am better now"…. His hope is that we might all become "better"; his message is that to become so we must resist the seductions of fatalism. (p. 108)
Robert Merrill, "Vonnegut's 'Breakfast of Champions': The Conversion of Heliogabalus," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1977, pp. 99-108.