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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
Vonnegut, an American novelist, fantasy writer, short story writer, and playwright, is one of America's best-known and most influential writers of fiction. His great achievement has been the combination of black humor and science fiction to form a powerful commentary on contemporary culture and its destiny....
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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
Vonnegut, an American novelist, fantasy writer, short story writer, and playwright, is one of America's best-known and most influential writers of fiction. His great achievement has been the combination of black humor and science fiction to form a powerful commentary on contemporary culture and its destiny. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
For years the literary establishment viewed Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., as a writer of science fiction, certainly nobody to be taken seriously. In 1969 when Slaughterhouse-Five was published, critics seemed confused. The novel did contain flying saucers and robots, but its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, seemed more concerned with problems of morality and religious faith. What was a science fiction writer doing writing a modern sequel to Pilgrim's Progress? A reading of Vonnegut's earlier novels reveals that rather than a science fiction writer, he has always been a social critic whose marked use of ambivalence and complex personas serves as an objective correlative with which to present his view of man and man's proper role in the universe.
One point that must be stressed is that Vonnegut is a novelist and not a theologian. If his readers keep this in mind, they will find it easier to grapple with the implications of Vonnegut's intermingling of Old Testament and New Testament characters in his novels, especially the intriguing relationship between an Old Testament Jonah figure and a New Testament Messiah or Jesus figure. Vonnegut's protagonists in at least four of his novels assume the role of a Jonah figure when urged to follow … a course of action by a Messiah figure…. Apparently for Vonnegut Jonah's most significant characteristic is his marked passivity, especially when contrasted with the Messiah figure. While Vonnegut indicates that the Jonah and Messiah figures are polar in intentions while achieving the same end and carrying the same message, he does not clarify the precise nature of this relationship or how it varies from novel to novel. The many parallels in Vonnegut's fiction to various other aspects of the biblical Jonah tale, particularly the conception of human and divine love, offer possible answers to these questions….
[There] is a definite progression from a situation in which a Jonah figure faces a hostile world with only an ineffectual, indifferent, or even hostile Messiah figure to help him, to a situation in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in which the Jonah figure has the full support and encouragement of Kilgore Trout…. Yet, even though this self-confessed Jesus figure expresses his full support for Eliot [Rosewater], he does not follow the young altruist's example…. The difference between the two now becomes clear. While Eliot lives by Trout's precepts and becomes an altruist, Trout … accepts a job within the corrupt society and receives something in return for the gifts he dispenses…. Vonnegut is ambiguous, but at this point it appears that Trout is speaking for the author and that his words are more important than his actions.
Vonnegut appears to believe that whether or not man lives in a godless universe is really inconsequential. What man must do is to seek to create a better world in which human love and compassion are paramount.
Stanley Schatt, "The Whale and the Cross: Vonnegut's Jonah and Christ Figures," in Southwest Review, Winter, 1971, pp. 29-42.
The life of [Cat's Cradle] is in its movement, the turns of plot, of character, and of phrase which give it vitality. Vonnegut's prose has the same virtues as his characterization and plotting. It is deceptively simple, suggestive of the ordinary, but capable of startling and illuminating twists and turns. He uses the rhetorical potential of the short sentence and short paragraph better than anyone now writing, often getting a rich comic or dramatic effect by isolating a single sentence in a separate paragraph or excerpting a phrase from context for a bizarre chapter-heading. The apparent simplicity and ordinariness of his writing masks its efficient power, so that we are often startled when Vonnegut pounces on a tired platitude or cliché like a benevolent mongoose and shakes new life into it….
Despite his mastery of the prose medium and a sense of the ridiculous which is always on duty, Vonnegut never abandons himself to relentless verbal cleverness…. Sometimes we may wrongly suspect him of this kind of self-indulgence, as in the opening sentence of Cat's Cradle—"Call me Jonah"—which seems like a gratuitous though delightful parody of the opening of Moby Dick, until we realize that by invoking Jonah and his whale, along with the biblical leviathan, Vonnegut is preparing us for a story on the Job theme….
Vonnegut's prose always serves his vision and helps to make narrative structures of that vision. This process is illustrated nicely by a longish passage from the introduction he wrote in 1966 for the new edition of Mother Night. In it he speaks of his actual experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, in prose which has the lucidity of the best journalism enriched with poetic resources of a born story-teller. (One falls naturally into the word "speaks" in discussing this prose, which gives a strong sense of a voice behind the words.)…
In Vonnegut, as in his contemporaries, we do not find the rhetoric of moral certainty, which has generally been a distinguishing characteristic of the satirical tradition. The writers of modern dark comedy do not seek the superior position of the traditional moralists. Nor do they point to other times and customs as repositories of moral values, or to any traditional system as The Law. Even in essaying to abstract a moral from his own book, Vonnegut makes no special claim for its virtues, or his. The book itself must be the test. Our experience of it must be satisfying and healthy. If this is so, then it may nourish our consciences without requiring reduction to a formula. My feeling is that, far from manifesting sickness (as some critics seem to feel it does), Black Humor is a sign of life and health.
Robert Scholes, "'Mithridates, he died old': Black Humor and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.," in The Sounder Few: Essays from the "Hollins Critic," edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 173-85.
The universe of Kurt Vonnegut's novels is a hostile and ridiculous one, in which a sense of humor and an eye for the absurd are necessary. The humanist in Vonnegut is often defeated by the pessimist in a continuous teleological tug-of-war. The tussle is to decide whether or not there is any meaning in Stonehenge beyond its ironic and essentially useless message to the Tralfamadorian messenger, whether the destruction of the earth by fire or ice would subtract from a universal total, or merely exchange some frozen popsicles or charred hunks of steak for a figure that already adds up to zero. (p. 1)
Except for the brilliant Sirens of Titan and its implication of nothingness, each of Vonnegut's novels indicates a belief in a meaningful universe, and each of his heroes (again with the exception of Sirens)—Proteus, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., Jonah, Rosewater, and Billy—is a modern pilgrim engaged in an uncertain quest along an unmapped route. Although the pilgrim often must go it alone, Vonnegut provides an unusually large number of messiahs, real and phony, major and minor, to aid in the quest. [Not] surprisingly, the first one, Winston Niles Rumfoord, is as deluded as those he seeks to lead, yet his messianic intentions, if a bit cynical, are nonetheless sincere. He is out to prove to the inhabitants of Earth that their old religions are useless and myopic, while his at least has the benefit of being headed by someone who can see into the future. (pp. 1-2)
The next major messiah to appear is, of course, Lionel Boyd Johnson, alias Bokonon. His contributions seem more substantial, because they are based on love and compassion for others, but they are basically as cynical and turn out to be as illusory as Rumfoord's. (p. 3)
Vonnegut's aims in this respect seem clear. He is attempting to show, in Sirens and Cat's Cradle, the futility of, first, metaphysics, and then organized religion, while conceding the comforting qualities of each. And each time he is employing the satirist's weapon of dystopian divorcement to remove his targets from the battleground of uncomfortable reality. The character and role of Kilgore Trout, the next messiah, seems somewhat less clear. When he first appears in Rosewater it seems apparent that if he is not actually the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, representing the ineffectuality of the Christian ethic today, he is at least a Christ figure…. If one interprets Eliot's recovery from his nervous breakdown and subsequent acknowledgement of all the bastards of Rosewater County, Indiana, as a triumph, then Trout must be given at least part of the credit for it, which would make him the most effective messiah in the novels. This is the impression one gets from Rosewater. However, in the next novel, Vonnegut goes to some length to vitiate this impression by showing his "cracked messiah" at Billy Pilgrim's eighteenth wedding anniversary party, "gobbling canapes,… talking with a mouthful of Philadelphia cream cheese and salmon roe to an optometrist's wife," and in general playing the litterateur among the peasantry…. In the basically absurd world of Vonnegut's writing, it would be asking too much of any person to make perfect sense. (pp. 4-5)
With the exception of Player Piano, which contains a political messiah, Paul Proteus, each of Vonnegut's novels has at least one figure who is concerned with the theological well-being of the race, even if, like Rumfoord, he is a Machiavel, or like Bokonon, a fraud, or, as Billy Pilgrim says of Trout in a moment of candor, "his prose [is] frightful."
One hesitates to draw more implications from this extensive use of the messiah other than the obvious one that Vonnegut, like Hesse, is a writer who is interested in theological problems and thus by including characters who represent various forms of the Promised One is able to comment on His illusory nature, yet indicate a yearning for Him nonetheless….
There is indeed a definite tendency away from nihilism and toward some sort of tentative affirmation in the … novels…. Placing the first book [Player Piano] in the category of "preparation," it is possible to make the following analysis of the thematic progress of his work:
The Sirens of Titan—Early disillusionment
Mother Night—Preoccupation with guilt
Cat's Cradle—Folly of collective answers such as religion
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—Possibility of individual answers
Slaughterhouse-Five—Mature acceptance of man's condition (p. 5)
It is difficult to understand why Vonnegut was dismissed for so long with the disreputable title of science-fiction writer, since from the very beginning he has been dealing with metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological questions in his work. One must conclude that his imagination and talent for eccentric detail actually worked against him with the critics, who rarely looked beneath the surface gloss to the rugged terrain underneath. On first reading, the intricate plot and fascinating detail of The Sirens of Titan can indeed obscure the serious intent and probing, if not traditionally scholarly examination of the cosmological question. Vonnegut, after all, is a novelist, not an academician or a philosopher, and he deals with theme in the manner of a creative writer—with all the stylistic devices at his command. Certainly he is fond of space ships, time travel, and other gimmickry, but these phenomena, after all, represent the latter half of the twentieth century far better than would the riverboat journeys of Twain, the small town life of Sherwood Anderson, or the physical encounters with death of Ernest Hemingway. At any rate, neither Vonnegut's motives nor techniques need be defended in a discussion of his themes, which are without doubt as respectable a collection as could be found anywhere in the modern American novel. (pp. 6-7)
David H. Goldsmith, in his Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.
In spite of the numerous articles appearing on the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., certain aspects of his fiction consistently seem to be ignored or misinterpreted. One such element is what David H. Goldsmith [in Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice] calls a "teleological tug-of-war," in his discussion of the "messiahs" that he finds prevalent in Vonnegut's work. To refer to such characters as Bokonon, Malachi Constant, Eliot Rosewater, and Kilgore Trout as "messianic" seems at least an irresponsible use of the term…. Goldsmith's assumption that the Vonnegut characters are theologically concerned is open to strong disagreement….
Perhaps Goldsmith and others have tended to ignore the obvious in Vonnegut, seeking instead to raise certain of his characters to more resonant, mythic dimensions, such as the messianic. But the most recurring Biblical reference in Vonnegut's works is to Jonah. It is tempting to consider Jonah one of the earliest representatives of the absurd antihero in Western literature. As a man protesting his fate, seeing no meaning in it, finding that all his attempts to escape his destiny merely contribute to its fulfillment, Jonah's story concludes with his still not understanding the bizarre events in his life. It would seem that anyone familiar with Vonnegut's writing could not overlook this parallel….
Vonnegut's main characters, from Paul Proteus and Ed Finnerty in his first novel Player Piano, to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, are caught, "like bugs in amber." But there does seem to be a greater degree of rebellion expressed against the Jonah-role in his earlier works. Confusion, dismay, active rebellion and final frustration are more applicable to the characters in Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and even Cat's Cradle than to Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's last two novels. But this does not necessarily lead to Mr. Goldsmith's conclusion that there is "a definite tendency away from nihilism and toward some sort of tentative affirmation" in the progression of novels. Neither God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater nor Slaughterhouse-Five bears this out….
Because Trout is portrayed as a misunderstood, overlooked science-fiction writer, one could easily assume that he speaks for Vonnegut. But to view Trout as either messiah/prophet or Vonnegut-mouthpiece is, seemingly, to deny Vonnegut's depiction of writers throughout all his works, as well as the special circumstances surrounding Trout in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
I think it can be adequately argued that Vonnegut has never portrayed a writer in simplistic or totally favorable terms….
He consistently portrays the masses, the "little people" like the Diana Moon Glampers, as grotesque or despicable, or just stupid, unthinking sheep. But he also creates main characters who, for all their wit or intelligence or superior powers, are just as caught, "like bugs in amber," as their followers. In fact, to further the Jonah theme, when the main characters act as leaders, they merely serve to act as catalysts for the inevitable doom, neither proving nor improving anything….
In contrast to Goldsmith, I would suggest that Vonnegut's most affirmative passage, if not most affirmative work, is in his second novel, The Sirens of Titan.
Joyce Nelson, "Vonnegut and 'Bugs in Amber'," in Journal of Popular Culture, Winter, 1973, pp. 551-57.
For better or for worse, Vonnegut's science-fiction stories [published in popular magazines during the 1950's] read at times like television situation comedies. The hallmark of these stories is that although technology changes, sociology remains the same. Familiar people encountering a new life have nevertheless familiar problems….
By far the greater majority of Vonnegut's stories feature no science or technology at all, and are simple, sometimes sentimental tales of middle-class America…. Most are written from a very stable point of view, that of an average citizen, often "a salesman of storm windows and doors, and here and there a bathtub enclosure."…
Vonnegut wrote these stories, dozens of them, from a consistently middle-class point of view. This point of view is often their best asset, offering Vonnegut some of his strongest plots, clearest themes, and funniest lines. The middle-class slant is not simply a requirement of the form; if we look at Vonnegut's nonfictional work, we will see that it is an integral part of his expression…. Daily life as a measure of judgment pervades Vonnegut's work. High school, big and small business, are frequent standards: so is family life….
When Vonnegut criticizes middle-class American life, he does not do it from a position of superiority. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Eliot's sophisticated wife is herself criticized because "She had never seen Rosewater County, had no idea what a night-crawler was, did not know that land anywhere could be so deathly flat, that people anywhere could be so deathly dull." Vonnegut knows it well, and, like Asa Leventhal in Bellow's The Victim, is frequently mindful of that part of humanity which "did not get away with it," in this case those who have not escaped the Middle West….
The most conclusive proofs for Vonnegut as a spokesman of the middle class are that he does not view himself as an intellectual writer, and that in fact much of his material is grossly anti-intellectual. In Player Piano he expressed the same aversion to rule by "experts" that Richard Hofstadter [in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life] says anchors anti-intellectualism in middle-class American life….
Vonnegut's major novels speak against man's position as romantic center of the universe, a posture which makes him responsible for all evil and hence hopelessly alienated from himself. When Vonnegut applies the same distinctions to youth he is clearly repeating statements characteristic of his writing for middle-class magazines. He is a pacifist; he distrusts the unbridled intellect; he argues for simple, humane values. All are elements of a fundamental American decency, dating to his childhood in the 1930's and sustained in his writing of the 1950's, which perhaps in the last decade has been submerged under new forces and ideas against which youth rightly protests. When Vonnegut so accurately reflects that protest, it should be no surprise that he is forty-eight years old, has kids, a car, and pays his bills on time. He is simply speaking for its ultimate origins.
Jerome Klinkowitz, "Why They Read Vonnegut," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 18-30.
The great psychic migration of American youth since World War II can be charted by the novels they read and the novelists whose reputations they created: Jack Kerouac and the Beats for getting out of plastic suburbia and On the Road. Beginning a search for authenticity and soul, for poetry not spindled on the printed page and dissected by Footnote Kings but hurled from a lectern by a reeling Dylan Thomas, chanted at jazz and poetry concerts, wailed out of jukeboxes by Hank Williams, Lightnin' Hopkins, Creedence Clearwater, and Bob Dylan. Kerouac and the Beats represent the psychic revolt of the 1950's; J. D. Salinger represents the inner flight from McCarthyism, from the Corporation, from the Other-Directed self: the lacerating self-consciousness of Holden Caulfield and the Glass family.
Then Golding and Lord of the Flies for the early 1960's, with a vision of human limitation and capacity for evil that matched the 1950's generation's sense of helplessness before the rapidly escalating cold war and certain bomb at the end of it all. We also dug Golding because of the classy symbolism, so neat and easy to figure out: see, we can be New Critics too.
Then somewhere in the late 1960's Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Heller took a generation's consciousness on a sharp left turn down the crooked road to the absurd. Yet it was a recognition of the absurd that was not a surrender to meaninglessness but a wholehearted, raucous Bronx cheer for the false pieties and Aesopean language of rampant technology and the cold war….
The structural discontinuities (which are really a new continuity) and radical juxtapositions of space fantasy and homely everyday existence in Vonnegut's novels catch the imagination of a generation born and bred to the TV montage reality of contemporary life. Moving from his early formula short stories through his novels, Vonnegut has perfected his version of what I call social surrealism, a fictional technique utilizing the radical juxtapositions, nonspatial time sense (i.e., the world of dreams), and radical irony for purposes of social satire. The social surrealist sensibility flickers like heat lightning in the films of Godard and Fellini; the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Jakov Lind, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Günter Grass, and Joseph Heller; in the music of Country Joe MacDonald, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa; in the incredible put-on Esquire reportage and novels of Terry Southern and Dan Wakefield….
Vonnegut's fictional method of radical juxtaposition is a product of his richly comic sense of the absurd…. To Vonnegut and his audience, the noble, isolated grandeur of classic tragedy is no longer possible in an age of concentration camps and mass death by bombing. Tragicomedy is the style of the age, a style that establishes the juxtapositions of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Lenny Bruce's Masked Man, and Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag."…
Basically, a comic recognition of the absurd is a counter-strategy, giving the absurd meaning. Vonnegut's ordinary-language echoes of this recognition place the absurd, fit it into the everyday affairs of his characters. From Mother Night to Slaughterhouse-Five, the absurd is ordered around by "Hi Ho," "So be it," "Busy, busy, busy," "So it goes." Vonnegut's uneasy canonization by the Yippies, for example, makes perfect sense; both Abbie Hoffman and Vonnegut use the put-on, radical irony, as an analytical tool for stripping away the masks of the absurd. Paul Krassner, founder of the archetypal underground magazine The Realist, seems to be writing most newspaper headlines….
[Students] talk about Vonnegut's world, his mythos. They react to him as a myth-maker and fabulist rather than as a dramatic and narrative novelist. Vonnegut hangs ideas on his fables, making them easily accessible to young readers. In this sense, he is no science-fiction writer; science fiction as such is part of his store of fables. Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout, his invented science-fiction writer, as one of many voices, voices speaking multidimensional fables….
The literature of aesthetic alienation and escape-into-art doesn't go down very well with a generation struggling for physical and ecological survival. Vonnegut's fables get a leg up on present dizzying reality, and that's what this generation of readers wants….
And yet I get disquieting evidence that many of Vonnegut's younger readers appreciate him for not quite the right reasons. While his techniques may be hip, his morality is strictly sober middle class. In this respect, he greatly resembles George Orwell, the Orwell who returned to a solid assertion of basic middle-class values in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Certainly Vonnegut's recurring fictional themes hit at the central concerns of his readers—runaway technology, the enormity of evil, a detestation of the rich and their indifference to human need and want….
Above all, however, Vonnegut's readers appreciate his act of bringing fiction out into the streets, making it easily available in cheap paperbacks full of inventive, teasing fables and metaphysical tomfoolery. He's not afraid of sentimentality, salting it down, though, with acerbic absurdist humor—a tonality of irony that matches perfectly the watchful, wary irony of a generation choking in corporate solemnity.
Jess Ritter, "Teaching Kurt Vonnegut on the Firing Line," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 31-42.
While it is true, to a great extent, that the times have finally caught up with Vonnegut, part of his emergence as a major figure, as should now be clear, must be credited simply to his growth and improvement as a writer. Though heresy to admit, it is nonetheless accurate, I think, to observe that the benign neglect of Vonnegut's first decade as a writer was partially justified. Here was a marvelously original but erratic writer. He was a "skilled seducer" in the making, but a long way from fulfilling his potential, tempering steadily in the hard-nosed slick and exploding mass-circulation-paperback trade, a uniquely modern professional initiation….
[The] maturing of Vonnegut's comic-satiric vision, his feeling for, or just plain synchrony with, the Zeitgeist, and his improving technical finesse must be considered as dominant factors in the upswing of his fortunes. At a time when critics such as Susan Sontag and Richard Poirier were learning to appreciate the Beatles and the Supremes as well as Bach, and comic strips as well as Shakespeare—without shame—and were providing sophisticated justifications for such tastes, Vonnegut could begin to assume something of a position merely as a "pop" writer. The age of "pop" was at hand. But Vonnegut was more than just a pop writer; he was the thinking man's pop writer. He was an American writer who was actually writing about ideas and incorporating contemporary experiences in his work; and his basic assumptions, his attitudes and prejudices, were, as Benjamin DeMott has pointed out [in "Vonnegut's Otherworldly Laughter," Saturday Review, May 1, 1971], "perfectly tuned to the mind of the emergent generation. To the surging youth culture, the proper conduct of life, man's inhumanity to man, and the possibility of the end of the world, were and are viable issues. And Vonnegut as fatalistic moralist, cynical pacifist, holy atheist, anti-intellectual philosopher, apocalyptic futurist, and grim humorist complexly encompassed all the right paradoxes.
And not only that: but, more important, I think, than anyone has yet to emphasize, Vonnegut had latched on to a truly original contemporary idiom, as American as TV or napalm or napalm-abhorrers, as fragmented and discontinuous as contemporary experience. A consideration of Vonnegut's idiom, I would say, should take into account everything from his great ear, his sense of the way Americans talk, his sense of timing (as active and keen as Paul McCartney's—a compliment one does not bestow lightly), to his formal idiosyncrasies, beginning with Mother Night in 1961: the short chapter form; the sharp image; the short, quick scene; the fragmented time sequence; the speed of narration generated by these formal characteristics. If one were to play Marshall McLuhan here, one might point out that Vonnegut's fiction is a clever formal approximation of, or at least shares many elements of the experience of, watching television. This might offer another explanation for Vonnegut's appeal to the TV generation, those who have always had television, not to mention those of us, more or less aged, who, according to McLuhan, have also had our sense ratios hopelessly rearranged by it.
Joe David Bellamy, "Kurt Vonnegut for President: The Making of an Academic Reputation," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 71-89.
Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, is one of the best science-fiction novels ever written, and it rests uneasily in the science-fiction genre precisely because it is such a good novel—a novel, that is, in the Jamesian sense, a detailed examination of human experience. The devotee of science fiction comes away from Player Piano with the uneasy feeling that somehow this isn't science fiction at all, that there is something wrong here. What is wrong here is that someone finally wrote a science-fiction novel that puts the emphasis on characters—upon human experience and actions…. What Vonnegut has done in Player Piano is to turn conventional science fiction inside out. Science fiction traditionally, as literature of idea, works from the premise that in the beginning was the idea…. At its normal best, the characters still manage somehow either to get in the way of the ideas being developed or to get all but ignored in the rush to develop those ideas. Vonnegut's inversion is simply to have realized that people are the most important things in both the real and the fictional universe. He begins, not with the idea, but with Paul Proteus, possibly the most solidly realized character in all of science fiction….
Throughout the novel the emphasis remains on the frailties, the failings, the small heroisms, the tiny joys and gigantic sorrows which make up the experience of all the characters of the book, from Dr. Paul Proteus and his wife, Anita, right down to the small boy who sails paper boats when the fire hydrants are flushed down in Homestead. Science provides the conflict, but Vonnegut resolves his novel with people being basically the same, with universal elements being put up against the test—in this case a very contemporary one….
It is … through [his] very "noticing" of technology that Vonnegut manages to get across much of what he has to say. The idea paramount in Player Piano is simply what Vonnegut has stated it to be—that machines frequently get the best of it…. Conventional writers may choose to ignore the technological infringement upon our lives and grope faint-heartedly for the cause of the dismay in the lives of their characters. Vonnegut knows the cause, and for him the communication of the idea of Player Piano, and of nearly all his works, has been to admit that science exists and has become vastly important to our lives. The communication of such an idea would not be easy to accomplish without the techniques of science fiction. Therefore Vonnegut both philosophizes and characterizes, and when a statement is made, it draws as much importance from who says it, and how, as from the idea itself. Context is as important as content….
The absurd, alienated nature of the universe is dealt with in each novel, always with some new depth of perception, some new slant; characters from the short stories and the earlier novels find their way into the later works. The same city, Ilium, in upstate New York, remains a central symbol of the twisted future of mankind….
The concretizing of abstract ideas has always been a major goal of art; perhaps the most abstract and important idea of all has been the question of the ultimate destiny of the human race. This has been a constantly reiterated theme of artists through the ages. In dealing with this motif, Vonnegut has most clearly illustrated his ability to integrate science fiction into the mainstream of literature. There is in his work a constant effort to project something of today as it must become if the human race continues into its insane self-created future.
Karen and Charles Wood, "The Vonnegut Effect: Science Fiction and Beyond," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 133-57.
[In such displays as the catalog of "twinkling treasures" littering the streets of Ilium, in Player Piano, pp. 290-91,] Vonnegut begins to suggest that his real literary interests lie in the nonliterary, in the inarticulate, the subliterary. He begins to suggest, indeed, that his real mode will be more polyphonic than the conventional novel, more expansive in its range of human expression, more interested in the puns, alliteration, and aphorisms of vernacular speech, less concerned with sequential plot, developed and motivated character, coherent explanations. In short, the mode for which Vonnegut is searching through the wreckage of Player Piano's Ilium is the old popular oral mode of the storyteller expanded by the varied artifacts of print and electronic communications….
There is no way to assess the value, then, of the artifacts of expression Vonnegut gives us. Like rocks brought back from the moon, these artifacts could help us understand untold histories if we could only reconstruct the experience represented in each—every word, phrase, sentence, however common….
By accepting … expressive artifacts—all those sermons, prayers, speeches, letters, advertisements, chants, poems, doggerels, mnemonics, stories, tales, legends, scholarly extracts, photographs, paintings, statues, architecture, decorations—The Sirens of Titan invades the uniform, lineal, and merely visual universe of McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy. By investing all such artifacts with value, Vonnegut consecrates the verbal and physical objects, the furniture, of human existence. As a writer he becomes an "interior decorator," that most useful of artists as Vonnegut once called them in a speech. By such resacralizing he brings man back into the center of his existence, like the tribal man who exists in an acoustical enclosed space, unlike the punctual, civilized, literate man who exists in a vast linear universe that stretches perspectivistically and infinitely beyond him….
Robert Scholes has said that Vonnegut, as a black humorist, cannot employ the "rhetoric of moral certainty" found in the tradition of satire to which Vonnegut has also been allied. But if Vonnegut is a black humorist, he certainly does not suffer from the ethical unease Scholes attributes to that mode. As a popular writer in a naïve mode, Vonnegut employs not the rhetoric but the sententiae of moral certainty. At its highest the naïve mode Vonnegut has regenerated achieves what somewhere Northrop Frye has called the "aphoristic pinnacle of sententiae," though Vonnegut's aphorisms are appropriately hip to the new indeterminate world we have made….
From Player Piano to The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut moves from a traditional mode, associated with a visual model of the world, to a new mode that begins to re-create an acoustic model. He also moves from an almost reflexive analysis of what McLuhan calls the major themes of mass culture, mechanics and sex, to a much more conscious, albeit fantastic, effort to create a world in which counter values can be revealed.
James M. Mellard, "The Modes of Vonnegut's Fiction: Or, 'Player Piano' Ousts 'Mechanical Bride' and 'The Sirens of Titan' Invade 'The Gutenberg Galaxy'," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 178-203.
There are two ways of portraying the end of things in Vonnegut's work that are especially important and worth singling out. Taken together they show how the kind of fiction Vonnegut writes is related to the kind of religious "message" that is felt in his work. These are first of all the death of the novel, and secondly, linked with it, the passing of a sense of history and tradition….
Vonnegut rejects both Western religion, with its insistence on God's acts in history, and the novel, the Western art form which more than any other finds meaning in history. The linkage of the two in Cat's Cradle can be seen in the book's plot, which is both a conversion story (from Christianity to Bokononism) and a parody of the Bildungsroman. It can also be seen in Bokononism itself, which is a parody both of the Bildungsroman and of religion: Bokononism provides a set of terms for a new religion, but they work equally well as terms of literary criticism for the novel….
A regret for the loss of tradition, and with it a sense of historical purpose, has been common in Western literature at least since The Waste Land, and there is some of this regret in Vonnegut…. [But for] the most part his work accepts the loss of tradition rather gladly as a fact, and even demands that it become a fact.
Vonnegut's work as a whole gives us a satiric version of the sense of tradition and of God's movement in history; it shows the kind of faith which is built on that sense to be at best foolish and at worst demonic….
Finally for Vonnegut there is no meaning or purpose in history. God is not interested. Deo volente becomes, in Slaughterhouse-Five, "if the accident will." There is no such thing as Progress, or Providence, or Manifest Destiny….
Vonnegut's vision of life and history has several features in common with the world view that Martin Buber [in Two Types of Faith] has called Paulinism…. One feature of Paulinism is its vision of the enslavement of the cosmos by powers which are hostile to or indifferent to man. Vonnegut's vision of history, in The Sirens of Titan, as arranged by Tralfamadorians in order to communicate something about a missing part for a spaceship, is simply a more dramatic rendering of the view taken in Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse, where history is an accident or a joke. A second feature of Paulinism is the problematic nature of the law: in Paul, the moral law revealed to man by God is recognized as opposed to the law which God established in creation. Similarly in Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut tells us that the Tralfamadorians, though they can foresee evils, particularly wars, are powerless to stop them; and that past, present, and future are "among the things" which Billy Pilgrim can do nothing about. Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut's language emphasizes this vision of the world by using Newtonian terms for humans (they "flow" like liquid, or "expel fluid" like machines) and organic terms for the nonhuman (light "seeks to escape," and bubbles of air seek to climb out of a glass). Those who try to follow the moral law are either pathetic or futile, like Edgar Derby "becoming a character," or evil themselves, like all those who commit massacres for what they feel are righteous causes. A third common feature is man's response to his condition of enslavement. In Paul it is conversion; and conversion is effected by belief in a mediator and his action in history. In Vonnegut there is no mediator (unless he be the bringer of the message, Billy or Bokonon), and there is no action upon history, whose facts remain the same. But there is a conversion, a "belief," which is a new perspective, a new way of seeing things called Bokononism or Tralfamadorianism. Billy's job as spiritual optometrist is to provide the spectacles for a new, converted vision. Conversion to Bokononism and Tralfamadorianism brings results similar to Paul's conversion to Christianity: Bokononism gives a sense of purpose, Tralfamadorianism gives belief "that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be."
Glenn Meeter, "Vonnegut's Formal and Moral Otherworldliness: 'Cat's Cradle' and 'Slaughterhouse-Five'," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 204-20.
Because Vonnegut's existential problems find their way into his art, his struggles to return from his annihilation [the Dresden fire-bombing], to survive the return, and to communicate what he had learned are clearly mirrored in his novels, specifically in his attempt to create a hero who could survive with dignity in an insane world. In Player Piano, Vonnegut created his first "hero," Paul Proteus, who is perhaps no better than a protagonist….
Malachi Constant, the hero of The Sirens of Titan, is Vonnegut's next attempt at creating a hero capable of facing the terrors of Dresden….
In this, his second novel, Vonnegut discovered an answer to Dresden, but he did not yet know how to apply it. Winston Niles Rumfoord's discovery that "everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been" (p. 26) lies inert in the novel, separate from its aesthetic resolution. In order to exorcise Dresden with his new vision, Vonnegut had to rid himself of his youthful notions of romanticism and liberalism, to acquire a context for Rumfoord's theory of time, and to isolate and to define the aesthetic problem raised by Dresden.
In Mother Night Vonnegut dismisses romanticism, with its anthropocentric notion of guilt, as a valid response to Dresden…. While Campbell learns much about the world, he fails to establish a rapport with it. He cannot stand the prospect of being free to return to an insane world, to an insanity that he also shares….
In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut dismisses liberalism, with its anthropocentric notion of duty, and dramatizes the principle of Dynamic Tension, a state of careful and proportioned alignment of stresses that creates a geodesic dome of balanced forces, forces so arranged that they contain one another's energies. Jonah, the narrator and protagonist, fares better than Campbell. Again this is a story written after the fact, but this time the narrator has acquired some understanding of himself as well as the rest of mankind. He is a Bokononist and knows that no one can assume the responsibility for the end of the world….
In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut finally confronted Dresden. When his hero, Eliot Rosewater, sees the imaginary fire storm devouring Indianapolis, he goes insane and sees the "inner core of white" in the flames. Upon his recovery, he discards his liberal sense of duty, his romantic guilt, and lives…. He has not only been trying to enlighten his heroes to their role in a universe devoid of spiritual values, but he has been trying to define the void in contemporary man's life and trying to create a symbol, a literary device that could manifest an answer to this problem. With Eliot he almost succeeded. He created a hero who understands that the universe touches man in accidental ways, a hero who responds affirmatively to the insanity epitomized by the Dresden fire-bombing, and a hero who survives his return to the everyday world. Vonnegut needed one thing more, however—a literary device capable of manifesting the process that his hero must experience if he is to achieve a vision of reality that could encompass the implications of Dresden without surrendering to utter despair. It took him four more years to unite Rumfoord's theory of time and Bokonon's theory of dynamic tension into a structural principle for his Dresden book. It took him four years to dramatize the gap in Rosewater's life, the gap that defined the problem of contemporary man and its answer, four years to conceive his schizophrenic manner of writing, an aesthetic that could re-create and nurture a hero destroyed by Dresden….
Slaughterhouse-Five is composed of equal parts of autobiography and fiction, of Vonnegut and Billy, of body and soul, of consciousness and unconsciousness, of intellect and intuition, of punctual time and schizophrenic time, and of spatial and temporal narrative devices. Thus, Vonnegut has technically acknowledged the indelible cleft in Western man's psyche. The challenge he has accepted in Slaughterhouse-Five is not to destroy or suppress one part of the mind or the other, nor is he naïve enough to assume that he can fuse them into an organic whole. His technical problem is to synchronize the two parts of the book, bring their conflicting times, rhythms, together so both plots may reach a simultaneous climax and create a structural dynamic tension, a book that can fall on a geodesic path through its readers' minds….
Thus, in his schizophrenic manner, Kurt Vonnegut discovers a means of re-inventing himself and his universe. The principle of dynamic tension informs not only the fabric and structure of the novel, but it also informs the existential relationship between Vonnegut and his transcendent hero, Billy Pilgrim. This relationship dramatizes Vonnegut's rite of initiation. We have [elsewhere in this essay] defined the rite of initiation as the absorption of the ego by a concept of reality that the ego itself has created, and we have observed the frightening aspects of the Einsteinian world that frustrate such a traditional process. As a result of man's inherent fear of the fourth dimension, Vonnegut's rite of initiation is not founded on the notion of annihilation by absorption but on the notion of creation by synchronization. Just as Vonnegut, in his twenty-second year, picked his way through the rubble of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim, toward the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, picks his way through the squalid ruins of a pornographic shop and finds there the inarticulate wisdom of Kilgore Trout, one of Vonnegut's masks, finds his "impossible hospitable world." Just as Vonnegut, twenty years later, is struggling to leave his autobiography and to enter his own fictive world to seek Billy out, Billy is pursuing Vonnegut in the guise of Trout with the same relentless tenacity. Both the intellect and the intuition are struggling to march to the same beat, striving to arrive simultaneously at the same image. At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five both Vonnegut and Billy, caught in different time dimensions, are synchronized by space, Dresden, and … rebirth….
Because his moral confrontation with Dresden was steady and persistent throughout his career, the affirmation of life, vibrating in this climactic novel is based not on self-deception but upon the greatness of the human spirit confronted by great adversity. More important, though, the integrity of this affirmation signals the aesthetic strength and freedom of Vonnegut's vision, a vision that captures the essential spiritual dilemma of contemporary man and represents an enduring contribution to his literary heritage and to man's quest for "wonderful new lies."
John Somer, "Geodesic Vonnegut; or, If Buckminster Fuller Wrote Novels," in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (copyright © 1973 by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer; used with permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Dell-Delta, 1973, pp. 221-54.
In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five the Time Machine, as in countless more mundane sf sagas, is … a spaceship, a flying saucer from the planet of Tralfamadore. What the transported Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfa-madorians is, in effect, not just a quietistic philosophy but also the dispensability of the aeroplane-spaceship for the novelist: "All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains…." Vonnegut treats the story of Billy Pilgrim like that, switching in time at will, with or without a flying saucer. Other worlds can be all about us at any moment, beneath our feet or in the nearest hillside, as the makers of Greek myths and mediaeval romances knew only too well. The signals from Tralfamadore are a metaphor for the reclaimed narrative freedom of the novelist, a freedom staked out most clearly by the Time Traveller in Trieste, James Joyce.
Clive Jordan, in Encounter, February, 1974, p. 62.
[Those] who think [Vonnegut's] fiction thin, unformed and full of cheap tickles will find these essays [Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons] just that.
Vonnegut seems an honest man, which is admirable enough these days. Yet honesty leaves him confessing many sad things….
Vonnegut is a sneaky moralist. He admires the simplicity and untextured responses of the young, just as they admire his reductiveness and his untextured precepts. He speaks to an audience which has not been compromised by the corruptions and conventions of getting on. And he hankers for an age that has not suffered the same fate. His analogies, therefore, are to the 19th century. Since the 19th century will not return, his plots are into the vague future. And so on.
The phrases and so on and so it goes are so essential to Vonnegut that even though his critics have complained that such expressions are irking, he's not about to excise them. He can't. The world is full of binary and-so-ons for him: people whose lives are compromised and those whose lives are not; bad officers and nice enlisted men; innocent scientists who cause harm, and cynical scientists who hate the destruction to which they inevitably contribute; smart people and dumb people; happy people and lonely people; and so it goes. People who are caught in this world, and those with the liberated perspective of having lived in space, and so on. People who are substantial and those who are not: the somebodies and the nothings; those who are the "merest wisp of an implication" and those who slip back into Nothing, and so it goes. He's not trying to be vague. Rather he's emphasizing how eternally the world is a simple place which we overcome or in which we are overcome. And so on.
The world is not that sort of place: not so clean nor well-lighted. It is messy, in fact, and most of us keep on going during and after being overcome by the dirt and the dark. Vonnegut knows that, and his life shows it if his writing does not.
W. T. Lhamon, "Family Man," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 1, 1974, pp. 27-8.
The most distinctive voice in recent American fiction is that of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the author of seven likable but sometimes hopelessly tacky novels and a couple of unsuccessful plays. In this collection of commencement speeches, book reviews and other shavings from under a busy writer's workbench [Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons], his tone has the usual rarefied diffusion of tiredness and rue. It may be time to ask why this tone is so attractive.
Tiredness is part of the answer. When Vonnegut writes, it is as if a favorite uncle had just driven 1,200 miles nonstop from Indianapolis, slugged down two stiff drinks, and collapsed on the sofa, body becalmed but mind still blasting along at 80 m.p.h., voice spinning on and on, talking of horrors with rumpled brilliance. In this strange mood of elation and exhaustion, there is no time or energy for calculation, artifice, rewriting (as it seems), or anything except the wild sputter of ideas and the sigh "So it goes."
Niceness is part of the answer. In this collection, Vonnegut quotes a critic friend, who told him in exasperation that what Vonnegut does is put bitter coatings on sugar pills. This is perfectly true, and the sugar pill is Vonnegut's own character. He is (or makes himself seem) a kindly, decent fellow. When the young hear from him that the world is decaying, this message is to some extent reassuringly contradicted by his wry and understanding smile.
The way to enjoy Vonnegut is to pick out the raisins. The idea of writers' conferences is absurd, he says, because writers cannot confer; "it's all they can do to drag themselves past one another like great, wounded bears." That is a raisin. He reports without undue enthusiasm that his wife and daughter have become followers of the Maharishi. "Nothing pisses them off anymore," says Vonnegut. "They glow like bass drums with lights inside." Another raisin.
… There is a lot of solid, sad talk, and it makes the reader feel sorry that this gentle, tired uncle is so gloomy. "I have always thought of myself as a paranoid," he writes, "as an overreactor, and a person who makes a questionable living with his mental diseases." The arts, he believes, are benign frauds: "Films and books and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than people really talk…. Singers and musicians show us human beings making sounds far more lovely than human beings really make. Architects give us temples in which something marvelous is obviously going on. Actually, practically nothing is going on inside. And on and on." If Vonnegut really were an uncle, the reader would take him to see The Sting, maybe, and buy him a couple of beers afterward to cheer him up. Or lose patience and tell him to pull up his socks. People really do feel this way about Vonnegut. A twelve-year-old boy wrote a letter after reading Breakfast of Champions, the author reports, saying. "Dear Mr. Vonnegut, Please don't commit suicide." Vonnegut says he is fine.
Nevertheless the idea of taking care of the author as a relative is surprisingly attractive. It is, in fact, a rather Vonnegutian idea….
"Wampeters," by the way, are objects (like the Holy Grail) around which the lives of otherwise unrelated people revolve. "Foma" are "harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls,"—such as "prosperity is just around the corner." A "granfalloon" is a "proud and meaningless association of human beings." As members of the Vonnegut granfalloon know, the words first appeared in one of Uncle Kurt's early novels, Cat's Cradle.
John Skow, "Raisin d'Etre," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 3, 1974, p. 77.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., gave the latest fatherly advice when he told a group of graduates Shakespeare was wrong to say, "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on": "I have to tell you that a worm can be stepped on in such a way that it can't possibly turn after you remove your foot." Vonnegut's authority derives from exactly this sense of total vulnerability. His fiction is really one voice from under the cosmic heel. He is the writer who takes charge of wormhood, who speaks for the ground-down man.
Vonnegut is the hero of the American male under seige. How else to explain the coexistence in his work of the uneventful dreariness of the average man and the wildest flights through space and time? Vonnegut is a double-threat hero who provides an accurate statement of both the trivial surface of American life and the charged innards of male fantasy. He uses science fiction as the vehicle for emotional truth, for the large frustrations contained in the small cliché, the pain canned in the aluminum-sided house.
Vonnegut is the one writer who is an instinctive pop artist. What people require is not more social criticism, but reassurance, truth in a better wrapper than reality. In irresistible tales, he packages the downs of the average man. With brilliant tenderness he reproduces the talk of car dealers, salesmen, beauticians, optometrists, whose astonishing verbal flatness is their strength. Through such simplicity Vonnegut builds characters who are American Everymen, whose sheer banality is what saves them. Vonnegut makes out of their trivia a necessary burden, an anchor that keeps them from flipping out from the force of their unhappiness. He is our hero because he has made a monument out of insecurity and turned the crushed, ground-down man into an unmistakable model of masculinity….
In Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, Vonnegut is nothing less than the voice of the many who are one with their limitations. In this collection of fascinating odds and ends—reviews, speeches, fiction, interviews—he is totally open and marvelously crafty at giving everything that happens to him or the world the force of a good one-liner. His peremptory style, his folksy cracks are geared to silence. That style permits no development after the laugh, the snort of recognition, the encapsulating cliché. Vonnegut can administer his truths in doses that stop thought. He is a master of the instant defense, the immediate retreat, the phrase that simultaneously expresses his point and blocks your disagreement. He is the new man considering what he can count on….
Ordinariness, sameness, the sheer mindlessness of heroes who are poor slobs like the rest of us, is one pole of Vonnegut's fiction. Fragmentation in space, the easy collapse of body and mind into a universal molecular flow or the mud of Earth is the other. Both meet in Vonnegut's belief in the step beyond personality, the disappearance into stereotype or chemical process. Vonnegut gives up on people getting together, on synchronizing the different cravings of even one mind. He sees wholeness and satisfaction as inconceivable in purely human terms. But as the walking mud people are in Cat's Cradle, or the fragments they become in Sirens of Titan or Slaughterhouse-Five, they can connect through their common chemistry, their shared anonymity, the mutual restackability of their minds and bodies, their reducibility to movable objects.
A culture creates its heroes even as its heroes create novels. Vonnegut's ideas of fusion reflect a male flight from frustration, the greatest possible withdrawal from taking charge. They reflect a widespread will to get beyond the confines of individual responsibility and out of the single, beleaguered self. Vonnegut's ability to be that ravaged figure has made him one of the most beloved writers in America. His novels arouse not only our admiration but our protectiveness. His least works are praised along with his best. He offers an unthreatening, instantly recognizable portrait of man ground under the heel of American expectations. What Vonnegut pleads for in his weird, alien images is the end of damaging hope, the end of those hierarchies of moral and aesthetic worth, of status, money, and intelligence that divide men from each other and make them adversaries. Physical and psychic coalescence means the end of differences. In the recognition of shared hardship dies the self-assertive urge, the adversary-seeking competitive life. You are your enemy and he is you. You're both walking mud….
Vonnegut's antidote is dullness. His true hero is the man slightly cracked by his own frustrations but holding himself together with his triviality—his aluminum siding, his humdrum marriage, his empty job, the boredom that keeps him from thinking or feeling. Vonnegut is the champion of the average American who spaces out of his heart and mind so as not to have to hurt.
Josephine Hendin, "The Writer as Culture Hero, the Father as Son," in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the July, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), July, 1974, pp. 82-6.
A young poet recently described his daily journal as an asterisk-ridden affair. He used an asterisk, it seems, to indicate a passage that was not necessarily his absolute or final statement on a particular subject. Another volume, just published, would benefit from a similar method of notation. It's called Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons and its author, ostensibly a novelist, is really the world-famous public relations man, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
It may be 20 years since Mr. Vonnegut officially held that title (he was employed in that capacity by General Electric of Schenectady), but the spirit of pr lives on in his fiction and in this collection of previously published articles, speeches, and interviews. Taken individually, each of the pieces is a delightful unit of casual and well focused prose designed both to inform and to sedate the reader. But by bringing these pieces together, publisher Seymour Lawrence has locked in, between hard covers, a composite picture that accurately reveals the extent of Vonnegut's essentially schizophrenic world view.
You will notice as you read this book that the author contradicts himself from essay to essay, speech to speech. Contradiction is a pr device, and its use here calls for asterisks or some other system to alert the reader to Vonnegut's Jekyll-Hyde approach….
In spite of the contradictions, though, maybe even because of them, Vonnegut accomplishes what few other writers would dare to attempt: he makes Americans see themselves. By contradiction, he reveals the contradictions in our lifestyle. There are times when Vonnegut needs to have his hands slapped for the errors in his doctrine, but more often he raises valid points and describes the world in a way that reveals much about Americans.
His favorite scheme is the cosmic overview. He uses it in his novel Breakfast of Champions, when he writes about "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." He uses it again, with great effectiveness, in his Harper's article on the 1972 Republican convention. It is in his speeches, though, that Vonnegut comes on strongest, with statements on the political influence of writers, on the Vietnam war, on science, and on the art of being humane.
Steven Kosek, "Through Ambiguities, Lightly," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 5, 1974, p. 771.