Kurt Vonnegut

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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–2007

An American novelist and fantasy writer, Vonnegut is the author of Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. He is also well known for his humorously pessimistic commentary on contemporary American life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Vonnegut belongs with the desperate humorists, of whom Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, is the best known. Donald Barthelme, Bruce J. Friedman, and Richard Stern are of that company. John Hawkes can also be funny in the same way, though he has other virtues that are more important. Vonnegut's particular asset is the wildness of his imagination: there is nothing so ridiculous that he cannot make use of it. And, though one doesn't have to regard him as an infallible prophet, he has put his finger on an essential problem of our times.

Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 3, 1965; used with permission), April 3, 1965.

Kurt Vonnegut speaks with the voice of the "silent generation," and his quiet words explain the quiescence of his contemporaries. This is especially true of his sixth novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five," in which he looks back—or tries to look back—at his wartime experience. In the first chapter he tells us how for over 20 years he has been trying to re-create a single event, the bombing of Dresden by American and British pilots. Vonnegut had an unusual perspective on that event. Safe, as a prisoner of war in a deep cellar under the stockyards, he emerged to find 135,000 German civilians smoldering around him. Dresden had been an open city. We closed it. We. We Anglo-Saxons, as the present ruler of France likes to term us….

The connection between that Biblical act of God and the destruction of Dresden is not accidental. Vonnegut's book is subtitled "The Children's Crusade." The point is a simple one, but it should serve to illustrate just where the gap opens between the "silent generation" and the present group of childish crusaders who are so vocal in preparing for a Holy Revolution. The cruelest deeds are done in the best causes. It is as simple as that. The best writers of our time have been telling us with all their imaginative power that our problems are not in our institutions but in ourselves….

It may seem as if I have drifted away from considering Vonnegut's book. But I haven't. This is what his book keeps whispering in its quietest voice: Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them.

Far from being a "failure," "Slaughterhouse-Five" is an extraordinary success. It is a book we need to read, and to reread. It has the same virtues as Vonnegut's best previous work. It is funny, compassionate and wise. The humor in Vonnegut's fiction is what enables us to contemplate the horror that he finds in contemporary existence. It does not disguise the awful things perceived; it merely strengthens and comforts us to the point where such perception is bearable. Comedy can look into depths which tragedy dares not acknowledge. The comic is the only mode which can allow itself to contemplate absurdity. That is why so many of our best writers are, like Vonnegut, what Hugh Kenner would call "Stoic Comedians."…

Serious critics have shown some reluctance to acknowledge that Vonnegut is among the best writers of his generation. He is, I suspect, both too funny and too intelligent for many, who confuse muddled earnestness with profundity. Vonnegut is not confused. He sees all too clearly. That also is the problem of the central character of "Slaughterhouse-Five," Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from Ilium, N. Y. Billy sees into the fourth dimension and travels, or says he does, to the planet Tralfamadore, in a distant galaxy. Only Billy's time-warped perspective could do justice to the cosmic absurdity of his life,...

(The entire section is 5,468 words.)