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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. Vonnegut is often considered a cultural spokesman for the present age, an heir to Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. He is a moralist who uses satire and iconoclastic humor to vividly portray the depravity of contemporary society. His...
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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. Vonnegut is often considered a cultural spokesman for the present age, an heir to Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. He is a moralist who uses satire and iconoclastic humor to vividly portray the depravity of contemporary society. His novels combine fact and fantasy to raise many basic existential and epistemological questions. Although Vonnegut's plots are often bleak and pessimistic, his novels always contain some affirmation of man's essential decency, and a contention that our ability to love one another can save us from destruction and helplessness. Vonnegut's works seem to speak especially to young adults, who have identified with his humanistic concerns since the beginning of his career. It was the support of his student audience that first helped to bring him to prominence during the mid-1960s. World war and nuclear holocaust are central to an understanding of Vonnegut, as their influence on him permeates his fiction. He uses the novel as fable to exorcise the demons of his personal experience, and often appears as both character and author in his works. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and interned as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, as was his character Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. During the fire-bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut was sheltered in a meat storage cellar below a slaughterhouse; when the raid ended he was among those soldiers used by the Germans to recover the bodies of their dead from the ruins of the city, an experience which repeatedly recurs in his early work. Upon his return home, Vonnegut went to work as a public relations writer for the General Electric Research Lab in Schenectady, New York, an experience which figures in his first novel, Player Piano, and from which came several permanent themes: the impact of technological innovations on the ordinary person, the individual versus the institution, and the makeup (and satirization) of the writer. Vonnegut's first works were published as cheap sci-fi novels, and during his early career he remained virtually unknown. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater he satirizes this period of his life and introduces his most famous character, Kilgore Trout. An unsuccessful science fiction writer, Trout is Vonnegut's symbol for what he thought he might become; in a later novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut portrays Trout's rise to phenomenal literary success, again indulging in self-parody. Most critics feel that his finest synthesis of theme and technique occurs in Slaughterhouse-Five, a cathartic novel in which Pilgrim, a kind of Everyman, survives the horrors of Dresden and tries to make sense of the world which allowed it to happen. Vonnegut is sometimes criticized for his sentimentality, superficial characterizations, and formulaic prose style; his philosophy, also, has been criticized for not being deep enough to warrant the seriousness with which readers take his books. However, Vonnegut's reputation has always been solid among the young. He, in turn, seems to have great respect for this section of his audience and wants, he says, to catch them at school, "before they become generals and senators and Presidents, and poison their minds with humanity." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Player Piano is a] rather witty story of the future, with machines doing the work of men. The trouble with this book, as with many similar stories, is that the author gets his human beings so close to the machines that they are dehumanized, which means that although the nightmare remains, there is no sense of tragedy, and none of pity, and we are left with a feeling of disgust and weariness. (pp. 88-9)
The New Yorker, (© 1952 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 16, 1952.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438
Player Piano is a preview of American life after the third World War…. It is a country in which a man's station and future are totally controlled by a configuration of punched holes in a personnel card and men's minds have been ground down to a conformity as fine as our dust. That dust is occasionally stirred by ancient dreams and inchoate resentments, and such a stirring is taking place as the novel begins. But mostly America is a country in which life is intolerably dull.
That seems to be a quality shared by most versions of the future and it poses a very difficult problem for their creators: namely, how to write interestingly about a dull subject. Player Piano's stereotyped or amorphous characters, inept construction, blunderbuss satire, and pedestrian prose help matters not at all.
And yet these defects, however serious, might be pardoned in a novel of ideas if the ideas themselves were profound or at least provocative. Mr. Vonnegut's are not; they are, in fact, demonstrably erroneous…. Of course the author is talking about the future; but the future in his eyes is obviously an extrapolation of the present—that's what makes the novel "significant"—and there is, in the history of technological development, no support whatsoever for the situation which Mr. Vonnegut envisions.
More disappointing than the author's misconceptions, however, is his evasiveness. Having created a false issue, he lacks the courage to face up to it. The scientist-hero of Player Piano, after an abortive return-to-nature, lends himself to a Saturnalian uprising against the machine. As the novel ends he is seen sardonically yielding himself up to his executioners while the machine like the phoenix rises from the reeking ashes of its predecessor. Well now what does the author recommend? It may be objected that it is for the novel to propose problems not to answer them, but a work as doctrinaire and ill-natured as this one may reasonably be expected to offer some alternative to the evils it so grimly prophesies. Shall we return to brutalizing drudgery, to caste, to superstition? Shall we surrender our ease of movement, the spaciousness of our lives, in general—half our life-span for that matter. I'm sure the author would not seriously suggest that. Nor need he. Mechanization, blind and irresistible, can be directed if not resisted….
This novel, it seems to me, stems not so much from an intelligent apprehension as from the intellectual's sense of inferiority in the presence of the garage mechanic….
David Goldknopf, "The Mechanistic Blues," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1952 The New Republic, Inc.), August 18, 1952, p. 19.
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The narrator of "Cat's Cradle" purports to be engaged in compiling a responsibly factual account of what certain interested Americans were doing at the precise moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Through correspondence with the three children of the late Felix Hoenikker, Nobel Prize winner and so-called "father of the atomic bomb," he evolves a portrait of the man in relation to his family and the community….
"Cat's Cradle" is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists. Like the best of contemporary satire, it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider "serious."
Terry Southern, "After the Bomb, Dad Came Up with Ice," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 2, 1963, p. 20.
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The trouble with the Black Humorists is that they are not, as a rule, very humorous. They are, in fact, generally very depressing…. It is not necessarily the genre that is at fault but the execution. We have our classics of Black Humor which are very funny indeed. And if the young are said to admire them more than their elders it is because, as always, much of the cynicism goes over their pretty little heads. And even that is assuming—contrary to my observation—that the young read anything at all.
Kurt Vonnegut has risen, if that is the word, to Black Humor from an even more dubious genre, humorous science fiction, having put out a couple of volumes of it before he eased over into the main stream with his first "serious" novel, Cat's Cradle. This is a tale of the end of the world as brought about through human stupidity, a theme always good for a few chuckles in terms of Black Humor. This novel, as his subsequent ones, carries some of the stigmata of Mr. Vonnegut's pulp fiction origins—the one-line paragraph, and the feeling that, at three cents a word, no word ever got x-ed out and no joke was ever deemed too feeble or tasteless for inclusion.
Nevertheless Mr. Vonnegut came through with real promise on his second serious novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater…. [The] book is good because Mr. Vonnegut occasionally forgets about being Black and concentrates on being Humorous to real effect. These passages are oddly tangential, even irrelevant, to the main story line. They deal with the denizens of a New England fishing village and it is not difficult to say why these bizarre folk are funny in their madness while Mr. Vonnegut's Mad Millionaire is not. It is simply that they are believable. Even Pisquontuit's thirteen-year-old Lila Buntline, the town's leading dealer in smut, is real compared to the ingenious but heavy tendentiousness of Mr. Rosewater.
It all goes back to one of the eternal verities of fiction—create believable characters and you don't have to do a single blessed other thing right. The characters don't have to be literal—they can be just as grotesque as Mr. Vonnegut's wonderful minor characters, and just as Black in their Humors. It all comes down to the fact that there is good Black Humor and bad Black Humor—a critical perception slow to make headway.
In [Mother Night] Mr. Vonnegut tackles what should be a dilly for a Black Humorist—an American Counter-Intelligence agent who worked for the Nazis during World War II as an anti-Semitic propagandist…. There ought to be lots of good belly-laughs in this one, of course, but somehow they don't emerge.
But if there is anything that the Black Humorists have taught us it is that the venture was not necessarily foredoomed by its implausibility. We can thank them for showing us once again (it has happened often before in literary history without the tag of Black Humor) that no material is ultimately resistant to the alchemy of humor…. Mr. Vonnegut's attempts … to make us laugh, however bitterly, in areas presumed intractable to laughter may do something toward opening those areas out to a renewed consideration—a sort of shaking up in the kaleidoscope of laughter that enables us to see things in a new pattern.
Unfortunately, Mother Night does not completely succeed in its permutating bath of laughter. Only a few years ago we would have said that this was because his subject matter was unsuitable. Too many marvelous satiric feats, however, have been performed in recent years (not least by Mr. Vonnegut) for us to doubt that the trick can be done. It is the unsettling but healthy lesson the Black Humorists have taught us—that no disease is immune to laughter. And if the laughter frightens or angers us it only means that we must look once more at ourselves to see what is truly serious within us, and what is the mere facade of conviction without reason and without true belief. Perhaps this is another way of stating what Mr. Vonnegut says is the moral of his novel: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. (pp. 592-94)
William James Smith, in Commonweal (copyright © 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 16, 1966.
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We are best cheered by untruths, so the bigger the whopper, the better—says Vonnegut. In his masterpiece, Cat's Cradle, the founder of a new religion insisted at every step that his own doctrines were lies. Solace, apparently, came immediately.
In the preface to [Welcome to the Monkey House] he announces that one of the themes of his novels is "No pain." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., probably our finest Black Humorist, is offering us comfort.
He is the little Dutch boy stopping the hole in the dike: while he conscientiously aids us, he reminds us that we live in the shadow of deep waters. Or, to use the idea that appears frequently in his work as a main character, a minor figure, part of the background, or the tail of a metaphor, he is the volunteer fireman, unselfishly and innocently rushing to put out the random blazes of civilization. His comforts frighten us with their inadequacy, and we laugh in self-defense.
Vonnegut's special enemies are science, morality, free enterprise, socialism, fascism, Communism, all government—any force in our lives which regards human beings as ciphers. His villains are simple egotists, indifferent to other people, his protagonists men who adapt events to their own discontent with the system, rolling with the times to create change, which is rarely, in Vonnegut's world, an improvement. His third group of characters, his saints, his volunteer firemen, are content to aid others in their own small world, unaware of the larger actions that swirl around them. Failing to participate in events, they nevertheless become the focus of all activity, their relevance being the undeniable fact that they exist.
Vonnegut is a pessimist. But he is also an idealist; his irony is not cynicism. His writing has a disarming directness, and his few statements about style reinforce this simplicity, yet the apparent slickness of his short, tight paragraphs—almost a paradigm of the popular magazine—fails to conceal the size of his concepts. And what appears at first to be gratuitous satire is always integral to the tale. (p. 123)
The style may bring to mind another Black Humorist, Terry Southern…. Both authors use the cliché for effect, but where the sardonic Mr. Southern uses the commonplace to reinforce our own complacency, Vonnegut uses it to throw new light on those thoughts which we hoped were not ordinary. A cliché is dead language, as when an author deliberately inserts one into the unresisting mouth of a character, he is registering contempt for that character, labeling him dead….
Roughly half of Vonnegut's published short stories are included in this collection. It is a good selection, although an unimpressive review of the big Random House dictionary has unaccountably crept in….
The reader should not expect full-fledged apocalypse from these pleasant tales, only brush fires of varying intensity that a good fireman can handle. (p. 124)
Charles Nicol, "The Volunteer Fireman," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1968 by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1968, pp. 123-24.
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["Welcome to the Monkey House"] says much against "collections."… Most collections are little more than old soup warmed over. Possibly a few bridging pages or paragraphs will be added in an effort to spark new flame under the kettle. The literary gourmet will not be fooled, however. Old soup is old soup no matter how you ladle it.
"Welcome to the Monkey House" fails to enhance Kurt Vonnegut's reputation. There are only brief glimpses of the hilarious, uproarious Vonnegut whose black-logic extentions of today's absurdities into an imagined society of tomorrow at once gives us something to laugh at and much to fear. At his wildest best (as in his earlier "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" or in "Cat's Cradle") Kurt Vonnegut is a laughing prophet of doom. Too much of this book … is slick, slapdash prose lifted from the pages of magazines of limited distinction. (pp. 4-5)
[In "Welcome to the Monkey House," Vonnegut is] content to write a three-page preface and then, apparently willy-nilly, toss together whatever materials appeared handiest….
Some few of the selections are worthwhile. There's a pleasant little essay on the Cape Cod village where the author lives, a funny review of The Random House Dictionary … and some three or four stories dealing competently and wildly with improbable tomorrows. (p. 5)
Unhappily, such touches are rare. The rather pitiful state of magazine fiction is what one most remembers about this book. (p. 19)
Larry L. King, "Old Soup," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1968, pp. 4-5, 19.
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[Vonnegut] is a sardonic humorist and satirist in the vein of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. In earlier works, such as Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, he has made fun of the worship of science and technology. Now we can see that his quarrel with contemporary society began with his experiences in World War II, about which he has at last managed to write a book [Slaughter-house-Five]….
Vonnegut never does get around to describing the raid on Dresden, and that shows the wisdom of the strategy he was finally led to adopt. When the planes came over, Billy and a few other prisoners, together with four of their guards, took refuge in a meat locker…. In trying to tell what he and his fellow-survivors saw the next morning when they emerged from the locker, about all Billy can say is, "It was like the moon." It is by this and other kinds of indirection that Vonnegut makes his impression.
Vonnegut's satire sweeps widely, touching on education, religion, advertising, and many other subjects….
But the central target is the institution of war…. The terrible destruction of Dresden is, as Vonnegut sees it, an example of the way the military mind operates. (He quotes a military historian to the effect that the raid served no essential purpose.) He shows that in great matters as in small war is brutal and stupid….
Like Mark Twain, Vonnegut feels sadness as well as indignation when he looks at the damned human race. Billy Pilgrim is a compassionate man, and meditates a good deal on the life and teachings of Jesus and on institutionalized Christianity…. Partly as a result of what he has learned on Tralfamadore, Billy is to some extent reconciled to life as it is lived on Earth. But Vonnegut is not, and in this book he has expressed his terrible outrage….
As I read it, I could hear Vonnegut's mild voice, see his dead pan as he told a ludicrous story, and gasp as I grasped the terrifying implications of some calm remark. Even though he is not to be identified with Billy Pilgrim, he lives and breathes in the book, and that is one reason why it is the best he has written. (p. 25)
Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 29, 1969.
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Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade is a book that hasn't yet been written. Vonnegut is so obsessed, so horrified by his subject that he quite literally cannot approach it, can only hint at it, surrounding it with semicomic non sequiturs, a kind of toned-down Catch-22. The subject is the firebombing of Dresden. But this subject is not the content of this novel. The novel is about any number of other things, and it is also about Vonnegut's failure to write the novel, his sense of despair, his conviction that it is a lousy novel, and so forth. Rarely has the failure of a piece of fiction been so obviously tied up with the author's intense desire to write about it. Vonnegut says in his introductory chapter that he has been writing or trying to write the story of the firebombing of Dresden for years, this is his "famous" unwritten novel, and yet what he has finally turned out is a highly artificial, glib, picaresque tale of someone named "Billy Pilgrim." Billy is captured by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore on his daughter's wedding night and, gifted with a peculiar talent for timelessness, he can see past, present, and future, and relive or live these various times, but without the power to alter anything. This gives Vonnegut the chance to jump maniacally back and forth and ahead in time, creating a jumble of events and non-events, since he is anxious not to write about his alleged subject, which is apparently the firebombing of Dresden. Of course, a writer writes about what he wants to write about, and it is quite possible that Vonnegut has been deluding himself for decades—what he really wants to write about is the nonsense of Billy Pilgrim, and not the seriousness of Dresden. It would have been kind of someone to tell him that he couldn't write about it anyway, since fiction is not written about events but about people: Vonnegut has not created any people here, only bizarre cut-outs mouthing lines that are sometimes funny and sometimes not. His grotesque scenes are unfelt because they are unimagined. (pp. 535-36)
Joyce Carol Oates, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXII, No. 3, Autumn, 1969.
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[The] novel must cease taking itself seriously or perish…. Vonnegut has had what we now realize to be an advantage in this regard, since he began as a Pop writer, the author of "slick" fiction, written to earn money, which is to say, to fit formulas which are often genuine myths, frozen and waiting to be released. Fortunately, though he has sometimes written to suit the tastes of the middle-aged ladies who constitute the readership of the Ladies' Home Journal, he has tended more to exploit the mythology of the future. But he has, in any case—as writers of, rather than about, mythology must—written books that are thin and wide, rather than deep and narrow, books which open out into fantasy and magic by means of linear narration rather than deep analysis; and so happen on wisdom, fall into it through grace, rather than pursue it doggedly or seek to earn it by hard work. Moreover, like all literature which tries to close the gap between the elite and the popular audiences rather than to confirm it, Vonnegut's books tend to temper irony with sentimentality and to dissolve both in wonder….
Vonnegut does belong to what we know again to be the mainstream of fiction; it is not the mainstream of High Art, however, but of myth and entertainment: a stream which was forced to flow underground over the past several decades, but has now surfaced once more. (p. 196)
[Player Piano,] despite its projection into the future and its science-fiction gimmicks,… represented quite obviously the kind of earnest social criticism which suggests comparisons with quite respectable writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In its earlier pages especially, it seems now, in fact, too bent on suggesting such comparisons, more committed to morality than play, more concerned with editorial than invention; grimly intent on proving (once more!) that machines deball and dehumanize men—and that the huge corporation, called the Ilium Works … corrupts those it nominates as an elite even as it strips of all dignity those it finds unworthy to program its computers. But before Player Piano is through. Vonnegut's sense of humor has mitigated his indignation, and he is pursuing … any possibility of a joke, no matter how poor or in the midst of no matter what horror: anticipating, in fact, the mode later called, ineptly enough, "Black Humor."…
Vonnegut is at his best in the book when he himself indulges in Pop fantasy—anticipating what he can do best as he invents the Ghost Shirt Society…. (p. 199)
[In The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle] he seems at ease—in a way he was not earlier and would not be later—with science fiction; finding in its conventions not a kind of restriction, but a way of releasing his own sentimental-ironic view of a meaningless universe redeemed by love; his own unrecognized need to write a New Gospel or at least to rewrite the Old; his distrusted longing to indulge his fantasy without providing the unimaginative one more occasion for idle masturbation; his unconfessed desire to escape both the stifling inwardness of the traditional art-novel and the empty virtuosity of avant-garde experiment….
[Reading] them, we are not tempted to believe ourselves set apart by the rareness of our pleasure or the subtlety of our understanding. Like all Pop art, they confirm our solidarity with everyone who can read at all, or merely dream over pages devoted to evoking the mystery of space and time, or to prophesying the end of man.
[Mother Night] temporarily interrupts Vonnegut's continuing exploration of the potentialities of science fiction—representing perhaps a desire to be more immediately topical, more directly political, more "serious" in short. It is not unsuccessful in its own terms, but finally irrelevant to Vonnegut's special vocation, though deeply concerned with Germany and World War II, which is Vonnegut's other obsessive subject matter: the past he remembers, rather than the future he extrapolates or invents. Mother Night does not quite manage to deal with the American firebombing of Dresden…. [He came] closer in Slaughterhouse-Five; but even that novel is less about Dresden than about Vonnegut's failure to come to terms with it—one of those beautifully frustrating works about their own impossibility….
Eschewing science fiction in Mother Night, however, Vonnegut turns to another, more established Pop form, the spy novel…. The story itself is, however, serious enough; the tale of a double agent, unable to prove for a long time that he was really in the pay of the U.S. Government and unwilling, finally, to save himself from hanging when that proof is unexpectedly offered. Self-condemned and self-executed, Howard W. Campbell leaves behind a book intended to testify that one is always—hopelessly, irrecoverably—what he pretends to be, pretends to himself he is only pretending to be.
Campbell is, in fact, the first major author-protagonist in Vonnegut; and, like his own author, a Pop artist before history makes him an autobiographer. He has become for the large German public a successful playwright; and for the smaller public of two, constituted by himself and his wife, a private pornographer….
[Vonnegut] is especially hung up on the subject of porn, the sole Pop form which, in fact, evades him—despite a theoretical dedication to freeing men to lead full sexual lives. Vonnegut cannot ever quite manage to talk dirty enough to be explicit about sex; though (because?) he is haunted throughout his work by a vision of his own books ending up in the display windows of pornographic bookshops, confused by owners and customers alike with hard-core pornography. He is aware really that the confusion is, on the deepest level, somehow valid; that the best of science fiction has in common with the shabbiest sort of erotica, not sex but "fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world."
But he is not really at ease with the fact; and throughout his work, especially as it grows more and more unguardedly confessional, there appears over and over the image of that first of all pornographic photos, in which a girl is vainly trying to screw a Shetland pony….
Yet what bugs Vonnegut even more is the awareness that in his own time pornography is practiced, and accepted, as revolutionary art itself, a special way of telling the truth about the society we live in; and he parodies mercilessly, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a novelist presumably dedicated to absolute candor…. (p. 200)
In the end, however, the spy novel proved for Vonnegut almost as unsympathetic as pornography itself—more unsympathetic, in fact, since the story of espionage posits a world of total alienation rather than one of impossible hospitality. He could not find room in it, moreover, for magic and wonder, the religious dimension so necessary to his view of man. (pp. 200, 202)
The Sirens of Titan is his best book, I think—most totally achieved, most nearly dreamed rather than contrived. In it, he evokes all the themes, along with their sustaining images, for which we remember him with special affection and amusement: the unreality of time and the consequent possibility of traveling therein, the illusory nature of free will and the consequent possibility of heroism and sacrifice, the impossibility of really choosing one's mate and the consequent necessity to love whomever, whatever happens to come to hand. It is, moreover, his most chutzpahdik, his most outrageously and attractively arrogant book, for in it he dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of human life, but to answer it.
But what sets The Sirens of Titan apart is that, inventing it, Vonnegut has escaped from the limitations of an imagination narrower and more provincial than it is ever possible quite to remember. Despite his dedication to a form predicated on space-travel, Vonnegut is oddly earth-bound, American-bound…. In The Sirens of Titan, however, he imagined for the first time Tralfamadore, the transgalactic world he is to evoke again and again, but to which none of his space-travelers even actually go; until, perhaps, Billy Pilgrim …, and which we are free, therefore, to understand for the absolute Elsewhere, more easily reached by art or madness than by mere technology. (p. 202)
This is not, however, the work's final word, Vonnegut's final position: for that very messenger, it turns out, though an intricate machine, has learned somehow to love in the aeons he has spent as a castaway; and he provides—like a kindly Pop artist—a vision of Paradise to sustain Malachi's dying moments; a false vision sustained by posthypnotic suggesting, but sufficient to make dying more palatable than living. It is as much of a Happy Ending as Kurt Vonnegut could imagine at this point in his career. (pp. 202-03)
[Cat's Cradle] does not even offer us [a] token Happy Ending, for that book begins and ends with a vision of the total destruction of mankind, to which only an eternal gesture of contempt is an adequate response. It is a book which has nothing to do with Heaven except insofar as it is not there ("No cat! No cradle!"), though it takes place largely on an island paradise in the Caribbean, which stirs in us once more memories of that Master of Illusion, Prospero….
Indeed, the not-quite nihilism of the book's close is a product of the tension between the religion of Bokononism, which advocates formulating and believing sacred lies, and the vision granted to the dwarfed son of the Father of the Bomb of the emptiness behind all lies, however sacred. The voice of the White Dwarf and the Black Prophet are both Vonnegut's, and they answer each other inconclusively throughout; creating an ambiguity quite like that produced by the opposite claims of High Art (the Dwarf, an avantgarde painter, renders his view in monochrome abstraction) and Pop Art (Bokonon, an entertainer, sings his creed in calypso form).
But, as ever in Vonnegut, something more is presented than the unresolvable conflict of mutually exclusive theories: namely, the possibility of actual joy. John, at any rate, is revealed as having experienced two great joys before his tale is told: one slow and long-continued, as he learns who are the other members of his karass, the handful of others in the world with whom, willy-nilly, he must work out the pattern of his destiny: one intense and momentary, as he plays footsie with the blonde Negress, Mona, whom he, and everyone else, loves….
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater … and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) … constitute, in fact, a single work, with common characters, common themes, common obsessions and a common whimsy—and which together rifle his earlier books for other characters, themes, obsessions and whimsical asides; as if he is being driven to make his total work seem in retrospect a latter-day Human Comedy or Yoknapatawpha series. But [these] last novels are quite different in their tone and effect, being essentially autobiographical rather than mythic: quasi-novels really, in which the author returns to his early material reflectively rather than obsessively—and so ends writing about it, rather than simply writing it…. (p. 203)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is not science fiction at all … but a work of "mainstream literature," in which Vonnegut has transposed from the Future and Elsewhere to the Present and Right Here the themes which he once mythologized in popular, fantastic modes: the compelling need to love the unlovable, whose ranks industrialization has disconcertingly swelled; the magical power of money and the holy folly of renouncing it; the uses and abuses of fantasy itself. But the profoundest and most central concern of Rosewater is new for Vonnegut…. We remember the novel chiefly as a book about madness, or more particularly, as one about the relationship between madness and holiness; since Eliot Rosewater … is the first of Vonnegut's gurus who lives in madness rather than by lies. He does not, that is to say, choose deliberately to deceive for the sake of the salvation of mankind, but is hopelessly self-deceived: insane enough to accept as truth what Rumfoord was forced to justify as useful fictions, or Bokonon to preach as foma, "harmless untruths."
But if God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is not science fiction, it is compulsively about science fiction; and this time the writer nearest to its center … is Kilgore Trout, the author of scores of neglected and despised science fiction novels….
[It] is given to Trout to play an equivocal St. Paul to Eliot Rosewater's absurd Christ: to rationalize Eliot's madness in terms acceptable even to his tycoon father….
[In] Slaughterhouse-Five, Trout returns to play a similar role for a similar sub-messiah, this time an optometrist called Billy Pilgrim, who had, as a matter of fact, been introduced to the work of Trout by Eliot himself in the psycho-ward of a military hospital during World War II.
But Billy, unlike Eliot, travels in space and time, actually reaching Tralfamadore itself…. Oddly enough, however—as Vonnegut pointedly informs us—Trout had already imagined the zoo episode in fiction, and Billy had read it before living it, or dreaming it, or falling through time and space into it. Vonnegut will not, to be sure, let us side with the cynics and realists who would, by psychiatric means, cure Billy of his belief that he has been and is forever on Tralfamadore; but he leaves suspended, not quite asked, much less answered, the question of whether he travels there through Outer Space or Inner, via madness or flying saucer—or merely by means of Pop fiction, in which each of these is revealed as the metaphor of the other….
And if at last Vonnegut does not understand, all the better for him and for us. What he does not understand is precisely what saves him for readers like me who are disconcerted and dismayed as he grows more and more conscious of more and more in himself, turns more and more from fantasy to analysis. (p. 204)
Leslie A. Fiedler, "The Divine Stupidity of Kurt Vonnegut," in Esquire (first published in Esquire Magazine; copyright © 1970 by Esquire, Inc.), in Esquire, September, 1970, pp. 195-204.
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["Happy Birthday, Wanda June"] is an attempt at a satire on the return of Odysseus. Mr. Vonnegut's Odysseus is a paunchy, bearded fellow named Ryan who has been missing for eight years, held captive by Indians in South America. He is a bully and a braggart who calls his young wife "Daughter," boasts of his heroism during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and at the end goes offstage with a loaded rifle to shoot himself. In short, he is a caricature of Hemingway, drawn in pure venom. A dreadful, cheap idea, and certainly unworthy of the clever Mr. Vonnegut's considerable talent—talent for comedy, that is, which, while slighter than Hemingway's, for example, often pays off. No talent for abstract though is discernible…. Although I'd just as soon simply laugh at anyone as funny as Mr. Vonnegut and let it go at that, he demands to be taken seriously, and when he starts moralizing he becomes obvious and silly, almost sinking his play. (p. 143)
Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 17, 1970.
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"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" is a Punch and Judy show acted out by pretended people, in case you've forgotten the real content of any Punch and Judy show. It adds up, simply, to this: Punch kills everybody, one by one, until the Devil gets him. (p. 1)
There are at least three things wrong with the play and one—much more important—that is right. The play is structurally ambivalent about death. A number of quite jolly interludes take place in a heaven that is conveniently composed of a driving rain of spotlights. There Wanda June, who has nothing to do with the play except that she has been killed by an ice-cream truck, sings girlish songs in her pretty white frock, playing shuffleboard with the Beast of Yugoslavia, a Nazi with a curled lip who deeply admires the way our hero made a mess of him during the war.
In heaven, everyone is content, happy really to be dead; even the hero's third wife has enough to drink to keep her drunk. But with death, so omnipresent, so inevitable, and so enjoyable, the main line is undercut. Does it matter so much that the victim is a killer if his victims are cheerful enough to be out of it and if we are all going to be killed anyway by ice cream trucks? The hero's killing comes to seem a bit redundant; we can't become much exercised about him, or even interested in him, if he's only expediting what's bound to come willy-nilly.
The thrust of the hero is further dulled, made to seem not terribly dangerous, by the fact that the role is [not as well written as the others]…. (pp. 1, 18)
The last thing wrong: Mr. Vonnegut has done what I thought he would never do, he has not only let himself preach, but he has also let us catch him doing it. A doctor gets out a skeletal chart of two men, asks us which of the two men can be identified as an "enemy." A wife gets too smug. "Education's my vice," she says, comparing herself to boozehounds. The doctor looks at the antiered walls and muses, "All this unending death." We don't need nudging like that—not from Vonnegut, who's burned whole cities without batting an eyelash.
But if the play has to cope with these burdens, it also brings to the theater something the theater desperately needs. An imaginative mind. An imaginative mind is not the same thing as an inventive one. An inventive mind makes things up—anything, everything. An imaginative mind doesn't. It looks around at the insane world we inhabit and reports it as it is, tells us what we knew; but it tells it in unmournful numbers that none of the rest of us would have ever used. We saw it before, we believe it now, but we'd never have said it that way. An imaginative mind makes the same contacts we do but it never recites them in our terms.
From the beginning of the evening … we hear a person, not a playwrighting computer, not a news bulletin on television, not a report to the President that the President will or won't like, but a man whose neurons and dendrites click together differently from our own. The same-plus-different is what enchants us in life, perhaps it is the only thing that ever does. And here is this man, this half-wild man, this voice, this wind-from-the-planets voice, unexpectedly and impudently and familiarly and backslappingly and despairingly speaking to us out of a one-of-a-kind head.
It's exhilarating at first, and then, when we see how much is wrong with the play, insistent. We can't turn away from it just because it makes mistakes….
Vonnegut's noises, Vonnegut's colors are Punch and Judy noises and colors, abrupt, primary, murderous, childlike, funny in the sense of funny-I-thought-I'd-die. The play falters; I find the thwack and the quack irresistible. (p. 18)
Walter Kerr, "At Last, An Imaginative Mind," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1970, pp. 1, 18.
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It is a growing awareness of the seriousness of Vonnegut's inquiries which has made people realize that he is not only the science fiction writer he first appeared to be.
His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was, to be sure, a fairly orthodox futuristic satire on the dire effects on human individuality of the fully mechanised society which technology could make possible. A piano player is a man consciously using a machine to produce aesthetically pleasing patterns of his own making. A player-piano is a machine which has been programmed to produce music on its own, thus making the human presence redundant. This undesirable inversion of the relationship between man and machine, suggested by the title, is at the heart of the novel. In this society of the future there is one part for the machines and the managers, and another part ('the Homestead') into which have been herded all the unnecessary people. Paul Proteus (whose initials suggest his relation to the theme of the title, and whose second name suggests a predisposition to change), is a top manager who believes in the system. But he starts to feel a 'nameless, aching need' which indicates a nascent dissatisfaction with the very social structures he has helped to erect. He realises that he is trapped in the system he serves. (pp. 181-82)
[Player Piano presents] a basic dilemma in Vonnegut's work. Both sides want to use the hero; both sides want to impose a particular role on him and make him into a special sort of messenger or conveyor of information; and as Paul discovers, between the two sides, 'there was no middle ground for him'. Paul is a typical American hero in wanting to find a place beyond all plots and systems, some private space, or 'border area'—a house by the side of the road of history and society. He would like not to be used, not to be part of someone else's plan. But the book shows this to be an impossible dream.
The Sirens of Titan (1959), Vonnegut's next novel, is also about people being used, this time on the sort of inter-galactic scale permissible in science fiction…. [Rumfoord] is a man who now exists as 'wave phenomena' as a result of having run his space ship into an 'uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum'. He is 'scattered far and wide, not just through space, but through time, too', and with his new-found power to arrange things to suit his patterns, free to handle time and space as he pleases and put people where he wants them, he is a suitably fantastic analogue of Vonnegut himself, who is doing just that in his book. But if Rumfoord is the user, he is also the used. (pp. 182-83)
It is man's status as agent-victim which preoccupies Vonnegut; once one of his characters comes to see this double aspect of human life and action he usually, like Malachi, becomes 'hopelessly engrossed in the intricate tactics of causing less rather than more pain'. (p. 183)
[A] possible attitude to the discovery of [the human] fate is implied in Beatrice Rumfoord's conclusion that '"The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be not to be used for anything by anybody.'" A corollary of this is Malachi's late decision that one purpose of human life "'no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.'" This formulation, albeit very sympathetic, points to a detectable strain of sentimental sententiousness which recurs in Vonnegut's work. (p. 184)
With Mother Night (1961) we are back into the bleakest years of contemporary history. In this book … one may discern a shift in Vonnegut's style. There is less attempt at narrative fulness, and a greater use of short chapters which give the sense of the intermittencies and incompletenesses inevitable in any written version. The impression is of compressed selections suspended in an encompassing silence…. Howard Campbell is a quintessential Vonnegut hero: the agent-victim, the most uncertain and perhaps the most hapless of all Vonnegut's bemused messengers. (p. 185)
Campbell is a special 'agent'; but in Vonnegut's vision we are all agents, and the perception that we can never be sure of the full content and effect of what we communicate to the world, by word or deed, is at the moral centre of this novel. It also carries the implicit warning that our lies may be more influential than our truths, a consideration which writers in particular must ponder. (p. 186)
The book presents, almost in shorthand, a whole spectrum of fiction-making, from the vilest propaganda to the most idealistic art. There is no cynical attempt to identify these two extreme ends of the spectrum, but it is part of Vonnegut's meaning to suggest that the artist cannot rest in confidence as to the harmlessness of his inventions…. In one way it comes down to that suspicion of all communication which seems to go so deep in contemporary American fiction. As no one can be fully aware of the 'information' that goes out through him (just as you cannot control the information that is fed into you), the artist as a professional inventor and sender of messages must be very careful about what he puts out. He may think that, in [Sir Philip] Sidney's terms, he is delivering a golden world from our brazen one. But he might, all unawares, be contributing to the restoration of the ancient reign of Mother Night. (p. 188)
[Vonnegut] has seldom been more comically inventive [than he is in Cat's Cradle,] but then the whole novel is an exploration of the ambiguities of man's disposition to play and invent, and the various forms it may take….
[Each character on the island of San Lorenzo] is following his dream, creating his fiction. And it is from this island that the process which will end the world is unwittingly launched. This may be Vonnegut's mordant way of predicting the possible final outcome of the human instinct to play. When this island of invention contains both [ice-nine], and representatives of the artistic and Utopian dreams which console and dignify the race, one can see that Vonnegut is pushing quite hard for a recognition of the deeply ambiguous creative/destructive aspects of the innate human instinct to play. (p. 189)
The title is explained in the book. Newt recalls that the one game his father played with him on the day the first atom bomb was exploded, was to make a cat's cradle and push it jeeringly into his face. On the island Newt makes a painting of the ancient game of cat's cradle, and adds "'For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grown-ups have been waving tangles of string in their children's faces.'" In Newt's view it is no wonder that children should grow up crazy, because when they look at the cross-crossed string, what do they see? 'No damn cat, and no damn cradle'. A chapter in Mother Night is entitled 'No Dove, No Covenant'. It alludes to the same discovery which any child is likely to make; namely, that the religions or legends taught to him by adults are just fictions. There is no cat there; nor does God make a sign. On the other hand it is an axiom of Bokonism that man has to tell himself that he understands life even when he knows he doesn't. This is the justification for constructing fictions, for the necessity of art. It does, after all, take skill to weave the string, and something more again to imagine the cat. On the other hand one must confront the fact that the string is only string. The matter is summed up in what the narrator calls 'the cruel paradox of Bokonist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it'. That, certainly, is what Vonnegut contrives to suggest in his own brilliant little fiction.
The distinctive tone of Vonnegut's work is very likeable and sympathetic; it obviously bespeaks a compassionate humane spirit. The economy and laconic wit prevent this from issuing in much overt sentimentality, though the tendency is there. However, at times it does seem as though he is using his fiction to issue short sermons on the state of contemporary America, or the world, and this can at times endanger the poise of his work. I think that some of the weaker aspects of his writing show up in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), despite the wit and moral feeling with which the book is conceived and executed. (pp. 191-92)
[Slaughterhouse-Five] is a moving meditation on the relationship between history and dreaming cast in an appropriately factual/fictional mode….
[Vonnegut] himself enters his own novel from time to time … and it becomes very difficult to hold the various fictional planes in perspective…. But the overall impression is that of a man who has brought the most graphic facts of his life to exist in the same medium with his more important fictions to see what each implies about the other. (p. 195)
[Although] one necessarily reads in sequence the many compressed fragments or messages which make up his novels, one nevertheless gets the impression of arrested moments suspended in time. In reading Billy Pilgrim's adventures we too become unstuck in time. As a result one is left with something approaching the impression of seeing all the marvellous and horrific moments, all at the same time. Vonnegut, the telephoner, has condensed and arranged his telegrams to good effect. He starts his account of the adventures of Pilgrim with the single word—'Listen'. This is to alert us. We are being messaged. (p. 197)
A motto which Billy brings from his life into his fantasy, or vice-versa, reads: 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference'. In itself this is an open-ended programme. But immediately afterwards we read: 'Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future'. Billy becomes completely quiescent, calmly accepting everything that happens as happening exactly as it ought to (including his own death). He abandons the worried ethical, tragical point of view of western man and adopts a serene conscienceless passivity. If anything, he views the world aesthetically: every moment is a marvellous moment, at times he beams at scenes in the war. Yet he does have breakdowns and is prone to fits of irrational weeping.
Here I think is the crucial moral issue in the book. Billy Pilgrim is a professional optometrist. He spends his life on earth prescribing corrective lenses for people suffering from defects of vision. It is entirely in keeping with his calling, then, when he has learned to see time in an entirely new Tralfamadorian way, that he should try to correct the whole erroneous Western view of time, and explain to everyone the meaninglessness of individual death…. The point for us to ponder is how are we to regard his new vision. According to the Tralfamadorians, ordinary human vision is something so narrow and restricted that, to convey to themselves what it must be like they have to imagine a creature with a metal sphere round his head who looks down a long thin pipe seeing only a tiny speck at the end. He cannot turn his head around and he is strapped to a flatcar on rails which goes in one direction. Billy Pilgrim's attempt to free people from that metal sphere, and his own widened and liberated vision, may thus seem entirely desirable. But is the cost in conscience and concern for the individual life equally desirable? (p. 198)
Perhaps the fact of the matter is that conscience simply cannot cope with events like the concentration camps and the Dresden air-raid, and the more general demonstration by the war of the utter valuelessness of human life. Even to try to begin to care adequately would lead to an instant and irrevocable collapse of consciousness. Billy Pilgrim, Everyman, needs his fantasies to offset such facts. (p. 199)
Billy's Tralfamadorian perspective is not unlike that described in Yeats's 'Lapis Lazuli'—'gaiety transfiguring all that dread'—and it has obvious aesthetic appeal and consolation. At the same time, his sense of the futility of trying to change anything, of regarding history as a great lump of intractable amber from which one can only escape into the fourth dimension of dream and fantasy, was the attitude held by Howard Campbell during the rise of Nazi Germany. Vonnegut has, I think, total sympathy with such quietistic impulses. At the same time his whole work suggests that if man doesn't do something about the conditions and quality of human life on Earth, no one and nothing else will. Fantasies of complete determinism, of being held helplessly in the amber of some eternally unexplained plot, justify complete passivity and a supine acceptance of the futility of all action. Given the overall impact of Vonnegut's work I think we are bound to feel that there is at least something equivocal about Billy's habit of fantasy, even if his attitude is the most sympathetic one in the book. At one point Vonnegut announces: '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'. It is certainly hard to celebrate the value of the individual self against the background of war, in which the nightmare of being the victim of uncontrollable forces comes compellingly true. In such conditions it is difficult to be much of a constructive 'agent', and Billy Pilgrim doubtless has to dream to survive.
At the end of the novel, spring has come to the ruins of Dresden, and when Billy is released from prison the trees are in leaf. He finds himself in a street which is deserted except for one wagon. 'The wagon was green and coffinshaped'. That composite image of generation and death summarises all there is actually to see in the external world, as far as Vonnegut is concerned. The rest is fantasy, cat's cradles, lies. In this masterly novel, Vonnegut has put together both his war novel and reminders of the fantasies which made up his previous novels. The facts which defy explanation are brought into the same frame with fictions beyond verification. The point at which fact and fiction intersect is Vonnegut himself, the experiencing dreaming man who wrote the book. He is a lying messenger of course, but he acts on the assumption that the telegrams must continue to be sent. Eliot Rosewater's cry to his psychiatrist, overheard by Billy Pilgrim, applies more particularly to the artist. '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.' Of course, they must also tell the truth, whatever that may be. Kafka's couriers could hardly be more confused. What Vonnegut has done, particularly in Slaughterhouse-Five, is to define with clarity and economy—and compassion—the nature and composition of that confusion. (pp. 200-01)
Tony Tanner, "The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." (originally published in a slightly different version in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1969), in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.; in Canada by Jonathan Cape Ltd.), Harper, 1971, pp. 181-201.
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[Breakfast of Champions] is almost a deliberate curiosity, an earnest attempt to play after getting Dresden out of the way. It's filled with Vonnegut's cartoon drawings of items mentioned in the text; it plays the whimsical game of pretending that we know nothing about life on earth … and it delivers many straight-faced criticisms of Life…. He indulges in some obligatory no-no's: he talks about Niggers, he draws a vagina, he gives penis measurements of most of the male characters (but fudges about his own). (p. 26)
Well, all this—and the funny names and the slapstick events—is less amusing than it ought to be. The characters are still stick figures, still listless playthings; but the "enormous forces" are now reduced to Vonnegut himself, who wanders through his novel like Ed Sullivan through reruns of his Sunday nights—creating characters, endowing them with nonce pasts and qualities, hurting or sparing them, and then dismissing them indifferently. We tend to share that indifference. We soon learn to read Breakfast by the line, or by the one-liner, hoping for a joke here and there and keeping an eye out for the novel's chief blessings, its summaries of Kilgore Trout's science fiction. The Vonnegut who appears is less charming than his earlier avatars: here he is represented as on the verge of a nervous breakdown, troubled by schizophrenia and his mother, and not much involved in the novel: "'This is a very bad book you're writing,' I said to myself…." It's not that bad; it's diverting … but it's pop, no snap or crackle…. Even simple communication requires the right kind of simple. At the University of Iowa [where he taught a writing workshop], one of Vonnegut's main themes was the "sense of wonder" needed by writers; here he describes—and draws—a rattlesnake with rattles and poison-filled fangs; then after a momentous pause he announces:
Sometimes I wonder about the Creator of the Universe.
Even a sophomore will wince at that kind of simplicity. (pp. 26-7)
J. D. O'Hara, "Instantly Digestible," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 The New Republic, Inc.), May 12, 1973, pp. 26-8.
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In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut intends to release his characters from his control. In doing so, he shows their unreadiness to cope with freedom, or to measure up to its responsibilities. In a sense, he is telling us that we are all living in our own private novels, but our actions do not, in reality, follow a coherent plot. Our lives collide and interfere with each other. We inevitably become what we do….
Vonnegut's people were once machines that one could wind up and set loose. He wants to change that, because they are also part of his own machinery. Even after his decision to free them, they continue to behave as if they were acting out a drama beyond their own control, with major roles and minor roles to play, and a Providence to grant them some means of atonement for their mechanical failures.
In Breakfast of Champions human machines are broken down into their chemical and physical components more thoroughly than ever before in a work by Vonnegut. The story is told in a sense of short, narrative bursts which describe the histories and actions of people in and around Midland City….
Kilgore Trout is especially groomed to be Vonnegut's liason with the rest of creation. He is the only "machine" around possessing more than just the faintest glimmer of cosmic consciousness.
Existing as a character in the book, the author is, understandably, the most crucial being in the book. He presents himself candidly, by inserting personal asides and encouraging the reader to jump often from fiction to reality and back again. The resulting style is sometimes annoying. Vonnegut, though, is at his best when detailing the relations between the biographies of his characters, who can hardly begin to imagine the influences they exert on each other. He has so much sympathy, in fact, for their lack of imagination that occasional annoyance can be easily overlooked.
At any rate, the difficulties of emancipation are hopefully more evident to us, (having read the book) than to those with less imagination. Emancipation, we learn, is not equivalent to freedom. Wayne Hoobler has been "freed" from the security of prison and turned loose in a hostile world which offers him no purpose. Dwayne Hoover's mind is "freed" from the restrictions of reality by his madness, yet his body must remain a straight-jacketed machine, unable to follow where his fantasies lead. Kilgore Trout, who is freed (by Vonnegut's intervention) from any uncertainty as to the purpose of his existence, suffers, ironically, from the logical projection of Vonnegut's own plight. Having met his maker, Trout finds him omnisciently infallible, but unfortunately lacking the power to rejuvenate his elderly creation. (p. 75)
We can only guess that Vonnegut is not at all comfortable in the atmosphere he has bestowed upon those made in his likeness and image. Their world is too much like his own for complete comfort. There is little enough love, of any kind, except his own. The pathos of his beings' common plight serves, at times, to amuse and distract him from the awful burden of absolute and final authority. (pp. 75-6)
[Those] who have enjoyed Vonnegut's previous books can hardly begrudge the author his time in such a harsh spotlight as the one he turns on himself. (p. 76)
Martin Burns, in The Critic (© The Critic 1973; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), September-October, 1973.
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With a certain facile agility, [Vonnegut] has gone genre jumping, assuming the colors, alternately, of short story writer, novelist, playwright, and sometime poet. Critics have attempted to trace an evolutionary pattern through various categories, techniques, styles, and points of view. Yet, however much the form varies, Vonnegut's very personal, readily identifiable products persist in their family resemblance….
Vonnegut entered literature through the door of science fiction, what some would unhesitatingly label the back door…. His works often project the consequences of the modern scientific world in nightmarish sequences of a shocking future, to wit, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, and Cat's Cradle. The demon-scientist figure is especially well portrayed in the character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who fulfills the biblical prophesy that tasting of the tree of knowledge will bring destruction on the race. Man is undone by his presumption to tinker with the universe.
The notoriously schizophrenic quality of science fiction pervades Vonnegut's work, even to the center of his authorial identity: by writing Player Piano, he was able to escape G. E., and he has never stopped using fiction to project himself beyond the constraints of physical reality. In his terse telegraphic style, one finds impatience with even the confining nature of printed language. Often his characters' doubling of identity is accomplished by the juxtaposition of spatially and temporally irreconcilable sequences, as in Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five, where traditional boundaries burst before the power of imagination. And almost all Vonnegut's characters (foremost Howard Campbell of Mother Night) are torn by their dual quality, the inevitable incompatibility between the official, public identity and the real, private self. They search for shelter from the emptiness of institutionalized being. The world man has created is incapable of satisfying him; he is alienated by, and sacrificed to, the real villains, the monstrous machines of industry, in peace and war. (pp. 66-7)
For all its attractions, though, science fiction falls short in serving to express Vonnegut's views of man's fate; it loses him to fantasy, satire, black humor. The man-made, mechanized universe of science fiction is too presumptuous. Its technical realism, always on the side of the plausible, is founded on the basic tenet of progress and change, not necessarily positive, but involving a linear, cause-and-effect concept of human existence. Vonnegut rejects both the idea of verifiable reality and man's control of his destiny. In a universe governed by the absurd, empirical problems of human existence become irrelevant. There can be no qualitative distinction between reality and illusion, only the question of spiritual survival in a world gone mad. Thus ultimately Vonnegut, the anthropologist, rejects Vonnegut, the chemist. (pp. 67-8)
Vonnegut's mordant attacks on the absurdities of the human condition and the follies, inequities, and brutalities of man's making place him in a karass including such notables as [Jonathan] Swift, Voltaire, [Denis] Diderot, [Mark] Twain, [Henry] Mencken, [Sinclair] Lewis, and [John] Barth. With his own special brand of irreverence, he gives us private glimpses of the great and powerful, undermining their aura of importance. Often the ridiculous is allowed to speak for itself, the author believing that man's stupidity will reveal itself unaided. Vonnegut laughs at cruelty and injustice, at life, like Beaumarchais' Figaro, in order not to cry. He is too vigilant to cry; crying helps us to forget and lets us indulge in the luxury of self-pity.
In Voltaire's Candide, the Manichean philosopher Martin muses that the world has been created in order to enrage man. Like Martin, Vonnegut feels rage, as well as frustration and depression. But unlike those who rail, he exploits the power of the unsaid. Wielding classic understatement, he is a cool medium, eliciting intense reader participation. (p. 68)
[It] can be said that Vonnegut has indeed a strong moral response to man's fate—that of basic humanism. From Player Piano to Slaughterhouse-Five, the message is clear: love your fellow man, with compassion, with caritas not eros. Responsibility to one's neighbor becomes responsibility to oneself. Truth and falsehood are redefined irrespective of any point of reference in perceptually ascertainable reality. "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," the stated moral of Mother Night, touches on existential questions of moral identity, echoing the Sartrian dialectic, "Nous sommes la somme do nos actes": we are what we do. Campbell commits suicide, like Salo, to punish himself for crimes against himself. In the existential sense, he is a microcosm of humanity; the acts of each man contribute to the identity of Man. When actions become institutionalized, official, the sense of responsibility is diluted: hence, the danger of a morally intolerable schizophrenia.
Vonnegut's loss of faith in an ordered universe leads him again and again to the question of religion. The Christian religion is rejected, because man learned the wrong lesson from the crucifixion: "Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected."… Any religion aspiring to authenticity must protect the unwanted, the unloved. In the rewritten Gospel Vonnegut offers us, Jesus is a nobody, whom God adopts as his son when he is tortured unjustly. "God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!"… It must be a human religion, catering to man's spiritual needs here and now…. Central to Vonnegut's moral reality is the certainty of man's mortality: "When you're dead, you're dead."… And the basic element in his humanism is his acceptance of the human condition. "So be it" and "so it goes" echo through his works. In these amens, bitterness and resignation are mixed with a sense of nostalgic joy. (pp. 69-70)
In Vonnegut's world there are no saviors. The only hero is an everyman, at once the lowest and the highest common denominator. Like [Albert] Camus' stranger and [Bernard] Malamud's fixer, his central truth is, "I am a man." He faces a grim prospect: the impossibility of utopia is obviated by Cat's Cradle; there is no apparent reason, purpose, or justification for the mess man is in and no apparent way out. In a world of madness where [Samuel Beckett's] Godot will never come, where man is abandoned to his fate, he must survive without hope. Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, Vonnegut's hero must strive for something with no anticipation of success, renewing his effort daily. Billy Pilgrim sees on his office wall and on the pendant Montana wears the ancient Sanskrit prayer for wisdom to distinguish the limits of man's control of his destiny. In Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Vonnegut conclusively rejects the image of the conquering hero as murderous, placing in its stead the shy healer. Humility is essential to Vonnegut's morality. Man is imperfect, frail, inefficient, alternately brilliant and stupid…. Man is mud…. Given these limitations, there is only one viable course of action: "God damn it, you've got to be kind."… Vonnegut asks us how long it will take us "to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."… The act of loving, accepting, tolerating one's fellow man becomes everyman's chance to be an artist, to create beauty in an ugly world. (p. 70)
Rebecca M. Pauly, "The Moral Stance of Kurt Vonnegut," in Extrapolation (copyright 1973 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), December, 1973, pp. 66-71.
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Part satirist and part visionary, Kurt Vonnegut … enjoys a sudden vogue since the late Sixties, particularly among youths disaffected with militarism, greed, and excessive rationality, with various ecological and technological disasters. A dark comedian even more than a satirist, Vonnegut expresses his rage, guilt, and compassion, his sense of being alive in a world of death, in frightening dystopias. But as sly prophet, he presents alternatives to the human condition in science fictions, disporting the virtues of his favorite Tralfamadorians. His urgency carries itself lightly in fantasy or whimsy, though his gruff sentimentality also tends to weaken his hold on complex realities. (p. 45)
A fatalist and dreamer, he conceals his discomforts within strange levity. His harshest critics find him lacking in mind. Yet Vonnegut offers, more than levity, an honest perception of his moment; and creates a style both lax and gnomic, "telegraphic schizophrenic," which attempts to carry his sense of discontinuity toward some visionary end. (p. 47)
Ihab Hassan, "Kurt Vonnegut," in his Contemporary American Literature: 1942–1972 (copyright © 1973 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Frederick Ungar, 1973, pp. 45-7.
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[Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons is a collection of Vonnegut's essays, reviews, and speeches.] His technique, properly applied, is unsurpassed. In a piece of speculative reporting such as "There's a Maniac Loose Out There," the account of a grisly crime on Cape Cod,… Vonnegut approaches his own opinion with a jigsawlike gallery of observations that leaves one meditating on one's own responses. And in "Excelsior! We're Going to the Moon! Excelsior!" he frequently follows his own paragraphs by repeating a word or phrase from within them, letting it reverberate as if to re-examine his own sentence from another, more interesting viewpoint…. Occasionally these techniques fall flat, leaving a sense of facility and emptiness. But more often their seemingly random perceptions provide a surprisingly acute moral juxtaposition.
Still, it is this very tone of moral insight which has gained Vonnegut his reputation as a humanist and a conveyor of wisdom that weakens his impact in the latter half of the collection. As his popularity grows and magazines begin to ask him to point his pithy pencil at politics and the like, Vonnegut loses strength as a writer. His message, after all, is the same in most of his works—a condemnation of the inhuman uses of technology, a bitter pessimism about the future, mixed with a romantic identification with the young and his own sunny little dream, the comforts of a folk society. He relates political events as well as the trivia of everyday life to such staggering absolutes as the end of the world, happiness to death, ambition to futility.
The essays and speeches here are dry, wry, self-deprecating. They brim over with humor…. Read all at once they may cloy, but sampled sparingly they provide as accurate a look at Vonnegut the man as can be found. But the only work of fiction in the collection, "Fortitude," reminds one of the double-edged satirical strength he achieves when he forgets about himself and recreates that enthusiastic intimacy with his own imagination that is not possible at the podium.
Kathleen Cushman, "Vonnegut's Pithy Pencil Writes On. Pencil.," in The National Observer, June 29, 1974, p. 19.
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[Almost] all the commentators on Vonnegut betray a certain uneasiness in talking about him as a satirist; he does not quite fit the mold. (p. 101)
Vonnegut's basic world view is Post-existential. He [rejects] all ethical absolutes. Vonnegut stresses the futility of man's search for meaning in a world where everything is "a nightmare of meaninglessness without end," where we are all the victims of a series of accidents, "trapped in the amber of this moment…. Because this moment simply is." In Cat's Cradle he shows how man's "nostalgia for unity," to use Camus' phrase, forces him to interpret mere chance as purposeful, leads him to create the meaning he wants to find and makes him believe in his own insubstantial structure, his own cat's cradle. Each of Vonnegut's novels shows us that there is no relation between human actions and the events that take place in human lives. All success—and, one supposes, failure—is the result of luck…. Man, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, finds that among the things he cannot change are past, present and future. His actions serve no purpose he can hope to comprehend. Vonnegut also has his own version of [Jean-Paul] Sartre's theory of human identity. He talks about the desire of Being-For-Itself to become Being-In-Itself as the Universal Will to Become and claims that the moral of Mother Night is "We are what we pretend to be."
If Vonnegut denies the possibility of absolute values, then how can he be a satirist [since satire implies the existence of absolute values]? The answer is that he is not. He has the look of the satirist, but has no answer to give us. (pp. 102-03)
[He] employs the methods of satire as an attack upon satire itself, or rather upon the idea of a world in which the definite answers satire implies are possible. Vonnegut deliberately uses the expectations that satire arouses to tempt the reader into easy moral answers he subsequently undermines either by later attacking the acquired moral answer or by setting it in a Post-existential philosophic framework where no value is absolute….
Vonnegut frustrates the reader's expectations in order to bring about in him an experience of the absurd. He allows the reader the temporary illusion that he has the answer and then disillusions him. This is not just a question, as perhaps it is in the case of such other pessimistic satirists as Swift or [Samuel] Johnson, of not believing man likely to adopt the alternative to the vices under attack. Vonnegut does not merely disbelieve that man will become benevolent,… but attacks the very idea of the workability of benevolence.
In his earlier novels, Vonnegut works chiefly against the expectations aroused by satire but more recently, particularly in his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, he has been making increasing use of those techniques of action, language, and characterization that work against the expectations of realism. (p. 103)
Vonnegut uses the form of the fable against the objectives of the fable. By suggesting, through obvious patterning of characters and contrasts between our own world and those of other planets, that he is arguing to a conclusion, he arouses our expectation for revelation. The pattern will work out; the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle will make the picture clear; the fable will reveal its moral. But Vonnegut's fables do not have morals, at least none which can stand as solutions to the Post-existential dilemma, just as his apparently satirical methods do not operate from any consistent ethical scheme. Again he is deliberately working to disillusion the reader…. [He] parodies himself; his novels gradually unmake themselves….
[The central figure of Player Piano, Paul Proteus] feels "love—particularly for the little people, the common people, God bless them. All his life they had been hidden from him by the walls of his ivory tower…. This was real, this side of the river, and Paul loved these common people, and wanted to help, and let them know they were loved and understood, and he wanted them to love him too"….
If we accept, as most critics have, that this novel is a satire directed against technology, then the values expressed by Paul here are those Vonnegut expects us to accept also. But … a careful reader would surely have to be suspicious of the tone of this passage. Vonnegut is too conscious of language to use such phrases as "the common people," "the little people," "ivory tower" "this was real," without recognizing them as clichés. He is giving us an easy answer—charity, fellow feeling, remorse—to the problems of mechanization and inhumanity, and is indicating that the answer is simplistic by his use of clichés.
Nevertheless, it is easy to miss these early clues, and the novel does for a long time seem to be a satire. Vonnegut's targets are standard ones: daytime soap operas designed to keep everyone satisfied with the status quo; the big business aspects of college football now no longer related to academic life at all; ambitious wives who feign affection. Each of these targets is attacked through the usual satirical method of slightly exaggerating a situation already present to a lesser extent in our society. Each of these targets also is an aspect of the apparently chief target of Vonnegut's novel, the mechanization of human lives. The great example of its opposite, human feeling and eccentricity, is Ed Finnerty, and Vonnegut sees to it that our sympathies lie with Finnerty and his friend Lasher throughout the novel. Who can resist the temptation to support man and human feeling against machines?
So far the novel is conventional. The methods are basically realistic, except for the use of a future world. Even the visitor from another country, the Shah of Bratpuhr, functions … as a naive observer, not as he would in later Vonnegut novels as a creature with more knowledge from a totally different world. (p. 104)
But Player Piano does not end conventionally. The values established by the satirical methods at the beginning of the novel are finally completely undercut. This is not to deny, of course, that Vonnegut prefers human warmth to mechanization; but he does not, in his novel, appear to see it as a viable situation. Those representatives of human feeling against mechanization, Finnerty and Lasher, treat Paul as an object. "'You don't matter,' said Finnerty. 'You belong to History now'"…. They are prepared to kill him if it is necessary. (p. 106)
In Player Piano the easy answers of [Vonnegut's] initial satirical attacks are not refuted by placing them in a Post-existential framework and there are only the earliest hints of absurd techniques. But nevertheless Vonnegut does use here the basic method of all his novels; he tempts the reader into easy answers through satirical methods and later disillusions him.
The subject of man as machine is fare more imaginatively treated in Vonnegut's second novel, his first attempt at science fiction, The Sirens of Titan. In this novel Vonnegut takes the old sophomoric debate about first cause—if God created the world, then who created God—and gives it some new turns. He is concerned with the absurdity of man's "appetite for the absolute," with his inescapable tendency to attribute meaning to his existence on earth. (pp. 106-07)
Religious belief, says Vonnegut, is based on no evidence at all. Rumfoord believes he knows the meaning of certain earthlings' lives, since they are part of his plan to establish the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent on earth by leading an attack from Mars. Malachi Constant, later Unk, is used by Rumfoord. What Rumfoord desn't know is that he is part of a more complicated plan, the ultimate aim of which is to transport a replacement part for a space ship stranded on Titan. So the meaning of human life is reduced to an absurdity. (p. 107)
If human life has a pattern, a scheme, it is not a merciful one…. If the plan of the universe is not merciful, suggests Vonnegut, it might just as well not have one. Our religious fantasies of all truth being revealed to us in another world might well turn out to be the truth revealed to us through the other worlds of Vonnegut's novel. At all events there is no possible way of our finding the truth. Each man is doomed to his own subjective version of it….
All events come about through luck, though like Malachi Constant we choose to believe that "somebody up there" likes us. (p. 108)
The Sirens of Titan invites us to read it as a satire just as Player Piano does. The many early targets of the book—posted bulletins about someone's health that reveal nothing; man's need to feel superior to his fellows by remembering his own achievements—suggest a satire operating from some base of consistent values. A favorite target is one that epitomizes the theme of the book: man's belief in image without substance….
The major satirical method is a traditional one, to be found in [Swift's] Gulliver's Travels, for example; Vonnegut ridicules the target by making the abstract concrete. Thus the support religion has historically given to big business in the U.S.A. becomes in the novel the literal making of money by using initials from the first sentence of the Bible; the handicaps of life become actual weights carried around by some people to make the race of life fair. (p. 109)
There are some positive images of human experience in this novel…. Beatrice, Malachi, and their son, Chrono, together on Titan towards the end of the novel, can be seen as an illustration of the truth that Constant believes he has found; that one of the purposes of human life is to love "whoever is around to be loved." In this novel Vonnegut, … does appear to see human emotion as a value, even if a relative one…. [But] Vonnegut's picture of Constant is of an old, lonely man accepting a comforting myth as the truth. Vonnegut, then, as in Player Piano, tempts the reader into accepting easy answers and then invalidates them. He also sets the assumed values in a Post-existential framework which makes them all relative….
[In] Vonnegut's novels people are forced into new roles by others. The fact that people treat others as objects is illustrated by having the characters literally turn into machines—Malachi Constant becomes mechanized as Unk—much in the way Beckett's characters often do. In this way, of course, Vonnegut is working against the expectations of the reader for "human," rounded characters. He, then, undercuts his own method deliberately: Salo, a machine, is more humane than the earthlings. (p. 110)
The Sirens of Titan is the first Vonnegut novel to display an interest in the techniques of self-conscious art—in Vonnegut self-parody—that are so important in the later novels. His concern with the whole subject of the nature of fictional reality is revealed in the dedication: "All persons, places, and events in the book are real," reminding us of [Eugene] Ionesco's comment that fantasy is more real than realism. Throughout the novel Vonnegut draws our attention from what we are reading to the process of reading, by introducing other novels and stories which comment on the themes of his novel. (p. 112)
Superficially, at least, Vonnegut's third novel, Mother Night, is concerned with … the ways men use and destroy each other in the name of purpose. Given Vonnegut's concern with atrocities and his basic method of working against the expectations of the reader, it is not surprising that he should take as his subject the Nazis' treatment of the Jews…. [But in Mother Night an American is] about to be tried by Israel for broadcasting anti-Semitic speeches for Germany in World War II. As Campbell describes his postwar escape to New York and subsequent capture, the moral certainties become less clear. (pp. 112-13)
In Mother Night Vonnegut is primarily interested in two concepts. The first is the impossibility of absolute truth. We can only have absolute answers by blocking our minds to some obvious facts: "The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained…. The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths"…. All absolutes lead inevitably to tyranny…. There are no absolute reasons for action as Campbell discovers when he finds himself paralyzed,… because he has "absolutely no reason to move in any direction". (p. 113)
The second concept is Sartre's theory of human identity: "We are what we pretend to be." We cannot pretend to be evil, as Campbell does, and remain good secretly. We can choose our roles, but we are what we choose. Man, Vonnegut shows, has an infinite capacity for living in bad faith. Campbell can sustain a lovenest—a "nation of two"—while he helps destroy thousands. Stalin can love a romantic play about the Holy Grail and yet be Stalin. This play, one of Campbell's, functions as a comment on the novel itself for, in spite of its romantic treatment, its subject is the tyranny of Christianity, which, like the absolutes in Mother Night, has destroyed human lives.
The basic technique of Mother Night is that of Player Piano: to play against our preconceived attitudes and the expectations which the initial satirical attacks have aroused in us…. All absolutes, all preconceived notions, are undercut in this novel. The reader is left, as Campbell is, without any values to cling to….
Cat's Cradle is perhaps Vonnegut's most successful novel. The use of the methods of satire to attack satire is at its sharpest; the techniques of science fiction are turned upon science itself. But the novel works primarily because of the quality of the two central images, ice-nine and cat's cradle, and because of a fundamental irony underlying Vonnegut's conception of the narrator. (p. 114)
[The] using of clichés in new ways, which Vonnegut has occasionally employed before, becomes a major technique in the novel. He takes this cliché, reverses the traditionally benign associations of it, and shows how our inheritance from the past is not necessarily benign at all. Evil, cold like ice, spreads like water and is inevitably passed, like the ice-nine, from one generation to the next. (pp. 114-15)
Throughout the early scenes of the novel there is much ironic juxtaposing of Christianity with inhuman technology. Christmas Eve is the night Angela Hoenikker divides up the ice-nine among the children. We are tempted into believing Vonnegut offers Christian compassion as the answer. Yet Christianity is associated with destruction too…. Perhaps, then, if capitalistic Christianity is no answer, communism is? Vonnegut undercuts that solution also. (p. 115)
There can be no absolute solution, of course, because there is no meaning to human existence. The second important image of the novel is the image of the child's game cat's cradle…. Cat's cradle is a structure without substance or the meaning ascribed to it. Cat's cradle is a concrete example of the religious and philosophic structures man seems driven to build to explain his existence.
The Post-existentialist world view of Cat's Cradle is that of The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut has invented a religion called Bokononism, which most critics have described as Existentialism and take as Vonnegut's own philosophy. Certainly Bokononism recognizes that life has no purpose…. It is equally true that "Man got to tell himself he understand" … Bokonon recognizes that even his own cosmogony is a "pack of foma," all lies. Here, surely, is the point…. The narrator … calls himself a Bokononist, just as he used to call himself a Christian, and thus is in the ironic position of believing in lies as his truth. Of course, Vonnegut claims, so are we all. (p. 116)
The action is full of [such] absurd coincidences as Jonah's chance meeting with Marvin Breed just after leaving his brother Asa, and the discovery of a pedestal on which his own name is engraved. There is little causal relation between the scenes; each is a short anecdote, often complete in itself. In many of these anecdotes action is exaggerated to the point of absurdity,…. (p. 117)
[Slaughterhouse-Five] comes to terms with the question that has in one way or another been central to all his novels: What is the significance of human suffering? Is it possible for human beings to be other than cruel to one another in an Existentialist world…. For Vonnegut the firebombing of Dresden … is the ultimate symbol of purposeless human cruelty…. How, asks Vonnegut, can the knowledge of such suffering, the memory of it, be made bearable? Can anything make sense of it? (p. 122)
Vonnegut dramatizes for the reader that whatever scheme one may devise to handle the idea of death, nothing can minimize the fact of it. "So it goes" comes at us with increasing momentum….
One of the effects of the "so it goes" on the reader is the effect produced by the disjunction of tone and subject. We expect death to be treated with more apparent concern. (p. 123)
Vonnegut constantly moves the reader between real life and fiction, mentioning the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Harry Truman…. [There] are numerous references also to characters from his own earlier novels…. In this way he reminds us of the fictional nature of all experience. (p. 124)
More or less everything, he announces at the beginning of the novel, is true, not just metaphorically true, but actually true. Billy Pilgrim's attempt to come to terms with the horrors of Dresden is Vonnegut's own attempt. Billy Pilgrim creates an imaginary world, Tralfamadore; Vonnegut creates an imaginary world, Slaughterhouse-Five. In fiction, of course, as on Tralfamadore, all time is eternal, the past can be recaptured, the dead returned to life. Art is apparently a way of dealing with death, but the novelist of number is not Zeus and must ultimately fail. (pp. 124-25)
[For] all its Post-existential world view, [Breakfast of Champions] appears to argue that there are ways of living with the absurd dilemma: "It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done"…. [We] may be able to improve the human situation. (p. 125)
[This] is a world of interdependent people; we have the power to be each other's saviour rather than his slavemaster, but we are unaware of that fact, Vonnegut seems to be arguing.
The solution, apparently, is to set each other free. What is valuable … is the core of awareness in each one of us, an awareness which appears to be identical with Sartre's concept of Being-for-itself…. It is not enough to adopt the Kilgore Trout view, perhaps intended to represent Vonnegut's in his earlier novels, that everyone is a machine except oneself. (p. 126)
It seems to me, though, that Vonnegut, here as in all the other novels, undercuts this proposed solution which may remain an ideal but is seen in the novel as unworkable. Vonnegut decides to give Trout and all his other characters their freedom…. But Trout becomes once again Vonnegut's father, the man upon whom the character was modelled, and what he wants is not freedom but further control from his creator; "Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father's voice: 'Make me young, make me young, make me young!'"….
Has Vonnegut become an optimist? Hardly. Even if one does not read the ending of Breakfast of Champions as ironic, recognition of each other's value is not a solution to the Post-existential dilemma; it is at best … a way of making bearable the absurdity of the human condition. Vonnegut is ultimately a pessimist. (pp. 126-27)
Jean E. Kennard, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: The Sirens of Satire." in her Number and Nightmare: Forms of Fantasy in Contemporary Fiction (© 1975 by Jean E. Kennard), Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1975, pp. 101-28.
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The thrust of Vonnegut's fiction has moved from detached, ironic observation to impassioned participation. His early works, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, were concerned with the external environment—the dangers of technology and the glorification of the machine. He also evinced a marked concern with the relationship between destiny and fate, but the detached tone of his novels made it difficult to penetrate the layers of ambivalence. In Mother Night, Vonnegut began to concern himself more with the internal state of consciousness and with the problem of schizophrenia, as well as with the epistomological question of what can be perceived as real and what is simply illusory. Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater express Vonnegut's feelings about institutionalized religion, about the destructive nature of a social system that values money much more highly than love, and about the loneliness of the thousands of unloved that Eliot Rosewater wants to help but cannot without destroying himself. In Slaughterhouse-Five and in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut began to speak much more confidently with his own voice about himself and his views of society; and he culminated Breakfast of Champions by cutting his ties to Kilgore Trout, his erstwhile spokesman. Perhaps Vonnegut had outgrown his idealistic and very naïve alter ego.
Explicit in both Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick is Vonnegut's search for a philosophy of life that would explain its cruelties and injustices—for some code that would make life meaningful and understandable…. With the possible exception of Kilgore Trout, none of Vonnegut's characters are successful; in fact, the effort to create a harmonious world destroys Paul Proteus (Player Piano) and Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Mother Night); and the attempt drives Bokonon (Cat's Cradle) and Eliot Rosewater (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) insane.
While Vonnegut's protagonists strive to create an harmonious world filled with love, the price they pay is their loss of any personal happiness and their abrogation of any love relationship with their spouses…. [The] choice of Vonnegut's fictional characters is always the greater good for all humanity rather than personal happiness.
Inevitably, despite the best efforts of Vonnegut protagonists who "bargain in good faith with their destinies," the world is destroyed or is so unpleasant that destruction would be a relief. Usually lurking behind the destruction is Vonnegut's favorite target—unbridled technology that is divorced from any concern for Humanistic values. (p. 114-16)
The strong eschatological thread that runs through all of Vonnegut's fiction seems to be linked closely to his continued preoccupation over the question of man's ability to control his own destiny. Skeptical of institutionalized religion, Vonnegut has long pondered whether life has any intrinsic meaning or is simply haphazard. This question is the more fundamental one behind Vonnegut's consideration of the fire-bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, of the lack of American culture in Breakfast of Champions, and of the loss of his sister in Slapstick. The autobiography he writes in Slapstick is simply his acceptance of the impossibility of ever discovering life's inherent meaning and his realization that the key to humanity's survival and happiness is its embracement of life with the good natured earnestness and sincerity of Laurel and Hardy. In cinematic terms such as those Vonnegut uses in Slapstick, man is part of a Laurel and Hardy comedy and is not detached enough to see the entire film; he can only play one scene at a time, bargain good naturedly with his destiny, and be aware that he is not good at life and will often fail. (pp. 116-17)
Stanley Schatt, in his Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (copyright © 1976 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1976.
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Vonnegut has taken great care to date precisely various incidents and stages in the life of Billy Pilgrim [in Slaughterhouse-Five] and just as much care to date the appearances and intrusions of the narrator, who insists on at least a partial identification with Billy and becomes himself a character in the novel. Ultimately this observation leads to the realization that imbedded in the telegraphic, schizophrenic manner of the tale is a considerably detailed biography of Billy Pilgrim and that time-travel, together with the other science-fiction components of the novel, is a brilliant psychological technique devised by Vonnegut to interpret the life and philosophy of his created character. (p. 71)
Perhaps I attach too much importance to Vonnegut's biographical accuracy, but I have reason to believe that one's comprehension of the meaning and the aesthetic form of the novel may depend to a great extent on the isolation of Billy's biography.
The biographical path will lead, for example, to three corresponding points of time in the lives of Billy and the narrator that must be characterized as deliberate juxtapositions of salient events, functioning as elements of a conscious structural pattern of the novel, designed to signal the distance between the created character Billy and his creator Vonnegut and to alert readers to Vonnegut's critical but—as shall be seen—sympathetic and compassionate evaluation of, Billy's response to the cruelty of life.
The first point of time is 1964. In that year Billy was forced to remember Dresden; he was not even aware of his inability to remember, so deeply in his subconscious had he buried a memory of Dresden. Vonnegut, too, was unable to remember, but he was aware of that inability and actively sought to overcome it. In 1964, Kurt Vonnegut visited his war buddy Bernard V. O'Hare for the express purpose of recalling Dresden. (pp. 71-2)
In 1967, the second point of time, Vonnegut's attempt to remember Dresden actually took him back to that city, whereas in 1967 Billy was kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken to Tralfamadore, "he says." More precisely, he escaped to a "planet" created in his own imagination in order to avoid his human responsibilities as surely as Vonnegut, together with O'Hare, in 1967 traveled on his real planet Earth to Dresden in an act of human responsibility. (p. 72)
The year 1968 is the climactic year: it brings the biography of Billy to its last moment in the narrative present (beyond 1968 there is only Billy's vision of his death in 1976), and it brings Vonnegut to the present moment of writing Slaughterhouse-Five…. The import of the juxtaposition of the creative acts engaged in by Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim in 1968 seems clear: Vonnegut is writing a novel that rejects the Tralfamadorian philosophy while Billy is actively disseminating that philosophy, first preaching it orally on the all-night radio program and then by writing letters to the Ilium New Leader. The chronological correspondence works out with highly suggestive accuracy. (p. 73)
Billy's total incapacity to understand the significance of the death of human beings clearly distances him from Vonnegut. In effect, Vonnegut says in answer to Barbara's question—"Father, Father, Father—what are we going to do with you?"… that nothing can be done with Billy. (p. 74)
The reasons why Billy Pilgrim withdraws from humanity are clearly implicit in his isolable biography. In it, one can trace his indoctrination to the cruelty of the world and discover that his withdrawal from humanity was virtually complete well before Billy witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. As emotionally wounding as the Dresden holocaust may have been to Billy, it served largely to confirm a conception of life and death already a part of his being…. He had been "alarmed by the outside world" nearly since birth…. (pp. 74-5)
Though in the narrative sequence Billy's—and the doctors'—belief that he is going crazy does not surface until 1948, even at the age of twelve, in 1934, Billy had undergone the real crises of his life, had found life meaningless even if he could not then articulate that concept, and was in desperate need of reinventing himself and his universe. Vonnegut's biographical exposition of Billy's formative years implies that Billy was at twelve already well on his way to Tralfamadore. Here is the true time-travel of the novel: a linear, chronological development clearly based on a cause-and-effect relationship. The child is indeed the father of the man who searches for a prelapsarian Eden. And readers are in the presence, not of science fiction, but of profound satirical fiction probing the condition of modern man.
A brief examination of the implications of Billy's formative years shows that although Vonnegut is intensely concerned about World War II and the Vietnamese War, the novel transcends any specific events of our time. Vonnegut's ultimate concern is to question the origin and the viability of the myths man lives by and finally to reject any new lie that deprives man of his dignity and his life of significance. In this sense, Slaughterhouse-Five is a profoundly religious novel. (p. 76)
John W. Tilton, "'Slaughterhouse-Five': Life against Death-in-Life," in his Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel (© 1977 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1977, pp. 69-103.
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There is a mystical, perhaps unnerving appeal in the way Vonnegut artistically maintains the clement aloofness that strangely accounts for much of his contemporaneity; but behind it all, behind the fantasy and the anti-establishmentarianism, is a deceptive fondness for the uncomplicated that enchants some readers, repels others, and seems downright anti-intellectual or, worse, silly to his least sympathetic critics. Which of the three reactions is most valid is a matter of taste or tastelessness (depending on how you look at it); but how Vonnegut, a distinctly bourgeois writer who has more in common with Sinclair Lewis than with Hermann Hesse, came to achieve his present reputation and whether his artistry will sustain it is another matter. (p. 1)
Vonnegut's emphasis on the need for self-respect and his belief in the necessity of pacifism point to traits of character that are, one may argue, very much midwestern. Vonnegut's work can be read almost as if it is designed to illustrate attitudes that John T. Flanagan … sees as particularly midwestern: "individualism, self-reliance, a practical materialism, skepticism of custom and tradition unless rooted in common sense, political intransigence, and isolationism explained and heretofore justified by the geographical barriers and almost antagonistic apathy of the Old World."
Even Vonnegut's obsession with science-fiction techniques can be understood in terms of his regional background. "Vonnegut's fondness for vistors from other worlds is the drollest expression yet of the midwestern feeling that the Midwest is the Earth and that all other people are different," Alfred Kazin writes. "All that has changed since the West was the country of innocence is Vonnegut's feeling that innocence is dangerous." Vonnegut shares this feeling with Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other midwestern writers; but given Vonnegut's sense of imminent apocalypse, the feeling is expressed with much more urgency and is more to the point than ever.
Vonnegut returns to the midwest again and again for characters and settings. The novelist Dan Wakefield (Going All Way), who also hails from Vonnegut country, points out that in each of Vonnegut's books there is at least one character from Indianapolis and compares this to Alfred Hitchcock's practice of making a walk-on appearance in each of his movies. Vonnegut can even be seen as a literary embodiment of the midwesterner in the updated tradition of the vernacular storyteller…. (pp. 3-4)
This is an appealing approach and it may be a good reason for the success Vonnegut has had with a contemporary reading audience that uneasily accepts alienation as a fact of life. Even though the stability, the security, and the optimism associated with middle-class, midwestern attitudes are no longer to be found in Indianapolis or anywhere else, Vonnegut remains something of a homesick writer. In all of his attacks on pornography, pollution, war, and whatever other evils he chooses to name, there is an inescapable longing for an earlier, simpler time, for the midwest of his boyhood…. (p. 4)
[Vonnegut is] a transitional figure in a time when the anti-egalitarian values of such earlier figures as T. S. Eliot, who believed that culture is the property of the tiny remnant that can appreciate highly abstruse and allusive symbolic forms of art, are being left behind. Pop, which has been seen as a vice of the populace, is now regarded as a fantastic and fantastically valuable storehouse of dreams, longings, and ancient myths retooled. What Vonnegut as a pop novelist does, in part, is what he himself attributes to Hunter S. Thompson: "He makes exciting, moving collages of carefully selected junk. They must be experienced. They can't be paraphrased."…
In just about every conceivable way Vonnegut's novels are what only can be termed "naïve" literature because he makes so much use of expected associations and conventions for the purpose of rapid communication with its readers. And what sets other writers apart from popular audiences is the very thing that Vonnegut seems to lack—sophistication. His manner suggests to his readers that he is not looking down on them, that he may even be right there, where they are and where it's at. (p. 10)
Vonnegut's revelations are often accomplished through the use of fables, another of the naïve forms he likes to work in. His stories always have morals, and they work to expose sins and folly.
Vonnegut uses another, perhaps more complex, association or convention—the structural discontinuity that appeals to the imagination of an audience accustomed to the montage of television. This is part of Vonnegut's fragmented idiom, which in itself suggests contemporary experience. The way Vonnegut times the talk of his characters, along with his short chapters, his sharp images, and his quick scenes—all of this makes reading his fiction a formal approximation of the experience of watching television.
But Vonnegut's popularity should not be interpreted only as a consequence of the modish appeal of his fiction or because his books make use of so many of the devices employed by the electronic media. Vonnegut's willingness to speak directly to his audience must have something to do with it…. (p. 11)
In a sense, all of Vonnegut's novels are Welcome books, full of attitudes and instructions on handling those attitudes that are useful if one is to avoid falling off the planet, or if one wishes to keep the planet here, wherever it is.
It is a mistake, however, to conceive of Vonnegut's significance entirely in terms of his popular success. Not only does he deal with concerns that are important to all of us, but he develops many ideas in startlingly refreshing ways. One surprising consideration is that Vonnegut a thoroughly middle-class writer who is, in some of his work at least, an apologist for the very kind of life he seems to be attacking. Vonnegut writes from a vantage point that is consistently middle class, and in his novels there is the suggestion, repeated many times, that the most unhappy people are those who do not have the blessings of middle-class life—a point that Vonnegut often expresses with considerable sentimentality. (p. 12)
Vonnegut's sentimentality is, of course, behind most of his social pronouncements and his remedy for the American experience, an experience he interprets as generally an unhappy one. One reason he sees for the unhappiness is that Americans suffer from living without a culture. In his view, American society is a lonesome one. He senses a longing for community, a longing that is frustrated by the shifting from house to house and from town to town that the economic system requires of so many Americans…. Vonnegut would also prefer that people live in "primitive" communities, folk societies, which he seems to think of in terms of small towns or of neighborhoods within cities (again the middle-class, midwestern vision of tree-shaded streets and old, comfortable homes).
Consideration of such economic and social pronouncements might have no place in a study of Vonnegut's achievement as a writer if it were not for his often stated opinion (which he wryly says is in agreement with that of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini) that a writer should serve society and that his own motives, at least, are political. "Writers are a means of introducing new ideas into society," Vonnegut emphasizes, "and also a means of responding symbolically to life." His notion of what a writer should do is in conflict, however, with his assumption (perhaps another middle-class suspicion) that writers of fiction are simply not important and most certainly are not listened to by the government. (pp. 13-14)
The purpose of writing and of all the arts is to provide … myths of "frauds," as Vonnegut terms them, which make man seem wonderful and important even if we all know that in the long run he is not…. So, even though each of Vonnegut's novels shows that man in general is contemptible, Vonnegut always has a hero who denies that contemptibility through his ability to come up with or live through a myth that is usually redemptive, somehow.
There is, however, another way Vonnegut views the usefulness of the arts. In his address to the American Physical Society in 1969, he said that in teaching writing, he has come up with what he calls the "canary-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts." His explanation is "that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive…. They keel over like canaries in coal mines filled with poison gas, long before more robust types realize that any danger is there." His application of this theory is evident in all of his novels, each of which is a cry of danger, from Player Piano with its warning about computerization, to Breakfast of Champions with its warning about the consequences of failing to understand the chemical causes of schizophrenia. (pp. 14-15)
Time travel, visits by creatures from other planets, flying saucers, glimpses into a nightmare future—these and other science-fiction motifs are employed by Vonnegut to make the reader more aware of the absurdity of man's place in the universe. Vonnegut uses science fiction as a means of transmitting his vision, a vision that, because of its cosmically ironic implications, demands the intergalactic scope that science fiction affords. Given Vonnegut's attitudes toward his characters, if there were no such form as science fiction, he would be forced to invent it….
[Science fiction] also serves as a mitigating element in Vonnegut's fiction as well as a means of carrying off many of the jokes that run through and structure his novels….
[Vonnegut] uses science fiction not only as a way of carrying his ideas but as a way of making those ideas more palatable. If it were not for the science-fiction elements, Vonnegut would often be very unfunny indeed. (p. 86)
But, as even his first novel demonstrates, Vonnegut refuses to be limited by either the form of science fiction or its conventions. He shows from the start in Player Piano that he differs from most science-fiction writers in his characterization. Even though Vonnegut tends toward cartoonlike characters in his novels, purposely avoiding full development on principle, he nonetheless begins with a character, Paul Proteus, rather than an idea. Science may provide the conflict, but the resolution comes through character.
Most of Vonnegut's fiction concerns itself with technological problems but only insofar as those problems relate to and explicate character, with the point usually being that no matter what technology surrounds them, men and women remain essentially the same. Player Piano despite its EPICAC XIV computer and its checker-playing machine, comes down in the end to an ironic story about a disappointed middle-class revolutionist…. (p. 94)
The Trout novels retold in Breakfast of Champions are remarkably similar to Vonnegut's own in their resolutions and in their tendency to avoid any actual technical explanation of the strange futuristic technologies they rely upon. A good example is the story of Delmore Skag, who, as a way of protesting against the wastefulness and absurdity of large families, invents a means of reproducing replicas of himself by shaving living cells from the palm of his right hand and culturing them in chicken soup. He then invites his neighbors, all of whom have large families, to mass baptisms—sometimes as many as a hundred of his "babies" at once. But instead of passing a law outlawing families of more than one or two children, the government enacts legislation prohibiting the possession of chicken soup by an unmarried person. And the cosmically ironic joke is on Delmore Skag, a joke that goes along with one of Vonnegut's main themes—the destruction of the planet through the insane response human beings seem to make to any idea. (p. 97)
In one novel, Cat's Cradle, however, Vonnegut plays things straighter, especially with the substance that engenders the final catastrophe—ice-nine. Vonnegut generally makes no attempt to explain or make plausible the scientific wonders that occur in his futuristic worlds, and there admittedly is not much "science" in his fiction. But with ice-nine, at any rate, Vonnegut provides a technical lecture that makes Cat's Cradle read at times more like hard-core science fiction than any of Vonnegut's other novels…. The result is a suggestion of authentic science that makes the apocalyptic ending of the novel horrifying, despite Vonnegut's comic implications. (p. 98)
What Vonnegut is doing as he moves half mystically, half laughingly, in and out of science fiction is to try to come up with a definition of himself and others that will "stand in the terrifying light of twentieth-century knowledge." When he is writing simply as a science-fiction writer in the stories he published in Galaxy ("Unready to Wear" and "The Big Trip Up Yonder") or in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ("Harrison Bergeron"), he does not move very far toward that definition. But when he combines the special effects of science fiction with extended cosmic irony in his novels, he transforms one of the most important forms of pop culture into his own distinctive form of astral jokebook. (p. 100)
James Lundquist, in his Kurt Vonnegut (copyright © 1977 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Frederick Ungar, 1977.
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[Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.] is a Cosmic Fool, a clown who laughs at the world's failings and sorrows (and tries to tease, cajole and seduce us into laughing at them, too), rather than be overwhelmed by them (though sometimes it is touch and go). His satirical commentaries on business, war, politics, machine technology, organized religion, and organizations in general expose the foibles and inhumanities of a society of which he is always highly critical. Yet his satire and cosmic pessimism are paradoxically countered by his humor, gentleness and kindness, as well as his comic energy and individual optimism. (p. 3)
Faced with a world defined by Emersonian or Jungian polarities (what he calls in Cat's Cradle "Dynamic Tension," or Bokonon's "sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil" [one could add to his list nature and history, freedom and determinism, love and indifference, individuality and conformity, reality and illusion, and literature and life], Vonnegut consciously chooses a stance of naivety and wonder—the "child-like"—as well as sentiment and self-pity—the "childish." In many ways, he is sensitive and profound; in others, he remains a blurb-writer, still doing public relations work, but now for himself.
Vonnegut establishes throughout his writings a point of view intended to be outside our own moment in time and space…. This point of view—usually "a visitor from another planet"—is concerned fundamentally with problems of value: self-awareness, self-realization, self-fulfillment; the nature and destiny of man. On a primary level, Vonnegut's search for the sacred in human experience involves the attempt, as the narrator says in Slaughterhouse-Five, "to reinvent himself and his universe in his novel." Or, as Billy Pilgrim hears Eliot Rosewater say to a psychiatrist: "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." These "new lies" (or Bokononist foma) and the reinvented selves are the moral centers of Vonnegut's fiction. (p. 4)
[What] makes a worthwhile life in a meaningless, arbitrary, contingent universe? Each of Vonnegut's works embodies in its characters a response to this predicament…. (pp. 4-5)
Vonnegut's other major themes, the nature of truth, the paradoxical contrast between illusion and reality, and the nature of man, all come together in his sense of the need for the creation of a reinvented universe (a "secondary universe" in fantasy terms), a perspective from which we may examine our primary universes and perhaps change them. His tactics include irony, paradox, and satirical humor, sometimes coupled with a didactic and sentimental tone, to delineate his own created universes. At one level, Vonnegut is a failed Romanticist who sees "no hope" in a world which does not care either for or about man…. (p. 5)
[Player Piano] is a satire of modern society, relationships, religion, and politics…. Some critics have argued that it is Vonnegut's finest novel, and even that it is the best work of modern science fiction. Others have argued that it is his poorest, and not science fiction at all. One of the reasons for this wide variance in opinion is Vonnegut's characterization: the characters who people this novel (and indeed all his novels) seem to many critics flat and stereotypic, to lack depth in their feeling and thinking, to fail to meet a prime criterion for fiction: making us care deeply about them. But this misses the point, for Vonnegut's characters are closer relatives to the figures in G. B. Trudeau's "Doonesbury" than they are to most of the characters in modern American fiction. They embody and reflect the ideas and values which come under close scrutiny in Vonnegut's work; they do not come into any "full life" of their own. (p. 9)
Vonnegut's satire … focuses on one of his consistent themes: the failure of love to provide a secure center for human relationships in the modern world. Paul makes a "dark muffled womb" of his bed every night, and his "barren" wife Anita (who would fit in rather easily with the Stepford wives) has social rather than sexual orgasms. Their ritual love-refrain ("I love you, Paul." "I love you, Anita.") is repeated in one form or another eleven times in the novel, and along with Paul's "Hi ho," is the first of the refrains which become consistent thematic punctuations in Vonnegut's work. Yet Paul, in a pathetic yet poignant scene typical of Vonnegut (and reminiscent of Isaac Mc-Caslin's thoughts about his own wife in Faulkner's The Bear), thinks that Anita "was what fate had given him to love, and he did his best to love her." This problem with love, and its failure as a redeeming force in life, is reflected in much of Vonnegut's work, and becomes the center of [Slapstick]…. (p. 11)
[Player Piano's] cast of characters is varied and impressive, and although they tend to be brittle, fallible, fragile, and weak, "losers" more than "winners," they inspire both irony and pity, Vonnegut's as well as the reader's. (pp. 11-12)
The Shah provides for us a point of view and perspective from outside the limited world and experience of the novel's cultural framework (and our own, Vonnegut suggests). (p. 13)
What the Shah never sees is Paul's personal world, and this lack of interaction or confrontation is one of the novel's weaknesses. For Paul is finally insubstantial, a "wraith" who is "little more than his station in life…." [He] remains a figurative as well as literal prisoner at the novel's end. Like Malachi Constant in The Sirens of Titan, Paul is a manipulated messiah figure who inadvertently satirizes not only the Protestant work-ethic, but also the forms of old religions and the failures of new religions (like the Ghost Shirt Society) to replace them. (p. 14)
The central question of the novel concerns the nature and destiny of man…. Paul, on trial for sabotage (the greatest sin against a technocracy, states that "The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings … not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems." Yet it is not always clear in the novel just what "doing a good job of being human beings" means. Indeed, Vonnegut struggles with this question throughout his work. (pp. 14-15)
Of all the characters in [The Sirens of Titan], it is Rumfoord who is the most intriguing. On one hand, he is described by the narrator in terms which would do justice to a Hemingway "code character": he has "un-neurotic courage," "style"…, and "gallantry." Yet he loves fraud, endlessly manipulating the other characters…. (p. 19)
The image of man in this novel is thus close to what e. e. cummings has called 'mostpeople." People are described as "whores for money, alcoholics, cynics, and scummy idiots who dream of greener pastures without being willing to work for them." Yet, in Rumfoord's eyes, man remains laughingly optimistic, expecting the species to last for millions of years. It is this laughter, along with memory, which is one of the few measures of man's freedom. (p. 20)
In many ways the characters in The Sirens of Titan have their parallels with the characters in Player Piano. There are: the central character who somewhat simple-mindedly struggles to make sense of his world, and in the process becomes more aware and more human, though still manipulated and used (Malachi and Paul); the observer from "outer space" who sees the action more clearly and honestly than those who are involved in it (Salo and the Shah); the perceptive participant who tries to create a new religion to solve man's problems (Rumfoord and Lasher); and the plastic-hostess female figure who only at brief moments shows any humanity (Bee and Anita).
Both novels focus on the question of the meaning of life. (p. 22)
Love and kindness may be illusion and not reality, as are the Sirens of Titan (Malachi learns on Titan that they are not real women, but only statues made by Salo of Titanic peat); yet that may be all there is. As Woody Allen says to the psychiatrist who tells him to hospitalize his brother who thinks he is a chicken: "I can't; I need the eggs." The same is true, he says, of human relationships: we don't give them up, because we need the eggs. Perhaps the moral of The Sirens of Titan finally is: abandon expectations, live fully in the present moment, and love whoever is around to be loved. (pp. 22-3)
[At several levels Mother Night] is about pretending, duplicity, illusion, and multiple roles…. Campbell is in several ironic ways as much Nazi as pseudo-Nazi. He says that like Mata Hari—to whom he dedicated his book—he "whored in the interest of espionage"; but Wirtanen points out that historians would consider him really a Nazi, and asks what would have happened if Germany had won the war. Campbell's response is that he probably would have become a "Nazi Edgar Guest." Vonnegut extends the moral in his editor's note by quoting from a chapter Campbell later rejected, in which he dedicated the novel to "one familiar person, male or female, widely known to have done evil while saying to himself, 'a very good me, the real me, a me made in Heaven, is hidden deep inside,'" and rededicates the novel to himself, as a "man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times." Clearly, the moral is meant to apply to the reader as well as to Campbell. (pp. 24-5)
Mother Night might be subtitled "A Portrait of the Artist as Liar." It is a novel of escapes from reality, in which (like Player Piano) history overcomes art, love, and politics. Campbell, as playwright-artist, hides from reality in a world of the imagination, and sees the world—rather than himself—as diseased. (p. 26)
Though Cat's Cradle is in many ways an antidote to Mother Night, countering its view of lies as corrupting and destructive with a vision of lies as nurturing and sustaining, its fundamental focus is literature as game. In this novel Vonnegut is closer to [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [John] Fowles, and [John] Barth than he has been in his earlier works. The reader is more aware of being played with than he is of being instructed or amused, though Vonnegut continues to satirize science, religion, politics, sex, man's understanding, nationalism, and love. (p. 28)
Once again, man in Vonnegut's cosmos is obsessed with the search for meaning and purpose…. And once again, understanding is the booby-prize; man must accept what is, and not separate himself from his experience by constantly trying to analyze its meaning. (p. 31)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater deals with the confusions of money, power and love in a "Free Enterprise System." (p. 37)
But God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is as much about love and integrity as it is about money and power. The only character with real integrity in the novel besides Kilgore Trout (the others either lack it or are searching for it) is the Hemingway-type caricature of Mr. Natural, Harry Pena…. (p. 40)
Eliot and his father argue periodically throughout the novel about the nature of love…. [The] point to Eliot, and to Kilgore Trout, is that "people can use all the uncritical love they can get." As Trout says, what Eliot wants is "treasuring human beings because they are human beings." This contrast in views on love is similar to that of John and Mona in Cat's Cradle. And what Eliot has learned is similar to what Howard Campbell learns in Mother Night, that people need uncritical love, love without judgment, love which accepts people just the way they are, and just the way they are not. (p. 41)
[Happy Birthday, Wanda Jane] deals fundamentally with death, the acceptance of death as a part of the natural order, and the place of women in the modern world…. However, the central conflict in the play is between those who enjoy killing, and those who don't, a conflict which is never clearly resolved, at least in part because once again Vonnegut has no real villains. The play is also about the need for rituals in society … male chauvinism …, and the human need for dignity and patience…. [His] plays are certainly less successful than the novels, due fundamentally to a lack of depth of motivation in the characters, and no clearly defined points of view….
[Slaughterhouse-Five] focuses particularly on the horror and absurdity of war, man's helplessness in an absurd universe, the fact that life (and death) simply is what it is, and how man can deal with these realities: by inventing "wonderful new lies." It presents these ideas, however, in a style which is continuing to develop, and which is moving significantly closer to the form which might be called the Gestalt Novel, the form of Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick. (p. 45)
Beginning with Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut is not only a character in his novels, but also, in dramatic terms, the producer and director as well. His authorial intrusions provide the framework for the entire novel (as the beginning and end of the actual novel, rather than as introduction and afterword), and also punctuate the work throughout, reminding us that Vonnegut as "author" and Vonnegut as "narrator" are not necessarily the same. (pp. 45-6)
There is no beginning, middle or end to the novel—not in terms of chronological time-scheme nor of plot development. There is also no suspense (we as readers, as well as Billy Pilgrim, learn quite early how and when he will "die"), and none of the cause and effect relationships of realistic fiction; the book simply reinforces the Tralfamadorian and Bokononist views that what is, is. In fact, the Tralfamadorians frequently tell Billy that men are "machines" and "bugs in amber," and that Earthlings are the universe's "great explainers," who keep needing to create artificial answers to the question "why?" rather than accept the irrelevance of the question. The disjointed time-scheme and short chapter form also create a clump of images, if not symbols, which come together in the mind of the reader as a montage which does often "produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep." It is this technique of "Gestalt fiction" which Vonnegut extends in Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick as a vehicle for his naive vision. (pp. 49-50)
When Billy asks the Tralfamadorians that question which must be asked in all Vonnegut novels, "Why me?," they reply: … "Because this moment simply is…." [Billy discovers] that this view totally eliminates guilt, and frees man to use his memory selectively. By concentrating only "on the happy moments" of life one is able to adopt the epitaph which Vonnegut says will serve for himself as well as Billy Pilgrim: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt" (or, as he phrased it in Monkey House: "No Pain")…. What this foma (or "wonderful new lie") provides is a perspective beyond anxiety and alienation, a perspective which accepts the meaninglessness of the world (and says "so what?"), and then goes on to create a world in which man is paradoxically free because he has been released from the burden of irresponsible responsibility. It is a world in which what a man does is simply what he does; a world governed by a naive vision out of which, as Kilgore Trout says, one can open the window and make love to the world.
Breakfast of Champions is a further development in Vonnegut's naive vision, and in the techniques of "Gestalt fiction." (pp. 51-2)
It is [the] seemingly radical separation of art and reality, and of literature and life, which becomes the center of Vonnegut's naive vision. It is an attempt to break down the stereotypes of continuity, order and ordinary meaning which inform mainstream fiction, a fiction in which "people get what is coming to them in the end," a fiction which convinces readers that in this "fair and just" world, they too will be rewarded (and their enemies punished). (p. 53)
The central theme in Breakfast of Champions remains the same as it is in Vonnegut's other work. If human beings are "non-sacred machines" living on a "wrecked planet," if the real "breakfast of champions" is alcohol (which destroys the body) rather than any cereal which nourishes it, and if there is no Creator to cry "Olly-olly-ox-in-free" to us (as Dwayne does so ironically in this novel, and as Howard Campbell wishes it in Mother Night), what shall give us the will to live? How can we say goodbye to all the "Blue Mondays"? (p. 56)
[Commenting on the novel, Vonnegut] says that "the American experience has been an unhappy experience, generally, and part of it, as I say, is living without a culture" …, "all my books are my effort to … make myself like life better than I do."
Yet there is a gap (and in our contemporary culture, perhaps a chasm) between acknowledging a problem and solving it, and with each novel, the gap for Vonnegut seems to become wider. (p. 57)
In Slapstick, Vonnegut again reveals his disenchantment with the lack of supportive culture in America, particularly the disenfranchisement brought about by the breaking down of regionalism….
Vonnegut, still the intrusive author, begins the novel with the sentence: "This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography…." And the novel does seem to be autobiographical, with Wilbur's relationship with his sister Eliza paralleling Vonnegut's own relationship with his sister Alice; it is also grotesque, situational poetry—"real life," as Vonnegut called it in Breakfast of Champions; and it is filled with a poignant longing for a recapitulation of the past …, the other side of Kilgore Trout's last cry at the end of Breakfast of Champions: "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" (p. 58)
The irony in [the novel] is that Wilbur is unable to have real intimacy, just as he is unable to share love…. [Love] "can often be poisonous" (Vonnegut wants it replaced by "common decency"), and when Wilbur and Eliza attempt a reconciliation the result is an incredibly intense, traumatic, and pathetic orgy which lasts for "five whole nights and days," and which terrifies them both. Eliza, the intuition, has spent her time in the institution singing the same song, over and over again: "Some Day My Prince Will Come;" Wilbur, the intellect, has spent his time justifying their separation. Neither the romanticist nor the rationalist alone is "really very good at life." Yet when Wilbur twice tells Eliza that he loves her, she tells him that she doesn't like it because its "just a way of getting somebody to say something they probably don't mean. What else can I say, or anybody say, but, 'I love you, too?'" (reminiscent of the ironic refrain Paul and Anita repeat in Player Piano)…. Despite Vonnegut's admonition in the preface that this novel is "what life feels like to me," and the epigraph of Romeo's "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd," intuition bows and defers to intellect, and feeling to thinking, and love fails. (pp. 61-2)
Where will Vonnegut go from here? In Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick, the Gospel from Outer Space (the detached observer) has been replaced by the Gospel from Inner Space (the involved participant). Vonnegut remarked in the preface to Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons that "I keep losing and gaining equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction." Though there are still no Nirvanas, Vonnegut may continue, if he overcomes his own fears (particularly embodied in Howard Campbell's desire for suicide in Mother Night, and Kilgore Trout's cry against growing old in Breakfast of Champions) and maintains his "equilibrium," to develop and refine his techniques of Gestalt fiction. Look also for an extension of his naive vision, for a literature which helps us laugh (as well as cry) at life's ironies, and helps us become our own folk heroes. Look for a book like Unk's letter, as it was described in The Sirens of Titan: "literature in the finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times." (p. 63)
Clark Mayo, in his Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas), (copyright © 1977 by Clark Mayo), The Borgo Press, 1977.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7006
[Player Piano] intends to startle us with something sinister. Aspiring toward moral autonomy violates the order of creation. In grabbing for the complete freedom of God, the technological mind abuses the freedom God has given the human creature to share in life within limitations. The consequence of this overreaching is the degradation and oppression felt by all the figures in the story.
In Player Piano humanity lives under the curse brought about by its own arrogance. The novels that follow take the reader to many remote, exotic places as they recount the adventures of many wonderfully strange persons; and yet they come back to this old—Old Testament, really—predicament of the fundamental break in the relationship among persons and between them and their universe. (p. 24)
The narrative line of Vonnegut's first two novels traces the way the hero makes his path through worlds that check his decent impulses, finally to be cleansed by a restoration of the human values that had been sacrificed. Both books show the need for a new human beginning. In Player Piano, Paul Proteus rebels against the technological violation of humanity, and in The Sirens of Titan, Malachi Constant reacts against his own debauchery; but what is constant for Paul and protean for Malachi is the final commitment to compassion and to life in all its unpredictability.
There are, however, between Vonnegut's first two books, telling differences in mode and in moral penetration of their common theme. By and large, Player Piano is a traditionally composed novel. Though Vonnegut uses nonsense, creates a nonlanguage, tries his hand at word catalogues, his techniques is not in the end experimental. The anthropological material is not esoteric, and the novel's futurism and anti-utopian satire leave our imagination unchallenged. The setting of Paul Proteus' renunciation of the political system is on recognizable Earth. Now these energies are also in The Sirens of Titan, but they swing out more widely and plumb deeper. The second novel sweeps cosmically through the solar system and depicts those outer worlds not satirically, but with visionary celebration. Moreover, the moral compass takes in spiritual principles of retribution that lay deeper than the political effects brought about by Proteus' rebellion. (pp. 25-6)
Though only his second novel, [The Sirens of Titan] signals a clear advance over the first. It has reached the large popular audience for which Vonnegut wrote it, and yet subtly works through patterns that we associate with his more recent and acclaimed books.
The novel's cri-de-coeur—"'Live!'"—expresses our most primal human need and implies that the universe is set against our fulfilling such a need. Where the struggle to make the most of life is the theme of Player Piano, in The Sirens of Titan it becomes the form. With all its cosmic range, the story is told with a pointed simplicity. The choice of a popular manner underscores the universality of Constant's desire to be free and to be decent. The simplest message is given in the simplest way. Naive literature is one name for this treatment; parable is another, and in this case is more apt because it conveys the moral tone underlying the tale. The nature of the parable is such that meaning can readily be extracted from it. This is the effect Vonnegut seeks. He even tells brief stories within the novel as a whole. But paradoxes, bewilderments, and reversals in the total story make any single extrapolation seem inadequate. That the story is not reducible to a statement of its meaning is its distinctiveness. What we have is a sophisticated treatment of the naive genre. The Sirens of Titan is almost a parable. (pp. 26-7)
The plain syntax suggests values of simplicity and community, which the action will affirm. Just as the parable is the simplest form in which to express the simplest lesson, so the loose declarative sentence is the simplest grammatical structure. It so dominates the novel that it becomes formulaic, achieving at times the quality of a chant. The style speaks for artlessness and commonplace. The narrative voice provides signals to the audience for the stance it should take, and here Vonnegut expects nothing more of the reader than would the modes of communication in the popular culture. The voice is the kind, knowing, legendary one of, say, fairy tales. (p. 27)
If the voice Vonnegut develops in The Sirens of Titan is folksy, it is also complex. The rhetorical gestures express a double mood. Set against the plain manner, but serving the same purpose—to communicate directly to a common reader—is a superlative idiom. Here we find Vonnegut the pop writer trying to give another kind of art a break by giving dignity to the petty experience of contemporary life. (p. 28)
[Exaggeration] allows Vonnegut gently to satirize the material he uses. What is especially noteworthy is how Vonnegut gives meaning to what in other hands would be mere bravura devices. Conventional science fiction presents the spectacle of enormity and of the outer world to dazzle us by honoring technology. Its verisimilitude requires that we suspend our disbelief. Not so with Vonnegut. His exaggerations make us stay aware of this tale as fiction, as imagined. For him, space exploration ventures into possibilities, not facts; and the possibilities are those of inner spiritual zones, not of a fake mechanism or fixed cosmography….
The marvel that is the subject of The Sirens of Titan is the humanization of Malachi Constant of Hollywood, California, who has three billion dollars but is a spiritual pauper. He nevertheless evolves into a good man because his dissoluteness contains the seed of his virtue. In the beginning of the parable he lives in corruption. By passing through the terra incognita of his soul he comes out into magnificence. (p. 29)
In keeping with his desire to reach a large popular readership, Vonnegut vivifies Constant's trip into the inner terra incognita of love through the great contemporary mythic voyage, the space odyssey. (A Joyce or a Proust would use the less accessible metaphor of mental association to chart the route into the psyche's unknown areas.) … Winston Niles Rumfoord, who knows a great deal about space and time, says to his wife that "'life for a punctual person is like a roller coaster.'" The contour of Constant's voyage proves his point: the ups, the dips, the turns are all there; and the time-caught person rides it out. The path of the roller coaster pictures times spatially, and one can see the whole life-course at once. Blocked out this way, events appear accidental, pointless, beyond our control. The roller coaster, then, is fate. (p. 30)
As for Constant, this weary traveler made it through the thick and thin of planet-hopping but dies waiting in the snow for a bus, the commuter's nightmare come true. Nevertheless, his life "would end well," the parabolist promises us; and it does…. Constant fulfills his destiny as an Earthling with the restoration of friendship. The blatant hallucinosis of Constant's reverie bids farewell to the actual world and reminds us of the fictiveness of this fiction. (p. 37)
The requirements of the sentimental adventure story are more than amply fulfilled in The Sirens of Titan. When the novel concludes, the world is brought into precise focus as things come into a harmonious whole. It is no longer the junkyard it once was. That debris-ridden world is gone. In the end our perception of the world is corrected because Constant's preceptions have been made new through his space pilgrimage. The perfect white world at the conclusion depicts the world as though seen through Constant's moral freshness. He has come to see—we have come to see in the act of reading his parable—that our humanity is forever present, not something to be pursued or awaited, but only to be perceived and realized by loving whoever is around to be loved, as we sail together on this planet through the cold blue. (pp. 37-8)
Mother Night takes place in jail, opening with Campbell behind bars in Jerusalem and concluding with him locked up in the same place, about to commit suicide. The bare facts of time and place, along with the polarities of its dramatic movement, say a great deal about the growth of Vonnegut's work, and we may pause briefly to note his development. Strife, brutality, spiritual loss—these and other themes from the first two books recur in Mother Night; but now the treatment of such issues is more personal, more psychological. It takes place in the present, not in the future. The setting shifts accordingly from the outer space of The Sirens of Titan to inner space. The story unfolds not by flinging out through celestial bodies but by burrowing down into psychic places within a single person. Having ventured into the cosmos, Vonnegut for this adventure confines himself to the microcosm of the self. The exploration of this inner galaxy is best made through introspection rather than the mock-utopian or parable treatments of the earlier novels. Such a book might very well have been expected, though its story could not have been predicted. Near the beginning of The Sirens of Titan, the narrator declares that "Only inwardness remained to be explored." Campbell's confession gives shape to that remaining exploration. Finally, we can say this about the thematic contours of Vonnegut's first three novels: if Player Piano affirms the growth of the individual through revolt, and if The Sirens of Titan goes on to show a positive, miraculous conversion of the self, Mother Night redirects the moral energy by dramatizing a negative artistic conversion. (pp. 40-1)
A particularly apt way into the complexity of Mother Night is through form. This confessional story requires of the reader a certain literary sophistication, for the book is, after all, told by a literary artist revealing his abuses of literary forms…. [His] display of various kinds of inventions is one aspect of Vonnegut's making form the subject of his novel. Another aspect comes through Campbell's direct comments on language, which ironically yield his best insights into his behavior. Art can do this. In Campbell's case it must because his absorption into this self-created Nazi monster equates the crisis of his life with the task of his art. (p. 42)
Campbell's personal history should have taught him that there are forms and that a work has a form, but the form does not exist except as an ideal or textbook exercise. A pattern based on clarity and causality could not accommodate his own life, which is a series of disconnections. But Campbell's fate is not to know all that he is communicating. While he states a preference for ideal form, his achieved form in his confessions is highly individual. The novel itself renders the shape of his experience. (p. 43)
The beginning establishes the fictive world of Mother Night as that of Campbell's mind. The rhetoric reveals a crisis. The litany of facts and repetitious syntax are part of Campbell's bafflement. Emotionally, he is stuck; the string of loose sentences cannot go forward. He is blocked in a cell of words; hence the physical jail. Setting and mind become interchangeable. The terms of his imprisonment further alter our sense of the beginning of the novel. He is awaiting trial and, as things stand certain execution by the Israeli government. The beginning of his memoir is really a crisis. The man who commends stories with a definite beginning starts his own memoir well past the middle of his life, very near the end. Vonnegut's formal irony here tells us more about Campbell than does his aesthetic manifesto. (p. 44)
Mother Night is not only a book about life, which is the classical business of the novel, but also is a book that has living going on in its pages. Put another way, it shows life in form while using form to represent life. This of course is Campbell's problem stated anew. (p. 45)
Though he proclaims his impending self-destruction, the novel leaves the reader with the sense that Campbell does not follow through with his announcement. We are left with the split response that is at the center of his personality. With characteristic dramatic flourish he bids, "Goodbye, cruel world!" Then, with an equally typical about-face, he speaks from another of his selves (now his dark, comic self) and follows his adieu with a histrionic gesture that raises the possibility that we will meet again—"Auf wiedersehen?" These words close the novel with the gallows humor that surrounds Vonnegut's stories. Moreover, by concluding the memoir with a question mark, Vonnegut suspends Campbell's self-examination in an unfinished state. Like Dante's damned, Campbell is doomed emotionally to relive his crime without ever coming to a releasing understanding. So it does seem likely, as he says that we will meet his many selves again and again….
Vonnegut is making a moral point through the ambiguous ending of Mother Night. The scripts Campbell tries to live by are inadequate to the contingencies of life. The pain caused by remorse is awful, but worse pain comes from the recognition that there is no resolution. Early in the novel Campbell speaks of "'something worse than Hell'" to his Israeli prison guard. Hell is decisive next to the purgatorial rotation of pretenses that leads nowhere. We have a hung ending to parallel the hung beginning. Rhetorical gesture serves as moral retribution. Campbell's imminent suicide is a comment on the world he lives in as well as on his personal despair; only in a nihilistic world could the gratuitous taking of one's life be a way of affirming oneself, as it is for Campbell. Mother Night is in the throes of giving birth to another dark child of despondence.
The ironies of the ending remind the reader to view the maze wholly from the outside and invite us to exercise our moral imagination to piece together the confusion that destroys the protagonist. This is the responsibility ironic art such as Vonnegut's places on the reader. From the outside a pattern does suggest itself. In trying to comprehend his heartsickness and penitence, Campbell moves from an egocentric view of his personal importance (he will dazzle the world with his brilliant speeches) to a recognition of his personal insignificance. "'Nobody even knows I'm alive anymore.'" Doomed and with his fantasy defenses down, Campbell confronts the idea of his personal extinction. His ego, which was once so grandiose that it hatched many make-believe selves to secure endurance, now is presented with the fact of its noncontinuance. The mind encounters no greater difficulty than realizing its nonexistence. Campbell deals with this intolerable dilemma with the same subterfuge he used to handle other dangers. Now he thinks of himself as dead, but his idea of suicide wrests only illusory power over impending doom. Mother Night lays bare for us the mechanism of the self-deceiving mind as it desperately tries to keep up with the uncontrollable distresses of life, which, for Vonnegut, are epitomized in the encompassing threat of war with its senseless violence. (pp. 50-1)
[Cat's Cradle] is a digression about the Hoenikker family, and this displacement of the narrator's proclaimed topic by a subsidiary one alerts us to Vonnegut's intention in his fourth novel. His meaning lies precisely in the book's narrative detour; for swerving reflects Dr. Hoenikker's deviation from responsibility in his scientific research, a deviation which brought about the Hiroshima disaster in the first place and then yielded ice-nine, which finally destroys the entire world.
John survives to tell about the later calamity and changes his name to one more in keeping with trial he has endured. "Call me Jonah," are his first words. His phraseology pointedly aligns Vonnegut's narrator with Melville's storyteller Ishmael in Moby Dick, and by extension with the classical American artists who are, as William Carlos Williams terms them in Paterson, "Ishmaels of the spirit." Having narrowly escaped in their pursuit of the great white whale of knowledge, such people survive to tell us of the world's incomprehensibility. The spirit of Ishmael is that of prophecy born of affliction. Vonnegut makes of his spiritual Ishamel a darker figure who shadows forth the dire warning that we must change our ways if we are to avoid universal annihilation. The bearer of cosmic news is as familiar a figure in Vonnegut's books as is the conflict between "know-how" and "know-what." The threat of technological advancement without regard for ethical purpose necessitates the omens issued by the messenger. By placing the pursuit of knowledge in the atomic age under the sign of Jonah, Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle has extended the responsibility of the envoy and, therefore, the character of his news. (pp. 53-4)
Vonnegut's first-person narration makes Cat's Cradle a personal testimony to the warning of Mother Night, namely, that pretense and lies can overtake truth; for in Cat's Cradle, as Jonah tells his tale, lies systematically overtake actuality. (p. 59)
Jonah is not a character in the customary sense so much as he is a mock author. He is not a narrator with a personality developed from inherent qualities, for his several names tell us that he is a reduction to narrative expedient. Whether he is John, as he once was, or "had been a Sam, I would have been a Jonah still" because the name evokes the disaster that determined his being…. For all his unique experience teaches him, Jonah's life remains "meaningless." He tries to believe that love will make sense amid vast disorder and resigns himself to a loveless universe. "And no love waiting for me anywhere…." Passive resignation allows Jonah to live in the fallen world but it also allows him to be absorbed by the cynicism that destroyed the world. (p. 61)
Cat's Cradle concludes with [an] encounter between Jonah and a swami leading to a promised infernal text about life. Like Blake, Jonah at the End sees a visionary, Bokonon, who was something of a prophet and now, by calculated inversion, becomes an outlawed devil. He is not consumed in flames but is dying slowly of ice-nine. Jonah and Bokonon talk of their text, The Books of Bokonon, which shares in the diabolical irreverence of [William] Blake's "The Bible of Hell." Dazed, Bokonon proffers Jonah the final sentence of The Books of Bokonon, which is an urging that Jonah write "a history of human stupidity." This is to be written in untruth because in a world of radical instability and deception, inverted language is all that is left for communication. Accordingly, the epigraph to the complete novel runs: "Nothing in this book is true." We are left in Cat's Cradle not only with the negation of vision but also with the negation of communication. Solipsism, the final divorce of relations, among persons, is the ruling condition in the novel. (p. 67)
[Vonnegut's view in Cat's Cradle] is personalist and immanent. "'Think of what paradise this world would be if men were kind and wise.'" Unfortunately what the novel dramatizes does not share this cheerfulness but rather encourages a judgment that a scientific and utopian belief in the limitless power and perfectibility of human nature is one of those evil illusions by which humankind tries to make life easy and wonderful while actually causing great pain. The proclamation of Vonnegut's Jonah points toward but does not reveal deliverance. He directs us to laugh at the disasters brought about by our scientific and political egotism in order that we may turn away from a prideful death-wish to appreciate what is good in the world and dear in other persons. (p. 68)
[God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater] is a companion book to Cat's Cradle…. Both novels show men of good will struggling to make sense of a bewildering, fallen universe by answering the naked needs of others…. Having discarded in Cat's Cradle the efforts of organized religion and science to improve life, and having questioned in Mother Night the capacity of art to penetrate the abiding deterioration, Vonnegut moves on to consider the power of money to humanize life through the kind offices of Eliot Rosewater…. (p. 69)
Eliot Rosewater's character is a résumé of the qualities Vonnegut developed in the principal figures of the preceding four novels. Eliot is born to privilege and, with Paul Proteus in Player Piano, turns against the system, which respects him for extrinsic reasons, in order that he can present himself as a person. Malachi Constant travels all around the solar system in The Sirens of Titan for the simple perspective of which his great material wealth deprived him, and the humility Malachi learns becomes the way of life that his fellow millionaire Eliot takes up in his backwater hometown. But noble intentions can boomerang. Howard J. Campbell goes crazy in Mother Night by trying to remain patriotic while serving the Nazi enemy. Or the high cause can overwhelm the endeavor to do what is right. Eliot openly works for the good of other, yet his mind gives way under the massive need he serves….
The pervasive poverty in the Vonnegut world is that of love. Warm feeling between persons marks a special moment in his narratives, and there are few such moments. Intimacy is avoided rather than desired, and friendship is a passing bond. Trust of one person by another is so exceptional that we are likely to accept Jonah's isolation as the given condition. Mere awareness of emotional contact indicates a sympathetic figure who invariably comes across as vulnerable and not infrequently as a bit crazed. Where ignorance of emotion is the norm, sensitivity will inevitably seem to be a mental disorder. The masses of automatons crowding Vonnegut's fictions indicate that lovelessness has reached a crisis stage where indiscriminate affection is called for as a cure. (p. 70)
If we come to think of Eliot as living out Jesus' commandment to his disciples to answer the curse with a blessing, as Vonnegut seems to invite us to do, then we can sense the seriousness in the bitter comic ending. In the Bible the Father communicates life to his Son. Passing on life is the essential blessing. In the end Eliot does just this to his fifty-seven new, stray children: "'And tell them … to be fruitful and multiply.'"
These are the last words of the novel. They suspend the action in a mandate for regeneration. If only for this closing moment, love harmonizes the social disorder with which the story began. Eliot's presence assures us that there is one entirely good man in the world. The gesture magically shows that cruelty and confusion are merely at the service of order and goodness. The miracle Eliot performs does not wipe away the world's havoc. Chaos abides; it is the law of nature. His miracle amounts to correcting our vision; for his life teaches us that we have only to alter the way we look at the world to accept its unpredictability and to recognize the humanness in people through their need for affectionate contact. Eliot's potentiality has been intimated all along in the name Rosewater, which hints of gentleness, fairness, and transformation. The final wonder that Vonnegut observes is the transformation in Eliot's spirit. At the end he is not the lunatic philanthropist casting pearls before swine, to borrow from the novel's sardonic subtitle; nor is he the helpless madman cast in the prison of his mind or behind the bars of psychic conventionality. Rather, he is the good man casting life onto the world. (p. 81)
What I believe is most important for an understanding of Slaughterhouse-Five and for a study of Vonnegut's artistry is how his change of heart in directly confronting his subject brings about a change in the form of his fiction. In fact, the question of novelistic form is equated in the book with the task of writing about Dresden. The reader is forced to consider the very nature of the book that he is involved in through reading, just as Vonnegut forces himself to look squarely at his hellish knowledge…. Survival is what Slaughterhouse-Five is all about, and so to take up the question of the novel's survival links form to action: the problem of living through the fire-bombing of Dresden is rivaled by the problem of writing about it. The two acts are analogues, and from the tone of the passage on the viability of fiction we can pick up Vonnegut's meaning. He is not quite prediciting a future for the novel but he is negating its death notice. He is not quite prescribing a function for the novel, but he is deriding the cheap purposes it has been made to serve. We are at least made aware that the life of form relates to the form of our lives. Vonnegut comments on the reality of Dresden by treating the problems of fiction.
This indirect formulation of the novel's function expresses Vonnegut's approach to art. He questions the mold he uses. He begins before the first sentence of the story. The title page undermines our expectation about design with three titles. The proper one refers to a pig slaughterhouse in Dresden, which housed American prisoners in World War II. The second shows how language falsifies war: "The Children's Crusade" transforms brutality into sentimental heroism, calculation into innocence. The third title, "A Duty-Dance with Death," borrows from [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline to state that art must confront death frankly. The use of three titles effectively denies the adequacy of any one title for the book. Instead of a label we are given a deepening attitude toward the violence of war. (pp. 82-3)
The strategies that entangle Slaughterhouse-Five … offer clues to how its disparateness comes together. The shift, from the narrator's own predicament to Billy Pilgrim's, alters the perspective from introspection to observation, thereby making Vonnegut the narrator into a confessing witness…. Detached at the same time that he is sympathetic to Billy's experience, the narrator can suggest a way of seeing, through compassionate wisdom, the otherwise baffling war in the context of other catastrophes. The hurt and wonder of Billy's life become the hurt and wonder of every time. (p. 84)
Vonnegut's testimony puts a moral light on war to reveal alliances not shown by treaties. The essential battle here is waged by man against the violent bent in himself. Vonnegut plumbs the dark forces in the human spirit. Sentimentality, egotism, blind patriotism, materialism, these are the enemy; and for Vonnegut they are the signal qualities of American life. Against them stand conscience and feeling. Vonnegut, the witness, acts as a moral scout, smuggling himself across battle lines to reach the front of consciousness where he hopes to find final resistance to killing. His moral awareness accounts for the uncommon affection for a cherished city of the declared enemy and for the German people themselves. They are presented as fellow human beings struggling against their own propensity for violence. And to the degree that Americans yielded to their destructive urge (the violent style of postwar American life suggests a high degree), they—we—fell victims. Both political sides lost in the struggle for human decency. (p. 87)
Vonnegut, the witness to Dresden, whose survival from disaster is also his fate, draws strength from seeing how a gesture of helpless love redefines its fatal expression. (p. 88)
There is … a tension among three shaping forces in Slaughterhouse-Five: the ancient Christian news of victory over death; the Tralfamadorian message of no death; and the message implied in the reader's unfolding consciousness about the respective choices of each message. This deepening consciousness is Vonnegut's gospel. I would put their respective views of self in this way: whereas the Christian self exists between vanity and fulfillment, the science-fiction self is eternally in isolation. Vonnegut, working against both views, seeks to measure the self's relatedness in mutuality through its capacity to grow in consciousness and compassion. Vonnegut's new covenant stipulates the obligation of spiritual nurturance among persons. (p. 93)
[Vonnegut's strategy in Slaughterhouse-Five] is to register the mind in the act of confronting annihilation. In finding a form to tell of [the disaster of Dresden], Vonnegut is able to respond to the smoldering demand that this holocaust, which killed more people than did the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, not pass silently into human history, as its planners had hoped it would. Faced boldly, narrated and thereby worked through, the trauma of Dresden is exorcised of its dark spell on Vonnegut's imagination. (pp. 96-7)
[Breakfast of Champions] fictionalizes the searching pronouncements Vonnegut was making on the potentialities of his fiction. With Prospero's affection, Vonnegut near the end of his tempestuous Breakfast of Champions proclaims the release of "all the literary characters who have served me so loyally" from the confines of his pages. He casts off, also, any vestige of the realistic novel with its meaningless accumulation of details and facts. Liberation and dispersal are possible because Vonnegut created those things; and his creation and what it imitates or represents are the subject of Breakfast of Champions. (p. 102)
In a book that dismisses detail as pointless, we can assume that facts of time and place create their own verisimilitude. The narrative present generates a mental excursion backward to action in 1492 and completed events in 1979 and 1981, all of which blend with the Ford Galaxies and Burger Chefs of our current moment that constitutes one indefinite past. Moreover, where the author hovers godlike over the events, his presence is likely to overtake the story. And it does. What I term the tale of Breakfast of Champions is its subtext. "'The Big show is inside my head,'" Vonnegut says to a character for both her benefit and the reader's. Vonnegut's mind is the arts festival for which the Midland City shindig is a metaphorical expedient. (p. 103)
In a universe where every substance is defined by its function in some experiment—"loving machines, hating machines … truthful machines, lying machines"—creatures do not encounter one another. Persons meet; robots and forces collide. The form of the tale of Trout's impact on Dwayne is that of collision. Collision in Breakfast of Champions is the unifying principle derived from a natural law of Vonnegut's cosmos. Continents, we are told, ride a slab that drifts precariously "on molten glurp"; and "when one slab crashed into another one, mountains were made." A violent crashing is continually "going on" in the universe, leading scientists to predict "that ice ages would continue to occur." Like world, like people, Nations grind against one another; creatures strike one another. We are "doomed to collide and collide and collide." Collision is the secret knowledge behind the revelations in [Trout's book] Now It Can Be Told, which implies that God moves not only in mysterious ways but also in disastrous ways. (pp. 106-07)
The destructive impact of Trout on Dwayne poses the novel's theme in structural terms: How do we respond to the inevitable collisions that make up our lives? The possible responses are obviously limited. Any attempt in the book to check disaster ends up hastening it. The agonized lives of the characters warn against such action, pursuit of money or science yield illusions of control over our lives. Passivity would seem less perilous. One can withdraw and hope, as Trout does, to spend one's days without touching another human again; but even Trout is lured out of his solitude to spread the very insight (that we are machines) that drove him there, and then he is caught in the pile-up. Again, our attempts to master the mysterious activity of the world finally implicate us further in its turmoil…. Vonnegut takes his cue from the Creator, the eternal black humorist. "For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions." The spectator's stance produces the peculiarly humorous wisdom documents recurring in the novels: Jonah in Cat's Cradle gives us his record of human stupidity; Eliot Rosewater's Domesday Book presents in apple-pie order a ledger of his philanthropic operations during the apocalypse; Trout tells it as it is in Now It Can Be Told; and to this imaginary library of visionary documents, Vonnegut makes a personal contribution of a notebook of a cosmic fan. The superstructure of Breakfast of Champions is that of an archeological scrapbook composed of wise precepts for life on a planet that was, Earth. (pp. 108-09)
Vonnegut wants to toss out junk in order to retain only "sacred things." His reason for going to Midland City is "to be born again." He is not reborn but he relearns that forces in our souls prevent transformation. Again collision images the spiritual turmoil that awaits us. "One force had a sudden advantage over another, and spiritual continents began to shrug and heave." The sacred, then, resides neither in himself nor in any individual human being. Robo Karabekian, a trashy minimalist painter who has been invited to the Festival, brings Vonnegut to his fullest understanding of the sacred: "'Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us.'" Karabekian calls our awareness a band of light, which describes his kind of painting. The bogus painter-philosopher defines for Vonnegut, the doodler-novelist, what is sacred. Awareness is all that the fan of collision can hope to attain and awareness depends on collective, interpenetration of mind. Vonnegut writes from that band of unwavering light in himself, addressing the band at the core "of each person who reads this book," and thereby he furthers the collectivity of the sacred. (pp. 110-11)
Vonnegut in the book expresses a keen interest about what God would have to say about all the collisions going on. Vonnegut even plays God in the oldest of artistic guises, the omniscient Creator of his fictions, just to see if the giving and the taking of fictional life provides an insight into God's knowledge. How can he, as a second Creator of the world, transform reality back into its potentialities and so escape its chaos? Vonnegut's intrusion into the text, scaf-folding an overstructure of reflection, is not a gimmick but an act of love. The final silence evoked by his self-portrait resonates with the recognition of the Creator's failure to comprehend and to save his world. (pp. 111-12)
Without essentially altering his established material or practiced style, Vonnegut advances his art in Slapstick through tone. Doom is handled quietly, philosophically, in the way that Laurel and Hardy throw pies with thoughtful poise. The novel's dramatic action revolves around cruelty and turmoil, yet it reaches across a long emotional distance that removes any trace of bitterness or sentimentality. And like Stan and Ollie, Vonnegut plays himself in Slapstick. He becomes the character in this work that he said in his Preface to Between Time and Timbuktu he wanted to be—and was encouraged to be, I believe by A Time To Die, Tom Wicker's moving account of how the Attica uprising of 1971 caused him to redirect the entire course of his life. Vonnegut now uses fiction to achieve just such a personal transformation of his writing. All the Alicelike trips through wonderland that comprise the new novel are falls down the rabbit holes of his mind, wending through the remote passages of his childhood to emerge in the channel of his creative achievement. Slapstick is deliberately a spiritual autobiography, an act of Vonnegut's mind, logging his responses to the disquieting origins of his creativeness. The fictionalized memoir is not nearly as melancholy an account as Vonnegut found Wicker's to be. Vonnegut looks back from the long perspective of very old age, which can see the human comedy in the trappings of utter defeat. (p. 114)
Vonnegut's talent comes through most effectively when he lifts a simple story with an explicit moral (which he often states for us) from a known genre and then satirizes his use of it. The result is a parody narrative in which Vonnegut does not imitate human action but imitates another imitation.
Vonnegut understands well that screen low-comedy presents the audience with a poem through a series of gestures. Continuity of action counts for much less in slapstick film than does gesture. Such comedy coheres through spare ritual conduct—stupidity creating catastrophe, dumb, ill-judged violence bringing about destruction in images that we can all grasp immediately. (p. 118)
[Stan and Ollie] personify human dignity born of its own ineptitude. Slapstick is peopled by the blundering idots and scurvy knaves of that zany world, and their perpetual blundering explains that our humanity is bound up with imperfection. This sympathy for human shortcomings leads Vonnegut to plead for simple kindness. Gentle decency, far more than idealistic theories, is needed for us to live with our salutary imperfections. (p. 119)
Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin also provide Vonnegut with a way to unify his introspective folktale. They are masters of inflection. Their comedy develops as they carefully shade their physical stance and emotional attitude toward the gag. In Slapstick Vonnegut proceeds by modulating his numerous attitudes toward the jungle of extinction. Slapstick is a sequence of mental positions without a climax. A minimal story line is ornamented with dialogue and situation. The effect is that of improvisation supporting an unobtrusive plan. Wilbur's chronological recollection of his life is the story's binding thread, which Vonnegut fastens to his personal prologue and epilogue. Vonnegut as usual delights in acknowledging "all the loose ends of the yarn" while composing in strip-cartoon layout a series of gallows gags that blend, in a carefully paced tempo, outlandish behavior with a feeling of inevitability. (pp. 119-20)
In the moral background of the novel are the atomic bomb and the killing of 100 million people in this century's wars and death camps. These events shape Slapstick as well as modern history. Slapstick is Vonnegut's meditative documentary—his sorrow and pity in low-comedy form—about how we live now in the aftermath of the holocaust. During such a crisis, human beings require a sense of continuity and relatedness to what comes before and after life. We find that struggle to achieve a new relationship with the world expressed in Slapstick through the image of the survivor as creator. Creativeness, like Wilbur's happy childhood, takes two forms. The external formulation of the struggle for meaning is the novel itself. The inner, spiritual mode generating the story is rendered through Melody. Simply to go on, as Melody does, taking things as they come, is to know how to live with suffering; and when everything falls apart, to pick up and begin again with clownish joyousness from the act of doing so is all there is to do. We learn by feeling. Such purity of heart is the beginning of unity within one's spirit. (pp. 120-21)
For Vonnegut, fiction serves the great moral purpose of breathing life back into life. Books are restorative, especially if they train readers to be cosmic fans. So in dark times he uses the therapy of laughter to evoke the brightness that is concealed by fear. Because the times are deceitful, he satirizes their false claims. Because we are caught in spiritual tyranny, he celebrates the liberating power of the imagination. Vonnegut wants to reveal what Blake called "the infinite which was hid" so that we can with new energy transform the nowhere of all the mental San Lorenzos we have made for ourselves into the now-here of love.
In such a place of the heart, love and power would unite to allow the compassionate real self to emerge from the secrecy it adopts for survival. Feeling and action could then be one … Vonnegut attempts through his novels to sensitize his readers to the need for reversing the way the politics of power have infiltrated the intimacies of experience…. His novels bear witness to the rareness and the danger of recognizing others in open affection. Paul Proteus can no longer fit into his society; Howard Campbell prefers to kill himself rather than live with the newly aroused idea that he is a feeling person responsible to others; Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater go mad; Kilgore Trout secludes himself; and Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain resorts to drugs. If their collective discovery of the human is imperiling, it is also necessary. It provides the basis for a covenant relation between person and person for mutual validation at a time when conditions have made untenable any other recognition of our human purpose.
The image of the human mind strained by ideological oppression, within a body racked by pain, dominates Vonnegut's novels form the first, without any implication that life ever was or will be less burdened by suffering or exempt from death. But there is a change in Vonnegut's attitude toward his persistently apocalyptic stories, and it comes about through the same psychological introspection which attends his technical development. As the novels penetrate humanity's betrayed trusts in utopian perfectability, economic progress, scientific inquiry, social prerogative, military power, and the innate illusion of personal immortality, Vonnegut gradually affirms a true source of life: consciousness. Consciousness brings him to reject any false foundation for being, or "junk," as he calls it. Trusting in a transcendent source of being frees the human mind from laying its unlived life on institutions, which cannot fulfill the heart's yearning to live. It is significant that where Vonnegut's memory is most highly charged with social injustice and political tragedy, namely, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Slapstick, consciousness holds in check the immense force of doom. Consciousness formulates hope, which is why Vonnegut calls it "sacred." Hope defies explanation, in Vonnegut's reflection, because it lies in the sovereignty of the Creator of the Universe, however unpredictably his will presents itself, and in the sovereignty of human love, however rare its presence. From the dramatic action of the novels, however, we see that Vonnegut addresses that hope to the disenfranchised, who do not nourish the illusion that they are masters of their present or future. This, the message of self-giving love, is the proclamation of Vonnegut's novels. It is the best of all possible news. (pp. 124-25)
Richard Giannone, in his Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977.
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Slaughterhouse-Five from the start suggested the possibility that Vonnegut had written the crucial personal experiences out of his system, and I think that this is one reason we have all tended to wait with particular interest, and perhaps a little uncertainty, for what would subsequently come from him. In prefacing [Happy Birthday, Wanda June], Vonnegut declared that he was through with novels and with characters who were "spooks"…. The end appeared at hand, if one dared take the author seriously. In Breakfast of Champions he announced the discarding of old characters and themes, while also bringing certain other lines of development in his fiction to their seeming logical ends. With Vonnegut's observation that Breakfast of Champions spun off from Slaughterhouse-Five, one could imagine that it represented a final housecleaning. But then came Slapstick, a continuation which seems to promise more of the same. (pp. 151-52)
[Vonnegut's self consciousness] appears to have grown. That is suggested by his talk of abandoning the novel in his preface to Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and by his decrying the qualities of his books … in the introduction to Breakfast of Champions. The preface to Between Time and Timbuktu reveals more of the same: Vonnegut talking about the inadequacy of film since the author cannot place himself in the work…. And in prefacing Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons he speaks of the problems of being a "guru" addressing college audiences, about critics writing of him as if he were already dead, and about "British critics" who find him sometimes too sentimental. More important than these prefatory musings, however, are the signs of such preoccupations in the content and style of the works.
In this respect, the projection of self into the novel changes markedly in nature between Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut has been "present" in many of the earlier novels, in the sense that they have directly or obliquely autobiographical content. The change at this point is in the manner of the intrusion of the autobiographical "I." In Slaughterhouse-Five, the appearance of Vonnegut himself in an intermittent minor role in the action—"that was me"—is framed by the first and last chapters, in which Vonnegut speaks from the present of the writing of the novel. The technique seems entirely appropriate in a novel with a subject matter which is at one level intensely personal and which is viewed reflectively. It enables Vonnegut to combine his retrospective perspective as author rationalizing and ordering past experience and his contemporaneous reactions as participant in the events shown. It is also appropriate (and an effective structural device) in a novel which emphasizes time, the interrelationships of time periods, and the effects of time on perception or "truth." In the later novel, the introduction of self as character seems a little less comfortable or natural. The difference in context almost provides a satisfactory answer: Slaughterhouse-Five is probably Vonnegut's most serious novel, while Breakfast of Champions may be his most whimsical. Breakfast of Champions is also intensely personal, as its preface explains. But even when an author writes a book as a birthday present to himself, if he publishes it, it will be read by others, who, even if disposed to wish him Many Happy Returns, are still likely to approach it much as they would any other work of fiction. The test then becomes one of how well the introduction of author as character is supported not by exterior, prefatory assertion but by thematic, structural, and generic context. This does not mean an expectation of a traditional concept of the fictional world as "real," not to be violated by authorial admissions of artifice to shatter our willing suspension of disbelief…. [What] Vonnegut does here is rather different. An author's admission that a fictional world is a fiction, is artifice, frequently works in the direction of emphasizing the involvement of the reader in the creative process. In Breakfast of Champions the direction is almost opposite. The author is present in the fictional world as character and creator simultaneously, telling us how he chooses to have other characters perform. This tends to put the reader in the position of observer, even if an observer who is "let in" on why actions occur or what will happen next. Vonnegut's projection of self into this novel is such that the reader finds it hard to escape the sense that Breakfast of Champions at least in the later chapters, is personal in a rather exclusive way. This particular kind of personal quality has a certain awkwardness, one which may be resolved in either first-person fiction (by a consistent character-narrator relationship) or autobiography, but which in Breakfast of Champions remains unsettled. The effect results in the reader's feeling partially estranged in the fictional world into which he has apparently been invited.
Vonnegut's increased self-consciousness also reveals itself stylistically. Here Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons makes interesting reading. Some of the earlier pieces (for example, "Brief Encounters on the Inland Waterway") seem strikingly fluent and almost languid in comparison with the later prose. In Breakfast of Champions the statements are terse, the rhythms brusque, the sentences short and staccato in the manner of the later abrupt style. The novel also abounds with the repetitions which distinguish the later work. Where Slaughterhouse-Five uses the "So it goes" refrain effectively, this novel has the repeated injunction "Listen," the reiterated fade-out "And so on," and the inconclusive "Etc." There are other forms of repetition, such as the echoing of the last word of a paragraph as a solitary declaration proceding the next paragraph and the restatement of the thematic motto, "Goodbye Blue Monday." While this device has its purpose in the context of the novel, repetition succeeds rather less well here than in Slaughterhouse-Five. As with the curt phrasing, the resurrection of familiar characters and scenes, and even the characteristic, bitingly understated asides on current social events, it gives the impression of being self-consciously employed—as indeed Vonnegut's prefatory statement that he is saying "good-bye to all that" implies it is.
This impression becomes disturbing for several reasons. The most obvious one is that it might suggest a decline of powers, or efforts, on Vonnegut's part, since the phenomenon of the American novelist's succumbing to self-parody in later years is not an unfamiliar one. The personal, prefatory remarks in Breakfast of Champions, revealing ambivalence and weariness, might contribute to this impression. So might the relative lack of originality, of scope, power, of sheer size, in the content of the novel itself. The tendency to self-imitation might naturally invite the judgment that Vonnegut is playing to the known responses of an established following. Doubtless the perennial Vonnegut detractors would say that. Some have always accused him of playing "guru" to one generation, although his publishing history and the content of his fiction make the charge ludicrous. What seems apparent is that in the wake of the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, as book and film, Vonnegut has felt the pressures of fame and of those who would cast him in the guru role, as he discloses in the preface to Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. This, and other personal circumstances, doubtless contributed to making the years following the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five distracting ones for Vonnegut. The precise relationship between personal trauma and the form of Breakfast of Champions would be difficult, if not impossible, to define. But Vonnegut's preface alone suggests that there is a relationship, and the plot almost certainly confirms it. (pp. 153-56)
[Breakfast of Champions] has more strengths than it has generally been credited with…. Perhaps inevitably, the novel's strengths are closely related to some of its relative weaknesses. One of these comes in the area of characterization. Vonnegut has often been apologetic about this part of his work, perhaps more than he need be. True, many of his characters appear two-dimensional or stereotyped. But that is also true of characters in some major "serious" American novels. Furthermore, Vonnegut has shown the ability, on the one hand, to create some major characters of considerable interest and depth and, on the other, to make a number of the two-dimensional lesser characters sharp and memorable. In Breakfast of Champions none of the characters amounts to what would normally be considered a really well-developed characterization. The two major figures, Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout, though clearly defined, immensely amusing, and quite memorable, remain essentially enlarged, two-dimensional secondary characters. Yet that is appropriate. Kurt Vonnegut is the central character of this novel, and Hoover and Trout have supporting roles both in the sense of being secondary to the author-protagonist and in the way they effectively enlarge and complete the central character. (pp. 157-58)
The interjection of self directly as character is much expanded in Breakfast of Champions, yet that figure remains far from a complete autobiographical portrait. Vonnegut's own presence in the novel is filled out by Hoover and Trout, each of whom embodies aspects of the author, and even by lesser figures such as Rabo Karabekian, the painter…. Rather like the older Billy Pilgrim …, Hoover can be seen as a modern Everyman figure, a version of the standard middle-class norm of success. He thus provides a vehicle for one of Vonnegut's favorite themes—the man who attains the stereotyped American goals but is left asking "What is the meaning of life?" or "What are people for?" In Vonnegut, such characters are seldom merely conveniences for social satire: they are treated with sympathy and understanding, embodying much of the Ordinary Man from whom the author never distances himself very far. (p. 158)
Perhaps the most important interrelating theme is that presented in Trout's Now It Can Be Told—the perception of people as robots…. Obviously, the idea of humans as robots connects with the Dwayne Hoover side of the story, with its theme of human behavior biochemically controlled. The two themes merge when the two characters meet in the bar in Midland City, where Trout gives Hoover a copy of the novel. The general concept and its implications are not new in Vonnegut. People behaving "as it was meant to happen," questions of free will, characters being treated as neither virtuous nor evil because they were simply doing all that was possible to them, have had prominence in Vonnegut's novels at least since The Sirens of Titan. But here the twin themes emerge with peculiar force and particular personal relevance. (pp. 161-62)
[Again], Trout becomes a vehicle for the expression of the author's own misgivings. Yet ultimately the personal significance of the bad-chemicals-and-robots theme finds expression through the unlikely character of Rabo Karabekian. (p. 162)
The danger comically present in Trout's Now It Can Be Told is its "solipsistic whimsy." The story, like many of Trout's, is written solipsistically; Trout develops an idea into a personal fantasy which he then imposes on a vision of the world. That danger becomes explicit when the book falls into the hands of the already solipsistic [Dwayne Hoover]…. (p. 163)
But behind the irony [of Vonnegut's presentation of Karabekian] resides a serious truth which could effectively counter many of the nightmares of robots, bad chemicals, and solipsism. Recognizing that within each individual being, within the physical "meat machine," lives an immaterial core of awareness entails a recognition of the peculiar individuality, the uniqueness, the "sacredness" of that being…. Such an awareness counters the solipsism which reduces others to robots, by recognizing … their uniqueness, their individual worth as beings endowed with their own perceptions and feelings. This recognition thus becomes a key to behaving toward others with humaneness. Similarly—and the outward and inward directions of this recognition are coalescent—self-respect also comes from affirming … and respecting one's own humanity. Thus, this characteristically simple perception makes possible the reversal of character-Vonnegut's earlier pessimistic conclusion, by arguing that there is something "sacred about myself or about any human being" and that we are not all merely "machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide." That discovery is Vonnegut's cocktail-lounge epiphany, the cause of his subsequent "rebirth" and "serenity." (pp. 165-66)
Above all, the tone must always be kept in mind when discussing Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions there is plenty of "yin and yang," of taking away what has been offered and undercutting what has been affirmed. There is spoofing; despite the use made of Karabekian's speech, his own personality and his painting of "an unwavering band of light" are surely mocked. The irreverent and the poignant stand side by side—Vonnegut's pathetically psychotic mother is "crazy as a bedbug." And there is the everpresent mix of the joyful and the pessimistic. While Vonnegut says that he finds serenity, and the general tone of the novel is upbeat, gloom remains. After all, the sacred awareness which he discovers continues to be ignored in the world around him. Even Vonnegut's freeing of his slaves, his characters, is ambivalent. Freed from their creator, they cease to have existence. Of course, the freeing of characters is a comic conception, as the ironic reference to Jefferson's freeing of his slaves emphasizes. And there is a sense in which, ultimately, Vonnegut can be no more freed from these his children than he can be from the parents he so constantly recalls. Trout embodies much of the father—even his shins, his feet, and his voice—but he is also father to Vonnegut, in part the obscure writer he once was, in part the man he might have become, and in part the often bemused but patiently cheerful person he remains. So, while Breakfast of Champions celebrates a birthday, discarding old trappings and offering new beginnings, the happy anniversary is not wholly joyous. It is, after all, his fiftieth. Vonnegut's last words might echo Trout's—"Make me young, make me young, make me young"—and the final portrait shows him with a tear in his eye. (pp. 168-69)
[Slapstick] is a view of life as being as his dying sister described it: "Slapstick." Given the conditions he [describes] of isolation, of inevitable death, of bargaining in good faith with a meaningless universe—one might choose another word: "Absurd." Except that Vonnegut's word typically emphasizes the comic (or comical) potentialities so often overlooked by the existentialists…. Yet just as the prologue, which reflects on many such occurences in Vonnegut's own life, does not seem depressed, so the novel's tone transcends the gloom inherent in much of its content. And, for the same reason. Vonnegut himself seems steadier, more composed, more at terms with life in this prologue than in those which immediately precede it. Likewise, his narrator in Slapstick, though wearied and in some senses disillusioned, seems calm and resigned.
In casting himself as Wilbur Swain and his sister as Eliza Swain, Vonnegut has made both "monsters." This may seem perverse or whimsical, yet remains characteristic of Vonnegut. He is consistently self-denigrating in his fiction and the prefaces. Some of the characters with whom he might be most nearly identified and some of the "heroes" of his fiction are abnormal physically or psychologically, and when he approaches self in portraying artists and writers he typically undercuts. One senses a degree of embarrassment here in a writer who nevertheless feels compelled to be direct and personal. It is as if he needs the protection of irony and whimsy after having come so close to the nerve. Usually the protection serves well, saving him in tricky spots from what might otherwise become sentimental self-pity, didacticism, or plain morbidity. In Slapstick the character of Wilbur Swain works effectively as such a mask, but more importantly helps to advance thematic content. Most notably, casting the young Swains as seven-foot freaks gives comically dramatic emphasis to the notions of "common decency" in human relations and "bargaining in good faith with destiny." (pp. 172-73)
Where the autobiography lies in all of this (and one should not take the novel as some kind of psychological roman à clef) perhaps only Vonnegut can answer. His sister, Alice, was tall, embarrassed by her height, and developed bad posture—all hyperbolically reproduced in Eliza. Vonnegut felt especially close to her [and] claims that she was the only person he had written for…. (p. 174)
[The] need for "family" becomes the major theme of the novel, expressed personally as part of what life feels like to Vonnegut, and more broadly as a universal human requirement. (p. 175)
[The] novel ends with affirmation in terms of its major theme. Caring relatives behave with decency, and the bargaining in good faith with destiny goes on. And this affirmation arises out of a view of life bleak enough to contradict any suggestions of bland optimism. The last words—"Das Ende"—also nod toward relatives: those Vonneguts who "were all cultivated and gentle and prosperous, and spoke German and English gracefully"….
This, then, is the slapstick of life as Vonnegut feels it. Much of that experience seems painful. Wilbur's pill-popping, his birthdays, his father-son relationships, his loss of a sister, all echo phases in the author's life. Often the comical coexists with the painful, as agility and intelligence are sorely tested. Like a Laurel and Hardy film, Vonnegut's fictional world is "funny and adorable" but also poignant…. [Vonnegut has said in an interview that] "People are too good for this world"…. For a moment this almost startles us, because although Vonnegut claims not to create villains or heroes, he portrays some rather nasty people and shows plenty of suffering caused by human action. Yet his prevailing attitude remains one of sympathy for the human lot. The destiny with which humans gamble does not always keep good faith; if gravity is not unpredictable, the weather certainly is. The best that humans can do is often not good enough, and Vonnegut breathes another "Hi ho," bespeaking a weary resignation but not, ultimately, rejection. He sees humans generally as limited in the same ways as himself, and that gives rise to one of the major strengths of Slapstick and of his other fiction: the ability to interconnect the intensely personal with the universally human. (pp. 183-84)
Peter J. Reed, "The Later Vonnegut," in Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler (copyright © 1977 by Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler; reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Delacorte Press, 1977, pp. 150-84.
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Vonnegut's novels are science fiction, will he or nil he. Listen, Slapstick is about a pair of telepathic twins whose intelligences synergize into super-genius when they're in close proximity but deteriorate to bright-normal when they're farther apart. They pretend to be idiots, however, as a form of protective coloration. Nice old science fiction device, first used by Olaf Stapledon around 1935, I believe. It also involves a scheme to relieve population pressures by breeding miniature humans—Bob Bloch did this in the 1960s. And there's a future plague which reduces most of the world to a state of neo-barbarism-in-the-ruins. Cf. Jack London, 1915. (pp. 52-3)
[Slapstick is] a science fiction novel if ever there was one….
As for whether Slapstick is a good science fiction novel or not, that's another matter. It has all of the trademarks of Vonnegut's novels, since the first few: a bitter zaniness, a deceptively simple style relying on commonplace vocabulary, short sentences, scenes and chapters, and a many-times-repeated key phrase. (Back in Slaughterhouse Five it was "So it goes"; in Slapstick it's "Hi ho." It's stupid and irritating.)
Unfortunately, since writing Slaughterhouse-Five …, Vonnegut has obviously lost heart. He's done only two novels since then. Breakfast of Champions … was announced as Vonnegut's last novel. It was a pitiful wail of despair at the human condition. Slapstick is a bit better, but once again, Vonnegut lacks the courage, energy and dedication to carry his scheme through to completion. The book starts promisingly, wanders off on a variety of tangents, and finally fizzles into nothingness at the end. It isn't Vonnegut's worst performance, but it's a poor one….
I resonate with this guy. But I can't forgive him for putting out these defeated, sloppy, unsatisfactory and unsatisfying books. If he was written out after Slaughterhouse-Five, by damn he should have quit writing….
Slapstick? A better title might have been Slapdash. (p. 53)
Richard Lupoff, in Algol (copyright © 1979 by Algol Magazine), Winter, 1978–79.
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Vonnegut expresses a relentessly pessimistic vision of man, a pessimism far surpassing the cynic's belief in the eventual victory of evil or the fundamentalist's version of a fall from grace. For there can be no victory without a battle and no fall if one from the start is inescapably mired at the bottom of the pit. The moral drama between right and wrong loses all meaning if men are not free to choose and competent to act, and Vonnegut sees man as neither competent nor free. In his fictional world, there are no villains and, as well, no heroes to oppose them; both good and evil are beyond man's grasp. When he writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five that he learned in college "there was absolutely no difference between anybody," the ironic tone does not belie the accuracy of the words. Vonnegut does believe that all men are the same, and to read his fiction is to meet a cast of characters who are uniformly pathetic, helpless victims of a random, incoherent, meaningless existence, and whose suffering, unmitigated by any true higher purpose, is distinguished only by the self-delusions embraced to relieve it.
It is precisely this unrelievedly debased view of man that cripples Vonnegut's fiction and undermines his effectiveness as a moral critic. Caught in a conflict between what he wishes and what he believes, between what he wants for mankind and what he thinks mankind is fated to have, his fiction constantly exposes folly only to submit to inevitability. In Vonnegut's books, anger—which is, after all, a kind of hope—is always defeated by resignation, his criticism of society always emasculated by his final belief that man can do no better. (pp. 14-15)
Vonnegut's problem, you see, is that although he abhors our mechanized culture, he believes the world view upon which it is based; his vision on mankind—so many like individuals pushed by forces beyond their control—is really the same, nothing more than that same mechanistic metaphor misapplied again. And the result of that misapplication is always the same: pessimism, cynicism, resignation, despair. (p. 16)
But Vonnegut is, above all else, a compassionate man; he may not respect his characters, but he does care about them, is driven by an urge to ease their suffering. Given the pessimism of his outlook, however, all he can offer is the very solution he so often mocks: illusion, fantasy, the "harmless untruths" of Bokonism, of Tralfamadorian metaphysics, the soothing escapism of Billy Pilgrim's time-travel. As his recurring character, Eliot Rosewater, says to a psychiatrist in Slaughterhouse-Five, "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." And there it is again, the same basic conflict resurfacing—between thought and feeling, between the artist and the humanitarian. Vonnegut wants to tell us the truth and at the same time spare us from it; he wants to ease our pain and at the same time show us that only "lies" can achieve that end. To comfort, he must lie; to tell the truth, he must hurt; for in the world as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., sees it, happiness is utterly incompatible with truth. (pp. 16-17)
David Bosworth, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1979 by the Antioch Press; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. 37, No. 1, 1979.