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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–
American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.
Vonnegut satirizes American contemporary life through the use of fantasy, black humor, and the absurd. Although many of his books have been best sellers, Vonnegut is probably best known for Slaughterhouse-Five.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II; Vol. 8: Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers.)
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[A] comparison between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse V offers interesting insights into the shift in attitudes, the change in political culture, and the transition in the general cultural atmosphere [during the decade of the sixties]. The two books are particularly suited for comparison because there are many points of similarity between them. To mention only the most obvious, both deal with World War II, both assert a strongly antiwar position, both are highly critical of other features of modern life, both present the individual protagonist as a victim, both are written in a narrative style which violates normal time sequence, both are cited as examples of black humor, and both are also cited as examples of the literature of the absurd. With all these similarities, the differences between them become especially revealing and instructive. (pp. 19-20)
In Catch-22 the central problem is how the individual may survive in a hostile system, find methods of beating it or changing it. Vonnegut's central concern, not only in Slaughterhouse V, but in most of the rest of his novels, is the relationship between man and his own nature or between man and God. He is trying to come to terms with the dichotomy between man and whatever it is that is responsible for the universe being organized the way it is.
However, if one does read Slaughterhouse V as a political fable, the moral is clear: the individual is a pawn of forces he cannot control, and all he can hope to do is to learn to accept, be kind, and to love. Billy Pilgrim is mired in his fate. Even his ability to travel in time does him no good; it does not contribute to his freedom or his happiness; it affords him no way of escaping from or controlling the absurdity, injustice, or brutality of the world; it simply places him in the midst of a system of recurring cyclical patterns which confirm the lesson he learns during his captivity on Tralfamadore: everything that is now, always was, and always will be. In other words, everything is unchangeable. Knowing this, Billy's one major effort to have an effect on his world is to become a crusader for the Tralfamadorian message that it is futile to struggle against one's fate, trying to teach others what he has learned for himself, that the only wise course is to learn to accept things as they are.
Note that the subtitle of the book is "The Children's Crusade." Overtly, this subtitle is intended to reinforce the book's antiwar theme, but it does more than that. It indicates Vonnegut's belief that all crusades are children's crusades. Indeed all crusades are childish, first because they are futile gestures, mere playacting having no consequences except for the possible release of the aggressive fantasies of those who participate in them, not a wholly desirable occurrence, second because all men are childish, dependent, at the mercy of forces beyond their control. One cannot control one's fate, so one should simply allow things to happen; one will probably be better off in the long run; this is the way to make life reasonably tolerable.
This overt message...
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is reinforced by the tone of the book. Both Heller and Vonnegut have been called black humorists, andCatch-22, whatever else it may be, is a very funny book. Slaughterhouse V, on the other hand, does not provoke laughter. The dominant mood is, rather, sadness, resigned sadness, and compassion for most of the characters in the book. In addition, while there are more laughs in Catch-22, there are also more violence and horror than in Slaughterhouse V. The latter certainly does not lack horrifying events—there is nothing in Catch-22 comparable to the extent of the death and devastation produced by the Dresden raid—but the raid does occur offstage; we do not see it, only its aftermath. It is not so much an event in the novel as its setting, its premise. In Catch-22 the death of a single individual, Snowden, is presented with more dramatic intensity, in a more shocking fashion, than the death of 130,000 people in Dresden. And this difference in dramatic intensity is characteristic of the books as wholes. There is far more dramatic contrast in Catch-22 than Slaughterhouse V. In fact, it seems that Vonnegut is deliberately writing in a monotone, flattening dramatic rises and falls so as to make one event seem approximately as important as any other event, tending to produce the impression that the sequence of events adds up to nothing more than one damn thing after another. There is climactic action and intensity in Catch-22 because there are discernible goals for action; things move in a particular direction. In Slaughterhouse V they do not; things move in cycles; there is no progress. (pp. 24-6)
[Another difference is that] while Heller preaches the ethic of action, involvement, and responsibility, Vonnegut preaches the ethic of passivity, tolerance, and love.
A large part of this difference stems from the different angles of vision employed by the two men. Heller's vision is essentially political…. [The] central problem of Catch-22 is the attempts of the individual to survive in a hostile bureaucratic system. Vonnegut's vision, on the other hand, is religious, or perhaps more accutately, cosmic. Yossarian is contending against a human conspiracy; if there is a conspiracy against Billy, it is a cosmic one; if there is a system for him to fight against, it is the whole universe; there are no bad guys for him to defeat, except, perhaps, God. Indeed, Billy is not even engaged in a contest, for there can be no contest where there is no possibility of victory. For Yossarian, to survive constitutes a victory. For Billy, survival is not crucial, for he is fully aware of the inevitability of death; the manner of its coming is a rather trivial issue and makes little difference in the total economy of the universe. All he can hope for is a few good moments in life to cherish. Indeed, from the more general, more cosmic, more universal view that Vonnegut takes, the victories won by Heller's character may very well turn out be defeats. (pp. 26-7)
Thus, while Heller offers instruction in how we may achieve solutions to our problems, Vonnegut offers perspectives on how we may learn to live tolerably in a world we cannot change. (p. 27)
Catch-22, read as a political fable, offers a moral which is completely consistent with the morally involved, activist, reformist orientation of the early sixties: the system is brutal, unjust, and irrational, but it is also vulnerable. It is run by other human beings, and they are both identifiable and fallible; therefore, effective resistance by the individual may be possible. We must, however, be careful in our choice of methods of resistance; we must devise methods which those in authority do not expect, which their institutions are unequipped to deal with, which will take them unaware. Unconventionality in one's style of resistance is of value in itself. Also of value is the example of resistance. Even minimal success, even the mere fact of having declared oneself in opposition, will encourage others to resist, and there is always the possibility that someone will devise an effective strategy. Even if that strategy results only in one's own salvation as a direct consequence, it may have important indirect consequences in that it may encourage others to undertake their own forms of resistance.
Vonnegut stands in a somewhat different and more complex relationship to the politico-cultural climate which surrounds him. On the one hand, he expresses the more chastened view of the possibilities of political change through individual action that had become widely prevalent at the end of the sixties. Echoing the cultural radicals' idea that society cannot be significantly changed unless men's minds and hearts are changed first, he exemplifies the decay of reformist hopes, just as Heller had earlier exemplified their full flowering. On the other hand, Vonnegut also reacts against certain tendencies in the protest movement of the later sixties, especially the tendency toward apocalyptic utopianism. His universe is one in which the basic rule is moral relativism. There are no villains in Slaughterhouse V, or indeed in any of his other works. Of course he has moral values, but unlike Heller, he does not feel that the lines between good and evil can be drawn with absolute precision. Further, he feels that those who draw such lines are likely only to cause suffering in the long run. He attacks all pretensions to dominance, mastery, and control base upon convictions of righteous certitude. He is preaching against America's attempt to control the destiny of Southeast Asia, but he is also preaching against those who gave up the hope of achieving limited, immediate, proximate goals in favor of trying to achieve sweeping changes and impose their own vision of the good society, through revolutionary violence if necessary. The Green Berets are not his only targets; so are the Weathermen.
In many ways, Vonnegut's view has much in common with the orientation of the counterculture as described by Theodore Roszak. According to this view, science, technology, and technocratic rationality are tools for the manipulation of things and people in a search for short-run solutions to those problems defined as susceptible of solution by those techniques. This obsessively narrow concern with such problems and techniques ignores the long-term consequences of those acts. For this overemphasis on rationality, we must substitute a reawakened belief in the intuitive, mystical powers of the individual. The vision and the search turn inward. The external world is the province of the technocrats, the bureaucrats, the manipulators, so let us take the internal world for ours. We may not reform society, but at least we will not hurt others; our individual search for peace and tranquility in a regimented, manipulated, absurd world will not destroy the chance of others to do the same. While sympathetic to this view, Vonnegut would find in it a tendency toward oversimplification. He would certainly agree that man's enslavement to science and the machine holds dangers of dehumanization and worse—this, in fact, is the main theme of two of his novels, Player Piano and Cat's Cradle—but he would also emphasize that the rejection of technology does not guarantee salvation. For Vonnegut, like Hawthorne, the human heart is the fundamental problem, and any change that does not alter man himself will be inconsequential.
In this connection, we may note that Vonnegut is not totally committed to the idea that the individual cannot change his society. Indeed, he writes out of a conviction that artists can have an impact on their world. Art has a purpose to him, and it is an important one, but it is essentially passive. The artist can change the system, but only at the price of not becoming part of it, only by giving up the hope of affecting it directly. Vonnegut has said that his purpose as a writer is to get people before they become generals and presidents and "poison their minds with humanity." But this works only on those who have not yet become generals and presidents, not on those who are generals and presidents already. Another way of saying this is that the artist's function is to provide society with new perspectives, to change people's angle of vision, not to preach direct cures, not to offer prescriptions for social ills, but to point out their existence and to provide new diagnostic techniques. While this is certainly an important, even a vital, function, and while it may over time lead to significant social changes, one must recognize that the artist's influence is likely to be indirect and gradual rather than direct and immediate. The artist's effectiveness as reformer is limited; substantial improvements, if they can be achieved at all, can be achieved only in the long run, probably a very long run. In the meantime, Vonnegut says, we should be kind, be tolerant, and seize upon and cherish the few moments of simple pleasure that come our way. It is significant that the high point of Billy Pilgrim's life is the nap he takes in the back of a wagon a few days after the destruction of Dresden. So much have the horizons of hope shrunk from Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse V. (pp. 31-3)
Thomas L. Hartshorne, "From 'Catch-22' to 'Slaughterhouse V': The Decline of the Political Mode," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1979 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 78, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 17-33.∗
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[In Jailbird] Vonnegut's manner, as usual, is jokey and faux naïf. He writes about serious matters—labour massacres and judicial murder in America—without the slightest risk of earnestness. Yet underneath the comedy, Vonnegut is still indignant at capitalism and bitter over the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, wondering a little ruefully why the story of their martyrdom has been forgotten…. Vonnegut's voice does not falter; like the master raconteur he is, the story is always entertaining. Jailbird's texture is occasionally bland …, but the jokes are good….
Jailbird is a neat fable for the post-Watergate age. Since Slaughterhouse-5 Vonnegut has tried to use the freedom of fantasy and science fiction to grapple with the social and historical reality of our times. Only the sombre anecdotes, such as the detailed description of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and the much briefer description of the Wyatt Clock contract (fifty women in Brockton, Mass., who died from radiation poisoning …), stick somewhat awkwardly in the throat as the witty laid-back smoothness of Vonnegut's prose goes down.
Eric Homberger, "The People's Friend," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 86.
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Kurt Vonnegut's latest work, Jailbird, continues the trend of his two preceding works, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick, away from sci fi entertainment towards satiric antinovels set in the sordid present and saturated with world-weary despair…. [Jailbird] opens with a rambling, autobiographical segment…. [But it becomes] a parodistic fairy tale spiced for grown ups with Dadaistic phantasies and with a moral dictated by black humor.
In Jailbird Vonnegut operates as a satirical surgeon on the festering sores of North America's power-hungry plutocracy. His diagnosis is based on historical studies of the cruelty and injustice done to the workers of the world by American capitalists from 1890 to 1978. He holds his historical diagnosis together chronologically by tracing parallels between three quasi-revolutions of the little man: the great union strikes of the 1890's to obtain justice and tolerable living conditions for the workers; the similar strikes organized in the 1930's depression; and finally the surreal scheme of Mary Kathleen O'Looney to bring about "a peaceful economic revolution" … in the 1970's. All these quasi-revolutions end in martyrdom for the idealistic socialist leaders of the time…. (p. 159)
Jailbird is a scathing reductio ad absurdum of American capitalism's attempt to substitute the worship of Mammon and property as a guiding dream in place of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Vonnegut discards the salvation theology of Christianity and secularizes and politicizes Christ's gospel. With this ideal of humility and altruistic love constantly in mind, Vonnegut lambasts the USA for its false promise of justice and equality for all…. It is representative of the haplessness of the little man that the narrator and antihero of this sad satire, Stankiewicz-Starbuck, becomes a passive and harmless accomplice to Nixon's Watergate cover-up in Jailbird's contemporary setting…. When Starbuck lists the rather corny examples of Christian goodness he has experienced in one day … all for the benefit of Mary Kathleen playing a fairy tale God, then Jailbird begins uncannily to resemble the parable in Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan. In both works the capitalist economy is held by the author to make the practice of Christian altruism impossible and in both works the Gods are revealed to be impotent anachronisms, leaving the only solution to be found in this world in the evolution of a new community founded on socialist ideals. But whereas Brecht's plays are resolutely optimistic, Vonnegut's novels waver irresolutely between the black humor of despair and a wistful hope beyond hopelessness.
The antihero of Jailbird shambles his way through a myriad of tests towards a wry kind of moral heroism in defeat. The plot relies on shameless coincidences; the events have an archetypal ring to them; and the problems evoked are always urgent moral ones whose solution is vital to the survival of our Western civilization. Jailbird draws its characters from a muck heap of grotesque caricatures of capitalist lawyers, politicians, and big businessmen. Their unfailing corruption serves to demonstrate the epidemic malaise of our civilization.
In Jailbird Vonnegut seems to see himself like his narrator as a philosophical jailbird resigned to his existential imprisonment in a meaningless world but amusing himself by pretending to transform the world through the magic of poetic fantasy…. Vonnegut's style resembles the behavior of one of Jailbird's characters who is always "overacting his surprise and dismay like an actor in a silent movie."… For Vonnegut is addicted to the half melodramatic, half consciously humorous hyperbole of the silent movie director. He exaggerates the contrast between unbelievable innocence and cruel power mongering, between foolish optimism and apathetic defeatism. His antinovel is thus in the tradition of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. The black humor and flippancy behind which Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut hide their sometimes sentimental, neo-Christian visions of goodness are best understood as emanating in spirit from the softhearted father of American literary satire who grew increasingly pessimistic in old age, Mark Twain. (pp. 159-60)
David A. Myers, "Brief Mentions: 'Jailbird'," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Associaton), Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 159-60.
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In the Autumn of 1973, English teacher Bruce Severy ordered Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five for use in one of his classes in Drake, North Dakota. On 7 November, on orders from the Board of Education, Mrs. Sheldon Summers, school custodian, burned 32 copies of the book because the Board members had decided that it was pornographic. After reading a brief article in the New York Times on the incident (16 November 1973), Vonnegut wrote to Charles McCarthy (head of the Drake Board of Education). His letter … presents an unsual approach to censorship, it illuminates a feature of Vonnegut's character that many readers overlook when reading his books: his moral intent. (p. 631)
[The following quote is from Vonnegut's letter:]
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered chldren know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don't damage children much. They didn't damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.
[Vonnegut] avoids the usual debate over prurient interest, community standards, and definition of pornography. Instead he attacks the accuracy of the charge by insisting that he and his books are highly moral….
[No] matter what else one might say of Vonnegut's books, they do, upon close inspection, reflect a moral outlook on life. If the self-appointed censors read his work, they ignored Vonnegut's appeal that men treat each other in a more humane fashion, or they read selectively to determine that earthy but common words appear, having defined pornography exclusively in terms of four-letter words to which they believe minors should not be exposed. The most outrageous possibility … is that they acted as a formal, deliberative body to undermine a writer's reputation without even having read the book that they condemned. (p. 634)
Vonnegut's letter may not have accomplished what he hoped (to cause McCarthy and the Drake citizenry to reconsider their actions), but it presents an interesting perspective on censorship. Moreover, in the process of presenting his response to censorship problems, Vonnegut reveals an important aspect of his character and literature. The tone of Vonnegut's books is often irreverent and satiric (one element of his popularity among young readers and iconoclasts). If Vonnegut perceives hypocrisy, mindless routine, evil, or irresponsibility, he satirizes the malady in a precise but very humorous fashion. Since many of these maladies plague members of the so-called Establishment, alienated persons have mistakenly assumed that Vonnegut's sole intent is to take the Establishment to task, without regard for morality. And some of the persons who are the objects of the biting satire fail to perceive the point that he articulates eloquently in his letter: far from being immoral or amoral, he desires to promote a better world in which people are kinder to one another than they are presently. For disillusioned American readers who do not wish to recognize that Vonnegut is doing more than sniping at the System and for supporters of the status quo who have been disconcerted by his attacks on their way of life, Vonnegut's letter to Charles McCarthy should provide convincing testimony that he is actually issuing a call for responsible, decent behavior and has a serious, moral purpose in mind as he writes his books. (pp. 634-35)
Richard E. Ziegfeld, "Kurt Vonnegut on Censorship and Moral Values," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1981 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, U.S.A.), Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1980–81, pp. 631-35.
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Beneath the absurd comedy of [Jailbird] with its chance encounters and unlikely coincidences exists a dark undertone of satiric comment on the loneliness, corruption and impersonality of American society. RAMJAC and Watergate are central symbols of our existing economic and political evils. Vonnegut's heroes are the little people like Mary Kathleen and such political martyrs as Sacco and Vanzetti (reminding one of Dos Passos's U.S.A., a probable influence on Vonnegut). As Mary Kathleen says about our lonely crowds: "They all look so mean to me…. I don't see anybody being kind to anybody anymore." And Starbuck, comparing his own moral deficiencies with individual acts of kindness he has received, says: "I've never been a serious man…. I never risked my life or even my comfort in the service of mankind." Vonnegut's main theme seems to be our need to rehumanize the world with love, concern and responsibility for our fellowman.
Allen Belkind, "English: 'Jailbird'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, p. 104.
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Even from the experience of the modern century, which has already witnessed the killing of over one hundred million people in wars and death camps, political philosophers cannot conceive of a system of rule organized and sustained through violence. "No government based exclusively on the means of violence has ever existed," writes Hannah Arendt. It is a startling observation and one carrying the authority of Arendt's rich historical knowledge deepened by philosophical generosity. The assertion gives one pause because the grimness of the historical record seems to challenge Arendt's trust in human governance. To each event that did question her belief, Arendt responded with renewed conviction in the faculty of intelligent action to resolve the contradictions inherent in what she saw as the self-destructive force in the violence of our time.
Arendt's confidence that violence will do itself in is a minority report. The events of the recent past have proved overwhelming to the novelists of this period. (p. 58)
The fiction of Kurt Vonnegut exemplifies this feeling of impotence to handle cataclysmic conditions. Writing out of the same disturbing context from which Arendt speaks, and addressing himself to the identical propensity toward violence in modern life which she examines, Vonnegut arrives at the opposite conviction. His art shows a government in which violence is the essence. He presents institutionalized terror as a culmination of the very historical process which Arendt offered as evidence against the possibility of such a malevolent system. What Arendt, the political theorist finds unthinkable, Vonnegut, the political fictionist, perceives as inevitable. His argument has had extensive appeal. The stories and novels of this "total pessimist," as Vonnegut refers to himself, have put the politics of the recent past on a level of wacky despair altogether congenial to the contemporary imagination. At first there would seem to be an enormous discrepancy between the flippancy of Vonnegut's tone and the grave meaning his fiction bears, but that discordance has struck just the right inversion for his material to touch our abiding hebephrenia.
Violence for Kurt Vonnegut rises from no single source. It serves as an implement of the human spirit and of the physical universe. Nor is violence depicted as an isolated event. It constitutes a cycle of disasters, human and phenomenal, proceeding toward a tremendous conflagration similar to what the Stoics called the ekpyrosis in which everything becomes altered by fire. The Stoics describe an extended period during which only fire exists, but that fire will bring about a new world order. Vonnegut too describes a great fire of destruction and anticipates a protracted period of smoldering decomposition. Vonnegut's world is the Stoics' world minus the final restoration, but the attitude of Stoical detachment remains the same…. By 1970 Vonnegut's work comprised six novels, two volumes of stories, and a play, which collectively picture the world running down like a time bomb toward explosion—in short, "a doomsday device." (pp. 58-9)
[Considering] the wreckage strewing the mindscape of Vonnegut's novels, we can conclude that his total work is a sustained response to violence. There is a tonal shift from satiric rebellion in the early books to tender resignation in the later, but the violent center holds firm. No modern observer could ignore the turbulence of a century which belongs to the darkest of all centuries since the dawn of humankind. For Vonnegut, however, destruction is not simply history but a tragic feeling for life determining the aim and nature of art. To begin with, his reply takes the form of depicting daily American life as fantasy. He wants us to see how outrageous the ordinary has become. At the same time, he wants us to cut through the fantasy. Stripped of its zaniness, his world divulges the typology of hell. (pp. 73-4)
In every Vonnegut novel bondage, mutilation, and economic abuse define his infernal habitation. Hell for Homer and Virgil lay underground…. Dante's hell also is subterranean…. Milton kept his hell beneath the surface and, like Dante, his region of sorrow is a supreme example of God's justice. Blake brought hell into the human mind where the chains of egocentricity imprison the passion for freedom. Vonnegut goes one step further. He plucks hell from below the ground and from behind the brow to make actual the horrors of poetic imaging. The archetypal state is for him our immanent condition.
The ancient mythology of the underrealm which served as a Medieval theology becomes a modern sociology of terror. The implications of this shift are observable throughout Vonnegut's fiction. His concretization of hell marks the disappearance of justice. The principle of punishment suiting the sin cannot explain a world where penalty outweighs the sin. Sin itself vanishes as a concept because the act implies a choice which the human mind does not have. Moreover, there is no perceivable divine law to break. God has stepped back from the human situation and remains aloof—a fan of collisions. "People," Vonnegut says in an interview, "are too good for this world." Loving humanity more than God does, the novelist cannot bring himself to have villains in his stories. He creates only dupes and victims. Their damnation is no longer a result of conduct but a obligation. Life is a sentence. The expiation that once rained down on the depths now heaps on the individual body and the body politic. By displacing the other world into this one, Vonnegut makes violence the constituent element of daily life.
His conception of character follows from this predicament. We learn in Slaughterhouse-Five that one of the effects of war "is that people are discouraged from being characters."… In all his work we learn that living in a hell-hole precludes the possibility of inner wholeness. Any sense of participating in one's destiny is fraudulent. The truest awareness, and the one that leads to compassion, is the recognition of the meaninglessness of one's self. In truth, the conventional word character implies a fullness of motivation which does not fit Vonnegut's art. Figure is modest enough to suggest the shadows flouncing through the stories, each a mere spindrift of fate, a representation of this or that devastation. In a novelistic world where figures derive their ethos from cowboy films, where government models policy on football game-plans, and where slogans serve as moral imperatives, it is right that a book's title be taken from a cereal box-top. All identity, artistic and human, is adventitious.
The impoverishment of Vonnegut's figures is further seen by their subservience to plot in an extreme degree. If we think of master of characterization, say, Henry James, for whom the possibilities of inner life are so rich that plot becomes a function of character, then we can estimate how far Vonnegut's involvement with violence has taken his notion of the novel. The Vonnegut plot is merely a succession of disasters, deadends, enigmas which are never surmounted or cleared up, but only brushed away and at that through whim or wisecrack. Anamorphosis is the only discernible principle of structure. Within the breakup and reassemblage of predicaments, the figures are tossed about. The kaleidoscope as aesthetic registers a mind attuned to violence. Vonnegut's frequent pronouncements in the novels about his inability to give shape to the experience he portrays are admissions of his being engrossed by violence.
So massive is the effect of violence on his work that many serious readers cannot get through the reiterations of disaster to his seriousness. Clinging to the old belief that life is many-sided, readers are reluctant to grant Vonnegut's premise, born of violence, which is that most of human life and artistic form has to disappear before he can give us a novel. The last word of the apocalypse is the first word of his story. He preserves a limited (re-cycled) cast of figures. There is always a narrator-witness who is baffled by the terrible state of the world, and there is always a motley crew of maimed victims. For all the affliction, malefactors, if any, are few. Also, all are presented along the stingy lines of satire, capable only of ventriloquized gesture and subject to wayward plots. It is as though we have plots in search of victims. Now this drastic curtailment of human representation and this sustained assault on literary form are in the interests of the anamorphic perception we are left with after violence has worked its will on the world. Vonnegut does not hesitate to choose the wildest situations, the most factitious aspects of contemporary life, because the truth he is after deepens in his making such distorted unrealities seem real. Reality for Vonnegut lies in the mind perceiving the raging disunion. The sum of his work catches the mind dazed by the wandering and re-wandering turmoil it fails to comprehend. Violence locks the mind in its own tortuosities. (pp. 75-6)
From the first, Vonnegut's doomsday device has implied either a malevolent Creator gloating over the rubbish spewed out by His recreational gadget or an indifferent Creator yawning behind the contraption. Starbuck's confession in Jailbird bespeaks the ultimate implication of this ultra-violence for the created. An exploding creation throws humanity back on its own resources to find understanding. Since we are not the source of being, we are not substitutes for meaning. We all then become jailbirds trapped in hopelessness, locked out of transcendence. The material destruction of cities and nations and planets and people expresses for the figures in the stories the inner division that wracks the inmates of spiritual ruin. We as readers read their tales like the stiff-necked unbelievers of Scripture, who must be annihilated to be convinced of our spiritual bondage. The constituent act of consciousness is not a communion of selves but a recognition of one's nullity. We remain apart from one another, opposed to one another and our world…. The squeezing vise which brings each of [Vonnegut's] novels to an end shows the constriction felt in the here and now by the human heart crushed by disunion. Violence emerges in Vonnegut's novels as a dramatic ceremony in which havoc occupies the center of the life rhythm; the individual stories celebrate the psychic disorder that chaos is in the human mind. (p. 76)
Richard Giannone, "Violence in the Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut," in THOUGHT (copyright © 1981 by Fordham University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. LVI, No. 220, March, 1981, pp. 58-76.
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[An] imaginary young tiger of a novelist, fresh out of one of the writing programs where Mr. Vonnegut has taught, could turn ["Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage"] into a gorgeous tour-de-force. The key to it would be to make the autobiographical musings more detailed and revealing than Mr. Vonnegut's, and the reflections, confidences and orations not copied from genuine letters and speeches, but invented and better….
In very top form [Mr. Vonnegut] has reminded me of Günter Grass, who is a writer of genius. I don't know whether Mr. Grass started out with more talent, but Mr. Grass has manipulated the talent he has with relentless logic and daring. Mr. Vonnegut, by contrast, is always turning aside (as, again, he confesses) to pop a quick joke, from what seems faint-heartedness, or else will bring himself up short with one of his trivializing signature phrases: "Hi-Ho," "Peace" or "So it goes." Even in "Slaughterhouse-Five," he quickly ducks into the incongruous sci-fi world of Tralfamadore whenever fright at the scenery of World War II overtakes him. A kind of congenital irresolution threatens to bring him down soon—as has happened with so many American writers before him—to a last couple of books which declare openly that he has failed to follow his premises through to a conclusion. (p. 33)
Edward Hoagland, "Kurt Vonnegut Singing in the Bath," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1981, pp. 3, 33.
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Kurt Vonnegut is the Danny Kaye of American Letters, a world-famous jester whose sweet and zany style has never been sealed by the academy as the high art of a Chaplin or a Keaton, who continues over the years to swoop up devotees without shaking off disdainers. Palm Sunday is not likely to send deserters scrambling from either side….
Palm Sunday is "an autobiographical collage," a literary bag lady—not your run-of-the-street bag lady but a Mary Kathleen O'Looney. In Jailbird, O'Looney turns out to be president of RAMJAC, an international conglomerate that owns everything in the world. According to the copyright, RAMJAC owns Palm Sunday, too. Imagine that. And so on.
Vonnegut's last collage, the 1975 Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, wasn't autobiographical. Neither is this one, if readers are looking for Crack-Ups, or Capotean confessions of madder music and stronger wine, or even a chronology of the and-then-I-wrote-and-wed sort….
On Palm Sunday's circus-full of rigging, its author flies through airy nothingness with ease; he's done the routine for years. He opens with cheek. His tongue is in it: "This is a very great book by an American genius."… At any rate, Vonnegut has swept his desk clean. Shaken out are four essays, ten public speeches, two funeral orations of his own and one of his great-grandfather's, two letters of his own and one by his daughter to a disgruntled restaurant customer, an interview with himself for The Paris Review, an Andy Hardy musical skit on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, an alphabetical list of 400 writer "friends" he has met at least once for at least thirty seconds, accepted and rejected book introductions, lyrics to two Country-Western songs by the Statler Brothers. And on and on. So it goes.
Among the best things are proud and generous portraits of his six children…. Also a peek at the "unbridled happiness" of William F. Buckley Jr. Also a talk of earnest irony to a New Jersey Mental Health Association. Also addresses at colleges … where he speaks with a voice marvelously attuned to the counterpoint of gloom, silliness and righteous fervor humming away in adolescents….
[It] was Vonnegut who brought [the science fiction] genre from outer space into a mainstream literary orbit by adding his style of black comedy and Bokononian commentary—a sort of Jonathan Livingston Spaceship with Lenny Bruce at the controls….
Like Heller and other of his Depression-raised, World War II-graduated peers, Vonnegut began writing in the 1950s but became popularly associated with a "radical 1960s" sensibility. He tells us in Palm Sunday that these liberal beliefs, deeply felt but not doctrinaire, are "so soft and complicated they turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush" when he argues against folks like, say, William F. Buckley Jr. Nonetheless, Vonnegut carries that banner for his readers; they know that if they open a book of his, they will find cherished flags still flying….
Vonnegut is a popular writer; there is nothing obscure about his style or abstruse about his themes; you can read one of his books in an evening. While he splatters orthodox notions of the novel, his works have little to do with modernist "fictiveness"—compare the index to Jailbird with Nabokov's for Pale Fire; compare Pynchon's allegorial polysemy with Vonnegut's Humpty-Dumpty neologisms. (p. 346)
Palm Sunday he calls "a confrontation between an American novelist and his own stubborn simplicity." He's conflicted about that quality's merit. At times he concludes he's not very educated, not very articulate, in fact not very bright and not very polished at his craft. At other times he wants us to know that his "mosaics of jokes" are highly skilled artifact (as indeed they are) of a fine natural talent for whom writing came as easily "as falling off a log." To write simply, and not shallowly, like Vonnegut at his best—like Mark Twain, the idol for whom he named his first son and whom he is oddly coming even to resemble, with his curls and drooping mustache—to achieve so clean a simplicity is no slight accomplishment. (pp. 346-47)
Vonnegut says he shares Twain's bitter skepticism—"that I have had it right all along, that I will not see God, that there is no heaven." Meanwhile, he keeps hoping we can create a new one here on earth, based on that most radical of ideological documents, the Sermon on the Mount. Palm Sunday ends with a sermon on that Sermon by a modest, polite, sentimental family man, a planetary patriot and a writer to whose stubborn simplicity the modern American novel owes great thanks. (p. 347)
Michael Malone, "A Planetary Patriot," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 11, March 21, 1981, pp. 346-47.
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"Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage" [is] a race down to the wire between the good stuff and the bad stuff, in which the good stuff wins by a nose.
One of the drawbacks to a collection of this sort is that it requires the use of material in which certain gags are repeated. This gets to be such a habit in "Palm Sunday" that Mr. Vonnegut starts repeating himself even when he doesn't have to….
The other drawback to "Palm Sunday" is Mr. Vonnegut's charm. The main ingredient of this charm is a facility for saying it before you can, for calling "Palm Sunday" a "blivet" before you can call it a piece of junk, of giving it a C on the report card of his life's work before you can give it a C-,… or of saying he feels guilty about having profited from the bombing of Dresden before you can accuse him of being two-faced for having published … a letter he told the recipient no one else would see.
This part of his charm is innocence achieved by pre-emptive guilt. The other parts are an elaborate ability to say, "Aw shucks," and an almost infinite capacity to appear less holy than thou. Sometimes the charm wears a little thick. You want to say, If you feel guilty about Dresden, why don't you give some of your money to it? Also, like many agnostics, Mr. Vonnegut talks too much about God.
But the good things outweigh the bad in "Palm Sunday."… The best things are the questions and answers he supplied for a Paris Review "Writers at Work" interview, a speech he gave to the Mental Health Association in New Jersey and the sermon "Palm Sunday," delivered at St. Clement's Church in New York, in which he explains what Jesus might really have meant when he said to Judas, "For the poor always ye have with you; but you do not always have me."
There is little more to say after all this time about what Mr. Vonnegut does so well. It's all been described before—the clarity and simplicity of phrase, the perfect sense of timing, the funny incongruity and the shrewd sense of idiom. He is, at his very best, fit company for his idol, Mark Twain.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times: 'Palm Sunday'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1981, p. 21.
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What we have in Jailbird is an extremely closely woven narrative built up of ironic juxtapositions and incongruities stated and counterpointed as in an elaborate symphony. The development of character in terms of psychological realism is not important to Vonnegut (though a Dickensian presentation of idiosyncracy is) and in fact some of his characters' names are close anagrams of one another—Leland Clewes/Cleveland Lawes; Arpad Lean/Delmar Peale—as though to suggest that their personalities are accidental and that in essence they are the same—strange machines making weird noises and doing odd things to one another, whose actions in the world always turn out contrary to what they intend…. Human beings, in Vonnegut's novels, are pawns of forces they cannot comprehend and of which they are only vaguely aware. In Sirens of Titan, for example, the whole of human history is explicable as the procurement for an alien space traveller of a spare part for his stranded vehicle so that he may proceed to the other end of the universe with his message which, translated, means "greetings." (pp. 148-49)
Neither is Vonnegut interested in fine writing. His style is a sort of high class telegraphese conveying vast amounts of information very rapidly and is ideally suited for the presentation of disparate narrative strands which shuttle back and forth as the plot proceeds to be tied at the novel's end into a surprising but satisfying knot. In Jailbird several chapters begin with Starbuck sitting on the bench by the bus stop outside his prison on the first day of freedom contemplating his past and his fate as a man always in the wrong place at the wrong time, who has thereby inadvertently "set the cause of humanitarianism back a hundred years." Events in his own life and in its social and political background are recalled associatively and without respect to chronology by means of some ironic or symbolic link. (p. 149)
Why is Vonnegut an excellent writer? Because he displays that quality Sir Philip Sidney called energia—a total involvement of the imagination with the material whose by-product is a series of delightful inventions expressed with a kind of nonchalant grace…. One of the pleasures of reading Vonnegut lies in [the] … nonchalant skill with which he sets up his balloons and shoots them down: Watergate, proliferating corporations, Nixon, the Eastern establishment, greasy, born-again crooks, and so on. The price one often pays for this pleasure is Vonnegut's communicated sense of defeat: in Sirens the protagonist is given a quiet, comfortable park bench on which to die; in Cradle he becomes a monument frozen in an attitude of infantile defiance; in Jailbird he retreats happily to a warm jail…. (pp. 149-50)
John Mills, "Return of the Dazed Steer," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 145-54.∗
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Kurt Vonnegut—public clown, master of disguises, wizard of the ironic approach, self-parodist, sender-up of his self-sending-up—gives the reader of Palm Sunday plenty of warning. Writing, he says, is playing practical jokes on readers: "If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes."…
["Somebody thought" is] the sort of response Palm Sunday engagingly invites to its offered collage of bits and pieces. But the presence of irony is a great mongerer of scepticism, especially when it's signalled so loudly….
Vonnegut busily undoes his own book, calling it a blivit ("two pounds of shit in a one pound bag"), mocking it as he mocks the excesses of American authors' immodesties ("This is a very great book by an American genius. I have worked so hard on this masterpiece for the past six years…. It is a marvelous new literary form …"). He slings dauntingly low blows at himself as the only true beneficiary of Dresden's bombing….
Vonnegut, in fact, spends a lot of his time blackly glooming: about his failed first marriage, about becoming "an old poop" …, about the proneness of his women-folk to religious superstition, about illiberalism and violence in America and the world. Going in for jokes, Vonnegut alleges, would do a lot of good to all those long-winded American novelists who believe bulky seriousness the mark of greatness. For jokes put ideas shortly. But pose though he strenuously does as just the hired jester who makes happily snappy shrift of your fund-raising or your commencement ceremonies, in practice Vonnegut is himself as lengthily serious as any of the co-fictionists he derides. Again and again he comes round to the importance of not believing in God or playing divinities or putting faith in technology/nukes/the military. He repeatedly restates the need to fight America's Number One Killer, loneliness, and to uphold the First Amendment's visions of an America of free opinions and speech, where all the Funny Guts can speak or write or draw assholes as and whenever the spirit so moves them….
Vonnegut refuses to unite … the contraries that meet in his prose. Dutiful descendant of German immigrants that he is, he keeps trying to work out the identity of America, and his own identity as a German-American. "Fellow Americans", "we Americans", "American literature", "most Americans" …: Americanness is much on his mind. But he can't ever quite make up his mind about whether America is free or not. He sounds sincere when he praises America's bold First Amendment, America's system of laws, its free enterprise, its realization of utopian dreams. He sounds equally sincere when lamenting the failures of American freedoms—Jefferson's slaves, Sacco and Vanzetti, the legal attempts to stop him from being "free to discuss" some naughty thing.
Valentine Cunningham, "The Dilemmas of a Liberal Humorist," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4081, June 19, 1981, p. 692.
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In this patchwork of literary remnants [Palm Sunday],… Vonnegut reasserts his simple, perennial theme: most human behavior is innocent. Slaughterhouse Five exposed the banality of evil underlying the bombing of Dresden by the United States; Jailbird argued that both HUAC and Watergate stem from the same fumbling stupidity. Unfortunately, Vonnegut once again deliberately blurs facts and genres to turn his sound argument for civil liberties into one more strained appeal for beatific laughter. Rather than analyze the genuine roots of the social loneliness and civil repression he so deplores, Vonnegut acquiesces to the madness and depravity of everyday reality—he is content to confess, smile, and merely endure.
"Notes on Current Books: 'Palm Sunday'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1981, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 57, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), p. 98.
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In 1975 Kurt Vonnegut published a collection of reviews, articles and speeches under the annoying title of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. Now, six years later, he has done much the same in Palm Sunday. He calls the book a collage…. The result is far more effective than the earlier book. Indeed were it not for the 'connective tissue' Palm Sunday would be dangerously inconclusive and slight…. [Some] of the pieces included here are clearly no more than padding. There can be no other reason for reprinting his short story 'The Big Space Fuck' or subjecting us to a truly appalling libretto for a musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—which the producers quite rightly turned down. It is Vonnegut's musings and speculations on and around the circumstances that prompted this or that address or introduction to a book that prove in the end to be far and away the most rewarding elements of Palm Sunday. They do, as he intended, form a partial autobiography—a 'sort of life'—which reveals the author to us in a genial and unself-conscious way and raises hope that this will prove to be a trial run for a fuller, longer account of his life. (p. 84)
[Beneath] the mannerisms lies an amenable personality whose opinions are not without merit and relevance. Vonnegut's bêtes noires are worthy and well known and include such targets as multinationals, pollution, organized religion, war and inhumanity. If a new note appears in Palm Sunday then it's a plea to abandon the nuclear family and to return to the extended one…. This particular direction of Vonnegut's thought seems to have been caused by the breakdown of his twenty-year-old marriage and the dispersal of his six children. (p. 85)
Vonnegut may or may not be like the portrait he presents of himself here. The point is that he has found his voice and it informs and colours the moderately interesting facts and tendentious opinions in a beguiling and sympathetic way. When talking about Thoreau, Vonnegut observes that 'Thoreau, I now feel, wrote in the voice of a child, as I do.' That is Vonnegut's voice, his particular imposture, and, like any child, its pronouncements can be maddening or inspiringly perceptive. There are enough of the latter to make us hope for more in the future. (p. 86)
William Boyd, "Voice of a Child," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1981), Vol. 21, No. 4, July, 1981, pp. 84-6.
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Like his fellow humorist Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut attains his main strength as a writer in his grasp of persona. Wear the right mask, he knows, and you can say anything. Critics are disarmed by this approach, not knowing which voice is that of the "real' Vonnegut and which only an illusion…. Thus, the typical Vonnegut book is endearing, puzzling, and infuriating, as is Palm Sunday, a book which should make Vonnecultists of the four or five Americans who still are not. Try, but it's hard to dislike Palm Sunday. (pp. 57-8)
Not one, but three Kurt Vonneguts inhabit the pages of Palm Sunday. In the quasi-scientific language he seems to love, they are KV-1, KV-2, and KV-3, or the Risque Buffoon, the Freedom Fighter, and the Mandarin Simplifier.
KV-1, Risque Buffoon, cracks jokes both dismal and hilarious, advises graduating classes to get plenty of bran in their diets, and wonders about Queen Victoria's reaction to the drawing of his anus featured as part of the official KV signature. This would have been crude back in study hall, of course, but KV-2, Freedom Fighter, is whisked in quicker than you can say Bill of Rights to explain away such bourgeois aversions. Taboos against mentioning and drawing no-no body parts are really devices for keeping the workers in their places and squelching dissent.
If that sounds oversimplified, blame it on the presence throughout Palm Sunday of KV-3, the Mandarin Simplifier. Vonnegut has a penchant for reducing complex problems of art or morality to simple a-b-c solutions….
More importantly, parts of Palm Sunday are especially timely. As KV-2, Freedom Fighter, Vonnegut returns frequently to a lament over the decline of the Freethinker tradition of Bertrand Russell and Ralph Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken, and of KV's humanist great grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut. No one-liners can hide Vonnegut's pain as he discusses his wife's and daughters' conversions to "born-again" Christianity ("working white magic through rituals and prayers," Vonnegut writes of the faith that destroyed his marriage).
In his personal anguish, perhaps Vonnegut pinpoints the reasons for the revival of fundamentalism and the current attacks, from rostrum and Rose Garden, on humanism:
I would be a fool to say that the Freethinker ideas of Clems Vonnegut remain as enchanting and encouraging as ever—not after the mortal poisoning of the planet, not after two world wars, with more to come.
Behind the veils of ironist and jester, we sense that at some distant point the multiple KVs merge into a laughing, suffering man very much of his time. Like his literary forebear Mark Twain he is horrified by the headlines, and as puzzled by our faltering civilization as another clown prince of modern times, Charles Chaplin (a Vonnegut idol). Vonnegut's answer—a simple answer, of course—is much like theirs. He laughs. (p. 58)
Chris Tucker, "Vonnegut's Masks," in The Progressive (reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703; copyright 1981 by The Progressive, Inc.), Vol. 45, No. 8, August, 1981, pp. 57-8.