All Too Human: On Kurt Vonnegut’s Legacy

By Wilson Taylor and Matthew Gannon

The first paragraph from our recent review of Robert Tally's Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography, originally posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

KURT VONNEGUT first exploded into the nation’s consciousness in 1969 with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel’s distinctive and ethical voice resonated with young Americans, and his appeal to countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s made him a reluctant literary celebrity. Absurdist novels such as Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions offered new ways of thinking about the self, the nation, and the world, and Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom and anti-war sentiment appealed to the skeptical idealism of late-century America. Even as his celebrity waned, he continued to write poignant, experimental novels of the American experience, and his influence and appeal remained potent.

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A Brief Reflection on #VonnegutSummer

Dear Readers,

By now, attuned readers will note that The Vonnegut Review has long-since reviewed Vonnegut's final novel, Timequake, and, after fourteen novels and eighteen essays, the road ahead may seem unclear. Indeed, we have completed the fundamental goal of our project, and greatly appreciate all of the support and enthusiasm you have shared. Participating in a vibrant community of Vonnegut readers has been a wonderful experience for both of us. "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

However, we have not yet resigned to hanging our hats. We have found Vonnegut an invaluable companion to our own American lives, and do not rush to re-shelve his voice. We are working to expand significantly the scope of the project, and we look forward to sharing such journeys with you all. We also will be working on some capstone essays, intended to function as retrospectives, encapsulations, and, most importantly, continued explorations of the contours of Vonnegut's literary visions of the human in the world.

Please stay tuned, Vonnegut readers. The Vonnegut Review is not finished. Excitement lies just beyond the horizon.

Until then, please follow us on Twitter and Tumblr, where we will be posting more regularly. And be sure to explore our archives, which you will find on the right sidebar of this page. Most importantly, we urge you to read, and to read Vonnegut.

Wilson Taylor and Matthew Gannon

Fictional Humans and Humanist Fictions

“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” 

- Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997

“Being alive is a crock of shit.”

- Kilgore Trout in Timequake

Vonnegut’s Old Man and the Sea

In an extended analogy to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Kurt Vonnegut identifies Timequake, his fourteenth and final novel, as a “stew.” Vonnegut “fillets the fish” of a failed novel (which he compares to Santiago’s destroyed marlin in Hemingway’s novella) with ostensible “thoughts and experiences” from his life. The novel as a “stew” resonates with Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode, which, in its fragmentation, sharpens a critical edge and cultivates redemptive narratives. The resulting gallimaufry is Vonnegut’s final attempt to deconstruct the novel as aesthetic and literary form, and simultaneously reconstruct the human and inaugurate new histories. 

Vonnegut's Labor of Literature

 By Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor

The Vonnegut Review is pleased to announce a collaboration with Jacobin Magazine for a special essay for Labor Day. We have written a piece about the untold history of Labor Day as well as literature's role in re-imagining history and politics. We ask: can literature be a force in the fight for economic justice? What is Vonnegut's role in the history of America's storied labor movement? Here is the first paragraph of our essay:
There can be no doubt that Labor Day is a lapsed holiday in America. It was a once proud tradition celebrating, as the US Department of Labor website puts it, “the social and economic achievements of American workers,” and a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” From its roots in the 19th century, it has, by the 21st century, become an opportunity for barbecues, a much-needed   three-day weekend, and a convenient capstone to the summer season.

Kurt Vonnegut as Ragpicker and Poet

“These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”

- T.S. Eliot

The Complicated Futility of Ignorance

Hocus Pocus, like so many Vonnegut novels, is a first-person, non-linear narrative told episodically as an autobiography written by a prisoner awaiting trial. The protagonist in this case is disgraced professor Eugene Debs Hartke, who, like many Vonnegut characters, is not guilty of the charges leveled against him but is certainly guilty of other crimes – crimes against his conscience being chief among them. This epistolary novel is something of a confession to the readers. Eugene admits that though he is an atheist, there might just be somebody up there watching, and by writing he is trying to confess his crimes – though he can never clear his conscience. He awaits trial in the former library of Tarkington College, a school for the dyslexic or otherwise learning-impaired for the super-rich in Upstate New York in a town called Scipio “at the pinched waist of Lake Mohiga, the deepest and coldest and westernmost of the long and narrow Finger Lakes.” Eugene was a professor of physics there where is favorite pastime was encouraging his students to consider the inevitability of failure. He finds a set of failed experiments to produce a perpetual-motion machine and puts them on display with a large plaque reading, “THE COMPLICATED FUTILITY OF IGNORANCE.” His reasoning is that “even for middle-class and upper-class white people, in my experience, failure is the norm. It is unfair to youngsters particularly to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screw-ups.” Eugene is particularly keen on expressing the many faults he sees in the rich, or what he calls the “Ruling Class.” This casual Marxist critique and class-consciousness is taken from his namesake, Eugene Victor Debs, a real historical figure. Vonnegut’s character Eugene explains that his grandfather was “a Socialist and an Atheist,” and deeply admired the historical Debs, who was the Socialist third-party candidate for president many times during the first quarter of the 20th century.

American Lazarus and the Renaissance of Rabo Karabekian

by Wilson Taylor

“But like every movement, abstraction must have a direction, and it is on this that everything depends.”

- György Lukács, “Realism in the Balance,” 1938

“I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, 1981

A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Vonnegut presents Bluebeard as “a novel and a hoax autobiography” of “erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian.” Karabekian, who also appears in Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, is a renown Abstract Expressionist, famous for works of abstract minimalism such as The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Windsor Blue Number SeventeenBluebeard offers Vonnegut a more direct voice to interrogate the role of art in representing and transforming the human world. While many of Vonnegut’s novels celebrate the transformative potential of art, Bluebeard represents Vonnegut’s most sustained discussion of aesthetics. The contours of Karabekian’s career, oscillating between realism and abstract expressionism, allow Vonnegut renewed perspective on art, the human, and the catastrophe of history. Bluebeard is a catalogue of the tension between these two modes of representation and the modes of being they engender. 

A Second Noah's Ark

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The Grand and the Absurd in Human Evolution

In his first edition of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin rightly anticipated the disgruntlement and discomfort of his readers with the concept of natural selection. He knew that for many it would dislodge deep-seated quasi-scientific dogmas and unsettle more than a few religious beliefs. In advance of this potential opposition he defended his theories of evolution, declaring, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Since his writing of that book in 1859 many have indeed found “grandeur in this view of life,” even against the superstitious opposition it still faces. Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Galápagos, locates the absurd in this view of life, and rewrites the story of evolution not as one of the “preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” as Darwin called it, but instead as the history of recklessness and foolishness amongst dangerous animals chief of which are the big-brained humans, who invent atomic bombs and slavery among other contemptible hobbies. Vonnegut even writes in a new chapter of human evolution in which the vast majority of the human race is wiped out by an apocalyptic bacteria and the remaining human population evolves into a human-seal hybrid who give up their attempts at technological enslavement of the world and live lives as gentle fisher folk that prefer playing and swimming to annihilating one another. 

Speechless in Simulation: A Missive for Midland City

“Man is a subject caught in and tortured by language.”
 - Jacques Lacan

“Words, words, words.”
 - Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2.192

“Blah blah blah.”
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick, 1982

Consider the Subtleness of the Sea

“Deadeye Dick,” writes Vonnegut in the Preface to his tenth novel, “is a sort of lungfish of a nickname. It was born in the ocean, but it adapted to life ashore.” He elaborates — Deadeye Dick “is a nickname for a sailor. A deadeye is a rounded wooden block, usually bound with rope or iron, and pierced with holes. The holes receive a multiplicity of lines... But in the American Middle West of my youth, ‘Deadeye Dick’ was an honorific often accorded to a person who was a virtuoso with firearms.” The deadeye, then, functions as a subtle metaphor in the novel, which revolves around the peculiar experience of the man — Rudy Waltz, neither sailor nor virtuoso — absurdly bestowed with this “lungfish of a nickname” and irrevocably marked by fate. The nautical origins of the deadeye suggest that the nickname function as a sort of lens into the American subject and psyche, with Deadeye Dick, to paraphrase Whitman, offering a filter of multiplicities through the self. 

Vonnegut’s Sermon on the Mount

"Mr. Hapgood... why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?" 

"Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."

Call Me Starbuck
Vonnegut’s ninth novel, Jailbird, resumes the author’s profound fascination with Christian theology, an intellectual phenomenon that is bound to confuse readers, given how often Vonnegut himself affirms his atheistic humanism. In his quasi-memoirs, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut’s criticism of religious belief is pointed: “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” Nevertheless, Jailbird derives its moral authority from scripture itself, albeit in unconventional and decidedly progressive ways. It is perhaps telling that this novel revolves around a protagonist by the name of Walter F. Starbuck, an obvious, if elusive, allusion to Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s classical American novel Moby-Dick. Melville writes of Starbuck in his novel:
Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance.

Of Man’s Rude Slapstick, Yes, And God’s

“And how did we then face the odds,
of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?
Quite at home and unafraid,
in a game our dreams re-made.”

 - Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, 1976

American Pastoral

Kurt Vonnegut identifies his eighth novel, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, as “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.” Indeed, Slapstick is a highly personal novel, one that, like his others, confronts the ultimate absurdity of the human condition and responds with a subversive love. It is also presented as the autobiography of Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain (born as Wilbur Rockefeller Swain), the former President of the United States and current King of Manhattan. The novel is ostensibly “about desolated cities and spiritual cannibalism and incest and loneliness and lovelessness and death, and so on. It depicts myself and my beautiful sisters as monsters, and so on.” And this is true — the core of the novel is a meditation on alienation and loneliness. But the beating heart of Slapstick is Vonnegut’s honest and painful appraisal of his relationship with his sister and himself, and, with characteristic hope and humanism, the transformative power of love and art.

Vonnegut on Truth and Aesthetics in a Nonmoral Sense

by Matthew Gannon
(with drawings by Kurt Vonnegut) 

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873

“Trout sat back and thought about the conversation. He shaped it into a story, which he never got around to writing until he was an old, old man. It was about a planet where the language kept turning into pure music, because the creatures there were so enchanted by sounds. Words became musical notes. Sentences became melodies. They were useless as conveyors of information, because nobody knew or cared what the meanings of words were anymore.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973

The Voice of God

At the start of Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut’s seventh novel, coming on the heels of the peerless Slaughterhouse-five – the author makes a careful and prudent announcement to clear himself of any legal charges that might be leveled at him from taking the slogan of a cereal brand as the title of his book:

“The expression ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.”

Oscillating to Eternity: Apocalypse and Eden in Vonnegut's Telegraphic Schizophrenic Novel

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
- Thoreau, Walden, 1854

All This Happened, More or Less

“Somebody was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again.” So remarks the first-person narrator in the meta-fictional opening chapter to Vonnegut’s sublime masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five is a novel suffused with historical and temporal anxiety, which alludes to the far deeper existential uncertainty, guilt, and paranoia that haunts both Kurt Vonnegut and the postwar American consciousness. The terror of Slaughterhouse-Five is the terror of human indeterminacy amidst the incommensurate seas of history, time, fate, and circumstance. The crisis of Slaughterhouse-Five is the crisis of unmoored subjectivity in postwar America.

The Tragedy of Eliot Rosewater, Prince of Indiana

by Matthew Gannon

"What a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, quoted by Senator Lister Ames Rosewater

Act I: Shithouses, Shacks, Alcoholism, Ignorance, Idiocy and Perversion

After his long time away from earth touring the solar system throughout his first four novels, Kurt Vonnegut has come back to earth for his fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. His postmodern odysseys have taken him to a dystopian future, the far reaches of the solar system, a Jerusalem prison cell, and an absurdist Caribbean island to witness the end of the world. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut comes back to practically his own childhood doorstep, seeing as he grew up in Indiana, the setting of the bulk of this novel about social nihilism, soul rot, and economic inequality. While Vonnegut’s wild and whirling travels through space and time are illustrative of his thoughts on the nature of society, politics, the worth of humans, and all other modern anxieties of advanced industrial society, he has yet to confront the gritty reality of post-WWII America. His escape from orbit is in many ways a desire to leave this world behind, an attempt to find a better world where the atom bomb isn’t the ultimate problem-solver and a machine can’t outrank a human in worth. He has grappled with the apocalyptic and the fear of Cold War-era American, but he hadn’t yet confronted the soul crushing meaningless of everyday life people experience while waiting for the bomb to go off. If his previous novels have largely seen Vonnegut searching out a new, more human and humane world, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a return to earth to confront that earthly sickness from which he is so desperately trying to escape. His previous works are largely symbolic, using a fictive Martian army to express the conformity in post-WWII American or a player piano to investigate anxieties over human superfluity. God Bless Your, Mr. Rosewater is a return to the literal – it is a realist respite for a very surrealist author.

San Lorenzo Mon Amour

by Wilson Taylor

"By painful experience we have learnt that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life. Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberated man from exhausting physical labor, making his life easier and richer; but on the other hand, introducing a grave restlessness into his life, making him a slave to his technological environments, and — most catastrophic of all — creating the means for his own mass destruction.”

- Albert Einstein, “A Message to Intellectuals,” 1948

“We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

You Saw Nothing in Hiroshima

Into the ceaseless catastrophe of the twentieth century steps Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle is a narrative of disaster. Hiroshima is an absence that infects the entirety of the novel, the threat of annihilation that invades the modern consciousness. Jonah, in the liminal space between apocalypse and death, narrates Cat’s Cradle as a Bokononist meditation on living through the end of time. The omnipresence of cataclysm pervades the narrative, which is woven together through the parallel and competing discursive threads of science and religion. Vonnegut’s primary concern in his fourth novel is the unstable relationship between discourse, disaster, and the human. In Cat’s Cradle, the author interrogates the existential and imminent threats against the human, and, as in The Sirens of Titan, imagines an alternate mode of being outside of history. The deep narrative tension of Cat’s Cradle  — the uncertain relationship between truth and fiction, life and death, love and disaster, creation and destruction — results from the tragic absurdity of the human condition. After apocalypse, Vonnegut subversively re-imagines and re-enchants the human through the creation of a counter-hegemonic mode of being via a discourse of sacrality, while de-mystifying and de-legitimizing rationalism as a discourse of meaning and mode of being.  

Vonnegut in Jerusalem: A Report on the Absurdity of Language and Media

by Matthew Gannon

“No matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you.”

- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963

“This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night, 1961

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt presented her collected reports on Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Eichmann, a former member of the Nazi SS largely responsible instituting the logistics of the mass incarceration and extermination of millions of Jews, was captured in Argentina by Israeli foreign intelligence agents and brought to Israel to answer for his crimes. Just two years before Arendt’s book, Vonnegut published, Mother Night, which dealt with remarkably similar themes as Arendt’s. Mother Nightfollows the exploits of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a high profile Nazi propagandist who is brought back to Jerusalem years after World War II in order to be tried for his crimes against the Jewish people, against humanity, and, as Campbell puts it, against his own conscience.

The Kings of Infinite Space and The Sirens of Titan

by Wilson Taylor

“You will come first of all to the Sirens, who are enchanters
of all mankind and whoever comes their way; and that man
who unsuspecting approaches them, and listens to the Sirens
singing, has no prospect of coming home and delighting
his wife and little children as they stand about him in                    greeting,
but the Sirens by the melody of their singing enchant him.” 

 - Homer, The Odyssey, XII.39-44

John, I’m Only Dancing

When confronted with the absurdity of the human condition, Harrison Bergeron chooses to dance. Refusing any longer to bear the pain of existence, the weight of history, or Hamlet’s “whips and scorns of time,” Bergeron casts off his burdens and dances with revolutionary grace. Through art, Bergeron transcends life itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, “our highest dignity lies in our significance as works of art — for only as aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” Bergeron invests life with meaning through his actualized desire to “become a work of art.” Bergeron’s dance is a dance against history and against time. Bergeron’s dance is Sisyphus’ scorn — to quote Camus, all of his “silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him.” In his rejection of absurdity, Bergeron discovers his soul.  

Player Piano, the One-Dimensional Society, and the Emergency Brake of History

by Matthew Gannon

“What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened”

-       T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” 1936

“A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

-       Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952

One-Dimensional Society

In his seminal book on advanced industrial society, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse makes the case that even many ostensibly democratic nations are, at heart, totalitarian. Totalitarianism, he argues, need not manifest as dystopian wastelands with labor camps, dictatorship, secret police, and all those other Orwellian characteristics: “For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.”

Player Piano, which purports to be “not a book about what is, but a book about what could be,” is such a totalitarian society – not one organized by terrorism but by economic-technical coordination of vested interests. Its society is one that appears, as its main character Paul Proteus notes, as a “clean, straight rafter,” that, once the surface is scraped away, is rotten to the core.

Irony and Authenticity in the American Imagination

“In some remote corner of the universe, flickering in the light of the countless solar systems into which it had been poured, there was once a planet on which clever animals invented cognition. It was the most arrogant and most mendacious minute in the ‘history of the world,’ but a minute was all it was. After nature had drawn a few more breaths, the planet froze and the clever animals had to die.”
 - Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” 1873

“What memories for mud to have!”
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1963

Recurring throughout Vonnegut’s imagination and fiction is an impulse of ironic distancing and deflection. Vonnegut’s fiction is motivated by an awareness of the tragic and existential absurdity that underlies the human experience, and this awareness functions as an elliptical center of his narratives. Irony functions in Vonnegut’s novels as a defensive posture, establishing a critical distance allowing Vonnegut to apprehend the absurdity of the human condition. For instance, the firebombing of Dresden, the ostensible subject of his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, is a void through which he is unable to communicate directly. Dresden functions as a synecdoche of cyclical suffering, of violence and death and war, and of the ultimate absurdity of existence, which he attempts to communicate via the recurring and critical deployment of what has become his most identifiable ironic reflex, “So it goes.” He identifies this novel as a failure, as it was written by a “pillar of salt” — one, as Lot’s wife, who was cursed for attempting to look into the past and is therefore denied narrative comprehension and disclosure. Vonnegut suggests that the existential absurdity of the human condition deflects narrative and defies comprehension and communication. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” so Vonnegut must employ an idiomatic language of irony. And that is true not only for the massacre of Dresden, but also the distinctly human terror of history. Irony is the only approach available to Vonnegut. “So it goes” repeats so many times throughout the novel because Vonnegut can only approach such absurdity through a distancing and defensive irony, allowing Vonnegut to critique the absurdity of human existence without yielding to despair. Furthermore, irony functions in Vonnegut’s imagination in order to create critical distance between the reader and the narrative. Vonnegut’s shattering of linear narrative and the recurrent phrasing of his irony both function to decenter and discomfort the reader. Ultimately, this irony serves a reflexive function for the reader, forcing the reader to reconsider the human condition and approach it more critically. 

Kurt Vonnegut Has Come Unstuck In Time

by Matthew Gannon

"Materialist historiography… is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of… a revolutionary chance in a fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history."
- Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 1940

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969
. . .
Kurt Vonnegut Is Not A Fish

Kurt Vonnegut, the acclaimed author of literary masterpieces such as Slaughterhouse-Five, trenchant cultural criticism such as A Man Without a Country, and imaginative short stories collected in such volumes as Welcome to the Monkey House, was born on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. He was 29 years old. He published his last novel, Timequake, in 1997. He was 74 years old. Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007 in New York, after falling down a flight of stairs in his home. He was 84 years and 5 months old. Vonnegut was born, wrote some books, and then died. So it goes. Vonnegut, as William Faulkner might have astutely put it, became not-Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is a fish.

Except not quite, because Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time. Truthfully, he was really never stuck in time in the first place. The first piece of evidence for this is that his literary legacy, like so many famous authors, has outlived him. Between his death in 2007 and 2013, six books have been released in as many years under the deceased author’s name. It turns out that the deceased author is more prolific that the living. What a feat.

Memorial Day - How Should We Remember?

 by Matthew Gannon

On this Memorial Day 2013 let's not forget that Kurt Vonnegut himself was a veteran. How could we? His masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, is famously based on his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. That novel, a vital contribution to American literature, was a powerful counter-narrative to the glorification of war and the uncritical memory of the American public. While many wars since World War II have been highly controversial, World War II is still often upheld as a righteous war fought by brave men against a seemingly insurmountable foe. Slaughterhouse-Five proved that even the enshrined World War II should be critically reexamined.

In his reexamination Vonnegut didn't seek to diminish what the Allies accomplished or perversely argue that the Nazis weren't worth overthrowing. He did seek to reevaluate the way we remember and memorialize war. So what could be a better way to celebrate Memorial Day than to consider Vonnegut's words. Memorial Day officially pays its dues to those who perished in the service of their country. Vonnegut has lamented, "if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war," because it is seen as the most honorable way to die. Fortunately, if improbably, Vonnegut lived through his combat and POW experience, even witnessing the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, an operation that killed one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours, destroyed over ninety percent of the city center, and was performed for questionable strategic reasons.