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Kurt Vonnegut Has Become Unstuck In Time

At 84, the shadow that Kurt Vonnegut still cast over the literary landscape in America is profound and remarkable. His body of work may not be the largest... he leaves behind a total of 14 novels... but I would find it hard to name someone whose work had more influence in the second half of the 20th century. His first novel was PLAYER PIANO in 1952, but it was published under a different title at that point. THE SIRENS OF TITAN came next, followed at a fairly rapid clip by MOTHER NIGHT, CAT’S CRADLE, and GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER. His towering accomplishment as a novelist, though, came in 1969, when SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE was released. The story of Billy Pilgrim, a young man whose contact with aliens from the planet Trafalmadore leads to him becoming “unstuck in time”, is one of the most personal and moving things he ever wrote, a look at the way war debases and destroys the soul, and I’d argue it is one of the top 20 novels published in the English language. He was a great novelist, and his books were as much about the language of them as the stories, which is one reason I think his work so completely defied adaptation to film. When someone came close, we ended up with interesting films like George Roy Hill’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE or Keith Gordon’s MOTHER NIGHT. When it went wrong, though, we were treated to cinematic atrocities like Alan Rudolph’s flabbergasting BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS or the vile SLAPSTICK (OF ANOTHER KIND) starring Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn. I’m willing to bet that as heinous as these adaptations were, they must have amused Vonnegut on some level. He was profoundly pessimistic and had a distrust of humanity and even other artists that informed everything he did, and a terrible film adaptation of his work would just affirm his world view. He came by that world view honestly, though. He fought in World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. This is a man who lived through the Dresden firebombing, an event so horrible that I can’t imagine it. It may be one of the reasons his fiction tended to create whole new worlds or whole new philosophies or whole new species of beings. He felt let down on some level by humanity, and he needed to escape us and our failings with what he wrote. In an early job, he was a police reporter, once more putting him face-to-face with some of mankind’s worst tendencies. “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over,” he once said. “Out on the edge, you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” His work definitely dealt with life on that edge, and his characters were frequently people at or just past their breaking points. “Humor is an almost physiological response to fear” was how he put it, and you can see that in his books and his articles and even in appearances he made. There was a wit and a play to his writing that kept him from ever seeming too bleak or too cynical. “Laugher and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterwards,” he wrote. The merit of his work was always hotly debated, and there were plenty of critics willing to completely dismiss him as glib and shallow, an author of slogans and one-liners rather than anything lasting or deep. I think he was not just a product of his era, though... he was one of the people who defined it. His first novel dealt with corporate life, something that was still a relatively new idea in 1952, and he savaged it with precision and clarity, getting it so right that it still feels fresh today. When he created The Church Of God Of the Utterly Indifferent for THE SIRENS OF TITAN, he seemed to be looking forward to the world we’ve inherited now, warning us of things that are now commonplace. He created an alternate identity in the form of Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer who is referred to in several of his books. At one point, Philip Jose Farmer actually published a novel as Trout, something that seemed to intrigue Vonnegut at first before he decided to be indignant about it. But that’s just how big his talent was, how much his ideas seemed to resonate with people. Farmer has always said that he wrote the novel, VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL, because he wanted to pay tribute to the brilliance of Vonnegut’s creation. During the Vietnam war, one of the lines from SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE became a major slogan of the peace movement, originating with a section at the end of the book: “Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes. Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.” The phrase is simply what the Tralfalmadorans say whenever someone dies. It is a constant echo through the book. Some people saw “so it goes” as a statement of acceptance, but there was a dark period where Vonnegut seemed to believe it was an admission of defeat. He retired from writing novels for a time, and he even tried to kill himself in the mid ‘80s. Yet something always pushed him back into writing, and he published his last novel in 1997, with a collection of essays and poems in 2005. I’m going to go out to the garage after I publish this obituary, and I’m going to dig through all the boxes of books that I never unpacked after my move, and I’m going to find my dog-eared copies of his novels and dig through to enjoy some of my favorite bits and pieces. If you don’t already know his work, I urge you to celebrate his passing by picking up CAT’S CRADLE or HOCUS POCUS or TIMEQUAKE or GALAPAGOS or WELCOME TO THE MONKEY-HOUSE. Let his sardonic words wash over you. He’s not to everyone’s taste, admittedly, but he was a man of ideas, and there are too few of those today. I’ve never understood the people who worked up a real head of steam when dismissing his work. As he once wrote, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” I’m sure his work will survive as long as we continue to read 20th Century literature, and as long as there is authority to question, humanity to decipher, or souls to understand. Kurt Vonnegut is dead at the age of 84. So it goes. So it goes.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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