The Vonnegut Statement: Essays on the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus 5
Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye, Blue Monday
Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction is full of bleak, sour views of our dismal mortal lot. “Maturity,” a character says in Cat’s Cradle (1963), “is a bitter disappointment”; and the same character thinks of writing a “history of human stupidity.” There is a dark metaphor hidden in the book’s title. A painting described in the text shows a cat’s cradle strung between fingers and the narrator wonders whether these small black scratches on canvas are not the “sticky nets of human futility hung up on a moonless night to dry.”
Vonnegut’s characters cry out at the passing of time. “Where have all the years gone?” a man asks himself in Slaughterhouse Five (1969). An old woman in the same book struggles to articulate a last, desperate question: “How did I get so old?” Above all, people in Vonnegut’s fiction crack up, slip quietly into a dim, calm, hideously ordinary anguish and madness, into the zone of modest, manageable insanity which is Vonnegut’s special domain. The hero of Slaughterhouse Five is a decent, rich citizen, member of the Lions’ Club in Ilium, New York, shareholder in the new Holiday Inn on Route 54, and proud father of a sergeant in the Green Berets. Only recently he has taken to crying a lot, very discreetly, and Vonnegut offers us this eloquent, arresting image: a man on his bed in his cozy house, the blinds drawn, a vibrator shaking his mattress, gently jiggling him as he weeps: despair in the comfort of your own home.
Yet Vonnegut is famous, apparently, not for his visions of middle-class despair but for his rosy mythologies. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five give us other, cheerier visions too: joyous lies, new dreams. The novels themselves are not sticky nets of human futility but means of escaping from such nets. Cat’s Cradle is built around a jaunty, hip, fatalistic gospel delivered mainly in calypsoes, and based on the principle that everything that happens has to happen; that a conflict between good and evil, if properly, skeptically staged, is a fine, constructive fiction. It keeps people busy, takes their minds off their moral and economic misery. Slaughterhouse Five tells us time is an eternal present tense, so that no one dies, but merely seems to be in bad shape at the moment of death. The general message is put more crudely in the course of the book: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.” So we are to “ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones”; “stare only at pretty things as eternity fails to go by.” Hence the ghastly epitaph haunting the book, and sounding like so many recent popular songs: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
Clearly Vonnegut intends some kind of dialectic here between a despair which is intolerable and a set of mythologies, born of that despair, which are untenable, silly, even inhuman. Equally clearly the dialectic never really gets off …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.