Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut; drawing by David Levine

There are many types of social fantasts in literature, but the quality common to them all is a suspicion that the accepted customs of human society, if carried to their logical conclusions, would prove to be grotesquely absurd. Thus Swift, who, next to David Hume, had the best analytic imagination of his century, laid out a micro- and macroscopic demonstration of man and his society as no more than a Brobdingnagian piece of vanity and something less than a fraternity of honest beasts.

Samuel Butler was somewhat less savage, deducing the cool ironies of Erewhon with a delightful rigor from the values of an age from which we are still trying to liberate ourselves. Shaw, a disciple of Butler’s, but not quite his equal at subtle deduction, settled for polemical rhetoric and dramatic paradox to make the citizen question the first principles of his social being. If he gave us no Erewhon or Lilliput, he was every bit as much a fantast as Swift or Butler, and only a very poor critic would try to make Shaw’s plays examples of social observation rather than acts of fantastic projection.

Finally, there is Orwell, a writer who, of all those who have given us a glimpse of the dark utopias our society is capable of engendering, made perhaps the shortest leap from actuality to fantasy. Swift, Butler, and even Shaw had to get beneath an apparent social order to uncover the hidden absurdities of their ages; Orwell, however, lived in a time of such mad political designs that only the smallest literary inference was needed to project them into the pattern of 1984.

On my way to talking about the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I have started with these four writers because they provide a neat descending scale of fantast ability which anticipates the arrival and style of a writer like Vonnegut. Now it is no disgrace to be anticipated, but in Vonnegut’s case he so badly abuses the tradition of deft argument and intelligence which his predecessors have established that one wonders whether they didn’t anticipate him as a character rather than as a fellow writer, whether somewhere in their imagined worlds they didn’t foresee that an age like ours would get and deserve a soft, sentimental satirist like Vonnegut, a popularizer of naughty whimsy, a compiler of easy-to-read truisms about society who allows everyone’s heart to be in the right place.

For if there is one hard irony issuing out of all the novels and stories of Kurt Vonnegut, it is that should those drab, mindless worlds he conjures up so easily ever come to pass, his work would fit in perfectly with their values. After reading Player Piano, for example, that novel of what life will be like when man lives in a society based totally on technological efficiency, one can imagine those infantile executives of the state reading and enjoying the very work that created them. After all, what else could their minds grasp but a book which deals with the broadest simplicities of a technocratic world, which is written in a prose that appears to have been designed by a computer programmed for slang and a “natural style,” and which ends with the incendiary insight that the common man should take preference over the most intricate of his tools?

Even the most despotic, semiliterate government could tolerate the banalities of Player Piano simply because they contribute to the very process such states wish to encourage: the destruction of fine distinctions and the substitution of blurred, flaccid fault-finding for critical rage. A novelist who, like Vonnegut in this book, puts his good guys in rumpled suits and infuses them with alcohol and a desire for human values must be writing for a simpler time somewhere in the future where the Parthenon of heroes will include the good prostitute, the crippled teen-ager with visions, the murderer who is kind to animals, and similar effusions of a mind that does not speculate about life but merely softens it for general consumption.

While we are on the subject of the future, we can look at another Vonnegut prophecy, the title story of the volume, Welcome to the Monkey House. Like Player Piano, this tale picks out a contemporary social problem—in this case the population increase—and imagines a solution that might be proposed by a depersonalized government which places its notion of progress over humbler human pleasures. The hero is a small, unprepossessing man called Billy the Poet who is waging a campaign against the use of ethical birth-control pills, government-issued tablets that remove all sexual desire from those who use them.

In a world of moribund abdominal nerves, Billy goes about upending honest ladies of the state, trying to revive in them the near forgotten instincts for love and passion. His victim in the story is a hostess from an Ethical Suicide Parlour whom he reluctantly rapes when his argument extolling old-fashioned values fails. Billy is, of course, more humanitarian than libertine—he doesn’t enjoy the rape and he leaves the lady with his good wishes and a copy of Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.


Now there are a number of things that can be said about the imagination that devises such a story, the first being that it is fond of gimmicks. Vonnegut may be in the fantast tradition, but he is also what in show business idiom is called an idea man. And like most ideas issuing from that creative area, his are facile and flashy. The worlds that he gives us are not surprising contradictions and indictments of what we consider best about ourselves and our laws. They are, instead, quick, patched-together constructions of what we already know to be wrong about our social preferences. The way he seizes upon fashionable issues makes it seem as though Vonnegut were running for office rather than trying to write a novel, and one can’t help feeling, as a constituent, that some very black dilemmas indeed are being put to meretricious use by a politician awkwardly pretending to a sense of humor.

Another noticeable aspect of Vonnegut’s imagination is that it takes no pains to disguise how pleased it is with itself. One can almost hear the self-congratulations each time it comes up with a cute, futuristic notion like Suicide Parlours and then rests on this achievement, certain that it has done enough to justify our attention and now need not be too generous and give us anything like an intricate world, a compelling narrative, or an astounding person or two. Indeed, many of Vonnegut’s stories seem made up merely of bright notions and metaphors surrounded by wastelands of writing so flat and graceless that, should it ever be judged as having anything to do with ordinary life on this planet, it would be considered grimly sentimental. For an example, let us take the last page of “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Billy is trying to explain to the erstwhile frigid hostess just why he abducted and raped her:

“So you see, Nancy,” said Billy, “I have spent this night, and many others like it, attempting to restore a certain amount of innocent pleasure to the world, which is poorer in pleasure than it needs to be.” Nancy sat down quietly and bowed her head.

“I’ll tell you what my grandfather did on the dawn of his wedding night,” said Billy.

“I don’t think I want to hear it.”

“It isn’t violent—it’s meant to be tender.”

“Maybe that’s why I don’t want to hear it.”

“He read his bride a poem.” Billy took the book from the table, opened it. “His diary tells which poem it was. While we aren’t bride and groom, and while we may not meet again for many years, I’d like to read this poem to you, to have you know I’ve loved you.”

“Please—no. I couldn’t stand it.”

“All right, I’ll leave the book here, with the place marked, in case you want to read it later. It’s the poem beginning:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

Now if one were to take the above peroration out of the story’s anaphrodisiac world of the future and place it, say, in present-day Cleveland, one would have a good example of that emotionally blowzy style that infested ladies’ magazines before Women’s Lib called for harder hearts and tougher minds. Not unfairly one feels that Vonnegut skips off into the future so often because the present is less sympathetic to his literary weaknesses.

Vonnegut’s partisans, however, will claim that his real strength is very much tied to the world around us. There is a string of quotes festooning the jackets of all his books that proclaim his “dark humor” and “savage satire,” qualities which, it is stated, he turns with numbing accuracy upon our present world of wars and political lunacy. Literary publicists may believe this but, in fact, just as he is an unsubtle fantast when he narrates the future, Vonnegut is also a too easily understood parabolist of the present.

Slaughterhouse-Five, with its time jumps, trips to other planets, the firebombing of Dresden, and the casual mingling of the current history of the author with that of his fictional world, remains, when all of its wearisome inventiveness is done, one of the most unsurprising, self-indulgent little books ever to work so hard at being selfless and memorable. Not one character emerges from it with anything like the grotesque clarity which, say, Malaparte gave to a briefly encountered soul caught in the inferno of World War II; not one attitude in all of Vonnegut’s darkly humorous anecdotes of life and death stays in the mind except the infantile stoicism exemplified by the recurrent and infuriatingly Olympian phrase “and so it goes.” There is no intimation in this book of a sensibility which understands what is relevant to the conjunction of history and personal imagination, understands, finally, how carefully balanced a book must be that wishes to encompass the annihilation of millions and the mental caprices of one dull hero.


Billy Pilgrim—like most other Vonnegut characters, he drags around a portentous, morality play name—is a gentle heart driven to madness by the experience of war. (A good number of Vonnegut’s heroes are given to us in a lunatic state. Examples, I suppose, of what society does to the sensitive mind.) Billy’s madness, however, is of an amiable sort, turning him into a passive, observing voyager through human holocausts, time, and even through galactic boundaries to another planet where he is taught a larger view of life and an insufferable tolerance for the pains that nettle the majority of unenlightened earthlings. Billy’s loadstone in all this roaming through space and time is, of course, Dresden, before, during, and after its destruction. His experience of being mated while caged for display by the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore and his difficulties in being a good citizen of suburbia are interrupted by stark little chunks of actual martial horror laid out in an affectedly offhand way so that the author can be credited with having digested the experience he is writing about to the point of breath-taking casualness.

What is made of all these structural shenanigans? Well, one conclusion could be that, as a species, human beings should be caged, studied, and advised by a higher order of life before being set loose in the universe again. Or, perhaps, another would be that they must stop driving themselves mad with wars. And then, again, it could be best simply to hold onto some second-rate resignation, sigh, and affect the attitude of one who has seen too much history, who knows too much of the future, and who counts tragedy an odd notion of the inhabitants of the water planet. And so it goes.

It would be unjust to harp on the conclusions of Vonnegut’s mental odyssey through Slaughterhouse-Five if the voyage itself had had some interest. After all, a book is under no obligation to come to any conclusion at all about itself. Slaughterhouse-Five, however, seems to be nothing else but conclusion. The tone of judgment surrounds all the events of the book, jostling the reader again and again into an atmosphere of self-pity, into moments thick with unearned, lyrical agonies. Along the way, Vonnegut tries to come up with a moment or two to justify his reputation as a black satirist. But his imagination is not so much antic as it is willful, an imagination which does not disguise the fact that, however swaggering and adventurous in tone, it is in the service of a moralist too easily satisfied that the world confirms his point of view. This might be artistically excusable if that point of view were at all complex or idiosyncratic, but it is, rather, much too obvious and commonplace to need so much baroque substantiation. For all his notoriety, Vonnegut never really goes further than the poor estimate society has about itself even in its most official pronouncements. He therefore stops where an intelligent imagination ought to begin.

Still, with all his apparent faults, Vonnegut undeniably is in high favor today with a large variety of readers. While it is always possible to mutter something about untutored taste whenever an author in whom one sees little merit attracts a large public, Vonnegut, I believe, is reaping the benefit of the desire for a social fundamentalism on the part of individuals who should know better. As more and more minds take on the primitive political notion of a vague “us” and a blurred “them.” Vonnegut will have a better and better chance of becoming the official novelist of one side or the other, of becoming a simple, unthought-out piece of literary propaganda. That is a fate that even Vonnegut is writer enough not to deserve.

This Issue

July 2, 1970