Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut; drawing by David Levine

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 the ground in Vonnegut’s most famous novels. The despair and the mythologies simply face each other, too far apart for interaction, and the reader takes his pick. Since the despair tends to be understated and the mythologies are scored for full, whimsical orchestra, the reader usually picks the mythologies, and the number of people who think the inanities illustrated in the previous paragraph are some kind of wisdom is larger than I care to think about.

But things are not much better if the reader should chance to pick the despair, since he is likely then, I think, to enact what I’ll call the liberal’s dance with reality. This used to happen a lot with Arthur Miller, as Robert Warshow once lucidly demonstrated. It happens with countless Hollywood “problem” films—Polansky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is a good, fairly recent example. The dance consists of the following very simple steps. You are persuaded that a book or a movie offers you an unbearably intense view of the horrors of life, particularly of the horrors of guilt and responsibility (for Hiroshima, for the bombing of Dresden, for the age of McCarthy, for our treatment of the American Indians). The view is in fact not only bearable but quite enjoyable, a piece of entertainment. You leave the cinema, however, or put the book down, convinced that you have not been entertained at all but have sat unflinching through a nightmare, stared a grim reality full in the face. This is a very satisfying feeling, and for many people takes the place of political action.

Behind the dance, of course, is the longing for a perspective which would allow us to hang on to our consciences without ever having to say we are sorry, and Vonnegut, in The Sirens of Titan (1959), offers a perfect image for the consummation of this longing. There are spots in space, he tells us, where time is bent in such a way that two people who disagree totally about everything can come to understand how they are both right, because all the truths they both know now fit flawlessly together. Hitler was right too, you see, out there in the fourth dimension. Everything is beautiful.


But this image is a fragment of utopia in The Sirens of Titan, and The Sirens of Titan, in spite of disclaimers from Vonnegut and his more serious-minded fans, is a science fiction novel, and a remarkably good one. Utopias in science fiction are always wreathed in ironies, and Vonnegut’s gradual retreat from the genre, his purely whimsical application of occasional science fiction props and tricks, goes a long way toward explaining the failed ironies of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five.

Two years after publishing The Sirens of Titan, in any case, borrowing from two other genres (the spy story and war memoirs), Vonnegut wrote a small masterpiece, where all his ironies were intact, enriched even, and where the dialectic between despair and its mythologies was dazzling, very funny, and very disturbing. The book was called Mother Night, and the name of the principal mythology was schizophrenia, a “simple and widespread boon to modern mankind.” Howard J. Campbell, Jr., is an American-born Nazi propagandist who is also an American secret agent, broadcasting vital information by means of coughs and stutters in his hate-filled diatribes against Roosevelt (alias Rosenfeld) and the Jews. He writes his memoirs as he awaits his trial in a Jerusalem jail. He broods on his past, and particularly on the day when he learned that he had probably been more useful to the Germans after all than he could possibly have been to the Allies. His father-in-law, the chief of the Berlin police, told him that his propaganda work had helped him not to feel ashamed of anything he had felt or done as a Nazi, and neither Hitler nor Goebbels nor Himmler had done as much. “You alone,” Campbell hears, “kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”

Similarly the American spymaster who knows Campbell was an American agent, since he recruited him himself, still hates Campbell the Nazi with bitter sincerity, since Campbell was a Nazi too. For good comic measure, and to corroborate the pattern, one of Campbell’s guards in Jerusalem tells Campbell how he infiltrated the SS during the war, and is angry at the memory of a leak in security, although he was himself that leak. Like Campbell, he had become what he was pretending to be. Campbell was a man, Vonnegut tells us, who “served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”

What is impressive about Mother Night is its extraordinary tone which allows Vonnegut to be very funny without being crass or unfeeling. The casualness, the faint, brittle toughness fools no one:

My mother and father died. Some say they died of broken hearts. They died in their middle sixties, at any rate, when hearts break easily.

There are few funnier scenes in recent fiction than that provided by the appearance of Lionel J. D. Jones, the fascist dentist, and his antique cronies, August Krapptauer of the German-American Bund, Father Keeley, an unfrocked Catholic priest, and Robert Sterling Wilson, the Black Führer of Harlem. They come to visit Campbell in his attic in Greenwich Village, the whole crew wheezing up the stairs, pausing every few steps to count, panting, up to twenty, because two of them have bad hearts. Chaplin said in his autobiography that he could not have made The Great Dictator if he had known about the concentration camps. Mother Night is The Great Dictator made in full awareness of the camps. It is not an attempt to defeat an enemy by ridicule, but an attempt to contemplate horror by means of laughter, because laughter, of all our inappropriate responses to total, terminal horror, seems the least inappropriate, the least inhuman.

Vonnegut himself, thinking of the radio comedians of the Depression days, says something like this in the conversation with Robert Scholes which is recorded in The Vonnegut Statement, and the thought also recalls Vonnegut’s preface to Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), a collection of his short stories. Vonnegut remembers his sister’s death and her dying words. “No pain,” she said. She was dying of cancer. The words, like the sharp, crazy gags of Mother Night, were a brave cry, a rejection of reality uttered while reality was making itself felt.

Vonnegut seems to have come to confuse such heroic untruths with simple denials of reality, with the anesthetized daydreams that float through his later work, and that are not rejections of reality’s ugliness or pain but a refusal to experience reality at all. And he has been looking, since Mother Night, for that tone he found once and can’t find again, which sounds heartless but which signals profound feeling. “So it goes,” the refrain of Slaughterhouse Five which greets all deaths in the book, is a feeble approximation, either unfeeling or sarcastic but never both together.


In Mother Night, on the other hand, the balance holds. Eichmann, like Campbell, is writing his memoirs, and has a sudden burst of bonhomie. “Listen,” he says to Campbell, “about those six million…. I could spare you a few for your book. I don’t think I really need them all.” Not only is flippancy not unfeeling here, it has somehow become a form of sensibility, a language which remains when more dignified languages are dumb.

A curious uneasiness runs through the twelve essays and one interview which make up The Vonnegut Statement, a sense of writers wishing they knew how to express their reservations about Vonnegut without seeming disloyal or ungrateful, not so much to Vonnegut himself or his work as to the constituency this book clearly represents: a whole clan of writers and critics and students who badly need Vonnegut to be a bigger figure than he is. The book is thus an oblique expression of that odd, attractive, idiotic American habit of believing that something exists because you need it. What we need, the buried, piecemeal argument of the book runs, is a great, accessible, popular modern writer, a writer who would be funny and sharp and moral and relevant and powerful and towering and not at all difficult to read. Vonnegut looks a bit like what we need, therefore Vonnegut is what we need. Vonnegut is all of those things except towering and powerful and great. In fact, it probably isn’t possible to be a great and accessible writer any more, and we may need accessible writers more than we need great ones.

But The Vonnegut Statement needs a towering Vonnegut, and not surprisingly the book’s uneasiness shows in just those essays which make the largest claims for Vonnegut’s work. It shows not in the form of apologies, or the hedging of bets, as in the other essays, but in sheer nonsense. Whatever else he is doing in Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut is not creating a hero who “responds affirmatively,” as John Somer writes, “to the insanity epitomized by the Dresden fire-bombing”; or showing us (John Somer again) “how to thrive in a world epitomized by Dresden.”

What does it mean to say, as Jerome Klinkowitz says in another essay, that “Rightly positioned, the Vonnegut hero can honestly say of his life, ‘Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt’ “? The right position is presumably flat out, stoned to kingdom come, but I don’t think either of these writers means that. I think they have simply been carried away by the idea that a writer must progress and that a major writer must have a moral contribution to make. They have abstracted what looks like Vonnegut’s progress toward a moral contribution and set it down; helped, I suppose, by some sort of optimism of their own, and a lack of experience of the world outside books, and an indifference to the sufferings of other people. Universities (both Somer and Klinkowitz teach in the Midwest) are great beds of solipsism.

Still, The Vonnegut Statement is an engaging book, just because of its uneasiness. It is a tribute to Vonnegut for being interesting enough to sustain so much talk about him, and a tribute to its eleven writers, who had the tact or the good luck not to suppress their uneasiness. It is set up to look like an orthodox collection of critical essays: on the early novels, on Vonnegut’s relation to science fiction, on his critical reputation, on the sources of his popularity, on the middle period, on the late period, personal notes on the man and his books. But everything flows into a single center: personal notes, how I feel about this man.

There are repeated suggestions that Vonnegut is the novelist of the television age, the artist of fragmentation and juxtaposition, McLuhan’s man. I don’t quite believe this, any more than I believe that Vonnegut, Heller, Barth, Pynchon, and Southern form any sort of school, which is a common assumption in the book. But this doesn’t matter. The Vonnegut Statement is mainly a statement about its authors, a small start on a new sociology of academe. And if the solipsisms are frightening, the abundant freshness and intelligence settle one’s fears a bit.

Between Time and Timbuktu is the script of an NET Playhouse television program based mainly on Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan, with material thrown in from two or three Vonnegut stories and his first novel, Player Piano (1952). It is subtitled A Space Fantasy, and was broadcast last March. Vonnegut apparently had a hand in stitching the script together, and says he enjoyed himself, but the whole thing remains uninspired, a tour of the obvious, famous landscapes in Vonnegut country, a sort of album of favorite Vonnegut scenes and themes, linked by a thin story about an amateur poet sent off into space and lost in a time warp. There are a lot of weary jokes about space programs, and one of the chief comic characters is called Walter Gesundheit. There is also some real subversion of what seem to be the meanings of some of Vonnegut’s fiction; a good instance of what he has been taken to mean, as distinct from what he said.

Asked whether a useful religion can be based on lies, a character borrowed from Cat’s Cradle says, “When the truth of your life is too terrible, that truth becomes your enemy.” This loses all Vonnegut’s ironies, even the irony of his failed dialectic. In the novels at least the dialectic can be seen to fail. Here it can’t even be seen to exist. “Don’t truth me,” a man says in The Sirens of Titan, “and I won’t truth you.” Meaning: Don’t bother me with the unpleasant facts you may know about my life, and I won’t tell you that you strangled your best friend while your brain had been tampered with. This is a sinister threat, as well as a human plea; nothing could be further removed from the simple assumption that lies are what we need when the truth looks bad.

Some of the gags in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s new novel, are so lamentable that they amount almost to a metaphysical proposition, a late form of Vonnegut statement: life has degenerated to a level beneath that of a lousy joke. We read of a truck in agony, for example, because along its side are written the letters HERTZ. The title itself suggests a ritual irrelevance of language even more dramatic than that evoked by the jerky refrains of earlier Vonnegut novels (“Hi-ho,” “So it goes,” “And so on”). It refers to a cereal but is said by a waitress in the book every time she serves a martini. A lonely old lady dying makes her noiseless comment on death, moving her lips with difficulty: “Oh my, oh my.”

In line with this is the book’s general, irritating strategy, which is to look back on the present from far into the future and explain to us, the children of that very different tomorrow, what the simplest of present-day words and things are. Fucking, for example, is how babies are made. A Nigger is a human being who is black. West Point is a place which turns young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war. Vietnam is a country where America is trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes. There is a discussion of both literal and metaphorical beavers, and crudely drawn pictures of each. There are also pictures of an electric chair, of signs, of a syringe, of an asshole, of flags, of tombstones, of animals, all to reinforce the inadequacy of language, presumably, to stress the need to communicate in some simple, childlike way. And also to parody such a need, since if we need such communications we are beyond literature—certainly beyond a sophisticated, self-conscious mock-simple book like this one. We are beneath humor.

One takes the desperate, unfunny point, then. The trouble is that making a point is not quite enough to make a book, and while Vonnegut’s apologies are endearing, they don’t help much either. He feels lousy about this book, he says, but he always feels lousy about his books. At one point he interrupts himself to say, “This is a very bad book you’re writing.” He replies, “I know.” This book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, he tells us, the results of his clearing out his head, throwing out all the inharmonious ideas that were trying to live together there. We should do the same, Vonnegut suggests, this is not a novel that imitates order for our comfort, it is a novel that records chaos so that we can begin to learn to adapt to it.

If fact, behind these unpromising rationalizations, Breakfast of Champions is mainly a set of distress signals: writer in trouble. I am tempted to think a writer should just not write, or at least not publish, under these circumstances, and certainly that would be tactful. But on further thinking I find I admire Vonnegut for going ahead. A writer’s business is writing, after all, and maybe even terrible jokes do some good; or maybe some of the jokes are not as bad as all that. And indeed, after what seems an interminable length of reading time, this book does pay off, winds up in a mild blaze of wit.

The key idea of the novel is that people may be machines—an idea that has not only been beaten to death in science fiction but was reeling when Vonnegut himself used it in Player Piano in 1952. So we stumble through entirely predictable passages about women being childbearing machines or agreeing machines, entirely predictable suggestions that people are programed to do this or that. There is the slightly more lively thought that life may be one of those tests inflicted on automobiles, an attempt to smash everything smashable in us before we are sent out on some unimaginable road, tried and true—the epigraph of the book is taken from Job. And then we reach the book’s core.

An arts festival is taking place in a small Midwestern town, and writers and artists and local citizens converge for the event, stage-managed from within the novel by Vonnegut himself, who sits wearing dark glasses in the bar where martinis are the breakfast of champions (“I had come to the Arts Festival incognito”). It is in this bar that some of the tired implications of seeing people as machines take on a brief, pale new life. A visiting painter, Rabo Karabekian, learns of the town’s chief pride, a girl who has an Olympic gold medal for swimming. He hears about her father teaching her to swim when she was eight months old and making her swim at least four hours a day, every day since she was three. “What kind of man,” the painter wonders, “would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?”

There is an uproar in the town against Karabekian, who finds he has to defend his own art, an abstract portrayal of the minimal truth of being, which is that our awareness, an unwavering, vertical band of light, is all that keeps us from being simple machinery. This is still trite and unimportant, but it matters to Vonnegut, and to his book, that this disagreeable, wisecracking artist should be able to speak in this passionate, dim, poetical way; and it matters even more that one of Vonnegut’s characters, an imprisoned creation of his, should escape him sufficiently to say these unexpected things.

In the wake of this illumination, Vonnegut frees all his past characters, explicitly recalling Jefferson freeing his slaves, and Tolstoy freeing his serfs. Except that he can’t free them in any way that is useful to them, and the book ends with a familiar Vonnegut cry. An aging, freed character begs the author for the one gift that neither Vonnegut nor God can give him: “Make me young, make me young, make me young.” We catch a sight of Vonnegut’s weeping eye in the mirror—Vonnegut even draws the eye and the tear for us. His characters always were freer than he thought, anyway, since a dog from an earlier version of this novel nearly savages him in the closing pages. Strictly, the person I am calling Vonnegut calls himself Philboyd Studge, but I take it Vonnegut means this as a gag rather than as a complex screen—or possibly he means it as a security measure, in case he, Vonnegut, should decide he still needs the slaves Studge has freed.

But the essential convergence in the novel, the one that governs the structure of the book, since the narrative follows the separate tracks of these two men toward their meeting, is the one between Kilgore Trout, the character who begged to be made young, and Dwayne Hoover, a well-off, settled, charming Pontiac dealer who has suddenly started snarling at his mistress and associates—the Vonnegut hero on the edge of his breakdown, about to be surprised by a despair he didn’t even know he was suffering from. What finally sends Hoover over the edge and into the hospital, along with a number of other people, whom he has bruised and beaten up in his brief career as a madman, is a book by Trout, who is a science fiction writer. Trout innocently gives Hoover the book, since Hoover is lurking on the fringes of the arts festival seeking wisdom, and Hoover, aided by a recent course in speed-reading, races through it.

It is just the book, apparently, that his incipient insanity needs, for it takes the form of a letter from God addressed to the only man on earth who is not a robot. Even God and his angels are robots, and the task of God is to guess what this man equipped with complete human freedom will say next. Being a robot himself, God can’t. Hoover is very taken with this notion, indeed assumes that the book really is a letter from God addressed personally to him and sees in it a total license to take out his despair on the people around him. He goes berserk, damaging a considerable amount of human machinery, eleven people in all.

We are meant to understand, I think, that a man living in America today could easily see himself as the only living person in a universe of robots, as the only person whose human existence he was absolutely sure of. This is “solipsistic whimsy,” as Vonnegut himself calls it, a form of madness. But how can we insist on the humanity of others when they really do behave like machines for much of the time? And if this is the case, how can we insist on our own humanity without lapsing into solipsism, treating others as toys or ignoring them completely?

The questions seem forced to me. In fact, I think we are probably doomed already, have already forfeited more humanity than we can afford to lose, if we are reduced to asking these questions. But they are better questions than Breakfast of Champions seemed to promise for much of its weary way, and it is good to see a writer dig himself out of a hole by writing.

This Issue

May 31, 1973