Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr

Tagged: Author

(1922-2007) US writer born in Indianapolis, who signed his name simply Kurt Vonnegut (without the Jr) after 1976. He was a Prisoner of War near the end of World War Two in Dresden from December 1944 to May 1945, experiencing the saturation bombing of the city and the subsequent firestorm, and was awarded a Purple Heart on his return to America. He later studied at the universities of Tennessee and Chicago, and began to write for various magazines in the early 1950s, his first sf story being "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" for Collier's Weekly in 1950. His first appearance in an sf magazine was "Unready to Wear" (April 1953 Galaxy), but Vonnegut tried hard to avoid categorization as a Genre-SF writer. Vonnegut's best short sf – which includes some of the stories first assembled in Canary in a Cat House (coll 1961) and subsequently recombined with new material in Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works (coll 1968) – was posthumously augmented by two volumes: Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction (coll 2009) and While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction (coll 2011).

Vonnegut's first novel was the Dystopia of Automation, Player Piano (1952; vt Utopia 14 1954), which describes the dereliction of the quality of life by the progressive surrender of production and political decision to Machines. The mixture of heavy irony, bordering on black Humour, and unashamed sentimentality displayed in this novel became the hallmark of Vonnegut's work, and is progressively exaggerated in later novels. The Sirens of Titan: An Original Novel (1959) is a fine complex Satire about the folly of mistaking good luck for the favour of God; it features the first of a number of mock-Religions that Vonnegut would invent – the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent – and concludes with the revelation of the manipulation of human history by Tralfamadorian Aliens sending messages to one of their kind stranded on Titan. One leading character has an extratemporal viewpoint from which all moments appear co-existent – a theme which crops up again, along with the Tralfamadorians, in Vonnegut's novel about the firestorming of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five (see below). Mother Night (1962) is a non-sf novel about the struggle of a US ex-Nazi double agent to discover his "true" identity; several of its characters reappear in later work, helping to connect all his work into a single evolving patchwork. Cat's Cradle (1963) features a confrontation of the opposing philosophies of scientist Felix Hoenikker, inventor of "ice-nine" (which threatens to bring about the End of the World), and Bokonon, a rebel against rationality and architect of an avowedly fake religion whose purpose is to inure believers to the harshness of reality. Several of the terms used to describe Bokononism became nonce-words, and some may survive. These include "foma": protective untruths to live by; "karass": a group of people who do not know they are bound together in a life project (see Paranoia; Perception), and who find, if they do come to understand what is happening, that they have almost certainly created a "granfalloon": essentially a false karass composed of people who identify themselves in terms of illusory patterns of meaning: like patriots; and "wampeter": that which a karass focuses upon (see McGuffin).

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965) is technically a non-sf novel about the one man in the world who does not suffer from samaritrophia (chronic atrophy of the conscience), but it is closely allied to much of Vonnegut's sf; it contains an oft-quoted paragraph about sf writers, and introduces the sf writer Kilgore Trout – a character based in part on Theodore Sturgeon but also incorporating elements of Vonnegut's own life – who reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye, Blue Monday! (1973), and several later novels. Apparently to Vonnegut's displeasure, a novel attributed to Kilgore Trout, written by Philip José Farmer, appeared as Venus on the Half-Shell (1975). It was, however, the nature of Trout as an intertextual joke to be used by other writers and artists, and Trout surfaces by name or inferentially in many contexts, from the work of Salman Rushdie to an album by Ringo Starr.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is the central text in Vonnegut's career, though it is not generally thought to be his best novel. As with Empire of the Sun (1984) – which occupies a similar function in the career of J G BallardSlaughterhouse-Five contextualizes much of the imagery of Vonnegut's career through its autobiographical depiction of a personally-experienced enormity of World War Two. As an adolescent, Ballard spent three years in a Japanese concentration camp; as a young American prisoner-of-war, Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden, in which at least 35,000 people died. The protagonist of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, similarly survives the Dresden firestorm, a trauma so deep that he becomes "unstuck in time", so that he is able to revisit different episodes in his own life; after being kidnapped by Alien Tralfamadorians, he comes to believe that the secret of life is to live only in the happy moments, a Time Opera where good things happen. Perhaps the most famous of Vonnegut's seemingly slick (but cumulatively devastating) catchphrases comes from this book: "So it goes".

The parallel with Ballard continues to be illustrative: the later works of both writers, though they showed a natural decline in raw vitality, did not fail to continue to address the world with pained cogency. Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976) are perhaps the least impressive later novels, both verging on lachrymose self-Parody and shot through with shoulder-shrugging verbal tics – but Slapstick's Ruined Earth setting, and its parodic Uncle Sam-like Ape as Human protagonist, last president of what remains of the United States after intense global warming (see Climate Change) and other catastrophes, do gain poignance in hindsight, as does that protagonist's scheme to create "artificial" families through a system of shared names whose bearers are obliged to give solace to one another. In any case, Vonnegut recovered a measure of his authority in a series of novels about unfortunate innocents abroad: Jailbird (1979) and Dead-Eye Dick (1982); his most impressive novel of this period is Galápagos (1985), a darkly humorous Ruined Earth fantasy narrated by a remote and happily devolved descendant of the few survivors of the Holocaust. Hocus Pocus, or What's the Hurry, Sam? (1990), which carries its portrayal of a self-destroying USA through the turn of the century, is almost as compelling, and its melancholy is unnerving. The eponymous catastrophe in his final sf tale, Timequake (1997), causes the world to revert to 1991, when time begins again, but irredeemably enacts the same history: but this time we all know we are caught. A primary Vonnegut lesson – that whatever is, is "right": because nothing can be changed – is given here its final iteration. The book was indeed created as a valedictory document (Vonnegut retired from fiction writing in 1997), but closes in an almost joyous clambake attended Recursively by most of the characters of his fiction, who bid farewell to Vonnegut, and to Kilgore Trout. "I myself prefer to laugh" Vonnegut wrote in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (coll 1981) about his life and work, "since there is less cleaning up to do afterward".

Vonnegut's work has a unique flavour, not only because of its sardonic Weltschmerz but also by virtue of his consistent refusal to look for scapegoats to blame for the sad state of the world. He is content to attribute human misery and misfortune to the carelessness of God the Utterly Indifferent; he is full of pity for the human predicament but can see no hope in any solutions, save perhaps for the adoption of actions and beliefs which are absurdly irrational. This is a philosophy very much in keeping with the contemporary Zeitgeist. Vonnegut has also written a play with sf elements, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (first performed 1970; 1971), and had a hand in the production of a television play based on extracts from several of his works, Between Time and Timbuktu (1972; book version Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy 1972). Vonnegut's essays, talks and various journalistic oddments are assembled in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (coll 1974), Palm Sunday (see above) and Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (coll 1991).

Late essays – all written after 1997 – were assembled as A Man Without a Country (coll 2005); Vonnegut's scorn for the leaders of the Western World in the twenty-first century is scathingly transparent; the book was a best-seller. More miscellaneous material was assembled as Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (coll 2011). Most of his work has been assembled in the Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories sequence [see Checklist for details]; the novels are complete, but – in contrast to the Library of America's generosity in earlier years – the stories are selected parsimoniously. As the shape of his long career becomes easier to assess, it becomes more and more clear that Vonnegut was one of the central American writers of the past half century. The fact that most of his work was sf has become less of a disqualification – cultural establishment critics being decreasingly able to condescend to him on that score without seeming fatuous – and his central importance can consequently only become more apparent. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2015, apparently without damage to his reputation. [BS/JC]

see also: Absurdist SF; Communications; Cybernetics; Disaster; Evolution; Fantasy; Generation Starships; History of SF; Invention; Intelligence; Islands; Media Landscape; Mercury; Metaphysics; Outer Planets; Overpopulation; Panspermia; Politics; Pollution; Prediction; Scientists; Seiun Award; Spaceships; Time Travel.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr

born Indianapolis, Indiana: 11 November 1922

died New York: 11 April 2007

works

series

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories

  • Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1950-1962 (New York: Library of America, 2012) [omni containing Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and other material: edited by Sidney Offit: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories: hb/]
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1963-1973 (New York: Library of America, 2011) [omni containing Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater,Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and other material: edited by Sidney Offit: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories: hb/Jill Krementz]
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976-1985 (New York: Library of America, 2014) [omni containing Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick andGalápagos: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories: hb/]
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1987-1997 (New York: Library of America, 2016) [omni containing Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus and Timequake: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories: hb/]

individual titles

collections, plays and stories

nonfiction

about the author

Much has been written about Vonnegut; the following is a selection.

links

Previous versions of this entry

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