In 1999, the director Baz Luhrmann had a novelty hit with “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, a spoken-word litany of whimsical advice for young people: enjoy your youth, keep your old love letters, floss, and so on. The text derived from a column by a journalist called Mary Schmich but it was widely rumoured to be from a commencement address by a celebrated author who was born 100 years ago this week: Kurt Vonnegut. Despite having quit writing two years earlier, he was still delighting students with his witty speeches, of which this appeared to be one. Vonnegut set the record straight but graciously told Schmich: “I would have been proud had the words been mine.”
Nothing illustrates an author’s reputation as clearly as misattributed work. The Sunscreen confusion proved that one of his era’s most scathing satirists had been recast as the cuddly hipster grandpa of American letters. This certainly chimed with one strand of Vonnegut’s work, which is summed up by a famous line from his 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (“God damn it babies, you’ve got to be kind”) but that was by no means the whole picture.
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Like Dolly Parton, Alan Bennett, George Michael and Anthony Bourdain, Vonnegut has become simplified into an avatar of kindness, his wrinkles ironed flat by the heat of sainthood. This happened long before his death in 2007 and he was a willing conspirator. George Saunders recently spoke about his own reputation as literature’s Mr Nice Guy and gave himself some advice: “one: don’t believe it; two, interrupt it.” The first is easier than the second. One of Vonnegut’s most famous lines is from 1961’s Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut often pretended to be nicer than he was, which was good for both his ego and his income.
If you Google Vonnegut, one of the most-asked questions that comes up is: “Was Vonnegut a nice person?” Tough one. He could certainly be warm, wise and generous, but he could also be a greedy and disloyal business partner, a selfish, unfaithful husband and a crotchety, intimidating father. He suffered from depression and suicidal ideation; his work often flirts with nihilism. Robert B. Weide’s recent documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (the title quotes Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five) is candid about the writer’s failings as a family man but Weide, who considered Vonnegut a close friend and mentor, still sands off a lot of rough edges.
In his more objective biography And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields quotes the private notes that Vonnegut’s ex-wife Jane made after reading his 1981 quasi-memoir, Palm Sunday: “Kurt doesn’t mind being hurtful, really, although he talks a good game to make you think the opposite. He’s fooled most of his public now, for a long time. You see, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s really very innocent.”
When Vonnegut died, one newscaster tagged him as “an oracle for the baby boomer generation”, but that was not his generation. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis on 11 November 1922, a few months before Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller. His childhood was happy and prosperous for seven years before falling off a cliff with the Great Depression. Kurt Vonnegut Sr, formerly a successful architect, couldn’t get a single commission during the Thirties. Edith Vonnegut, a society belle from a brewing dynasty, lost her inheritance in a Ponzi scheme and the shock of her reduced circumstances exacerbated serious mental health issues. Her family insisted that her death from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1944 was accidental but Kurt knew better. His father was shattered. “After I’m gone,” Vonnegut told Playboy three decades later, “I don’t want my children to have to say about me what I have to say about my father: ‘He made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man.’”
By 1944, Vonnegut was in the US Army. He had agreed to study science at Cornell to please his father and his older brother Bernard, a brilliant atmospheric scientist, but put more effort into student journalism than his grades and figured it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. Sent to Europe, he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and incarcerated in an abattoir in Dresden, a beautiful, militarily insignificant city that did not expect to be bombed. On the night of 13 February 1945, however, Allied bombers almost razed it to the ground, killing around 25,000 civilians. When Vonnegut and his fellow POWs emerged from their underground meat locker the next day, they were tasked with removing the corpses of people who had been suffocated in their homes by the firestorm. “The end of the world is not an idea to Vonnegut,” John Updike wrote. “It is a reality he experienced.”
Vonnegut published his first short stories while working in public relations at General Electric, an experience that informed his relatively conventional debut novel, 1952’s Player Piano, a futuristic satire on automation. Vonnegut said that his first six novels were “all about the abuses of technology”. They are also about morality, mortality, free will, war, death, God, the nature of time and the meaning of life. As one character asks in Player Piano: “What are people for?” Vonnegut’s experience in journalism made his prose irresistibly swift, punchy and funny. As his former student John Irving says in Unstuck in Time: “It’s not easy to be easy to read.”
All Vonnegut lacked was readers, and therefore money to support his unexpectedly large family. In 1958, his beloved sister Alice died of cancer, just two days after her husband Jim was killed in a train crash. Kurt and Jane agreed to adopt the couple’s four boys but Jane did the parenting (they had two children of their own) while Kurt typed, chainsmoked and grouched about the noise. “Please let me off the father hook,” he would complain, reserving his physical warmth for his dog. When Vonnegut began teaching fiction at the University of Iowa in the autumn of 1965, all but one of his books was out of print. His latest, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, introduced his alter ego Kilgore Trout, a desperately unsuccessful science-fiction writer and crank who was, Vonnegut later admitted, “the lonesome and unappreciated writer I thought I might become”.
Vonnegut finally got what he wanted with the 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, the novel about Dresden that he had been trying to write since 1945. It remains a radically entertaining read. Like the Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, it has the startling originality that comes from acknowledging that a story is untellable by conventional means — a sui generis medley of memoir, history, philosophy, science fiction and outrageous black comedy.
“I got three dollars for each person killed,” Vonnegut said sardonically of his advance, but he made a lot more than that. Coinciding with the peak of the movement against the war in Vietnam, Slaughterhouse-Five made the 47-year-old a hero to readers less than half his age, who saw in his work their own anxieties reflected and made funny. Previously apolitical, if not conservative, he became “A Campus Orwell”, according to Newsweek, growing a moustache and bushy hair to suit his new persona as a public satirist. The press said that he was to the late Sixties what J.D. Salinger had been to the Fifties: an icon of dissent.
Yet Vonnegut was ambivalent about his new celebrity. “I was just writing books to entertain,” he protested in 1972. “I never dreamed of becoming a Pied Piper of the young.” Asked by Playboy if he was a radical, he replied: “No, because everything I believe I was taught in junior civics during the Great Depression.” It’s striking that, with the exception of 1985’s Galapagos, all of Vonnegut’s essential novels — Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, My Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five — were written while he was unsuccessful. He had been poor and obscure for so long that he was discombobulated by the tardy onslaught of wealth and fame. Slaughterhouse-Five, he said, “was the end of some sort of career”.
It was also the end of his marriage to Jane, who had been his most ardent cheerleader during the lean years and never got to enjoy the fat ones. Vonnegut eventually produced 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, a metafictional patchwork festooned with whimsical illustrations and more interested in aphorisms than plot. He summed up its strengths and flaws in an interview: “My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is… this thing I learned to make as a child, which is a little joke.”
Breakfast of Champions lodged in the bestseller list for a year but, like most of his later novels, was poorly reviewed, with accusations of glib wisecracks, sophomoric philosophy and recycled ideas. Hostile critics assumed that because his books appealed to students, he must be pandering to them. Reviewing 1976’s Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, Newsweek called him “an ideal writer for the semi-literate young”. Vonnegut also became a popular target for censors — some of his books were literally burned — which dismayed him. When a Michigan judge condemned Slaughterhouse-Five as “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian”, Vonnegut drily responded: “But Billy Pilgrim was a Christian. The judge apparently read the wrong book.”
During the Eighties, Vonnegut’s talent and confidence were on the slide (“The only way I can regain credit for my early work is to die,” he told Martin Amis) but he was still in demand as a celebrity. He advertised coffee, played himself in the comedy Back to School and accepted a mindboggling $150,000 from Time for six one-page articles. His speeches became more celebrated than his novels, and his interviews were sensationally entertaining.
They could also be very bleak. “God will kill us by the millions quite soon, I think — by starvation, with flu, through war, in any number of ways,” he said in 1976. And what about this, from 1980? “I think that at least half the people alive, and maybe nine-tenths of them, really do not like this ordeal at all… You know, you talk about the dark side of life: that’s really it. Most people don’t want to be alive.” There is nothing cuddly about that. Salman Rushdie observes that “So it goes”, the famous phrase from Slaughterhouse-Five, is often misinterpreted as a stoic shrug — life goes on — when it’s really about the inevitability of death: “Beneath the apparent resignation is a sadness for which there are no words.” In 1984, Vonnegut attempted suicide with an overdose of pills, just like his mother. So it almost went.
Clearly, Kurt Vonnegut was not the man he pretended to be. His adopted son Jim Adams told Charles J Shields, “There was a definite disconnect between the kind of guy you would imagine Kurt must be from the tone of his books, the kind of guy who would say ‘God damn it, you got to be kind’, and the reality of his behaviour on a daily basis. He was a complicated, difficult man.” There are two ways of interpreting this. One is as cold hypocrisy. Another is to see him as a troubled, serially traumatised man who wanted to be a force for good and often fell short, in which case his talk of living decently in an indecent world was not a scam but a genuine aspiration. “All my books are my effort… to make myself like life better than I do,” he once said.
The truth is that paradox and disappointment are what make Vonnegut’s work such a compelling dance between cynicism and idealism. Who needs perfection? “The crude term that every writer would like to do is mind-fucking,” he said in 1987. “It’s to get into somebody else’s head.” Kurt Vonnegut didn’t need to be a saint or a guru because he succeeded, as well as any writer of his generation, in getting into people’s heads.
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